By Paul Stansbury
“How much has it dropped?” asked Henry.
“Three quarters of an inch. It’s down to ninety-two inches above the floor,” replied his wife, Jenna. She was standing on a desk chair near the door inside the small attic they had converted into a bedroom. Holding the candle close to the wall, she examined the scale Henry had marked there three days earlier when the smooth grey appeared below the surface of the ceiling. “Why we got to wait until it’s pitch black to do this?”
“Cause we got other things to do while it’s still light out.”
She ran her finger up the wall until it almost touched the grey, which was mere inches above her head. She was aware of its sharp, pungent odor. Something like the smell of wet stone but menacing. She moved the candle close to the thing above her head. Small, almost imperceptible swirls briefly snaked along its surface before disappearing into the depths above her head. Dense and impenetrable, it reminded her of the fog that hung low in the holler on cool fall mornings.
“Careful!” shouted Henry. “Don’t touch the grey.”
“I know,” huffed Jenna. “If you’re so concerned, why didn’t you climb up on this chair and take a look?”
“Cause if I stood on that chair my head’d go right up into the grey.”
“You could crouch down,” said Jenna.
“Well, you’re up there now. No need to argue. How much did you say it dropped yesterday?”
“Mebbe it’s slowin’ down,” said Henry.
“Mebbe, mebbe not. Hand me a ruler.”
“Cause I wanna try somethin’. Like an experiment.” Jenna leaned down holding the candle over the desk. “Can you see?”
“Yeah,” Henry said, pulling the desk drawer open. He rummaged around until his fingers found a long flat object. He pulled out an old yellow plastic ruler with stencils of the alphabet molded into the center. “Got this back in grade school,” he said, handing it up to Jenna. “What ya gonna do with it? She took the ruler without responding and pushed it into the grey above her head until only the letters A-L were visible. It pierced the smooth surface without creating any disturbance. She let go and it remained suspended above her head. “What you go and do that for? Can you pull it out?”
“I don’t know, but I can try.” She grasped the end of the ruler and gave a tug. It did not budge. She pulled harder, careful not to break the plastic. Still it did not move. “I guess not. We’ll have to see what it looks like tomorrow.” She handed the candle to Henry, then hopped down from the chair.
“That’s interestin’. Yesterday while I was out, I threw a rock up into the grey,” said Henry. “It never come down. The grey just sucked it up. I don’t know if it is floatin’ up there somewhere or it just disappeared. By the way, if you was gonna do somethin’ like that, next time use somethin’ of yours.”
“You think it really matters?” she snarled. “Besides, who knows what the grey is likely to do? It could come tumblin’ down on top of us without a moment’s notice.”
Well, you got a point there. If it done that, then it wouldn’t matter much anyhows, would it? Speakin’ of such things, mebbe we should take the mattress downstairs?”
“I don’t see why we can’t sleep in our bedroom. The grey hasn’t fallen too far. It’s still way above our heads,”
“You’re the one that said we don’t know what the grey is likely to do,” said Henry. “You really willin’ to take a chance that it won’t suddenly come tumblin’ down on top of us while we’re sleepin’ and ain’t got no chance to get away?”
“But it ain’t done nothin’ like that yet. It’s been slow and steady,” said Jenna. “We measured it and it only came down a half inch since yesterday.”
“Three quarters,” corrected Henry.
“You see, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. It ain’t never come down more than that in a day and…and…” her voice broke off in tears.
Henry wrapped his arms around her. “Come on Jen, might as well do it now while we got enough head room.”
Henry and Jenna wrestled the mattress down the stairs and into the living room. They pushed furniture up against the walls to make room.
* * *
For breakfast the next morning, Jenna boiled two eggs she had retrieved from the hen house while Henry picked the mold off the last two hot dog buns that had been languishing in the bread box. Dull light like an overcast dusk seeped through the kitchen window. “Think the sun is still up there somewhere?” she asked.
“I reckon so,” said Henry, looking at his watch. “It was pitch black an hour ago and this is about the time the sun would be up. Somethin’ to be thankful for, I guess.”
“That and the fact there’s still some propane in the tank and water in the cistern,” she added. “Least till the grey gets it.”
“We got some gas left to run the generator too, if we need it,” reminded Henry.
“Well, if we got some gas, why don’t we just fill up the truck and get outta here?” snapped Jenna. “At least we might find some food in Beckly.”
“Don’t you remember the President said we oughta stay at home. They said the grey was ever’where all around the world. Didn’t you see them pictures of folks goin’ crazy on the TV? They was fightin’ and burnin’ things up and the cops couldn’t do nothin’. We don’t want to get caught up in all that, do we?”
“That was a couple a weeks ago. There ain’t been no TV or radio since. We got to try somethin’ or are we just gonna sit here and get sucked up by that stuff?”
“We still got enough to get by for a while,” said Henry. “Besides, no matter which way you go, you got to go uphill to get out of this valley. I bet the grey has sat right down on the blacktop. Remember watchin’ them birds fly up into the grey? We never saw a one of ‘em come back down, did we?”
* * *
That evening, Jenna twisted the dusty lid off a jar of bread and butter pickles she had found in the back of a cabinet and poured them over some white beans. “That takes care of the canned goods,” she said.
Henry lit the solitary candle on the kitchen table. “It goes dark so fast, don’t it? Like flippin’ a switch,” he muttered.
“What was that?” Jenna asked, setting the bowl of beans and pickles next to his plate.
“Sure woulda liked a nice hamburger to go under them pickles.”
“Still got some mustard if you want. You could pretend.”
“Naw, I’m fine.”
Jenna slumped down in her chair across from Henry. She propped her elbows on the table and let her face fall into her hands. She sucked in a deep breath. “Are we gonna die, Henry?”
“We all die sooner or later, Jen.”
“That’s not what I mean, and you know it,” sniffed Jenna. “I mean are we gonna die right here?”
“That may happen, or it may not. The important thing is we can’t give up hope.”
“Hope for what?” whimpered Jenna, wiping the tears from her eyes. “I’m too damn tired to hope. What are we just sittin’ here for? Why don’t we do somethin’ instead of waitin’ for the grey to take us?”
“What would you suggest?” asked Henry.
“I don’t know, but I feel like we ought to be doin’ somethin’ besides sittin’ here.”
“Well, while there’s still enough light durin’ the day, there’s the garden to work and the chickens to tend so we still got eggs to eat. We’ll need them vegetables when harvest time comes. I can still till the low fields to get ‘em ready for plantin’.”
“You really think we’ll be here when it’s time to be pickin’ beans an’ tomatoes?”
“You asked what we could be doin’? That’s what I think. Hell, all this scares me too, but it don’t do no good frettin’ about it.”
Jenna fell silent for a few moments before asking, “Henry, what’d we ever do to deserve this?”
“What you mean?”
“Think maybe the grey is God’s punishment? Like the plagues in Egypt.”
“Punishment for what?” barked Henry. “We ain’t done nothing to deserve a punishment.”
“But it’s got to be a reason why this is happenin’.”
“You can’t be worryin’ about why it is until you know what it is.”
“Well what is it then?” asked Jenna
“I don’t know if anyone’s figured that out. We don’t know if this is somethin’ sent from God or its that climate thing the environmental folks has been yammerin’ about. Mebbe its some fool government experiment gone bad or something the terrorists has done. Hell, it could be aliens for all we know.”
“Mebbe it’s what killed off the dinosaurs. They ain’t really figured that out for certain. They say this old rock has been around for several billion years. Best anyone can figure is that ever now and then everthin’ gets killed off. Like the earth was wipin’ the slate clean and gettin’ a fresh start. The scientists got their ideas of what happened, but they don’t know for sure. Mebbe the world has decided it’s fed up and brought on the grey to wipe the slate clean. Now, can I eat in peace.”
They ate the rest of their meager supper in silence. After the plates were cleaned, they went out and sat on the front porch.
Jenna blew out the candle she was holding. “Only seen black like this one time,” she said.
“When was that?”
“Our eighth grade class took a trip to Mammoth Cave. Once we was deep down inside, the guide cut off the lights to show us what complete darkness really was.”
“Was you scared?”
“Of course not,” giggled Jenna. “I was holdin’ Billy Campbell’s hand.”
“Never did like him much,” growled Henry. He pawed around until he found Jenna’s hand and squeezed it. “You scared now?”
“No, but I find it a wonderment not to see the moon or the stars.”
“Or the sun for that matter,” added Henry.
“Do you think we’ll ever see them again?” asked Jenna.
“I’m gonna say yeah.”
* * *
Two days later, Henry and Jenna were just finishing a sparse breakfast of boiled seed corn when they heard a thump accompanied by the crisp sound of shattering glass.
“What’s that?” asked Jenna.
“I dunno,” said Henry. “Sounded like it come from upstairs somewhere. Better go take a look. You been upstairs to see how far down the grey has come since we checked it last time?”
“No, I ain’t too keen on goin’ up there. No need seekin’ out bad news, I say.”
“I better go see what happened. Maybe some animal has got in.” Henry grabbed the candle and matches and headed for the door.
“Wait for me,” said Jenna.
They walked down the hall to the stairwell leading to their attic bedroom. A dull grey rectangle of light floated in the doorway at the top. Jenna wrapped her hands around Henry’s arm. He could feel her trembling.
“Don’t worry, Jen, it probably ain’t nothin’.”
The worn wooden treads creaked as they ascended the steps in the gloom and entered the room. In the frail light from the small window in the gable, they could see the ceiling fan at the far end had fallen to the floor, shattering its globe.
“There’s what made all the noise,” said Henry.
“I can see that,” said Jenna, “but what would cause it to suddenly fall?”
“Guess I better take a look,” said Henry. As he stepped forward his foot landed on something. It cracked under his weight. He reached down and picked up two pieces of the yellow ruler Jenna had stuck in the grey a few days before. “That’s odd.”
“Lemme see.” Jenna held out her hand. Henry handed over the pieces. “Light the candle so’s I can see.” Henry placed the candle on the desk and lit it. Jenna laid the two pieces of the ruler down in the flickering amber light. “This is the half that was stickin’ outta the grey,” she said. “You busted it in two when you stepped on it.”
“Yes, see there’s only the letters A through L. That’s what I left stickin’ out of the grey. Think it got knocked off when the fan fell?”
“Naw, too far away.” Henry picked up the pieces and studied them closely. “So, you stuck it in the grey up to the L?”
“It sure don’t look like it was broke off,” Henry said, rubbing his finger along the end. “And it don’t feel like it. This end is as smooth as the other.” He handed the pieces to Jenna. “Let’s check out the fan.” He picked up the candle and they walked over to the fan, glass crunching under their feet as they got close. Henry handed Jenna the candle and picked up the fan, examining the downrod.
“Looks like it was cut in two,” said Jenna.
“That it does.” He rubbed his thumb over the end of the downrod. “It ain’t dented or scratched up. There’s no burrs like you would get if you cut it with a hacksaw. And the wires are cut clean off too.”
“How could that happen?”
“I dunno, your guess is as good as mine. It’s a sure bet this and the ruler weren’t broke off, but as to what could cut them so clean, I ain’t got a clue. Gimme the candle.” Jenna handed it over and he held it close to the grey. His eyes searched all around the smooth surface.
“What is it?” asked Jenna. “What do you see?”
“That’s just it. I don’t see nothin’. The other end of the downrod should be up there, but it ain’t. It’s like it was never there.”
“So, the grey has dropped down an’ covered it up.”
“So quick? That thing just fell a few minutes ago,” said Henry. “We ain’t seen the grey move that fast.”
“We could check the wall and see how much it’s come down.”
They went back over to the chair. Jenna hopped up on the seat and Henry handed her the candle. She held it close to the wall and followed the handwritten numbers upward until a narrow gap between the wall and the grey came into view. She let out a gasp, toppling backward. Henry broke her fall as the candle tumbled to the floor.
“You okay?” he asked, holding her tightly.
“It’s gone! The damn wall is gone!” she stammered.
“What do you mean, the wall is gone? I see it right in front of my eyes.”
“Not the whole wall. Just up there near the grey. There’s a thin slice missin’.”
“The candle is playin’ tricks on your eyes. The wall just goes up in the grey.”
“It may have a day or two ago, but it don’t no more. If you don’t believe me, get up on that chair and see for yourself.”
“I’ll do just that.” Henry relit the candle and stepped up on the chair, careful not to stand straight up. When he held the light close to where the wall and grey intersected, he saw a narrow void just below the grey. He opened his pocketknife and probed the gap being careful not to touch the grey. “I’ll be damned!”
“Believe me now?”
“What was the last measurement you took?” he asked.
Henry studied the scale. “That’s just where the wall ends.” He stepped down from the chair. He wrapped his arms around Jenna. “Know what that means?”
“That means the grey might be goin’ back up. Maybe it’ll disappear altogether.”
“But what about the wall?” asked Jenna.
“We’ll deal with that if and when it happens,” said Henry. “Besides, I’d rather have a missin’ bit of wall than have the grey keep comin’ down on our heads, wouldn’t you?”
“I guess so.”
* * *
The next day, they climbed the creaking stairs to their bedroom. Henry stepped up on the chair. The gap extending along every wall had grown wide enough for him to stick his arm in without touching the grey. He tentatively reached in.
“Careful!” gasped Jenna.
“Don’t worry.” Henry said, pulling his arm out. He raised his head until his eyes were level with the gap. “You can look right through to the outside.”
“What ya see?” asked Jenna.
“Can’t see much, but it looks like the wall is clean cut off inside and out right where the grey stopped.” He stepped down from the chair and walked over to the tiny gable window. “Well, I’ll be. Look here, Jen.” Jenna stepped in beside Henry.
She drew a deep breath. “Looks like everthin’ has been clean cut off.”
* * *
Two weeks later, Henry and Jenna were sitting on the porch after supper. At Jenna’s insistence, they had spent the last three days rigging a makeshift shelter over half of the roofless attic. Henry cobbled some crude rafters from lumber he had in the barn then covered them with some plastic drop cloths. He put his arm around her and pulled her close. “You happy now you got your roof?”
“It’s only half a roof, but yeah.”
“The grey’s been liftin’ every day near as I can tell,” said Henry. “At least l5 or 20 feet by now. Hasn’t stopped one time. Instead, it seems like it’s movin’ faster all the time. Think I’ll gas up the truck and see how far towards Beckly I can get. You interested in keepin’ me company?”
“Really?” Jenna squealed, hugging Henry for all she was worth. She jumped up and started to dance on the porch. She sat back down and hugged Henry again. “I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
“You can stay up all you like, but don’t keep me awake.”
“You think we gonna make it, Henry?”
“I think we got an awfully good chance, Jen. Remember when I told you the important thing was we couldn’t give up hope?”
“Yeah. Think we’ll see the Sun again?”
“I think we will and sooner that you expect.”
“Really, I hope you’re right,” sighed Jenna.
“Come on, let’s get ready for bed. Got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”
“Henry, can we do one more thing?”
“What’s that?” asked Henry.
“Take the mattress back upstairs.”
“Honey, I’m wore out.”
“I know but gettin’ that mattress back upstairs would start to make it feel real.”
“Make what real?”
“Like we’re gonna make it,” said Jenna.
“What if it rains?”
“It ain’t rained since the grey came. So, if it rained, that would mean the grey was gone, an’ wouldn’t we be happy.”
Henry smiled. “That we would. Come on, you do the pullin’ and I do the pushin’.” He took Jenna’s hand and led her inside the house.
* * *
The next morning, Henry awoke to Jenna’s shouts. “Wake up, Henry! Wake up!” She bounced on her knees in the bed while shaking his shoulders. He rolled over and opened his eyes to blinding light streaming through the cloudy plastic sheeting.
“What the hell?” he croaked, struggling to clear his head from sleep.
“It’s the sky, Henry. It’s the sky! It’s back.”
Henry’s eyes finally adjusted to a daylight he had not seen in months. He looked up through the plastic sheeting to a brilliant blue swatch. Jenna had climbed off the bed and out from under the makeshift roof and was spinning like a whirling dervish, head turned to the open sky.
Already dressed, Jenna headed toward the door. “I’m goin’ outside,” she laughed.
“Hey, wait for me.”
Henry shoved his feet inside his shoes and pulled a tee shirt over his head. He had just reached the bottom of the stairs when he heard Jenna scream. He bolted to the front door. He saw her slumped to her knees on the porch. Stretching out before her in all directions, the ground was covered in a smooth grey.
About the Author: Paul Stansbury is a lifelong native of Kentucky. He is the author of Inversion – Not Your Ordinary Stories; Inversion II – Creatures, Fairies, and Haints, Oh My!; Down By the Creek – Ripples and Reflections, as well as a novelette: Little Green Men? His speculative fiction stories have appeared in a number of print anthologies as well as a variety of online publications. Now retired, he lives in Danville, Kentucky. www.paulstansbury.com
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