At sunrise and sunset, the sky burns like it's on fire and the old broken bridge over the railroad tracks on the far side of town stretches across the universes.
At the end of the bridge are the fairies… Della Rae is only in this podunk Midwestern university town for the full-ride biology scholarship she's getting. In a year or two, she's going to Oxford as an exchange student, she knows it. Her eventual goal: to cure cancer. Only life doesn't go like that. The way you planned. Something's going on in the basement of the science building, something that's tied up every single professor and sends the summer work-study students running. Rumors are going around that the professors are performing a vivisection. And nobody wants to see that. But it's probably not going to be performed on the lab rats. Because this town has always had something weird going on. Something that involves Della Rae's best friend, Merc, and a few other kids in town, all with the same face…
Things often take an unexpected turn in DeAnna Knippling's stories, and One Dark Summer Night is no exception. In this book she's created a dark, intriguing world with fairies who are more complex than they first appear. – Jamie Ferguson
"Captivating from page one. If you are a fan of King or Koontz, you will love this book. If you like paranormal reads, you will like this book. Definite must read."– Amazon reviewer
"When Della Rae, an isolated student, made friends with a local she discovered the world held truths she never imagined. Beautifully written, compelling and disturbing, with a wonderful sprinkle of humor. The author transports the reader into a larger universe, where fairies and an unseen enemy endanger the world as we know it. I really look forward to reading the next book in this series."– Amazon reviewer
"Della Rae is smart, courageous, and tough. She loves reading Sci-fi and knows how to intimidate fairy-animated-objects like a boss. She is a bad ass heroine, something that (in my opinion) horror novels need more of, and she doesn't back down from saving her friends even when she's only really known them a day. This book is a blend of just the right amount of fantasy and horror. This book is creepy and weird, in all the right ways. I really enjoyed reading this one, it brought back the days my dad would drive me over to the used book store to pick through their Stephen King section so I could spend the weekend reading."– Amazon reviewer
Prologue: The Obligatory Creepy Opening Scene
The Midwest, 1989
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains, Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend More than cool reason ever comprehends. The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold, That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic, Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing A local habitation and a name.
— William Shakespeare,
A Midsummer's Night's Dream
Two college guys picked their way down the side of the creek. It was the middle of summer on a hot, cloudless afternoon. Every good frat boy had fled on vacation from a certain unnamed Midwestern state college. They headed home for a few months—interned at Daddy's company—traveled to Europe—or hung around somewhere with a beach.
Jim and Craig weren't those guys. They were the other kind, the kind that shared a basement apartment and a half-dead VW Microbus and spent their time looking for abandoned junk on trash day, sold antiques in Minneapolis, and spent their extra cash on weed and LSD. When they had nothing better to do they played video games, listened to Led Zeppelin, or reread Tolkien. They showed up on their friends' moving days. They were good guys who had the sense that this was the last summer before they went their separate ways and had decided to make the most of it.
The weeds along the creek were thick and tangled and shed golden blizzards of pollen. It was so thick that Jim's eyes gummed up with it. He sneezed. Not for the first time. There were stickers in the cuffs of his jeans. He was wearing loafers with socks. You never went down to the creek in just sandals. Frogs croaked up and down the waterline. Crickets and birds sang to each other of their hopeless interspecies romances.
"You don't have to come down here, you know," Craig said. "I can just shout up to you."
Craig was the taller of the two. His head looked like a straw-colored melon floating over the tops of the weeds. No joke, the weeds were that tall. "I'm fine."
Jim worked his way down the creekside. They were under a stand of thick cottonwood trees arching over the water. The shade made the slow-flowing water look pitch black, yet perfectly clear.
The highway that ran across the creek was about fifty feet upstream. Some jerk had sprayed graffiti all along the side. Troll Bridge, insert dick here, said some red paint above a drilled hole in the metal. Ha-ha. Some guys had all the witty lines.
He and Jim had been halfway across the bridge when Craig had stopped the van, then threw it in park. They both got out and leaned against the green side rails to look down into the water. A week ago they'd found a girl's bike in the water. Pink, with tinsel hanging off the handlebars. All it needed was a little oil. They took a picture, put up a poster around town, and got twenty bucks from the grateful parents. Life was like that. Keep your eyes open, and it was full of opportunity.
This time when they looked over the side, they saw a face in the shadowy water under the trees. White and waterlogged. Bobbing in the water.
Empty, black eyes.
Craig had backed the van across the bridge and parked it off the shoulder. Without a word they had started climbing down the bank.
"Do you see it yet?" Jim asked.
Craig said, "Nah, not yet. Hang on."
Jim pushed forward. Now the weeds rose over his head. He sank into a cheerful golden sunlight that made him want to choke. He couldn't find Craig's path through the weeds. It was like trying to move through tangled yarn.
He squatted down. The light went dull and shadowy but the stems were easier to push through. He crawled down the dry, rocky bank, switching around to slide down on the seat of his pants when the going got too steep.
The dirt turned moist, then muddy. He fought his way back up to his feet. The weeds here were lower, but still not low enough to see over.
He heard Craig laugh. "Get lost in the weeds there, man?"
"Shut up about it." Jim pushed toward the sound of Craig's voice. "What is it?"
"I don't know. Some kind of doll…or a mask? Don't worry, you big pussy. It's not a dead kid or anything."
It was stupid but Jim felt his shoulders relax a little. Of course it wasn't a kid. There wouldn't be a kid floating in the water. That was just stupid. Not in a small town like this. And not while almost everyone had left for the summer.
He heard a splash. Not the kind of big, sloppy splash that Craig would have made if he'd fallen in to the water, but like maybe he'd put one foot in.
"What are you doing?"
"Trying to see if I can reach it."
"Don't fall in."
"If I do will you save me?"
The weeds in front of him were thinning out. One last tangle and he'd be through. He'd have to put his feet in the water to get through. He stepped in and immediately felt his shoes sink up past the ankle into the mud.
"This had better be good."
He broke out into the open air. He was in the shadow of those big cottonwood trees. When it was time for them to scatter their seeds, the whole place would look like it had been hit by a blizzard. But today all that was underfoot was a thick mat of halfrotten leaves that he was stamping down into the mud.
Craig was kneeling on a flat rock along the water, his arm in the creek up to the elbow. His shoes looked clean and totally mud-free. That was Craig, though: the kind of guy that could get through any sort of shit without any of it sticking to him. Not grades, not women, not coke-headed frat boys with an attitude problem.
He leaned back, tugging on something, but it was stuck fast. Clearly it wasn't budging.
"Gimme a hand," Craig said. "You know what this looks like? Some kind of Mardi Gras mask."
Jim pulled one shoe out of the mud and leaned forward until it was planted on the flat surface of the rock. Then he tried to shift his weight.
Of course he'd overextended himself.
Craig reached out a hand and Jim grabbed it. Of course Craig's hand was dry, not a drop of sweat on it. Unlike his own slippery palm.
Craig tightened his grip. Jim bounced up onto the rock—leaving his shoe behind.
"Help me pull," Craig said.
"But my shoe."
"I'll carry you back to the apartment like a new bride. Just give me a hand for a sec here…I think it's sinking."
Jim gave up on the shoe. The hell with it. He could take a trip to the Starvation Army after they got home and he took a shower. He scooted over to the side of the rock nearest the thing in the water.
The clear, dark water rippled over top of it. It seemed to be only inches underneath the surface, but Craig's long arm was in at least up to the elbow. He'd hooked his fingers in through the mouth- and eye-holes of the mask. It was smooth and white. It looked more like it was made of yellow cracked ivory than anything else.
It wasn't a Mardi Gras mask, but a theater mask—a mask of comedy. How it was stuck in the mud was a mystery. It didn't look like it was attached to anything. "What do you want me to do?"
"Could you…could you get down in the water and see if you can get under it? Push it up? See what it's attached to?"
Jim took a look at the water: the bottom didn't look too deep but he knew that he'd sink up to his armpits, possibly deeper if the mud at the bottom was as thick as it was along the shore.
But given a choice between drowning and trying to resist one of Craig's obsessions—he knew which one would be easier to overcome.
Jim took off his other shoe, stuck his wallet and the keys inside, and sat on the edge of the stone, dangling his feet into the water. Mud streamed off his filthy white socks.
He took a deep breath—just in case—and hopped into the water.
It was warm near the surface, almost frigid at the bottom. He sank down to his armpits as predicted, the water quickly wicking up to the collar of his t-shirt. He lifted his arms out of the water. The creek bottom was soft, silty mud over smooth rock. Tangled roots packed between the stones in the mud.
A soft gray-brown wave of silt clouded up around him.
He waded toward the mask. Craig was still pulling on it, now putting both hands into the water and squatting, using his weight to help pull. When this thing came loose, Craig was going to go ass over teakettle.
From the water, Jim could see that the thing was stuck on top of something big. What it was, he couldn't tell—it was packed with water weeds and mud. It seemed to waver in the shadows, too. Half the time it was almost like he could see through it to the creek bed; half the time he could see a tangle of branches and metal sticking out of it. What was it, another bike? Two bikes twisted together with a fallen tree branch? That's what it looked like.
He put his hand on the mask. It felt smooth, warmed by the sunlight. Not enamel. More like a piece of unfinished, baked clay. He got his fingers underneath it. No dice. He tried to wiggle it from side to side, but it was like it was anchored on a steel rod or something.
He reached into the mass of weeds and sticks and whatever else underneath the mask and grabbed onto something. It was slimy but solid. Definitely a piece of wood. He jiggled it loose, then held it out into the middle of the creek and let the force of the water carry it downstream. The water was slow but powerful. They'd taken innertubes down the creek toward the river a thousand times, a pair of six-packs their underwater ballast hidden from the eagle eyes of cops, looking for underage drinkers. The tree branch drifted out of reach.
He started taking the tangle apart. One piece after another. Another branch. A short piece of steel pipe bent into a squared-off U shape. A tangle of wire coat hangers. Some twine that he had to cut through with his pocket knife. A pair of leather dress shoes, rotted, knotted together by the laces. A dog leash, no dog (fortunately). More branches… "It moved!" Craig said.
About half the built-up junk had slipped away. Jim shook his head. For a second, it was almost like he could see the shape of a body in the water. Two arms hanging limply underneath the mask…two shadowed legs. The kicker was that he could see…he could almost see a pair of black and white oxford shoes in the water, at the ends of the legs. "Watch out it doesn't bite your fingers off," Jim said.
"Wiggle it loose."
Jim stuck his fingers under the mask and tried again. Even through the strain that Craig was putting on it, he could feel it coming loose. Like a tooth. "Put your back into it!"
It was hard to do, armpit-deep in running water, but Jim tried. He shoved his shoulder up against the last tangle of junk and dug his feet down into the rocks. A piece of metal dug into his shoulder. He got under it and lifted upward.
An inch. That was all it moved.
Something slipped free. The mask came loose and Craig flew backward on the rock.
"Watch out for my wallet!"
Ass over teakettle, backward into the tall weeds by the shore, just as predicted. In a flash the only thing Jim could see was the bottoms of Craig's shoes.
The tangle of junk and branches and weeds in front of Jim came apart. Imaginary arms, legs, torso—the whole bit. Branches floated downstream. Jim was left with what looked like a mannikin frame—a wire torso with bumps for hips and tits on a metal stand. Might be worth selling.
He wiggled it loose and hefted it out of the water. It was rusty but solid. Perfect "antique" material. It scraped against the rock.
"Hey Craig," he said. "Look what I found. Also, asshole, help me get out of the water."
The shoes jerked backward into the weeds with a rustle. Jim heard Craig chuckle, then mutter something under his breath.
"Craig. Get your ass over here."
Craig, completely ignoring him, took off up the bank toward the road, crashing through the weeds and stirring up yellow clouds of bees and pollen.
"Hey, asshole! What do you think you're doing?"
Jim was pissed. He climbed the slippery side of the bank, jamming one toe between the rocks and almost ripping his toenail trying to get it loose. It hurt like a bitch. He scrambled up into the mud, completely covering his pants with brown glop as he got to his feet. His ass was probably the cleanest part of him. He got to his feet, lifted the wire mannikin out of his way, and retrieved his wallet and the keys. Fuck the shoe, man. He left the mannikin behind and worked his way up the rest of the bank, crouching down among the weeds, sneezing as he went.
Finally he reached the top.
Craig was nowhere to be seen. Three wet footprints walked out of the roadside onto the asphalt. And that was it. The trail ended. And even those three footsteps were rapidly evaporating.
The footprints were headed south, over the bridge and out of town.
What the hell was out there? Nothing. Just a place where you could cross the fields and get out to the river—the Mighty Mo. The frat boys had parties out there in the fall, before it started to rain for the season.
Jim doubled back to the van. The sides were blue and white and black rustoleum spray paint. He looked inside though a side window.
Nothing, just nothing. No Craig to be seen.
He got in, honked the horn a couple of times, and yelled out Craig's name. He shouted that it wasn't funny, to stop fucking around, but got no response. After a half an hour he'd dried out enough that the mud was coming off his pants in flakes.
He brushed himself down, picked up the wire-frame mannikin thing, shoved it in the back of the van with the other junk they'd picked up in preparation for another Minneapolis trip, and went back to their basement apartment. No Craig there, either. No note, and their stash of mild drugs and cold pizza in the fridge were both still intact.
By then it was too late to stop at the Starvation Army and pick up new shoes. Jim cursed Craig's name a few more times and drove out to the far side of town, where all the new trailer courts were springing up, and picked up a pair of cheap flip-flops at the discount store. The hell with that bastard. Jim bought a couple of six-packs of Coke and rented an armful of cheap horror movies from the video store next to the theater. He rented them under his own name—Craig had about a hundred bucks in fines at that place that he claimed were all the fault of one of the clerks, who was out to get him. And he'd sworn never to go back.