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Laszlo: Chapter 3

III. A Light in the Canopy

“You’ve got to be shitting me.”

Noelle turned. Ben had stopped in his tracks. There was their beacon of light, shining brightly from two large windows. Other than the moon, it was the only illumination in the darkness.

The hair on the back of Noelle’s neck bristled as she looked towards the grand estate. She walked towards the property but a sturdy gate stood in her path. She fingered the chain that wound between its wrought iron bars. “Hmm. No lock,” she announced towards the others and unraveled the rusty chain. Its coarse texture picked at her gloves.

“I’m not going in there,” said Ben.

“Your objections aren’t going to stop me.”

Despite their urgent need for help, Noelle took steps towards the house in trepidation. Ben followed close behind her with Kim in tow. The path to the entryway was long and wide but covered in snow and shadow.

“I don’t know what’s worse… Not being able to see the full extent of what’s around us or the thought of having you shine that light around so that we could see what’s around us.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well do you think it’s better to close your eyes when you’re afraid? Thinking it’s your imagination and that it will all go away? Or do you prefer to shine that flashlight around so we can see what we’re walking into? Don’t tell me you’re keeping the light in front of us because you would hate to see me trip and fall.”

“I’m keeping it in front of us so I can see where we’re going. Stop panicking.”

“This place doesn’t give you the creeps?”  Ben’s dark eyes roved. The details of the property grew with every step they took.

“It’s just a house, Ben.” Noelle swallowed hard, disliking the uncertainty in her voice.

“Yea. In the middle of nowhere.”

“We don’t know that. There could be a small town just a mile farther down the road. Maybe we’re not as far from her dad’s as we think”

“Why don’t we take our chances?” Ben turned back towards the gate.

“Ben!” She ran towards him and laid a hand on his shoulder. He turned but kept his eyes on the property as though it were alive. Noelle took a deep breath and rubbed her temple. “I am exhausted. I have a splitting headache. My toes have gone numb and I am so cold that I can actually feel it in my bones. My best friend is hurt, which I feel personally responsible for, and I’m stuck in the wilderness with a flamboyant homosexual who cries like a girl at the sight of his own shadow.”

“I’m not flamboyant.” He readjusted Kim in his arms while listening to Noelle’s steady huff.

“I’m sorry.”   

Ben nodded his head but refused to meet her gaze.

She took a step towards him. “Look, I know we have our differences and maybe if the whole thing with Peter hadn’t happened we would have started out on a different foot but we didn’t. I’m not saying that we should forget the past, shake hands and be friends. You know me well enough to know that’s not how I work. But I’ve been running myself ragged this entire week to make sure that everything would be perfect for Kim’s birthday. Despite what has happened this evening, I’m still trying my best to keep us safe. Not because I care about you. Not because Peter cares about you. But because Kim does and it’s what she would want. I’ve got a million things running through my head right now and I’m trying my best to remain cool so that we both don’t lose it.”  

“What’s running through your head?”

“I keep replaying the accident in my mind. Could I have reacted faster? Could I have driven smarter? Did I do the right thing? That car is a rental and I don’t have liability insurance. How will I be able to afford the damages? What’s going to happen to Kim? How will I tell her dad? Will he hate me? Can he ever forgive me? Can I forgive myself? Can I get us out of this? Where are we? The first draft of my thesis paper is due in a week and I haven’t started. And it may just be my nerves but I think I have to pee.”

Ben chuckled. “It’s nice to be reminded that you are human even though you don’t often choose to show it. Thank you.”

“For what?”

“I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the best in emergency situations.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t use your help,” she said.

“If it’s any consolation, Peter always speaks highly of you. He said that your unwavering attitude is what drew him to you in the first place.”

“Unwavering attitude?”

“Yea.”

“So why’d he pick you?”

“Hey now,” Ben said in light offense. “I can be decisive, just not fearless.” He shivered as his eyes went back to the estate.

“So, would you prefer it if I shined the flashlight around the property? Or would you rather close your eyes and pretend we’re not here? I’d offer to give you the flashlight but your hands are full…”

“Is this some sort of peace offering?”

“A cease fire. For now,” she said.

Ben agreed and watched as Noelle waved the light up and down the path. Small bits of a vastly overgrown and unkempt landscape came into view. Covered in snow, the hedges were uneven and half strangled with ivy. The trees appeared lifeless; their trunks were twisted and hollowed. A nearby birdbath had fallen into disrepair. The tall grass poked through the snow in several areas and was overrun with weeds.

“Satisfied?”

“Still creepy,” said Ben.

“I’m sure there’s a reason. This place has probably long been abandoned and some looters left a candle burning or something.”

“That’s one bright ass candle.”

“Maybe the owners died and the electric company somehow forgot about this place?”

Ben snorted. “Your maybes are half as bad as my what ifs.”

“Ok. Maybe it’s a little far-fetched but we’ll find out soon enough. Come on.” Noelle pulled Ben along by his arm.

After walking through the overgrown gardens and down the long, graveled path they finally came to the entrance. When they reached the porch, Noelle looked up to see that the overhead light’s electrical base dangled from the ceiling.  “That makes me feel so much better about this place,” Ben said under his breath.

Noelle called out as she knocked on the door. “Hello. Hello?” She pressed her ear against the wood but could not hear any response, not even the creaking of steps or the shuffle of feet.

“Is that light still on?” asked Ben.

“Let me check.” Noelle stepped back onto the gravel path.

“Anything?”  

“Yea,” she said running back towards the door. “Two windows fully lit on the second floor. Someone must be inside. “Hello?” She knocked again but still there was no reply. “What time is it?”  

Ben shrugged, unable to see his watch with Kim in his arms. “Nearly one in the morning, I’d guess. I don’t see any cars. What is it?” Ben asked, regarding her facial expression.

“I hear something. It’s faint but it sounds like… scratching.”

“Please tell me you’re joking. I won’t be mad if you tell me now.”

“I don’t want to appear like a peeping tom…” Noelle rested her hand on the door’s handle.

“But you want to appear like someone who is breaking and entering?”

She pushed the latch down with her thumb and looked at Ben with excitement as it clicked. “Just entering.”  

“Wait.”

“Ben, we’re going to freeze out here. We need shelter…at least until sunrise. Please, Ben. I know what you’re thinking. No more what ifs.”

The door opened with a loud creak. Noelle entered first. The heels of her boots produced two solid thuds that echoed into the void, causing the hair on Ben’s neck to stand on end. He remained in the doorway, shivering like the last leaf on an autumn tree. He took a deep breath to try and calm his nerves but the stale, thick air sent him into a fit of coughs, causing him to drop Kim. Noelle rushed to her side.

“Are you all right?”

“Yea,” Ben croaked. He recovered and leaned against the door frame. “Swallowed some dust.”

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Noelle held two fingers against Kim’s neck again. “She feels cold but she is still breathing. Do you think we should try and wake her?”

Ben shrugged. “I’m no doctor.”

“Me neither. We could try giving her water but I’m afraid she’ll choke or something.” Noelle cradled her friend in her arms. “Maybe we shouldn’t have let her fall asleep? I’m afraid she’ll never wake.”

“I’m at a loss.” He placed a hand on Kim’s shoulder and gently shook her. “Kim? Kim. Kim!” A deep growl came from the far side of the room. Ben stood and backed towards the door. “Did you hear that?”

“Yea.” Noelle’s eyes darted across the room’s shadows. “I heard it.” Images of the creature from the road took over her imagination. “There might be a wild animal in here. I didn’t think about that.” She held Kim tighter and turned on the flashlight. “Do you see anything?” The light passed over every corner of the room but only revealed bits of peeling paint and dust covered surfaces. Noelle called out but there was no answer, nor any sound of movement. “It’s so quiet. Maybe we’re just really tired and a little spooked.”

“I don’t think we would’ve imagined the same thing. There must be a light somewhere.”

“Here.” Noelle tossed him the light. He flicked the flashlight around the door and found an ivory switch covered in a thick layer of dust.

“Here we are. Guard your eyes,” said Ben, half expecting it not to work.  

Noelle squinted as the room flooded with light. It poured from an enormous chandelier, dangling from the two story ceiling. A carpet of dust covered what once would have been a beautiful hardwood floor. Bits and scraps of chipped paint and wallpaper had been pushed into various corners. The foyer was empty besides a few lingering books on a nearby shelf and a small table upon which there was a vase filled with the long decayed remnants of flowers. To the left, a large staircase curved up towards a loft and the adjoining hallways on the second floor.

“I wonder how long those lights have been burning upstairs,” said Noelle.

“Do you still want to stay here?” Ben tucked the flashlight into his pocket.

“What choice do we really have? It looks like no one has been here for a while. I don’t see how that can harm us. Besides, we need a place to stay. Think there is a bed or sofa that we could rest her on?”

“Let’s check one of these side rooms?” Ben ventured. “I don’t trust leaving her out in the open especially if an animal might be in here.” There was a second growl. Noelle bit back laughter as Ben looked sheepishly down towards his stomach.

“Wild animal all right. There are some crackers and sandwiches in the bag.” Noelle took her hands away from Kim long enough to take the backpack from her shoulders and toss it towards Ben. “Do you feel comfortable looking by yourself or do you want to switch places?”

“We’ll go together,” he said, bending over to retrieve the sack. “I’ll rest Kim on that table so she is at least up off of the floor. We’ve got the lights on so I feel a little better.” With a hesitant look out front into the shadowy courtyard, he finally shut the front door and turned the deadbolt, securing them inside. “Did you want to look for that room upstairs? The one with the lights on?”

“Maybe we should find a phone first. There’s a chance the line is still active if the electricity is working.”

“There,” Ben said, pointing towards the loft. Against the railing was a small wooden table with a coiled phone cord hanging from its side.

Noelle smiled at him. “Good eyes.”

Ben snatched some crackers from the bag and set it on the ground. Whilst tearing the package open and cramming the peanut butter filled sustenance into his mouth, he took hold of Kim and positioned her limp form on top of the table in the center of the room, pushing the vase of dead flowers aside. He tried his best to make her look comfortable, draping the blanket back over her form and balling his scarf up into a makeshift pillow. Double checking that the front door was secure and locked, he turned his attention back towards Noelle.

She treaded every step with caution and cringed at every creak, waiting for the stairs to crumble beneath her. The deep red carpeting that had been placed upon them had worn thin and in some places, exposed the mahogany wood underneath. The banisters that remained intact were joined together by cobwebs and the railing danced when she pressed against it. When she reached the top, she could see it more clearly.

Covered by more dirt and grime was a black rotary phone. Setting on a lonely end table against the wonky railing, its cord ran across the loft and into the darkness of another hall.

Moonlight poured in from a large circular window that overlooked the back of the grounds. The view was massive, revealing the vastness of the mountainside. “We must be right at the summit,” she said to Ben. “The view from up here is amazing.”

“I’m coming up,” he announced.

Noelle turned from the window. There was a delicate armchair near the phone that leaned to one side, having broken two legs. A dark green, leather couch nearby had lost its luster. Another bookshelf, equally neglected, displayed thick tomes on medicine and science. Noelle plucked one from the shelf and wiped its fabric cover, the dust forming clumps as it tried to cling to the wordless surface.

“Wonder why no one thought to loot the phone,” Ben said as he arrived on the second floor.

Noelle placed the book back and walked over towards the railing.

Ben held his face to the large window and blocked out the light from the room with his hands. The reflection of moonlight against the snow highlighted the jagged headstones of a small family graveyard.

Ben snorted. “Typical. No. Stereotypical.” Ben turned away from the window. “I’ll go back down.”

Noelle wiped the some of the grime from the phone and held it to her ear. “It’s dead,” she called down to Ben. She looked down over the railing and watched Ben’s face fall as she placed the phone back on its base.

“Why would they have electricity and no phone?”

Ben shrugged. “What are we going to do now?” His lanky frame slumped against a nearby bookshelf.  

“We wait until morning.”

“Here?” Ben did not even try to hide the disappointment in his voice. He had been holding onto hope that she would somehow change her mind.

“It’ll have to do. I would like to try one more thing though. I want to try and reach the attic to see if we can get a signal on my phone. That’s our only other option for the night.”

Ben sighed and stood from his post. As he released his weight from the bookshelf, there was a loud thud followed by the clanking of chains and gears. Noelle came down the steps with the enthusiasm of a child on Christmas morning. The bookshelf on the ground floor gave a loud shutter and separated itself from the wall. Ben looked at her in disbelief. Noelle reached forward and tried to push the bookshelf further but it would not budge.

Without a spoken agreement, Noelle grabbed the flashlight from Ben and squeezed her thin frame behind the bookshelf. “Come on,” she called from the darkness. Giving Kim one last glance, Ben followed.

Behind the bookshelf was a spiral staircase made of wrought iron. Noelle’s shoes made a soft clank as she followed it down. The air was much cooler down there but more crisp and moist than that of the air in the rest of the house. When they reached the bottom, she scaled her fingers against the wall and found a large electrical switch.

“What do they have down here?” asked Ben. “Old Sparky?”

Noelle placed her shoulder underneath the switch. Using both hands, she pushed and the dusty device creaked in protest then locked into place with a click. There was a thump, then the springy sound of electricity. Gradually, a small lantern warmed the room with its comely glow.

Despite the house’s grand exterior, the lower room was about the size of a hospital room. Its walls were made of stone and what little of the floor that could be seen was made of dark slate. The small room was filled to the brim with old medical textbooks stacked several feet high. Old cupboards aligned the walls, overstuffed with aged papers and dusty scrolls. Small jars filled with liquids of ranging shades set atop the cabinets. In the middle of the chaos was a small desk. Though it was also piled with books, there were not quite so many and to Noelle’s great surprise, not quite so dusty.

“That looks like it’s been handled recently.” Ben pointed out the fingerprints on the cover.

“It looks like it’s been handled a lot through the years,” she said as she opened the book. A few sheets were unbound and gently tucked back within the folds.

The pages towards the front were faded beyond comprehension but Noelle continued to flip through them, taking great care not to tear them. It was not long before she found a page she could read. The handwriting was elegant and thin. Within the fine script she deciphered several names and dates reaching as far back as 1307.

The first legible entry had a faint line through the name of Radu Dinescu. Beside his name it read: Ziua de naştere. 6 Aprilie 1313. Ziua de moarte. 2 Iunie 1349. Ciuma. 36.

“Ciuma?”

“Whatcha got there?”

“Some sort of record,” she said. “Birth dates. Death dates.”

Ben shrugged. Disinterested, he grabbed the flashlight from the table, taking time to explore every nook and cranny that the old lantern could not reveal.

“Ben, this is amazing. Come look at this. It’s enormous. Do you know what language this is? I don’t recognize it. Though it does seem familiar.”

Noelle flipped the book over and began going through the pages backwards. There were a few pages in the back left blank without a trace of ink. However, as she continued, what she saw on the next inked sheets were not names, but drawings. There were drawings of men and animals as part of one body, drawings of otherworldly creatures being sacrificed or worshipped and drawings of unfamiliar symbols and what looked to be ritual instructions.

“What kind of doctor was this guy?” She was immersed in the torturous scribbles until she finally flipped far back enough to reveal the last name on the family tree and the only one without a line through it.

Vladyslav Beglitzi. Ziua de naştere. 14 Ianuarie 1970. Ziua de moarte.

Below the empty death date were two words. Written in a more masculine hand, they read: Sunt mort?

“Do you know what ‘sunt’ means?” she asked Ben.

A loud commotion came from the other side of the room as Ben shrieked and knocked over a mountain of books.

“See a mouse?”

“Noelle, please come tell me what I’m looking at.”

Noelle rose from her chair and navigated her way towards him. She rested her hands on his shoulders and moved him to the side so that she could get a better glimpse of his latest discovery. Setting at about three feet tall was a small refrigerator packed to the brim with bags upon bags of what looked to be blood.

She reached forward and grabbed one of the bags at the top of the pile. Labeled on the front, the bag read, “Laszlo. O-.” Noelle pulled another bag out and another but they all were labeled the same way.

“Smart, I guess,” Ben said, still perched on the floor at Noelle’s feet.

“What do you mean?”

“These are all labeled O-. It’s a rare blood type that can be donated to anyone who needs it,” he explained. “Not sure why they needed so much.” He stuffed the packets of blood back into the refrigerator. “But there is enough blood in here to create a new person.”

She looked over her shoulder at Ben and saw that all of the blood had drained from his face. “Sorry,” he said, reaching for the wall for support. “I really don’t like blood.”

“Yet you seem to know a lot about it.”

“Comes with the territory,” he said. “My parents are doctors.”

“Maybe we should go back upstairs,” Noelle suggested, shutting the refrigerator door.   

Ben nodded, rose to his feet and dusted off his pants. He led the way back up the steps. With one last look at the book, Noelle walked over to the large electrical switch and flipped it downwards. When she reached the top, Ben’s fists were shoved into his jean pockets, his frame rigid and skin pale.

“Do you still want to try the attic?” he asked, handing her the flashlight.

“We have to.” Noelle took a deep breath and began trekking up the main staircase. “But first I have to pee. I’ll look for a bathroom. Can you check on Kim?”

Ben nodded. “Take your time. I’ll wait here with her.”

Noelle’s stomach eased as her bladder emptied into the pot. Pleasantly surprised that the plumbing was still in order, she tore the first layer of toilet paper from the roll and discarded it hoping that the layer underneath would be more suitable. The white walls of the bathroom were stark and void of any decoration. The combination shower and bathtub was stained and lacked a curtain to hide its ugly nakedness. Pulling her pants up, she pushed the toilet handle down and walked over to the sink.

The soap on the ledge was caked in dust but it served its purpose. She splashed water on her face and tried to clean the wound near her temple, massaging it with soapy fingers. “That’s not so bad.”

She shrieked as Ben came rushing into the bathroom. He closed the door behind him and leaned against it, wide-eyed and trembling. “There’s someone else in the house,” he said.

Copyright © 2015 Regina Bethory. All Rights Reserved.

Don’t want to wait for me to post again? Interested in reading the whole thing? Laszlo (The Chronicles of Noelle, Book 1) is available here.

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Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.

Laszlo: Chapter 2

Chapter 1

II. The Decision

Noelle recuperated first. The pressure in her head escalated as the blood rushed towards her brain. She rubbed her eyes then reached towards her hip, exercising caution while unbuckling her seatbelt. She flipped herself right side up while bracing her weight on her elbows. The gentle hum of the engine had ceased. The scratching blare from Kim’s headphones had stopped. The creature was nowhere to be seen.

Her head throbbed as she sat on the inner roof of the car. Dizzy and lightheaded, she fought to regain composure. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back and tried to focus on her breathing.   After a moment, the throbbing alleviated. Someone groaned softly by her side. Her eyes shot open and she immediately turned her attention towards Ben.  

“Slowly,” she said as she reached towards him. “Slowly.” She helped him unbuckle his seat belt and get back into an upright position. His long legs made it a challenge.   “That’s better. Anything broken?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

Noelle held three fingers in front of Ben’s face. “You know the drill.”

His brown eyes focused hard on her fingers. “Three.” He looked past her hand and pointed towards her ear. “You’re bleeding.”  

A patch of warmth trickled from her temple down to her jaw line. She swiped her fingers along the moist skin and stared at the darkness that colored them. Ben’s breathing became quick and shallow. Noelle followed his gaze to the back of the car and saw Kim lying unconscious among the bags and luggage. Resting flat against what used to be the roof; one of her legs twisted at an odd angle. Noelle scooted towards her.  She reached in her back pocket and threw her cell phone at Ben. “Call.”

Ben fumbled with the tiny phone. He threw off one of his bulky gloves and flipped the mobile open, sliding his lithe fingers across the buttons. He held it up to his ear for a moment then thrust it back towards Noelle.

“It doesn’t work.”

She pushed Ben’s hand back. “Ben, I need you to calm down. Take a deep breath. Try again. We’re going to have to fight for a signal through these mountains.”

He nodded and dialed again.

Noelle pressed her fingers against Kim’s neck. “Her pulse is faint but it’s there.”

“I can’t be in here.” Ben pushed against Noelle and lunged for the driver’s side door as it was the only side free of snow. The door creaked open, its edge skimming the trunk of a tree. The scratch of fiberglass against bark was magnified in the silence of the snowy ravine. Ben crawled out, heaving in a lung full of crisp March air.

Noelle watched his feet pace back and forth in the still burning headlights. She removed the luggage that covered Kim and tried to wake her. Pulling a blanket from Ben’s bag, Noelle draped it over Kim’s limp form. Careful not to cause her pain, she tried to get a better look at her friend’s leg. Ben’s head popped back into the car. Noelle saw the tear trails that were left on his dark cheeks. He sniffled once then handed the phone back to Noelle.

“I can’t get a signal.” He was calmer than before. “I tried everything I could think of. We’re not high enough.”

She nodded and gestured for Ben to get out of her way. As she left the car, he crawled back inside. “Keep her warm.” Noelle dialed the emergency number and tilted the phone in all angles in hopes of catching a single bar. “Damn.” The phone’s LCD screen read 10:43 p.m. They had lost an hour. It had been two and a half hours since they left Dunmore and there was no sign of civilization. She walked uphill. Grabbing at the snow with her free hand as her feet slipped, she continued to hold the phone as high as possible. Struggling to climb, she made it back to the road and surveyed their options. Forward or back?  

Sliding back down the ravine, Noelle turned her phone off and crawled back into the car where she found Ben trying to console a waking Kim. She fumbled around for the flashlight and flipped one of the visors up from the floor. Gazing into the mirror, she turned the flashlight on and shined it into each eye. Her pupils contracted.

She sat up again and began searching through the tousled luggage for her bag. Reaching around Ben, she tugged at a familiar strap but it was held under his knee. She tugged again but he would not budge.

“As always,” she muttered. “Move please.”

“What is wrong with you?” Ben turned towards her, a line of snot trailing from one nostril. He picked up Noelle’s bag and heaved it towards her head, just between the seat-backs. She said nothing. Unzipping the larger compartment, she dumped the contents of the bag around her.

From the pile she plucked spare batteries, three bottles of water, some snacks from the cooler, the flashlight from the floor and the map. She stuffed her purse inside and looked up at Ben who was staring back at her, brow furrowed.

“We can’t stay here.”

“Bullshit. I’m not leaving her here.”

“Ben.”

“Don’t try to reason with me right now. I’m emotional.”

“Clearly. You’re acting like a twelve year old girl.” Noelle turned and began looking through more of the luggage.

“You’re acting like a cyborg. How can you be so calm?”

“What good will it do if I start acting like you?”

“Oh that’s nice. Suddenly it’s not okay to act human and show some emotion. Peter was right about you.” Noelle stilled her movement but did not give Ben the satisfaction of seeing her face. She went back to her search. “Aren’t you curious about what he said?”

“Not really.” She pulled a large flashlight from one of Kim’s bags. “Peter happened a year ago. I don’t care anymore. I wish you both the best.”

“Do you care about anything?”

“Only what matters.” She turned on the flashlight and shined it into Ben’s face. He raised his hands but she redirected the light and exited the vehicle.  

“Where are you going?”

“To find help.”

Ben crawled out of the car and reached out for her. “Wait! Stop! You can’t do this, Noelle.”

“Look, right now we’re lost—in the middle of the nowhere. Do you know what else is out here?”

“I’m not in the mood for this conversation. You’ll just make me feel dumb.”

“Wolves. Bears. And whatever that was we saw on the road.” The hair on the back of Noelle’s neck prickled and she looked over her shoulder feeling suddenly alert at the memory of the creature. What was it? Where had it gone?

“What are you talking about?”

“That thing! That thing on the road. Don’t tell me you didn’t see it.”

Ben shook his head. “I thought we slipped on ice and you lost control of the vehicle. You said it yourself. It was a shitty car.”

“You didn’t see it?”

“No and from the sound of your voice I’m glad I didn’t. What did it look like?”

Noelle looked away and tried to collect her thoughts. “I’m not sure how to describe it.”

Ben looked up towards the road, daring himself to catch a glimpse of something that had long vanished. All remained dark, still and silent. “Was it a bear? A wolf? What else would be out here and large enough to scare you?”

She shook her head. “It wasn’t an animal. It had skin, not fur or feathers; grey skin, like ash.”

“And?”

She closed her eyes and tried to see more but decided to shake the image from her head. “That’s all I remember for sure. It happened so fast. I saw its body, then its eyes reflecting the light from the car.”

Ben nodded absentmindedly, disbelieving her description. He chalked it up to fatigue and imagination. “Right. All the same, I don’t see anything now. Maybe we’ve been in the car too long, needed some fresh air. Either way, I think we should stay put.”

“I’m sure any wild life out here would love a nice warm meal. We can’t stay here. If we stay, we die. We have no transportation. It’s freezing outside and we have no means of communication to the outside world. We have to get Kim someplace warm so she can rest. At least until sunrise. Then we can figure something else out.”

“They say if you’re lost you should stay put if you want to be found.”

“So we should sit here and do nothing? Sorry. Going down without a fight cramps my style. Besides, who’s going to come, Ben? We’ve been driving out here for hours. Do you recall seeing any other signs of life other than the trees?”

“What if we leave and someone comes?”

“I don’t know. What if? What if? Do you live your life by ‘what ifs,’ Benjamin? Who’s going to see us down here anyway? How about this—what if someone does find us and they turn out to be some mass murdering psychopath? What if aliens beam us up into their spaceship?”

Ben frowned and rolled his brown eyes.

“Well, you never know,” she mocked, doing her best impression of his voice. “What if no one comes but you insist that we stay so we do and I freeze first because I’m the smaller one and you’re just left here with a dead body and a half-conscious person with what looks to be a broken leg. You’d just take your chances and wait for someone who might not ever come?”

“Stop antagonizing me.”

“I’m not antagonizing you I just want you to listen to yourself.”

“You’re being a pessimist. You’re overreacting.”

“I’m overreacting? I’m being realistic. Use your head, Benjamin. Here’s one—what if we walk farther up this road and get help? This road has to lead somewhere. Ever think of that? I’m going up the road. You can stay here in the dark or you can come with. However, if you stay I’m not sure whether that would double our chances of being found or make things worse. You decide your fate but I’m leaving.”

“What about Kim?” Ben asked, almost pleading. “We can’t just leave her in the car. She can’t walk on that leg. No way.”

Noelle softened. “Are you able to carry her? I can help you get her out from the car but-”

“-Yea. She’s light.”

“Okay.” Noelle set the bag down in the snow. She crawled back into the car as Ben opened the back door.

“Hey guys,” Kim said. She sounded sleepy. “What’s the plan? It sounded pretty intense out there with all the raised voices.” She tried to smile but it looked more like a grimace.

“We’re going to get you out of the car.” Ben brushed a stray lock of platinum hair out of Kim’s eyes. “Noelle says it isn’t wise to stay here like sitting ducks.”

“We’ll head farther up the road. It must lead somewhere. We could find a shelter for the night. Maybe a phone? Or at least a signal.”

Kim nodded. “Makes sense to me. You were always the sensible one.”

“Kimberley Oaks, ever the optimist,” said Ben with a smile. Noelle noticed that he seemed more relieved once Kim was onboard with the plan. “Don’t worry. We won’t make you walk. I’m going to carry you.”

“My hero.”  

“All right. How do we want to do this?” asked Noelle.

“I’ll support her upper body. Kim, let me know if you need to rest or if you’re uncomfortable.”

“I can’t be much more uncomfortable than I already am. The initial shock is wearing off.”

Noelle retrieved her bag from the snow and rummaged through it again. “There should be some Aleve in here somewhere. I know it isn’t much but it’s all we have for now.” She pulled out a rattling bottle and removed the plastic cap.

“Anything is better than nothing,” said Kim as Noelle dispensed a few pills into her gloved palm and handed them to her. Kim swallowed them dry. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Let me know if we need to stop or if Noelle can readjust your leg, okay?”

“Thanks, Ben.” She smiled through the pain. “Sometimes I think it’s such a shame that you don’t like women. You’d be a great catch.”

Within a few moments, they extracted Kim from the vehicle and she snuggled against Ben’s heavy coat as he lifted her into his arms. Noelle draped one of the blankets over her. “Anything is better than nothing,” Kim repeated, noticing Noelle’s frown.

Noelle tugged her hat down over her ears and secured the scarf more securely around her neck. Keeping the flashlight beam in front of her, she turned and began to tread uphill towards the road with their bag of supplies slung over her shoulder.

“Noelle, wait,” Ben hollered.

Noelle turned back and noticed that his attention was drawn towards the tree line in the distance. She looked up and saw a faint light hidden among the barren canopy along the mountainside. It was stationary yet too large and low to be a star.

“Do you see that?” he asked as he passed Noelle.

“Yea,” she said disbelievingly. She looked towards Kim but the young optimist had lost consciousness again. “Whatever it is we have to find it. She could have internal injuries. Should we allow her to fall asleep?”

“I’m not sure,” said Ben as they made their way back to the road, every step being one of caution in the heavy snow. “What do you think it is?”

Noelle shook her head. She was already out of breath from the steep incline. “A house? What else would be all the way out here?”

“There’s only one way to find out.”

Copyright © 2015 Regina Bethory. All Rights Reserved.

Don’t want to wait for me to post again? Interested in reading the whole thing? Laszlo (The Chronicles of Noelle, Book 1) is available here.

Want more free content? Consider donating to the cause.

Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.

Laszlo: Chapter 1

What you are about to read is my very first publication. I’m not overly proud of it but having found a few kind reviews online, it goes to show that even the work I’m not crazy about, is liked. If you don’t want to wait for me to continue to post chapter by chapter, the full work is available on Amazon, here.

Interested in reading a review? Here’s one I found from India!

“There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.”- C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I. The Ravine

“This isn’t right. We should’ve been there by now,” said Noelle. She kept her left hand on the steering wheel and her right between her thighs. She reached over and turned the heat dial up a notch.  

“That nice old man said it would take a good hour and a half to get there,” Kim chimed from the backseat. Snuggled under a blanket, she flipped through the pages of a popular magazine and clicked her retainer on and off with her tongue. Ben turned around from the passenger seat and glared back at his friend. Kim smiled and stopped clicking.

“Thank you.” Ben returned to his previous occupation of staring out of the window.

“Can you check the radio again?” Kim looked up to see Noelle’s blue eyes in the rear view mirror.

“The signal isn’t strong enough.”

Ben reached over to switch on the radio but there was only static. The ghost of a voice passed but the signal struggled to reach through the mountains. “Are you sure you pulled the antennae out all the way?”

“Yes, for the last time. It’s a shitty car.”

“Just asking a question.”

“One that you’ve already asked twice.” Noelle switched the radio off and glanced towards Ben who was studying the darkness outside of the window. “What does the map say?”

He jerked his attention back to the map and fumbled with the flashlight. “The map says…we should have been there by now.”

“Maybe we should turn around.” Kim pulled a compact from her purse and reapplied her bright, Rockin’ Red lip gloss. “We could go back to Dunmore for the night.”

“No.” Noelle put more weight on the gas pedal. “We’re not turning back now. It can’t be much farther.” She looked at Kim through the rearview mirror. “I probably should have let you drive.”

Kim shrugged as she pulled her platinum hair up into a bun. “I wouldn’t be much good. Last time I saw my father was freshman year of college. That was six years ago. He wasn’t living out here at the time.”

“What’s this place called again?” Ben held the map closer to his face.  

“How are you reading that map if you don’t even know where we’re going?” Noelle asked.

“I know the general area.”

“Christ. You really are a waste of space.”

“Sitting right here, thanks.”

“If I didn’t want you to hear that I wouldn’t have said it.”  

“Can you guys not do this for ten minutes?” asked Kim.

Ben muttered an apology and went back to the map. “It’s not like it’s hard to find civilization on this thing. Whenever there’s a knot of roads, I know there is a city.”

“That’s fascinating but that doesn’t help us. We need to find civilization on this road.” Noelle saw Kim rummaging through the luggage in the mirror. “Snacks are in the cooler.”

“Music?”

“The player is in my bag. Front compartment.”

“Thanks.”

“We’ve been in the car for at least two hours without music and now you pull out the headphones?” asked Ben.

“It beats listening to my two best friends bicker.”

“We’re being good,” they argued simultaneously.

Kim smiled and shook her head. “Thank you guys for doing this.”

“You’re welcome,” said Noelle. Ben grunted in agreement.

Noelle waited and watched in the mirror while Kim inserted the headphones into her ears. The lights from the player’s LCD display coated her face in a soft blue hue. Her eyes, heavily lined with black makeup, were closed, and her lips moved to an unknown tune. There were numerous chains that hung around Kim’s neck baring different crosses and pendants. “She does have strong faith, I’ll give her that.”

Ben reached into the backpack at his feet and pulled out a thick woolen hat. “I’ll never understand it,” he said, stretching the cap over his bald, ebony scalp.

“Neither will I.”  

He glanced back at Kim before addressing Noelle again. “Do you think she suspects anything?”

Noelle shook her head. “No but if we don’t get to her dad’s house within the next hour, there won’t be anything to suspect.”

“Why couldn’t we have had the party on campus? I mean we’re grad students. We rule that place. We could’ve gotten whatever we asked for, I bet.”

“Too obvious. Trust me. She thinks she’s spending her birthday with her two best friends and her beloved father. She wouldn’t expect everyone else to drive all the way out here for spring break.”

“So what happens if we don’t find Elkins?”

“They’ll probably send out a search party if her dad is anything like the stories she tells.” Noelle turned the heat dial up another notch. “If we keep at this road we’re bound to find something. If it’s not Elkins then we’ll get better directions.”

Defeated, Ben turned the flashlight off and folded the map. He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut. “I think that old man in Dunmore was full of shit.”  

“In his defense, I’ve been driving below the posted speed limit. It’s unbelievable how dark it is out here. I expect a deer or something to dart across the road at any minute. And I can’t understand why we haven’t run into any village or passed another car. I know the Appalachians are more inhabited than this.”

“They probably don’t come out much once the sun goes down,” said Ben. “Nothing to do out here.”

“Yea, I’m not a huge fan of the cold either.”

“At least you don’t have to deal with shrinkage.”

Noelle laughed and looked back at Kim. The platinum bun on top of her head bobbed to the music. She was not paying any mind to their amiable behavior. Noelle turned her attention back to the road as the eyes of a large creature reflected the headlights. Noelle jammed her heel into the brake pedal and cut the wheel to the right. Ben dropped the flashlight and clutched onto anything he could find as the tires lost traction on the icy road, sending the car downhill.

Copyright © 2015 Regina Bethory. All Rights Reserved.

Don’t want to wait for me to post again? Interested in reading the whole thing? Laszlo (The Chronicles of Noelle, Book 1) is available here.

Want more free content? Consider donating to the cause.

Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.

NaNoWriMo 2018: Baby Steps, Pacing, and Ye Holy Writing Time

As most of you know, NaNoWriMo 2018 has already begun. We are four days in and things are going rather well on my end. But as I promised on my Patreon page, this month I will post two blogs a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays. And look! I’ve already fallen behind. But I’m okay with that and I’ll tell you why.

NaNoWriMo 2018

Previously this year I participated in the NaNo July Camp in which I challenged myself to post a new blog every day for 30 days. While it was an interesting and… challenging challenge (I guess that’s why they call it a challenge!) it really did push me to my limits and I eventually ended up burning out.

Not ideal…

But I proved to myself that I could accomplish the feat. It wasn’t always easy. I don’t see myself doing that challenge again. This month for NaNoWriMo 2018 I am finishing the edits of In Articulo Mortis while writing the second installment. I keep pushing back the release date for the first book because editing is taking a lot longer than I originally anticipated. Truth be told, the writing of the rough draft is the easiest part. All you have to do is put words down. They don’t have to make sense and characters’ names can change. It can be pure craziness but that’s part of why rough drafts are so much fun!

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” -Terry Pratchett.

Many times writers sit down to write and we may have a few scenes in mind or maybe a character but we don’t have it all figured out. Even “plotters” who painstaking outline their stories before sitting down to write that first draft will encounter some surprises along the way.

So while editing one novel and writing the second, I’m trying to uphold the promise of posting 2 blogs a week. A large part of my success this month is going to depend on how I finish out this 4 day weekend. I got a head start by using two days of vacation.

I’ve also been staying active on my Instagram account, engaging with other writers. So while NaNoWriMo 2018 is kicking off, there are two important lessons that I’ve learned. And I think some of this month’s blog posts are going to focus on the lessons I’ve learned from writing every day as opposed to only writing when I feel inspired.

NaNoWriMo Lessons Learned

If you’re a writer, or an aspiring writer, I’m sure you’ve come across 1,000,001 sayings, advice and clichés. But the thing is – they are all true. In today’s post let’s discuss Baby Steps and Writing Time.

Baby Steps

I’ve always held myself to really high expectations. I’m talking unrealistically high. I expect myself to come home from a full day of work and sit in front of the computer for hours on end and churn out the next Great American novel. And I expected it to be easy because I know that I’m a smart person and that I’m capable. However, I fall into this trap of making things way too hard on myself. It is so much easier to break a task into smaller portions to accomplish it.

Granted, I still have extra time on the weekends where it’s okay to spend a few hours in front of the computer trying to get the words out. However, this is a rare luxury. Even if you’re just getting 500 words down a day you’re making progress. Don’t get down and don’t be too hard on yourself because you’re not writing 10,000 words a day and some other author is. This can lead into the whole “don’t compare yourself to someone else’s progress” advice.

Every artist works at their own pace.

I’m sure some painters can paint a masterpiece in a week and some might take months or years. We’re all different and that’s okay. The importance is that you’re always moving forward and working toward your goal.

I’m currently reading a fanfiction that’s in progress and is such an inspiration to see the author post the new chapter every week – sometimes two a week – and each chapter is a little over 1000 words. This may be lightspeed to some people or this may be really slow to others. The point is, it doesn’t matter. This author is making progress every week, every day, towards their final destination. It’s okay to take baby steps. It’s better than taking no steps at all then beating yourself up for it because you didn’t write 10,000 words.

Keep Writing Time Holy

When you’re around other writers, they understand, “Hey, this is writing time. This is work time.” But when you’re around a lot of people who don’t write or who are not creative, they just don’t understand. It’s equally frustrating when no amount of explaining helps it sink in.

They see your hobby, or your life as an artist as fun and games. They don’t see it as work. And therefore they don’t respect as work. They often selfishly think, “He/she can write later. There is plenty of time for that, therefore they should be able to spend time with me doing this and that.” Wrong.

Family and friends can be selfish when it comes to your time.

It is very important that you tell your loved ones that your writing time is sacred. It’s work time. No, you can’t go to the movies right now. No, you can’t go out to dinner tonight. No, you can’t watch so-and-so’s baby. If you have a writing time scheduled, stick to it. If you don’t, you’re doing a huge disservice to yourself. And after all, you are in a relationship with yourself longer than anyone else in your life. Your relationship to yourself matters most.

It is vital to love yourself and honor your own promises before anyone else’s. And as for the people in your life, I guarantee there are others out there who will respect you, your time and your decision to be a writer. It may take some trial and error to find the right people but if I can find them, so can you!

Happy Writing!

-RB

Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.

A Brief History of ASR: Automatic Speech Recognition

Dear readers, I apologize for the month long hiatus but I assure you that it was much needed. Today’s post is a guest post. If you’re interested in writing one of these, please reach out to me via my contact page here.

This article is originally published at Descript.

This moment has been a long time coming. The technology behind speech recognition has been in development for over half a century, going through several periods of intense promise — and disappointment. So what changed to make ASR viable in commercial applications? And what exactly could these systems accomplish, long before any of us had heard of Siri?

The story of speech recognition is as much about the application of different approaches as the development of raw technology, though the two are inextricably linked. Over a period of decades, researchers would conceive of myriad ways to dissect language: by sounds, by structure — and with statistics.

Early Days

Human interest in recognizing and synthesizing speech dates back hundreds of years (at least!) — but it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that our forebears built something recognizable as ASR.

1961 — IBM Shoebox

Among the earliest projects was a “digit recognizer” called Audrey, created by researchers at Bell Laboratories in 1952. Audrey could recognize spoken numerical digits by looking for audio fingerprints called formants — the distilled essences of sounds.

In the 1960s, IBM developed Shoebox — a system that could recognize digits and arithmetic commands like “plus” and “total”. Better yet, Shoebox could pass the math problem to an adding machine, which would calculate and print the answer.

Meanwhile researchers in Japan built hardware that could recognize the constituent parts of speech like vowels; other systems could evaluate the structure of speech to figure out where a word might end. And a team at University College in England could recognize 4 vowels and 9 consonants by analyzing phonemes, the discrete sounds of a language.

But while the field was taking incremental steps forward, it wasn’t necessarily clear where the path was heading. And then: disaster.

October 1969 The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America

A Piercing Freeze

The turning point came in the form of a letter written by John R. Pierce in 1969.

Pierce had long since established himself as an engineer of international renown; among other achievements he coined the word transistor (now ubiquitous in engineering) and helped launch Echo I, the first-ever communications satellite. By 1969 he was an executive at Bell Labs, which had invested extensively in the development of speech recognition.

In an open letter³ published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, Pierce laid out his concerns. Citing a “lush” funding environment in the aftermath of World War II and Sputnik, and the lack of accountability thereof, Pierce admonished the field for its lack of scientific rigor, asserting that there was too much wild experimentation going on:

“We all believe that a science of speech is possible, despite the scarcity in the field of people who behave like scientists and of results that look like science.” — J.R. Pierce, 1969

Pierce put his employer’s money where his mouth was: he defunded Bell’s ASR programs, which wouldn’t be reinstated until after he resigned in 1971.

Progress Continues

Thankfully there was more optimism elsewhere. In the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Defense’s ARPA (the agency now known as DARPA) funded a five-year program called Speech Understanding Research. This led to the creation of several new ASR systems, the most successful of which was Carnegie Mellon University’s Harpy, which could recognize just over 1000 words by 1976.

Meanwhile efforts from IBM and AT&T’s Bell Laboratories pushed the technology toward possible commercial applications. IBM prioritized speech transcription in the context of office correspondence, and Bell was concerned with ‘command and control’ scenarios: the precursors to the voice dialing and automated phone trees we know today.

Despite this progress, by the end of the 1970s ASR was still a long ways from being viable for anything but highly-specific use-cases.

This hurts my head, too.

The ‘80s: Markovs and More

A key turning point came with the popularization of Hidden Markov Models(HMMs) in the mid-1980s. This approach represented a significant shift “from simple pattern recognition methods, based on templates and a spectral distance measure, to a statistical method for speech processing”—which translated to a leap forward in accuracy.

A large part of the improvement in speech recognition systems since the late 1960s is due to the power of this statistical approach, coupled with the advances in computer technology necessary to implement HMMs.

HMMs took the industry by storm — but they were no overnight success. Jim Baker first applied them to speech recognition in the early 1970s at CMU, and the models themselves had been described by Leonard E. Baum in the ‘60s. It wasn’t until 1980, when Jack Ferguson gave a set of illuminating lectures at the Institute for Defense Analyses, that the technique began to disseminate more widely.

The success of HMMs validated the work of Frederick Jelinek at IBM’s Watson Research Center, who since the early 1970s had advocated for the use of statistical models to interpret speech, rather than trying to get computers to mimic the way humans digest language: through meaning, syntax, and grammar (a common approach at the time). As Jelinek later put it: “Airplanes don’t flap their wings.”

These data-driven approaches also facilitated progress that had as much to do with industry collaboration and accountability as individual eureka moments. With the increasing popularity of statistical models, the ASR field began coalescing around a suite of tests that would provide a standardized benchmark to compare to. This was further encouraged by the release of shared data sets: large corpuses of data that researchers could use to train and test their models on.

In other words: finally, there was an (imperfect) way to measure and compare success.

November 1990, Infoworld

Consumer Availability — The ‘90s

For better and worse, the 90s introduced consumers to automatic speech recognition in a form we’d recognize today. Dragon Dictate launched in 1990 for a staggering $9,000, touting a dictionary of 80,000 words and features like natural language processing (see the Infoworld article above).

These tools were time-consuming (the article claims otherwise, but Dragon became known for prompting users to ‘train’ the dictation software to their own voice). And it required that users speak in a stilted manner: Dragon could initially recognize only 30–40 words a minute; people typically talk around four times faster than that.

But it worked well enough for Dragon to grow into a business with hundreds of employees, and customers spanning healthcare, law, and more. By 1997 the company introduced Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which could capture words at a more fluid pace — and, at $150, a much lower price-tag.

Even so, there may have been as many grumbles as squeals of delight: to the degree that there is consumer skepticism around ASR today, some of the credit should go to the over-enthusiastic marketing of these early products. But without the efforts of industry pioneers James and Janet Baker (who founded Dragon Systems in 1982), the productization of ASR may have taken much longer.

November 1993, IEEE Communications Magazine

Whither Speech Recognition— The Sequel

25 years after J.R. Pierce’s paper was published, the IEEE published a follow-up titled Whither Speech Recognition: the Next 25 Years⁵, authored by two senior employees of Bell Laboratories (the same institution where Pierce worked).

The latter article surveys the state of the industry circa 1993, when the paper was published — and serves as a sort of rebuttal to the pessimism of the original. Among its takeaways:

  • The key issue with Pierce’s letter was his assumption that in order for speech recognition to become useful, computers would need to comprehend what words mean. Given the technology of the time, this was completely infeasible.
  • In a sense, Pierce was right: by 1993 computers had meager understanding of language—and in 2018, they’re still notoriously bad at discerning meaning.
  • Pierce’s mistake lay in his failure to anticipate the myriad ways speech recognition can be useful, even when the computer doesn’t know what the words actually mean.

The Whither sequel ends with a prognosis, forecasting where ASR would head in the years after 1993. The section is couched in cheeky hedges (“We confidently predict that at least one of these eight predictions will turn out to have been incorrect”) — but it’s intriguing all the same. Among their eight predictions:

  • “By the year 2000, more people will get remote information via voice dialogues than by typing commands on computer keyboards to access remote databases.”
  • “People will learn to modify their speech habits to use speech recognition devices, just as they have changed their speaking behavior to leave messages on answering machines. Even though they will learn how to use this technology, people will always complain about speech recognizers.”

The Dark Horse

In a forthcoming installment in this series, we’ll be exploring more recent developments and the current state of automatic speech recognition. Spoiler alert: neural networks have played a starring role.

But neural networks are actually as old as most of the approaches described here — they were introduced in the 1950s! It wasn’t until the computational power of the modern era (along with much larger data sets) that they changed the landscape.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Stay tuned for our next post on Automatic Speech Recognition by following Descript on Medium, Twitter, or Facebook.

Timeline via Juang & Rabiner

This article is originally published at Descript.

Regina Bethory is a fiction author. She graduated from Christopher Newport University with a Bachelor’s in Directing and Play Writing and from Newport News Shipbuilding’s Apprentice School as a Test Electrician. She also has a degree in Funeral Services. As an avid minimalist and traveler, she enjoys spending her time learning new things, seeking new experiences and de-cluttering. When she is not writing, she can often be found in comic book stores and early morning matinees.