Enclosed is my personal testimony of the events leading up to the Military Quarantine of Curtis Creek. Colonel Yates has demanded that I appear before the Armed Service Committee, but my family need me here. Also included are the medical certificates to that effect from Divisional HQ Psychologist, Dr Sydney Philson. Instead, I entrust to you my personal journals. Included is my full accounting of what happened.
My friends have already given you their own versions of the facts, and as I have only been present for some of the events in question, this should suffice to fill in the missing pieces.
I would ask you to be discreet, as the contents are personal, but the entries in this journal are as accurate as anything I would be able to tell you in person. More so, given that the entries were written during the Siege.
It is my hope that this book will be able to assist you in deciding what to do with Mayor Grady, Sheriff Tanner, and Jess Connolly.
Enclosed is my personal testimony of the events leading up to the Military Quarantine of Curtis Creek. Colonel Yates has demanded that I appear before the Armed Service Committee, but my family need me here. Also included are the medical certificates to that effect from Divisional HQ Psychologist, Dr Sydney Philson. Instead, I entrust to you my personal journals. Included is my full accounting of what happened.
My friends have already given you their own versions of the facts, and as I have only been present for some of the events in question, this should suffice to fill in the missing pieces.
I would ask you to be discreet, as the contents are personal, but the entries in this journal are as accurate as anything I would be able to tell you in person. More so, given that the entries were written during the Siege.
It is my hope that this book will be able to assist you in deciding what to do with Mayor Grady, Sheriff Tanner, and Jess Connolly.
April 3, 2003
It was a perfect night, with the moon high and three quarters full. The valley is deep enough to keep some of the day's heat when the sun goes down, and the Creek runs through the end of the valley, so it's humid. As a result, the mist is constant around the valley, which is why the Bridge was built. Back when it was dirt roads, cars kept misjudging the edge and rolling over the side.
The cornfield was cold, but not terribly so. Nobody was bothering with the corn, as usual. I checked yesterday, and nobody really owns this bit of land now, though there's enough seed left in the ground that every year a crop of wild corn grows. There are no rows in the corn like there is with all our farms, they just grow like the wild grass. It makes it impossible to push your way through them.
The valley isn't that deep where we were, but you look a few hundred yards further along the road, and you see the Bridge out of town, where the valley gets so much deeper. Up this end, the water runs into it gently, which makes it great for growing. At the other end where the valley is deepest and the Bridge is out of sight, someone sneaks in during the very early spring and scatters some seeds around. Whatever survives till summer on its own grows wild. A few years ago it was raspberries, and the thorny bushes have survived till now.
Up the end closer to the Bridge, where we were, is just the wild corn. The birds love it around there, because nobody actually tends the corn while it grows. It's open season for everything alive, including us.
Jake was setting up his telescope at the foot of the Bridge, with his best friend close by, keeping him company. It was the main road out of town, and thus close enough to the Colbert home that his parents had no problem letting him go there himself. The iron Bridge was built up so that the road over had working lights, but down below the Bridge itself, the streetlight couldn't interfere with Stargazing.
"So, explain to me how this happened again?" Zack asked him.
"I use this spot because you get the bridgework in the shot." Jake explained patiently. "You get a much better picture that way."
"No, not that. Explain to me why Marie and I are here." Zack corrected.
"You were the one that wanted to make it a Bonfire Party." Jake pointed out.
"And you were the one that said no. You said that you'd only be out here for ten minutes to set up the camera." Zack shot back.
"Well, I changed my mind." Jake waved it off. "Go help Marie."
"Help Marie? That's what fire-starters are for, Jake." Zack said in amusement. "No, there's something else going on here. I know you. You don't change your mind. What happened?"
"You wanted to bring out food and make a night of it, we're here." Jake insisted. "Where's the problem?"
Zack held up his hands. "No problem, just curious. I'm going to go help Marie get the marshmallows cooking. Be careful with that."
"I'm setting a camera to take long exposure shots, not disarming a bomb." Jake told him.
Marie Porter was lighting the bonfire, which was a good bit smaller than it could be since there were only the three of them. The valley below the Bridge was filled with stalks of corn, and she made sure to set the fire well away from anything flammable. Zack came along the edge of the cornfield to join her, putting a kiss on her cheek.
Marie leaned into it, not looking away from the growing fire. "So, what's the verdict?"
"He insists he just changed his mind." Zack reported. "But you don't believe him?"
"Not a chance." Marie snorted.
The fire grew and Marie started unpacking the food from the trunk of Jake's car, on loan from his father, when a set of headlights played over them. They both looked to the road in surprise, and saw a Jeep rolling their way. One they instantly recognized.
"What's he doing here?" Marie asked flatly before the Jeep stopped.
Zack wasn't happy either. "What do you want to bet that Jess is with him?"
Marie squeezed her eyes shut, and started to say something when Pierce Tanner climbed out of the drivers seat. As usual, he was dressed in a tight black t-shirt, which pulled across his muscles. From the passenger side, came Jess Connolly, the School President, dressed like something out of a magazine, as always.
Marie and Zack plastered smiles on their faces as they came over. "Hey guys."
Jess smiled a little, aware of the tension that their arrival had created. "Jake was telling me about the party tonight, and next thing I know he invited me."
"The second I saw the truck coming, I knew that was what happened." Marie said blandly. "And let me guess, Pierce heard there was an opportunity to be with you and away from adults at the same time, and invited himself."
Jess glanced over at Pierce, who was building the fire up a lot higher. "He's my... we're dating." She said finally. "You get one of us, you get the other."
Zack leaned in, lowering his voice. "I'm guessing Jake didn't know?"
Jess gave him a look. "Jake tutors me in Math and History. Exactly how is this a problem?"
Zack nodded. "Jake is at the Bridge, setting up his telescope. Go warn him."
Jess sighed. "Fine." She waved at Pierce, who waved back in acknowledgment as she went off into the dark.
Marie leaned in close to Zack. "You notice that she stopped just short of calling him her boyfriend?"
Zack sighed. "I noticed. This will end with disaster."
You will notice that I've torn a page out of my journal here. There will be very few points in this narrative when I do that. The page was intensely personal, and completely unrelated to the point. Suffice to say, Jess met me on the way back to the Bonfire, we chatted for a bit, and then returned to the others.
You will also notice that the conversation between Zack, Marie, and Jess is something I wasn't present for. I got the whole thing from them after the fact. If you ask Marie, she'd probably back me up. This is the only part in my testimony that will describe events that I was not present at personally.
But I wanted to single out Zack Washington, for reasons that you already know. He was my very oldest, and very best friend. His father owned the local Diner in the centre of town. Once, while my mom was away visiting her aunt, me and dad were left to feed ourselves. My younger brother Ben, had not been born yet.
Dad made me promise not to tell, but we ate practically every meal at the Diner while she was gone. By the third night, my dad and Mr Washington were old buds, and me and Zack were practically family.
The Washington family has history. To some extent everyone in Curtis Creek does. So few people come into town from the outside, and as much as every kid in my class vows to get out and see the world, most of us stay close to home, one generation into the next, into the next. But the Washington family can track their history in Curtis Creek back to since before the Civil War.
They received the land in exchange for their service to the Union. They were freed during the war, and stayed where they were to set up part of an underground rail-road for other freed slaves. When they were given the land, they managed to keep it in their family where many other families had to sell up. Three generations ago, the zoning laws changed, and their farm suddenly became part of the town. Zack's great grandfather shut down the farm but kept the land, turning it into a General Store, which was later converted into a Diner when the town Supermarket opened.
Zack and I have seen each other through everything. In kindergarten, he decided it was very important that he have a new bike, but could only scrape together half the money he needed. I was kind enough to give him the other half, in exchange for a promise of his firstborn. Years later, we agreed never to speak of that agreement to Marie. I never told him this, but I was planning to make it part of my toast at his future wedding.
When I was in third grade, I failed a test because I was up all night eating junk food that we stole from his Diner, and Zack threw the test so that we could keep each other company in detention. I was grateful enough to feed him the answers the next time he'd forgotten to study for a pop quiz.
If he had one failing, it was fear. He was very timid. When Marie moved to town and we started going out, he was supportive, despite the fact that he had a crush on her, and never had the nerve to say so. After Marie and I broke up, he felt guilty, and I all but forced him to step up, and they were great together.
He was my very best friend.
Jake and Jess returned to the bonfire. Jess went over to Pierce, who was leaning against his Jeep, and he slid his arms around her waist, pressing a hungry kiss into the side of her neck.
Jake went over closer to Marie and Zack, who were curled up by the fire. The fact that he had come to this party with a telescope, and not a girl had never been more pathetically obvious.
"So you invited the girl of your dreams to a party, and instead you got to watch her boyfriend act like a vampire." Zack said quietly. "So, I guess you probably want to kill yourself right now then?"
"Yeah I was giving that some serious thought." Jake nodded simply.
"Vampires are very 'in' nowadays." Marie offered.
"Hey guys!" Pierce called to them, pulling a cooler out of his Jeep. "I brought beer, let's make it a real party."
Jess was tensing next to him, clear enough for Jake to see. "Pierce, you know the Sheriff knows where we are tonight. If he came and checked on us... caught us with booze."
"Then we'd better drink it all fast. Relax, my dad's cool." Pierce grinned, enjoying himself as he pressed another kiss into her neck.
Jess was still trying to talk her boyfriend out of playing bartender. "Your dad is in no way 'cool' with anything, and you know it..."
"Relax, Jess. It's just a couple of six packs. Two beers each, three max." Pierce said over her and pulled the pack of bottles out of the cooler. "We're not getting loaded this time."
"This time." Jess repeated, taking the bottle reluctantly.
So did the others, and conversation was muted for a time after the awkward tension between Jess and Pierce. For something to do, Jake downed a third of his beer (not the first he'd had in his life), and built up the bonfire a bit.
After that, the party settled. The telescope would record an exposure for most of the night, and was far enough from the bonfire that the light wouldn't interfere. There was little more for Jake to do but check on it now and then to be sure the camera was working, and the rest of the time they settled, cooking over the fire and talking about nothing. It wasn't as awkward as any of them had feared. Jess was aware of the tension between Jake and Pierce, and she knew that Marie and Zack's loyalties were exclusively to their oldest friend. She had invited Pierce mainly out of a sense of duty to her boyfriend, but the conversation had carried on well enough.
"I heard the Mayor tell my dad that a film company wanted to film a movie out here... or at least shoot a few scenes." Pierce said.
"What's the movie?"
Pierce waved it off. "I don't know, I was busy trying to swipe the six pack at the time. Some war movie thing."
"Of course it is." Zack snorted. "All the invasions start out in the country. It's how Hollywood can keep costs down."
"Yeah, but it makes sense strategically." Jake offered.
"Maybe they'll need extras." Jess wondered aloud. "We'll get to be in the movies." The hope in her voice was clear and obvious.
Marie had gone over to the edge of the corn, and snapped off one of the stalks. She came back and started unpacking the supplies she had brought, pulling out a roll of tinfoil and a stick of butter.
"What are you doing?" Zack asked her with amusement.
Marie wrapped the corn cob in foil and stuck the end into the bonfire. "Back when we first moved here, dad did this every third meal, practically. He found this old recipe trick where you could bend the whole stalk into a pot of boiling water, eat it straight off the cob that way. Said it doesn't get any fresher than that."
They could hear the hiss of butter boiling in the fire, and the smell rose gently over them.
Jess gave Marie a pleading look. She didn't have to say it, and Marie rose from her crouch. "Anyone else want some?"
Four hands went up instantly, and Marie rolled her eyes, heading back to the corn.
"What do you mean, 'it makes sense'?" Jess asked, returning to the earlier conversation.
"Well, if you're going to invade a place, you pick somewhere without a lot of people, then you build up your forces so that you're ready to fight." Jake offered, flushing a little.
"Nerd." Pierce coughed. "You put a lot of thought into planning an invasion?"
"Geek, not Nerd." Jake said with dignity. "There's a difference."
"Jake holds the record for most won games of Risk." Zack declared, just as Marie let out a short, sharp scream. She backed up very quickly, almost running backwards from the row of growing corn. She almost tripped over Zack, as everyone scrambled to their feet in shock.
"What?!" Pierce demanded of Marie, peering at the corn. "What is it?"
"There's something in there!" Marie hissed. "I heard it! It was... It was human. I think."
Pierce laughed. "Nice try."
"I'm serious!" Marie snapped at him, holding onto Zack. "Guys, I'm telling you, I know how this sort of place plays tricks on your hearing, especially at night, but there is something in there!"
"Zack, go check it out." Jake said with authority.
"I will not." Zack made no effort to move.
"I've seen this movie a thousand times." Zack said with certainty. "It starts with a kid looking through a telescope, then a bunch of high school kids start talking about scary monsters in the cornfield, and then the black dude wanders off and gets eaten by something."
"That's because they're always the ones to bravely go and investigate things." His girlfriend said sweetly in his ear.
"And look how it turns out." Zack shot back. "The cowards always make it to the second half of the movie at least."
"All right, I'll go." Jake volunteered. "But when I get back, I insist that your girlfriend fawn over me for at least three minutes because I was the brave one."
"Yeah right." Marie snorted. "I haven't fawned over you for at least a year."
"Deal." Zack agreed, shaking on it.
"Ex-cuse me?" Marie blurted, to everyone's amusement, and Jake went into the cornfield, armed only with a flashlight against the dark.
We all have these moments when we do stupid things and pretend that we were being brave, or worse, that there was nothing to be scared of. I've never once done it.
I probably wouldn't have done it if Jess hadn't been there.
Cornfields appear in so many horror movies for exactly this reason. It was hard enough to move through the corn, but impossible to see more than six inches. The stalks were taller than I was. In the pitch black night, it was more than intimidating, it was freaking terrifying.
There was a sound, and Jake spun, breathing hard. The corn was pressing in on him. There could have been an axe murderer three feet away, and he wouldn't have known it. The flashlight illuminated the corn stalks directly in front of his face, and could reach no further than their leaves.
The air was so still and silent that his own breathing sounded deafening to him.
And then he saw what was making the noise, and he actually dropped the flashlight. The light flickered, and dimmed away to nothing, as though giving up.
"Where is he?" Zack said awkwardly.
"He's just messin' with us." Pierce scorned instantly.
"He wouldn't do that." Jess told her boyfriend firmly. "He's not the type."
Zack was chewing hard on his lower lip. "I was the one... He went because I wouldn't. If he is in trouble... it's because of me."
Marie hugged him from behind as Pierce heard that and laughed. "All that talk about invasions and horror movies? He decided to make us wait for him a bit, just to make us worry."
There was a rustling in the corn. "Guys!" Jake's voice called from the distance. "I'm comin' back!"
"See?" Pierce laughed. "He heard me too."
"Guys, my light went bad, honk the horn or something!" Jake's voice called through the corn, and Zack hurried to do so.
"I'm telling you, he's messing with you." Pierce insisted. Even expecting it, everyone jumped when the sound of the Jeep horn split the silent night air. Pierce shook himself free of Jess for a moment and went over to his Jeep. A spotlight was mounted on the cab, and Pierce reached up to shine a much brighter beam of light toward the corn.
"Why do you have a hand spotlight?" Jess asked her boyfriend.
"For hunting." Pierce said, as though it was obvious, and Zack hit the horn again.
The sudden explosion of noise made Jess notice it. "No birds." She said uncertainly. "The birds practically mob the place, with all the unattended corn growing... You'd think that would have woken them up... No birds."
"No nothing." Marie said suddenly. "No birds, no crickets..."
There was a long silence as they all listened. The omnipresent sounds of nature were missing. It was an unnatural eerie quiet, all they could hear were their own heartbeats, their own breathing...
The corn exploded outward and everyone jumped back as Jake came half running back into the headlights of the Jeep. And with him was the source of the noise Marie had heard.
It was a child.
The whole group gathered around tightly. The boy wandered like a zombie, led by the hand over to the bonfire. The boy was shaking, his hair was dark and cropped very short, almost a crew cut. His eyes were big and wide, and everyone realized he wasn't wearing shoes. Marie checked his vitals quickly.
"Heartbeat's okay. But he's ice cold." Marie whispered. "Kid, can you tell me your name?"
"His eyes aren't even moving." Marie whispered and tried again. "Can you understand me?"
"Marie..." Jake whispered, as though afraid the boy would hear him. "His feet."
The boy wasn't wearing shoes, his socks were shredded... and from the looks of things, so were the soles of his feet. Jake and Marie traded a quick look, and Jake swept the boy up, carrying him back to the cars, while the others followed, huddling together in the headlights.
"My God." Zack blurted as they approached. "Who is it?"
"Anyone recognize him?" Jake demanded.
Jess brushed the boy's hair gently. "That... That's impossible." She blurted. "It's... Jake, this is Douglas Gunn!"
"Doug?" Pierce blurted. "Impossible!" He leaned in closer. "Well, if it's not Doug, his twin brother is on one of the Missing Persons Posters at my dad's office."
Zack was swallowing compulsively. "It's not possible." He breathed. "It's not possible!"
Marie looked askance at her boyfriend. "What? Why? Why not?"
"Jake, it can't be Doug Gunn." Zack insisted.
Jake handed Zack the flashlight. "That flashlight of yours is a piece of junk, by the way."
Zack checked the flashlight over. "I put new batteries in a couple of days ago..." It suddenly came on in his hands, shining brightly.
"You had it switched off?" Pierce found that hilarious.
Zack shook his head firmly. "The flashlight is working. I never hit the switch."
The boy's eyes moved, aware of his surroundings for the first time. Instantly, he focused on the bright white headlights shining over them. His eyes went completely feral, terrified to the point of unhinged as the bright lights flashed over him. "YA-AAAAAAAH!" He shrieked hysterically, and everyone jumped back in shock at the sudden mania. "Liguo! Natabas Nalech Che!" He screamed psychotically...
...and promptly passed out. The boy dropped like his strings had been cut, and he lay collapsed on the ground.
Everyone was breathing hard in the sudden silence that followed. It had been a harsh, chilling moment, made all the more horrifying by the fact that it was a little boy that had gone berserk.
A moment later the crickets started singing again.
Pierce moved first, scooping the kid up and carrying him to Jake's car. "Party's over. Let's get the kid home." He said plainly, and everyone snapped into action, grabbing their stuff. Jess helped guide the boy inside the car gently, then headed for the Jeep with Pierce.
"Go." Pierce told Jake. "Jess and I will take Zack in the Jeep. Take Marie with you, she's a Nurse. We'll take care of the fire."
Marie put her hand up, like she was in class. "I'm not really a-"
"You're a lot closer than we are." Jake cut her off. "Let's go."
Pierce nodded, and the group split up quickly. Jake took the Driver's seat, Marie slid into the back seat next to Doug, cradling the boy's head carefully. "Jake, why can't it be this kid Doug Gunn?" Marie called from the back. "Everyone says it looks like him, Pierce said his father has a Missing Poster... why can't it be him?"
Jake called over his shoulder to her. "Dougie was a kid in our class, back before you moved here. He wasn't really a friend of ours, but we knew him... He went missing when we were all in Kindergarten... We were all six years old. He should be seventeen by now."
Marie looked down at the boy trembling in her lap. "Then who the heck is this?"
The first real conversation I had with Marie after we broke up, was when she asked me for help. She said she wanted to be a doctor, which was no surprise, and she was hoping we were still friends enough that I'd be willing to talk mom into giving her a job. I tried explaining to her that mom was a Medical Receptionist, and not the Surgeon, but apparently I was the only 'in' she had.
It worked out well for both of them. The Doctor's Office used to be the private home of the only Doctor in town, but fortunately he had a big family, with enough rooms for a dozen kids and siblings. Then it was converted into an Office, with rooms enough to handle a few Hospice care patients, and enough farmers out of work with skill enough to look after them during the night in shifts.
It was just lucky that mom was on shift that night at the 'Hospital'. Marie and I had to carry the kid in. He was awake, but catatonic until he saw the Operating Room. I don't know if it was the lights or the surgical tools, but the boy went berserk again.
We were feeling pretty unhinged by the time he passed out. He was screaming like we were dragging him through a torture chamber.
I have no idea what language he was shrieking in, but he couldn't even tell us his name.
"It's Doug Gunn." Jake's mother said simply. Deanna Colbert was the Medical Receptionist at the small Curtis Creek Clinic, and had access to all the hospital records. She had his name inside a few minutes.
"You had his fingerprints on file?" Marie seemed surprised. "That's not normal, is it?"
"Doug disappeared, so the Sheriff took his prints off some of his toys, sent them out to law enforcement across the country, just in case he showed up somewhere."
Jake felt his heart hammering. "Mom, he can't be. Dougie was six years old when he vanished... Ten years ago."
"Eleven years and change, I remember." Deanna corrected. "Your father and I helped search for him. But that boy sleeping in our Post-Op Ward has Doug Gunn's face, and Doug Gunn's fingerprints."
The door opened suddenly, and Sheriff Tanner strode in. He was a powerfully built man with salt and pepper hair. There was a ring of natural authority around him wherever he went, and he always wore his reflective sunglasses, no matter what time it was. He hooked his thumbs into his belt, alongside his handcuffs and his gun. "Evenin' Mrs Colbert." He nodded to them. He always sounded like he had a mouthful of gravel when he spoke. "Pierce came home early tonight, mentioned you had some excitement." He pulled a folded piece of paper out of his jacket pocket. "He also asked me to bring this by."
Jake took the page and unfolded it. It was a Missing Person Poster with a picture of Doug Gunn on it. He and Marie both looked at it, and traded a nod. "It's him."
The Sheriff gave him a hard look. "Were you kids drinking?"
"What?" Jake felt his heart stop. "I... No..."
His mother stepped in. "Sheriff, this wasn't an accident, and it wasn't a drunken hallucination. The boy in question was wondering around the valley in the middle of the night, and it was your son, and my son that found him and brought him to a doctor. Exactly where does the possibility of underage drinking come into this?"
"I was just..." Sheriff Tanner had the decency to look chastised. "No, that's fair. You did a good job tonight, Mr Colbert. And you, Miss Porter." He sent Deanna a look. "How is he?"
"He hasn't woken up yet, and he is borderline hypothermic, but I'm pretty sure he'll pull through." Deanna said crisply.
"Has he said anything?" The Sheriff asked them all.
"Nothing intelligible." Marie said, sounding every bit the responsible, reasonable young woman. "When we pulled him into the light, he went completely berserk, screaming something, but nothing we could understand. Not like gibberish, more like another language."
The Sheriff took that seriously. "I see. Anything else?"
Deanna took that question. "Well, he's very pale, his hair has been cropped very short... And, oh yeah: He hasn't aged a day in the last eleven years." She said, giving out a short bark of disbelieving laughter. She couldn't believe the words were coming out of her own mouth.
The Sheriff stilled. "What?"
"I mean it, Sheriff. Aside from the haircut, he's the same as he was when he vanished, eleven years ago." Deanna insisted. "You don't believe me, go check on him."
Sheriff Tanner did so, and Jake let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding. The second the Lawman left earshot, his mother reached out and twisted his ear tightly. "Jake, why did you just lie to the Sheriff?" She accused. "And before you make it worse, do not lie to me. I'm not the Law, I'm your mother, I can read your mind."
Jake wilted a little. "Pierce brought beer."
Marie steeled herself and got into the middle of it. "We didn't know. He didn't tell anyone he was bringing it, and we didn't even know Pierce was coming. Jess invited him."
Deanna gave Jake an openly sympathetic look at the mention of Jess' name. "Fine. Sheriff Tanner has been looking for a chance to prove his son's been sneaking around getting drunk and such for a long time now. Pierce is a thug, but he's not an idiot, and he's lived with a cop long enough to be good at hiding evidence."
Jake snorted. "So I just wasted a perfectly good chance to have his butt thrown in jail for a month?"
"It's his son, Jake. I doubt very much he'll be put in jail, but it'd keep him out of your hair for a while." Marie grinned. "Might give you a shot."
Jake flushed bright red, given that he was having this conversation with his ex-girlfriend and his mother, but the moment was broken when the door opened again, and in strolled the Town Mayor.
Mayor Grady had been in office longer than anyone could remember. He knew every member of the town by name, and made everyone feel like part of his family. He didn't look down his nose at anyone, or try and assert his power over anyone. He took part in school events, organized town festivals, and everyone in town naturally liked and respected him, including Jake and Marie, who automatically stood a little straighter when he came in.
"Hey kids." He murmured kindly to them. "Jake, I hear you found something a little closer to earth tonight." He gave Marie a nod as he spoke, giving both of them his attention. "It's nice to know that we can lay this one to rest."
"Well, I'm not sure we can." Deanna told him.
Grady shushed her quickly. "I've got his Aunt Margaret out in the car. After his parents… She's the only kin he's got in the state."
"Maggie Gunn?" Deanna repeated. "She's not… well, crazy?"
Grady sighed. "I know. But she's still his family, and that makes her his guardian, once we're sure he's medically fit."
Sheriff Tanner came back into the foyer. "Small problem there." He commented. "It seems he's lost the ability to speak English in his time away."
The Mayor looked at him gravely. "Are you sure?"
Tanner nodded. "I don't know what he's yappin' now, but it ain't English."
The Mayor was about to say something when the front door flew back on its hinges, and Maggie Gunn came in. Jake was surprised by her, expecting her to be less… wild.
Maggie Gunn was thin as a scarecrow, and gave the impression of one, all long limbs and messy silver hair. She wore faded jeans and crocodile skin boots everywhere she went. There was a rumor around that she'd killed the crocodile herself. Jake had only met her twice, since she lived on the outermost edge of Curtis Creek, and came into town only rarely. Her eyes were cold steel, and she always looked haunted by something.
"You tracked him?" She said to the two young people, and both Marie and Jake just nodded, too dumbfounded by the woman to speak. Maggie reached out a hand and lifted their chins, looking deep in their eyes, like she was searching for something. "They brought him back." Maggie whispered, and Jake felt his blood run cold. Her voice was like nails on a chalkboard, and filled with a low dread. "Like the wind changed. It's starting again." She looked at Jake with open pity. "They hungry now."
The way the old woman said it chilled me right down to my bones. It was just something in her voice. I found out later that night that she was the last member of any family unlucky enough to have her as a member. A litany of accidents, illnesses, and more than a few suicides had left her alone.
She looked in my eyes tonight, and it looked like she felt sorry for me.
Or maybe she was just a crazy old woman.
Jake went home, feeling like a century had passed. It was only a few hours until dawn. He shut the front door behind him, and leaned against it, exhausted.
As he made his way upstairs, the utter normalcy of his home served to relax the tension of the night, and he only became more aware of how tired he was. He could hear his father snoring like a chainsaw from three rooms away, he could hear the grandfather clock ticking as he climbed the staircase…
There was a noise in his brother's room.
Jake hesitated, trying to decide if he wanted to get into it with his brother at four in the morning. But his father was clearly unconscious, and his mother wouldn't be home for a while. If there was something going on with Ben, it'd be a while before anyone else checked, and Jake had just experienced a strangely terrifying incident involving a kid Ben's age... so he slipped the door open a crack.
Ben froze, caught neatly. He was fully dressed, and from the look of things, was climbing through his bedroom window. He was halfway through, bracing one foot on the trellis outside, and the other on the edge of his desk.
For a moment, it was hard to figure out who was more surprised.
"Going out, or coming in?" Jake whispered finally.
"...coming in." Ben confessed finally.
"Where the hell have you been all night?" Jake asked, and yawned. "No, I don't care. Go to bed, we'll talk in the morning."
"Don't tell!" Ben hissed. As young as he was, he knew the rules of being a kid, and a little brother.
Jake yawned again. "In the morning. Don't sleep with your..." Jake paused. Ben wasn't wearing shoes. His socks were filthy. "Whatever, don't get dirt on your bed."
Jake turned to go, but hesitated, wanting to make sure. "Where'd you go?"
Ben didn't answer right away. "It's a secret."
Jake froze. "How long have you been sneaking out?"
Ben said nothing.
Jake let out a breath. "Go to sleep. Don't sneak out again tonight?"
"I won't." Ben promised, yawning himself.
Exhausted, Jake let it go and went to bed.
For some reason, he was more exhausted when he woke up. He looked down at himself blearily, and saw his socks were dirty. He tried to think how it happened, and wondered if Ben was messing with him again. It slowly dawned on him that he didn't remember going to bed the night before. His last clear memory was walking into his room...
He came down to breakfast and found his mother staring blankly at the coffee pot. With a yawn, he came forward and pushed the 'on' switch for her. "When you can't remember how to work a coffee machine, you need sleep." He told her.
Deanna yawned. "Yeah." She sat down as the coffee started to perk. "Long night."
Jake started looking around the kitchen for something he could eat. "Doug give you trouble?"
"He was asleep most of the night. No, it was Toni. One of their cows got loose and Toni came off her ATV looking for it."
Jake turned, horrified. All-Terrain Vehicles were heavy, and more than one kid had been killed by rolling one over and having the heavy vehicle crush them. "She okay?"
"She'll be fine." She said. "Weird though. She says the bike just shut down. The thing just stopped, like it switched off mid-drive."
Jake was about to respond when he saw the clock. "Jeez, is that the time?! I must have slept through the alarm."
Deanna yawned. "Yup. Tell your teacher that Toni will be in later this afternoon, she's on painkillers right now."
Jake nodded, and grabbed an apple. "Mom, it's Saturday."
Deanna took a moment to blink sleepily. "Then why are you in a rush?"
"Gotta get my telescope back." Jake called over his shoulder and rushed out the door.
"Don't forget we're setting up the Festival Ground this afternoon!" Deanna called after her son.
Jake went back to the cornfield, and found the telescope right where he'd left it. He checked the camera, and carefully packed it all away. He collected his equipment quickly, the drowsy call of sleep finally fading away. He sent the cornfield one last look, and saw movement. He didn't get a good look at it, but his heart gave a solid thump.
Something was moving in the cornfield. Again. In the clear light of day, it was much less terrifying, and having the car close by was a comfort...
"Jake?" A voice called out, and he relaxed.
Sure enough, crouching at the ashes of the camp fire they had set the night before, was Pierce. "What are you doing out here?" Jake blurted.
Pierce looked at him disdainfully. "Dad told me Toni was brought into the Clinic when she came off her ATV. I got a tow cable on the Jeep, so I figured I'd come out to find it."
"She went off her bike here?" Jake said in surprise.
Pierce shook his head. "Nope. Other end of the valley, but this spot was on my way so I figured I'd take a look and see if there's anything... Well..."
"You wanted to see if there was any evidence of what happened last night." Jake guessed. "I had the same idea."
Pierce waved back at the corn. "There's no sign of anything. Least nothing I could find. Corn's packed so tightly I could have been walking around in circles, and I never would have known it..." He hesitated. "I remember Dougie. He should be... taller, shouldn't he?"
Jake said nothing. The question of why Doug Gunn hadn't aged a day was already a source of fear. It made no sense, and he hated that. Just thinking about it gave him a cold nauseous feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. "Your father said he wasn't speaking English."
"I have no idea about that; you were the one that took him to the Clinic." Pierce sighed. "Are you hot for Jess?"
It took a full three seconds for Jake to switch gears. "Wha-what makes you say that?"
"See, if the answer was no, you would have just said so." Pierce said dismissively. "It's nothing personal against you, but she's got a boyfriend. Me. So whatever nerdy... excuse me, whatever geeky fantasies you have cooked up, forget them."
Jake set his jaw. "Yeah, I get it. It's not what guys do. Why? What did she tell you?"
"I didn't ask her." Pierce said. "There's no reason to... is there?"
Jake studied Pierce's face for a moment, and smiled. "No, there's no reason to ask her... but you did. So what did she say?"
Pierce gave him a lecherous grin. "We don't spend a whole lot of time... talking, if you know what I mean." He was standing closer than he needed to, standing straighter than he needed to, and Jake was reminded yet again that Pierce could knock him flat in a second if he wanted to.
"We're friends." Jake said finally. "I help her with her grades, that's all."
"Good." Pierce said shortly. "Don't get me wrong. You got good taste. But even if I wasn't in the picture, she's not exactly your type."
Jake swore under his breath. "Drop it, will you. Just... Just drop it."
Authority restored, Pierce let it go with a triumphant smirk. "You were right about the flashlight."
Jake had to shake his head at the way Pierce was changing the subject. "What do you mean?"
Pierce went over to his Jeep, and pulled a flashlight out of the glove box. He switched it on, and showed it to Jake... then walked toward the cornfield, past the remains of their camp-fire. When he reached the edge of the corn... the light started to dim. Jake felt his jaw drop as Pierce wandered back to the camp-fire, and the flashlight lit up again.
"Something, huh?" Pierce grinned like it was a great show. "That's why your light failed last night."
"Last night I got twenty feet in." Jake shook his head. "I got twenty feet past that point before the light went off... and it took a few minutes to come back on when I got back."
"So..." Jake thought aloud. "What do we do?"
Pierce sauntered back toward his Jeep, unconcerned. "I plan to get Toni's ATV and tow it home."
"You got a better idea?"
Jake checked his watch. "Ooh. I have to go anyway. We're setting up the Festival."
Pierce snorted, as though this was ridiculous, but Jake was already moving.
Something that everyone in Curtis Creek knew about was the Public Address System. At the end of every street, there was a light-post with a loudspeaker. It was put in during the fifties as a tornado siren and has only been used twice.
After 9/11, someone figured out that it could bellow other things out at the town and the tornado siren was rigged as a PA.
Something else that everyone in town knows, is that you have to rehearse the Harvest Festival. The third year we held it, someone lost the schedule, and it was chaos.
Nobody but him ever said it out loud, but Eddie Sisko was in charge of the schedule the year everything went wrong.
"Are you people never going to let me forget that?!" Eddie bellowed, and everyone in earshot hid their smiles. "One mistake and I'm barred for life?"
"Nobody's saying that, Eddie." Mayor Grady said soothingly.
Eddie stormed off. "Nobody ever says anything! Not in this town!"
The Town Square had been transformed into a Festival Ground as it was three times a year. Once on Founders Day, once at Christmas, and at the Harvest Festival, which was the biggest of the three. Preparations for each festival was usually a weeks worth of work. The entire town contributed to the Festival, bringing in food, drinks, music, entertainment...
There were stalls being assembled all over the square, and banners and streamers being hung from every building around the square, from building to light-post to stall to maypole.
Jake's father David was hammering together the main stage. Deanna Colbert was organizing First Aid supplies, in case of accident, and Jake was up a ladder, tying off one of the many banners, when the loudspeaker beside him erupted into life. "ATTENTION! TEST! TEST!"
Jake squawked at the explosion of noise beside him, and grabbed on tightly, trying to keep balance.
"Too loud!" Half a dozen people shouted over at the sound booth.
"Sorry, Jake." Someone shouted. Jake waved it off, tied the banner and climbed down gratefully.
"The second grade dance company will begin in ten minutes!" The PA declared, and Jake folded up the ladder. He was halfway to the next pole when he realized he had company. Zack and Marie had fallen into step behind him.
"How come I didn't know the Tornado siren worked as a PA too?" Marie asked with interest.
"Probably because you were in New York at the time." Zack guessed. "In 2001, after 9/11, you and your family went back to New York to check on your relatives. While you were gone, the town had a meeting and voted to have it be re-tasked as a PA system to keep the town informed of anything that happened. They played three announcements and two songs before everyone agreed it sounded awful, and the next Town Meeting voted to have it re-tasked as only an emergency signal again."
"And now enough time has passed that someone's willing to have a go at making announcements again." Marie guessed, amused. "You were worried about terrorists in Curtis Creek?"
"It was 9/11. Everyone went nuts." Jake excused. "Besides, announcements are fine. Music never sounded good coming over those speakers. Way too screechy."
Zack nodded at that. "I'll be back in a minute. I've gotta deliver a few things from the Diner to the Food Stalls. Won't take long."
"I'll help." Jake told him, and Marie peeled off from them to look around for a while.
The Diner was across the street from the Festival Ground, so it didn't take them long to get to the Diner's storeroom. "I ran into Pierce at the cornfield when I went to get my telescope." Jake commented. "He was testing the flashlight. Same thing happened. It went dead the second it hit the corn."
"I've heard about things like that." Zack unlocked the storeroom. "They call them 'Dead Zones'. Nothing works in them."
"What causes it?"
Zack collected a large box of hamburger buns, and Jake took another. "What do you think of him? Pierce, I mean?"
"I try not to." Zack admitted. "But Jess does, and probably will for as long as she's dating him."
He had broken it to his friend gently, but Jake seethed. "He's a bully. You remember when Murray organized that school trip? He had the bake sale, he'd made the money... It wasn't a robbery, it was Pierce."
"I know." Zack said softly. "If you and Marie... If I never told you I liked her, if you had stayed with her..."
"It wouldn't have worked out." Jake said honestly as they headed back outside.
"Right, so if you two had split up, and later we had found out she was dating someone like Pierce, would you stop her?"
"I would have tied her to a tree if I had to." Jake said honestly. "But don't stress about that, Zack. She's too... Never mind."
Zack grinned. "You were about to say: 'Marie's too smart to date someone like Pierce', weren't you?" He saw Jake flush and laughed. "You can say it, Jess can't hear you, and I'm not telling."
"She can hear me. Women can do that. They're telepathic."
"Damn straight we are." Marie commented, stepping up beside them as they delivered the buns to the hamburger stall. "What are we talking about?"
"Nothing important. Anyway, the food is delivered, and I am free for the rest of the afternoon." Zack said brightly. "Want to look around?"
Marie put her arm in his and Jake excused himself. He loved them both like family, but knew when he wasn't needed, and he'd offered to help put a few signs up anyway.
"It's crooked!" A familiar voice called upward. Jake looked down and saw Jess holding the foot of the ladder. Jake stared at the girl, transfixed for a moment. She looked amazing with the sun shining off her hair.
"Jake, focus." She told him warmly, and he quickly snapped out of it, adjusting the banner.
She held the ladder still as he climbed back down. "I heard that everyone was bringing stuff here, and I didn't believe it." She said lightly. "I mean, rehearsing the events and the music and anything involving a costume... Sure, that's normal. Why are the stalls open for business?"
"It's a dress rehearsal." Jake started to explain, when he noticed Zack and Marie about twenty feet away, and grinned. "Look at this."
Jess looked over. "Look at what?" Zack and Marie were standing close to each other, face to face, not touching.
"Okay, now watch this." Jake said softly. "She's waiting for him to kiss her, they've done it a hundred times before. But he's hesitating because he doesn't know for sure if he misread the invitation."
"You'd think after officially being her boyfriend for this long, he'd be a little more confident with her." Jess observed dryly.
"It's not insecurity, it's..." Jake tried to explain. "He still can't believe she agreed to go out with him at all. He doesn't know what he did to deserve her attention, let alone this."
"That is the sweetest, geekiest thing I've ever heard." Jess commented.
She was giving him one of those looks again, and Jake suddenly realized they were alone together. "So..." He said awkwardly. "Where's Pierce?"
Jess shrugged. "Not really his kind of thing."
"But it is yours?" He observed cagily. Both of them were being... non-committal. After a moment, Jake started walking slowly, and she followed. Neither of them spoke for a while.
"Hey!" Jess said suddenly. "You changed the subject. I was asking you why the stalls were all setting up. We don't usually rehearse that stuff too."
"Well, that's a reasonable question." A familiar voice called over brightly. "Hey, Jess."
Jess turned and found that Jake had led her over to his mother's stall. Deanna was standing at a hotplate, stirring a large pot full of something. The pot had a smell so strong that it made Jess' eyes water just being within ten feet of it.
Deanna stirred. "The reason that the stalls are doing a dress rehearsal this year, is because last year the wiring was changed in the Town Hall. Last year, we had to scramble around and get a generator out here in time. All the lights, the music system, that stuff runs off the mains in the Town Hall. Last year, we shorted out all the fuses when we added the hotplates, the hotdog machines, some of the rides... Two months ago, we had the wiring replaced in Town Hall, and Mayor Grady promised us that it would all work right this time. So we rehearse using all this stuff now."
Jake grinned. "Plus, when the festival is on, we so rarely get to actually enjoy it ourselves because we're working. The Dress Rehearsal is just for us."
Deanna smirked at Jess, a little bit of evil on her face. "So... Hungry? I need a willing victim to test out my chilli before the Festival."
"The Festival is next week." Jess pointed out. "How long does this stuff keep?"
"There's a secret to it." Deanna explained. "It never cools down, so it stays good forever."
"What keeps it hot?"
"Nuclear fusion." Jake commented under his breath.
Deanna grinned. "Want a taste?"
Jake put a hand out. "Save yourself. The Colbert Five Alarm Inferno is my grandmothers recipe. The only reason mom became a nurse was to try and fix the destruction it left in its wake."
Jess giggled. "Well, thank you, Mrs Colbert, but I think I'll wait for next week."
"Smart girl." Deanna commented. "Jake, if you see your father before I do, tell him there's been a small change to the schedule. We're not using Maggie's fireworks this year."
"Because she's not making any this year." Deanna told him. "I guess she's busy this time, with her nephew back."
"Too bad. The only time we're happy to see her is when she's making fireworks for the town."
"Deanna!" David came running up to his wife. "They need you backstage. Eddie's..." His eyes flicked to the kids. "He's plastered."
Deanna was stunned. "What?" She said in disbelief. "Eddie's been dry for over a decade."
"Yes he was, right up until half an hour ago." David said. "We think he's all right, but you know how bad he got back then, so..."
"I'm on the way." Deanna handed the ladle to her son with great ceremony, and he accepted it with due gravity.
"Wonder what happened." Jess thought aloud.
Jake ladled chilli into a bowl. "No idea. I don't even remember the last time. You?"
"Barely. I think it was when we were in kindergarten."
Jess was about to answer, when they suddenly saw Eddie himself. He was being dragged away from the stage unwillingly. The Sheriff had one of his arms, Mayor Grady had the other, with Deanna and David Colbert helping out, as they almost had to carry the thrashing man, kicking and screaming, toward the cars.
"AT LEAST TELL THEM!" Sisko screamed, completely crazed. "THEY FOUND HIM! THEY SHOULD KNOW! THEY SHOULD KNOW ABOUT THE KID! DON'T DO IT LIKE LAST TIME! TELL THEM!"
Jake felt a cold chill go up his spine. Eddie was pointing at him and Jess.
"Calm yourself, Eddie!" Grady implored softly. "It's all right. It's okay."
Eddie threw up suddenly, all over himself. The adults hustled him along faster, and everyone else in town was pointedly not looking in their direction.
"That was freaky." Jess hissed, unnerved. "Seriously, that was just scary."
Jake looked around the rest of the townsfolk, who had already returned to their tasks. "Don't worry about it. And don't make a big deal out of it tomorrow. This morning he had ten years sober, tomorrow morning he'll have one hour. Don't make a big deal."
"Oh, of course not." Jess scorned. "You don't do that. I'm just saying... it was like he was singling us out for something... and whatever it is..."
"Whatever it is, I doubt he'll remember tomorrow." Jake said, and started eating.
"Probably." Jess conceded, and picked up a spoon, trying a bite from his bowl herself. An instant later, she gasped in some air around her mouthful of chilli. "Fire! Yow! Help! Ambulance!"
Jake laughed and took a bite himself. "Good stuff, huh?"
Jess put her spoon down very quickly. "Yeah. Great. For an atomic bomb."
Jake chuckled. "Get a cold drink and give me another half hour. I'll make it up to you, buy you some non-explosive lunch."
Jake let himself into the Town Diner half an hour later, and ordered breakfast on his way to the tables at the back of the Diner. "Hey, Mr Washington." He called. "Um, sausage and eggs?"
"Coming right up!" Zack's father shouted from the kitchen without so much as poking his head out. After so many years, he knew his son's friends by voice easily. The older man jerked his head over at the tables toward the back, and Jake noticed a familiar face.
Jess was waiting for her own lunch, with a textbook open in front of her. "Eggs for lunch, Stargazer?" She commented.
"I missed breakfast." Jake excused. "I order sausage with it instead of bacon, I get to call it lunch. You ordered?"
"Just now." Jess smirked and slid over as he sat across from her. "I'm glad you showed up. About five people have stopped me today wanting to know about Doug."
"What are you saying?"
"The truth." Jess said as though it was obvious. "I tell them we found him wandering out in the valley near the Bridge, and that he didn't say anything... and that I have no idea where he's been all this time." She leaned a little closer. "Jake, Pierce's dad told me that some reporters are starting to sniff around."
"I can handle Eddie Sisko."
"Not the town paper, the actual Press." Jess warned him. "The Sheriff had to report that the kid had been found, and that of course, got the word out."
Jake let out a breath between his teeth. "Things are going to get crazy for a while."
Jess smiled. "Hey, you never know. Maybe you'll get your picture in the paper."
"That'll be your job." Jake retorted. "You take a better picture than I do."
"Why do you think I dressed up to go to the Diner?" Jess retorted with a smile. After a moment her face fell a bit. "Listen, I also want to warn you about..."
"About Pierce getting territorial?" Jake guessed. "I've already had words."
Jess snarled under her breath. "Dammit."
Duke Washington interrupted their conversation when he brought over their plates. "Jake, Eggs and Sausage... Jess, your salad is ready, but we seem to have run out of olives and balsamic dressing, I'm sorry."
"It's fine." Jess said, eager to get back to their conversation. "Can I get Ranch?"
"Coming right up." Duke left them, scribbling at his pad.
"This is embarrassing." Jess said apologetically.
"No, not really." Jake waved it off. "Duke hasn't run out of anything on his menu for over nine years, one time is forgivable."
Jess just looked at him. "That's not what I was talking about, and you know it. Pierce is my boyfriend but he doesn't own me, and I don't like him pretending he does, and he certainly doesn't get to choose my friends."
"He's got the prettiest, most fantastic girl in Curtis Creek on his arm, and he's protective." Jake said, his tone one of understanding. "I probably would be too."
Jess just looked at him, her cheeks reddening just a little, but her expression unchanged.
Jake flushed bright red. "I... I said t-that first part out l-loud, didn't I?" He stammered, staring at his eggs. "Well, this is awkward."
"Eat your eggs." She told him with a snort.
Jake did so, trying not to look up from his plate.
"Marie tells me that you're going to be staying at the same motel that the team is in Tucson." Jess said finally, more to break the awkwardness than anything else. "Is that the Astronomy thing you were telling me about?"
"The Star Party." Jake nodded, conveniently ignoring the fact that they already had this conversation the day before at his house.
Jess smiled. "Sounds like your kind of night, Stargazer. Who knows, you may be the hit of the party. All those sky-watchers gathered around..."
"I don't know if I'll be going now." Jake put in before she could go too far, pulling the camera out of his jacket pocket. "You remember what happened the last time I looked through that telescope."
"What is that?" Jess leaned forward enough to look at the camera as he set it down on the table. It was unlike any camera she'd seen before. "Is that a night vision camera?"
"Nope. It's designed for astronomy work. Picked it up on eBay when I got the telescope." Jake smiled. "I set the camera for an ultra-long exposure, and you can't do that on regular cameras... or at least, not long enough, and you need a custom camera to work with a telescope eyepiece."
Jess tilted her head. "What's the difference between that and a regular shot of the sky?"
Jake chuckled as Duke came back with her salad. "Eat your lunch, I'll show you."
"Can you explain to me how this works?" Jess said. "And talk to me like I'm an idiot."
"You're not an idiot." Jake said honestly as he led the way through his house.
"I'm not a photographer either, so for this conversation, pretend I'm an idiot." Jess shot back.
Jake shut the door behind them, plunging them both into pure darkness. A moment later he hit a lightswitch, and a deep red light filled the room. Jess looked around. "This is your laundry."
"When the red light is on, and the windows are blacked out, it's my darkroom." Jake told her. "It's perfect really; it's a room we don't use very often, already got shelves for chemicals, taps, pegs..."
"Kinda cramped though." Jess observed, leaning over his shoulder for the simple reason that she didn't have the room to be anywhere else.
Jake pretended that hadn't occurred to him. "I'm usually in here by myself."
For the next twenty minutes, Jake showed her how to develop film, using the camera from the night before. Jess listened as he explained the process, only following half of it as Jake hung the first completed photo up to dry. The image faded into view as it did. "This was the photo from last night?"
"Yup. I set the camera to take long exposures. Over an hour for each shot."
Jess leaned in closer to look at the drying picture. The stars in the image looked stretched, drawn in flawless curves across the dark sky. "The image looks... It looks like someone drew on the image."
Jake hung up the second photo, and traced the lines of light with his finger, not touching the drying photograph. "That's the long exposure effect. They're called star trails. On this picture, they end here, on the next picture that's where they start. A regular camera just shows you where something is for that split second. That's why when you take a photo of someone, you get them to hold still, and why they look blurry if they move. A long exposure shot shows you where that something is over a long period of time. Stars don't stay where they are in the sky, because of the earth's rotation, so you set the camera to keep the shutter open, you get a nice effect."
"The stars move." Jess commented. "I honestly never thought..."
"The stars don't move... well, not that much; the earth moves. Either way the effect is the same."
Jess smiled at him. "Astronomer and photographer, huh?"
"I blow them up to poster size sometimes, sell them to magazines. Never make much, but that's why I do it here instead of the Chemist. I plan to take some with me to Tucson."
"You think fellow Stargazers might pay more?" Jess teased.
"Maybe." Jake nodded. "Listen... until these dry, I can't really open the door. The light would bleach out the image." He looked down. "Sorry, I should have said something before we came in here."
Jess shrugged, not worried. "I got nowhere to be."
"Pierce mentioned you had a date..."
"Did he now?" Jess retorted. "Pierce should remember to inform me of these things before he goes alerting the town." Her cellphone started to ring.
"That's probably him." Jake offered.
Jess nodded, making no effort to answer the phone. "Too bad I didn't get the message until much later." She said with a grin.
"Ooh, intrigue." Jake grinned. "Trouble in Paradise?"
"Jake, you were lucky with Marie, but let me give you one bit of free advice about women." Jess said with all the authority of a seventeen year old girl. "A smart girl will keep you guessing, especially when you deserve it."
"And Pierce deserves it?" Jake said, trying not to sound hopeful.
Jess let out a light sigh. "I know you don't like him that much, and I know he can be a pain, but he's never been anything less than good to me." Jess said simply. "I don't like the way he treats others, but I've never had a problem with the way he treats me. Until that changes..." She trailed off, seeking a way to say it.
"Okay." He let her off the hook. The tone of the conversation had changed dramatically, and the small room filled with harsh red light seemed a lot more crowded all of a sudden.
Looking for a way to change the subject, Jess returned to the elaborate development process. "I have never taken a photo with anything more elaborate than my Polaroid. We don't have a chemistry set-up this big in science class. You do this all yourself?"
"I have to. The last One Hour Photo in town closed ages ago, and the Chemist can't handle poster size." Jake shrugged. "Custom Photography is a victim of the exodus to the cities." He lifted the latest photograph out of the bath and pegged it up to dry.
"What's that?" Jess asked, pointing at the newest photo as the image started to fade into view. In the dim red light it was hard to make out. It seemed like all the other photos, with the stars drawn in perfect curving lines of light... But this one had something new. There was a blurry line drawn across the star trails. It was much shorter than the light of the stars, but moving across them instead of with them.
Jake leaned in closer to take a look with her. "Not sure. A plane maybe? Just something moving that way? The exposure would have put the whole path of the thing on film..."
"Well... pardon my dumb blonde questions..." Jess said lightly. "But wouldn't that mean it would have to start at the edge of the picture? If it was just passing over the telescope, that would mean it was either coming or going somewhere... But the light trail just starts and stops in the middle of the image."
Jake bit his lip. "Well, either it was moving very slowly and the trails start when the shutter opens and closes or..."
Jake moved to the next image. "If it shows up on this one, then we'll know."
Jess looked down. "You'd know though, right? You'd know if..." She hesitated for a long moment. "If it was something moving around slowly in the sky last night, after we left the cornfield?"
Jake's hands stilled. In the red light, there was an eerie quality to her face, her fair hair lit up like a red stoplight, her eyes darker... "You mean, after Doug Gunn just showed up?"
Jess nodded nervously.
Jake led her to the line full of photos. "If it was a plane that got caught between clicks of the shutter, then it'll be on this next one. If it was something that just appeared in the air over the cornfield then..."
Neither of them said anything when he began the process again.
"Or what?" Jess demanded quietly. "You said it was either something perfectly normal like an airplane, or... what?"
Jake rocked the pan back and forth slowly, the picture floating gently. "If... If it was a shooting star, or a helicopter or something, it would explain why it floated around the middle of the image."
"A helicopter." Jess repeated. "There hasn't been a helicopter in this town since... Never. There's never been a helicopter floating around Curtis Creek, especially not at that time of night. And what are the odds it was a meteor?"
"Pretty long. You never know, it might turn out to be a pretty expensive poster." Jake forced a bright smile.
The image started to develop slowly, become visible...
A wave of bright white light fell on them from behind, and Jess let out a short yell of shock. Jake spun, eyes wide...
A brighter flash of light, and Jake's eyes adjusted to see his demented little brother smiling at them from behind a Polaroid camera. "GOTCHA!"
Jake's teeth bared and the chase was on. Ben was smaller and nimble. But Jake had the longer stride. They made it all the way to the stairs before Jake managed to tackle him. The two of them wrestled savagely for a minute, as Ben tried to keep the camera out of reach, unsuccessfully.
The front door opened and Deanna saw them fighting on the stairs. "All Right, That's ENOUGH!" She yelled over them automatically, and both boys quickly scrambled to their feet. "What now?"
"He started it!" Ben got the first word in. "He's just mad because I caught him hiding in the laundry with his gi-i-i-i-irlfriend."
"I'm mad because he ignored the warnings on the door and opened up my darkroom." Jake shot back. "He cost me all the photos from last night."
Their father came in with a good-natured smirk. "Ben, is this true?"
Ben looked down sullenly. "Yes sir."
"Right. Jake, is what Ben said true?"
"Yes." Jess' voice called from the living room door. "But I'm not his girlfriend."
Deanna grinned at her, delighted; and Jake sank a little into his shoes.
Ben looked up innocently at Jess. "If you're not his girlfriend, then how come he's always talking about how-"
"Out! You little varmint! OUT!" Jake lunged at his brother again before he could finish the sentence. His father was smiling broadly, and his mother was giggling helplessly as Jake managed to force his little brother out the front door.
Deanna hooked an arm around her husband's elbow and pulled him along toward the door too. "Come on, let's make sure Ben doesn't do anything abnormally destructive."
"Sorry to interrupt, have fun kids."
Jess smiled nicely at them, as Jake shut the door firmly. "Sorry about that." He said, mortified.
"What else is family for, if not to embarrass you horribly? I think it's nice." Jess offered. "Pierce has been hiding me from his dad. I don't think the Sheriff likes me."
"Find that hard to believe."
"He thinks I'm a bad influence on his son."
Jake found that to be hilarious and the two of them laughed about it. The tension was broken and Jake knew the day had been salvaged.
"You going to the Town Meeting tonight?" Jess asked him.
"Probably." Jake nodded. "See you there?"
So that you'll understand the reactions of the Curtis Creek citizens during the following few weeks, I have to tell you more about Mayor Grady, Sheriff Tanner and the regular Town Meetings. One was held every week, and most of the people who lived in the town limits would attend. The rest of the locals lived on their farms.
The Town Hall was the first building built in Curtis Creek. It was originally the Church, but then the town grew and it needed a proper admin centre. You could tell the original building, because it was made of stone. When it became the Town Hall, it had several rooms added using wood and glass. The Main Hall was big enough for every family of the town to send someone, plus the stage.
The Town Council is Father Rorke, Mayor Grady, Eddie Sisko and Sheriff Tanner. Between the four of them, they had the place handled. The Sheriff handled anything that could be considered a rule, the Mayor handled anything to do with the town or businesses, and the Padre handled social events. Sisko ran the local paper and kept them all honest, and talked up anything he found interesting.
Truth be told, the weekly Town Meeting was more a chance for the Council to spend some time talking to the locals. Whatever rulings were made was just common sense stuff. The Mayor managed to get reelected so many times because he stayed out of everyone's way, and treated us like adults who didn't need anyone to tell them right from wrong. I don't think he was even opposed in the last election.
If I'd known, I would have run against him myself, underage or not.
"The parking lot behind the Supermarket is often crowded, but given the cost of expanding it, it'll be a while before that changes." Mayor Grady addressed the audience from the podium. "We're looking into setting up an overflow carpark right now, but at its most crowded, there are never more than twenty or twenty five cars there at any given time. One of the best parts about this town, is the low traffic." A murmur of agreement went around the audience, and Mayor Grady returned to his notes. "Now, the next item on the agenda was supposed to be the price of a fishing license, but I think if I keep talking much longer, Eddie might spontaneously combust."
A laugh went around the room and The Mayor grandly indicated for the man sitting at his left to stand up. "The chair recognizes Edward Sisko, Owner/Editor of the Curtis Creek Chronicle."
Eddie rose, with a big smile on his face. "Well, first of all I want to say what a big news week it's been in town. Curtis Creek has been put on the map."
"It was already on the map." Marie's father called. "That's how I found it when we came here."
"Fair enough, but now people are reading about it." Eddie grinned at him without missing a beat. "We got mentions in several of the daily papers, state wide." Eddie declared. "All the ones that I'm subscribed to at least." His voice became more personal, dropping from the Town Crier, to one of the family almost instantly. "But we all know that's not good for a kid who's gone through a trauma. I thought you might like to know that Doug is recovering nicely."
There was a loud silence. Jake traded a look across three rows with Zack, expecting someone to raise their hand and ask one of the dozen obvious questions that sprang to mind. But nobody did. Jake glanced up at Sheriff Tanner, who looked like he was expecting someone to say something too, but nobody did. A murmur went around the room. Everyone was glad to hear the boy was okay, but nobody liked to talk about what they didn't understand.
After a moment, Mayor Grady visibly relaxed and kept things moving. "Well, turns out that's the front page of the Chronicle this week. Next week will be all about our victorious Sharks returning from Tucson, after their match with the Tucson City Wildcats. I'm sure you all join me in wishing Coach Nichols and his team the best of luck as they represent our town."
Pierce, in the back row, started applauding and everyone chimed in quickly.
Sisko went back to his notepad. "I was going to suggest we hold a fireworks show for them when they get back, but it turns out I won't have to. NASA has sent word around to all the networks, that we are experiencing solar flare activity. We're told that we may experience communication and satellite disruption as a result... and that the high static discharge in the atmosphere might cause an affect like the northern lights."
A surprised murmur went around the audience at that, and the Mayor spoke up from his seat. "We don't know for sure that it will affect us here. we've just been asked to advise people so that nobody will have reason to worry."
Eddie nodded and took up the announcement. "Now, I don't know much about Solar Flares, so the Curtis Creek High School Science Teacher, Mister Morlenson has kindly provided me with some background information from a few university Websites..."
"Eddie, you gotta be the only news hack in the business that can't work a computer." Someone shouted from the back of the room and a good-natured chuckle made it's way around them.
Eddie laughed too. He never minded if the joke was on him, as long as people were laughing. Zack rose and headed for the door, and after a discreet moment, Jake followed him.
They met at the vending machines, as they usually did. Zack had a packet of M&M's waiting by the time Jake got there. With the entire town in the Main Hall, they had the corridor and the lobby to themselves.
"Every time someone says Doug's name, I get half a dozen kids from school looking at me." Zack complained. "Why didn't anyone ask the question? Nobody but Doug knows what the hell happened to him. He didn't even speak English when we found him, so obviously it wasn't the time. But he's still six years old and Eddie said he was getting better, so why didn't anyone ask?"
"Why didn't we?" Jake shot back. "We of all people know what a state he was in when we found him, you heard the announcement same as everyone else. You just had to raise your hand and ask if he'd said anything about what happened to him. Why didn't we ask for details either?"
Zack turned away from the vending machines and looked to his friend. "Maybe because we didn't want to hear the answers?"
Jake tossed a handful of candy into his mouth, as did Zack, and they ate silently a moment. "Marie says that small towns know how to keep a secret. Everyone knows everything, but everyone knows when not to talk about something."
Zack nodded. "She's pretty smart."
"Yeah." Jake nodded, with a wry grin. "How come we ain't that smart?"
Zack grinned. "When do you leave for Tucson?"
"Day after tomorrow. I'm hitching a ride with the team."
"I may not see you before you go. You think you'll miss the Aurora?"
"Might do, though if Eddie Sisko is to be believed, we might be seeing them all over the country soon." Jake shrugged. "Take lots of pictures for me if they come here?"
Zack clasped his hand and pulled him in for a halfway embrace as friends did. "Will do. Fly safe."
The next two pages are also removed, as they are intensely personal, and have no bearing on the events of Curtis Creek. As you can see from what's left, during the period from April 10 through April 12, I was absent from the town completely.
I still have the torn out pages, and if you feel that strongly about it, I will provide them. I don't wish to hide things, only to save you some time, and myself some embarrassment.
I was present for the events of Flight GFT-98, and so I have left some of those entries in. For more detail in what actually happened, I would refer you to the FAA transcripts of our pilot, Captain Wade Murray, formerly US Air Force.
By now you know he was lying on those transcripts, but for obvious reasons you can't ask him about what really happened. If I can make a suggestion, try and beat it out of Mayor Grady.
"Now, you're sure about the number of the Motel?" Deanna said with worry.
"Yes mom." Jake sighed, for the eleventh time.
"And you've got enough clothes. You know where to find me, because I've given you the schedule. Something happens up there, you can always get an earlier flight, we'd come pick you up from the-"
"Mom, my own flight would cost less than renting a car to come get me." Jake retorted. "Look, Coach Nichols will be right there at the same motel."
"And you will tell him when you're back from this Astronomy thing, right? You know not to eat or drink anything you don't know about, you don't accept food or rides from strangers..."
"Jake!" Murray called from the plane. "Can you help me with this?"
"Be right there." Jake called back, and gave his mother a shrug. "Sorry mom, be right back. Can you get the telescope?"
His mother nodded and turned back to the car, as Jake made his way to the Plane. "Now, what do you need help with?"
"Nothing." Murray said. "But you looked a little smothered."
Jake smiled, glad to see Murray. "I feel better about this flight already."
Murray smirked. "You better hustle if you want a window seat. Pierce is practically handing out seat assignments."
"Pierce is here already?" Jake reacted. "I figured he'd be the last one on board."
"He got here before the rest of the team and bummed a few smokes." Murray grinned.
"Don't let the Sheriff hear you say that." Jake commented, unsurprised.
Murray snorted. "When I was that age, I was already working a full time job, looking after my siblings... And I wasn't allowed to buy a drink?"
"Yes, but you were a much better person than he is." Jake said easily, and headed back to the car, helping his mother heft the telescope into the cargo hold.
"All right. I'll stay with the car. You should be taking off soon." Deanna kissed his cheek. "Be careful."
"I will." He promised her, though he had no idea what kind of danger he would be in going to a group Astronomy social.
"Your mom making a fuss?"
Jake turned, and was amazed to see Jess coming over. "Jess. You came to see me off?" She tossed him a heavy overnight bag, and he caught it reflexively. "You're coming with us?"
"I'm School President. It's a School Event." Jess shrugged. "And now that my Grade Point Average is above where it needs to be in History and Math, I get to go on Interstate Field Trips again."
She said it so easily that Jake barely noticed. When he realized what she'd said, he spun to face her, and she gave him a slow, wide smile. "You're kidding? You did it!"
"I guess so." She confessed.
"Hey, don't be modest, this is what you've spent your weekends on."
Jess ran a hand through her long blonde hair. "Well... yeah, but I'm not exactly the brainy type."
"Jess, you've been making 'dumb blonde' jokes for as long as I've known you. I've been doing the SAT prep with you; trust me, you got a brain in your head."
She smiled a little at him, and his heart stopped. He lived for those shy little smiles. Jess was fearless in front of a camera or an audience, and could turn on a megawatt smile at a moment's notice. There was nothing real about that, but these little looks were real, and he liked to pretend they were just for him. "You did it, Jess."
"I had a patient teacher." She looked down shyly, giving him another one of those looks.
An awful thought hit him. "So... With your grades back up, I guess you don't need a tutor anymore."
Jess met his eyes. "Well, that's why I didn't tell you until now. I was hoping we could keep it up, if... If you didn't mind."
For a while, there was silence between them, and Jake suddenly realized she was holding her breath... just as he was.
"When are we going to find you a girlfriend?" Jess asked him lightly, as if to break the silence. "I know cheerleaders. Want me to set something up?"
"Jess..." Jake murmured, drawing the sound of her name over three syllables.
"I would give you good references." Jess teased, and tossed her overnight bag to him. "Think on it, let me know."
Jake was about to follow her, when he realized he now had to put her bag in the cargo hold.
Jake saw Pierce's Football Jersey the moment he stepped onto the plane. The football star had Jess in the seat next to him, and his arm around her, the gesture somewhere between protective and possessive. Jess didn't notice him until a few moments later, and she checked to see if the rest of her posse were watching before she waved to him. It was an automatic reflex that made Jake feel pained.
"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard flight GFT-98, Curtis Creek to Tucson. We'll be cruising at an altitude of twenty thousand feet, and if you happen to look out your window you'll see that it's bright clear day." Murray's heavy accent came over the speakers. "The Coach has asked me to remind you all that the No Smoking light is lit for the entire flight, and that I will not be allowed to auction off a chance for one of you to fly the plane home yourselves. Strap yourselves in, put away the breakables, we're taking off."
April 10th, 2003
I'll never be part of her world, I know that. She's not mean to me, she's not dismissive, but a lot of her circle is, and she wants to fit in, same as I do.
I've never really been the popular kid. It's never bothered me before, I only have a few friends, but the ones I have mean a lot to me, and I trust them a whole lot. But on that plane, I was alone. They weren't all in their uniforms, but I was sharing that bus-with-wings with the entire football team, the coach, the cheerleading squad...
This was Pierce's territory. He was surrounded by his people, and he knew it. It was a long flight, and I spent the entire thing trying not to be noticed.
I tried to tell myself that it didn't matter. I never intended to have company on the trip. I didn't even know Jess would be coming until that day at my house... Of course, I didn't expect her to be making out with that jackass for three straight hours either. Don't they need oxygen?
The night we landed, the team went straight to the Motel. It was the off season, so there were plenty of rooms available, but even so there were a lot of us, so the Coach split the rooms up, two to a room.
It was the first time I can recall the football team being jealous of me, when they found out I had my own room booked in advance.
I checked the journal, and discovered I never actually said how Jess and I became friends. My parents keep telling me that school has changed dramatically since they were teenagers, and not for the better. One thing that hasn't changed is the basic social structure of the class.
There are the jocks, who excel in sports. It's a source of annoyance that they get so many doors open to them, when those of us who aren't athletes have to muddle our way through.
There are the Brains, the ones that will invent things and score high on tests and otherwise be going places. They tend to stick to themselves. Sometimes, I get mistaken for being part of this group, but in a lot of ways, I belong to group three.
Group three doesn't have a name. We're the ones that don't get overly noticed by the teachers because we behave, and we don't have natural brilliance. For the most part, the world is made up of people like us, who just fill out the numbers.
And then there is the smallest group. The Beautiful People. The ones that just don't belong in small towns. They're the ones that have looks and brains and confidence. The School Leaders, the ones with ambition.
Jess skipped a grade when she was very young. Young enough that by the time she got to the final year in high school, she had to work for it the same as the rest of us, but having that note in her school record was great for her reputation. She was briefly a cheerleader, but her father put a swift stop to that. That was when she went into school politics. In a school this small, doing that was more for her college applications than anything else, in fact I think she ran unopposed. She admitted to me that it was her father's idea that she run, but she adored her father and the idea of being school captain didn't bother her, so she went through with it... and promptly took to it like a fish to water. She was elected of course. She was just... blessed that way. Jess had a life where things pretty much happened as she wanted them to.
Pierce was another such creature, who managed to get everything he wanted. His grade point average was almost higher than hers, and as captain of the school football team, that made him high school royalty, King to her Queen.
Jess confided in me when I started tutoring her that Pierce's grades are all phony. He has half a dozen kids in school supplying him with cheat sheets.
Jess herself needed help in History and Science Class. That was how we became friends. She told Pierce that she was failing, and Pierce suggested she track down a student with a decent grade and make him an offer. She offered me a hundred bucks to write a history paper for her. I want to be clear, I was stupid for her long before that, so I refused the money. I told her that I would help her write the paper herself, check all her facts, proofread her spelling, and that way it would be all her own work.
She kept insisting I should have just taken the money. If I'd known then what I know now, I probably would have.
April 11th, 2003
The Star Party was great fun. The Adrian Peak Observatory in Tucson was well placed for an optical telescope, far enough away from city lights. Having the big practical observatory so close made the Star Party feel more official. There were about thirty amateurs there, plus me. It wasn't a bad night for my first Star Party.
Jake found a good spot, far enough away from the road to escape the lights. A few people had set up tarps to block the glow from the streetlights. Most of the astronomers were reading their notes by torchlight, tinted red to protect their night vision. There was a wide variety of telescopes around, some way more expensive, some people armed only with binoculars.
There was a very relaxed atmosphere, a sense of people who didn't know each other, but liked each other already. Jake had never been away from his home town before, at least not without his family along, and he was already glad he'd come.
"You don't mind me sayin'..." A young woman, still a few years older than Jake, commented from the next telescope over. "...you seem to be looking at the moon an awful lot."
Jake smiled over at the woman with frizzy hair and coke-bottle glasses. "About a week ago, I got a look at the moon from my home town, and I saw something strange..." He explained. "For a moment, it seemed like the clouds were going behind the moon. It was almost certainly my imagination, or a lens out of alignment, but it's like when you notice a huge black spider go through a door, and you find yourself staring at the door afterward. You just want to look again and make sure it's not still there."
"Good example. If I see a big black spider tonight, I may feed you to it, in order to save myself." She said with grim formality, and extended her hand. "Daphne Cooper."
He shook it. "Jake Colbert." He glanced up at the dark night sky. "I was worried that the Solar Flares might have disrupted things. Having the Northern Lights show up all over the northern hemisphere would make stargazing difficult." Jake volunteered.
Daphne was silent a moment. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
Jake blinked. "Back home, the newspaper said that there was big solar activity going on, and we might see the Aurora Borealis show up all over the place."
Daphne frowned a little. "Where's that?"
"Small town called Curtis Creek."
"Well, sorry to disappoint Jake, but I follow the NASA website and a bunch of stargazing sites religiously, and I haven't seen a word about Solar-wait. Curtis Creek?" She interrupted herself swiftly. "Did you say you were Jake Colbert from Curtis Creek?"
Her voice was pleasantly shocked, even excited, and Jake took a step back automatically without realizing it. "Yeah? Unless there are two of me..."
Daphne pushed her glasses up her nose. "You're the one that found that kid!"
"Doug?" Jake was stunned. "That made the news in Tucson?"
"Well, not exactly." Daphne admitted sheepishly. "But it made a few papers in cities closer to your area, and a friend of mine faxed me the newspaper clipping." She looked through her bag for a moment, before pulling out a notebook. "Here it is."
Jake looked at her clippings, and saw a picture of the Bridge, and headlines screaming about Vanishings. "Lucky I'm here." He said under his breath.
"What?" Daphne was amused. "You don't want to be interviewed by the National Enquirer?"
Jake snorted. "They'd only ask questions I don't have answers to. I have no idea where he came from, or why he hadn't aged."
"Hadn't what?" Daphne blinked. "Hadn't aged? How long was he gone?"
Jake scanned the rest of the article quickly and kicked himself. The interview was with the Sheriff and the boy's Aunt. There was no mention of Doug himself, or the more fantastic elements of the case. "A while." He said finally.
Daphne grinned. "You get stuff like missing time in abduction cases. A lot of people are calling the story a fake, or saying you got a different kid who happens to look like the one that went missing... But a few sites are reporting it as an alien abduction."
Jake snorted. "I don't believe in that."
"Neither do I." Daphne admitted. "But I've been staring through these telescopes my whole life, and it's hard not to think about it, at least a little bit." She adjusted her eyepiece. "Don't get me wrong, I am absolutely positive that there are other people out there. I think that anyone who studies the universe at all half believes it. It's just too big to be empty. But that's alien existence, not UFO's. The distance between stars is unbelievable, so if there was someone out there, there's no chance they'd ever be able to reach us."
"I like the idea of people on other planets." Jake offered. "But what on earth would they want with Doug Gunn?"
Daphne found that hilarious. "Nothing on earth."
The two of them laughed long and loud. An hour later, they we having a great time. Someone had brought a barbecue, and a cook-out quickly started. The two of them sat between their telescopes on folding chairs, eating the hot-dogs and burgers they'd bought. Only half the people there had telescopes, the rest were having a party. Jake guessed that they were family or friends for those who actually came for the astronomy, and were just looking to fill in time.
"How'd you get into astronomy?" Jake was asking her.
"I was watching one of those TV Specials about the universe as a kid." Daphne told him. "They showed shots from Hubble, and I just sort of... stared at it forever. I spent my pocket money on books full of pictures on nebulae and black holes..." She looked through the eyepiece and made an adjustment. "You?"
"I come from a small town. Lots of farms, population 1,404." Jake explained. "1,406 when the Mayor's kids come for a visit. My folks took me to a big city once, and when we came back, it suddenly struck me that night time in a city seemed a lot brighter, but the sky was a lot darker. When you're five, that doesn't make sense." He adjusted his own telescope. "So my dad told me all about light pollution, and how many stars there really are. I stayed up that night and tried to count them all." He suddenly flushed, realizing he was pouring his heart out to a total stranger. "I failed."
Daphne chuckled. "I remember when I got my first telescope, I would play this game where I thought someone might be looking back at me when I looked up."
Jake smiled, charmed. "Me too." His phone buzzed, and he checked the message. It was from Jess. We won the game! Celebration party at the Motel! – J
"You have to go?" Daphne asked him, seeing his face change when he read the screen.
Jake started to answer when another message arrived. Pierce is raiding your mini-bar. The coach cleared all the booze out of the rooms the team has booked. We'll take up a collection, pay you back. – J
Jake frowned slightly. "Nope. No rush."
"Really?" She bit her lip. "You want to grab a cup of coffee?"
Jake smiled and keyed a response into his phone. Don't wait up for me.
A moment later, the phone buzzed again. This time with a text from Pierce. What's her name? ;-)
Jake turned his phone off.
Coffee turned into late dinner. The diners around the Observatory stayed open late, and I got the sense that they were used to having night owls for customers. Nothing was going to come of it, and we both knew it. But it was nice. It wasn't just that I felt guilty about Jess. I don't know if I'm allowed to feel guilty about getting coffee with someone else, given that Jess only thinks of me as a friend.
Daphne was a smart woman. If she was three years younger, or rather, if I was three years older, I probably would have gone for it.
It was four am by the time I got back to the motel. I tried to sneak in quietly, and the second the door opened, I heard a familiar voice yelp in surprise.
"Jake!" Jess let her breath out in a rush, as Pierce quickly jumped up from the bed. Their clothes were disheveled, and both of them were flushed. Pierce looked ready to commit murder, but just for a second, Jake could see a look of relief on Jess' face.
"What are you doing in here?" Jake demanded, and winced. "Actually, forget I said that. I can probably guess, but why my room?"
"Everyone on the team has to split a room." Pierce explained, frustrated. "You came on the plane, but you're the only one not here on the School's Ticket, so you got your own. We figured you might have gotten lucky out with the other nerds and wouldn't need it."
Jess swatted her boyfriend hard. "That's not true, he didn't mean it like that. He meant it... nicer." She waved the matter off and got to the point. "So, did you have a good date?"
"It wasn't a date." Jake insisted, embarrassed. "She's twenty three for one. Never date a girl old enough to buy you a drink, but not vice versus."
"I bet if she was seventeen and you were twenty three you would have gone for it." Pierce snorted.
"That is such a double standard!" Jess sneered at them both, and just for a second, Jake and Pierce were on the same side.
"She's right, it is a double standard." Jake said quickly to Pierce. "When a man dates a younger woman, he's a pig. When a woman dates a younger man, she's a cougar."
Pierce burst out laughing, and Jess sat down hard in the nearest chair with a huff, though Jake could see her smirking just a little bit at his quip. It was the first of those looks to come his way without them being alone, and Jake smiled happily. He was still wired from his quasi-date and went over to the closet, putting his telescope away.
Pierce let it go and fell back on his bed. "Well, it's four am, and since you're back, I suppose I'm going to call it a night." He rolled his head to look at Jess. "You coming?"
Jake stilled at the closet door, not facing them, and Jess noticed, though she didn't say anything. "You think we can sneak past the coach?"
"Sure, he's already wiped out from the game, and he actually had a few to celebrate. Just give it a few minutes, and don't get the wrong door."
"That would be embarrassing." Jake commented blandly without looking at either of them.
"I'll... be in as soon as I can." Jess promised.
Pierce got up, kissed her quickly, and left the room, leaving her sitting on the edge of the chair awkwardly, alone with Jake for a moment. Things were always different between them when there were other people around, and tonight was no exception. Their expressions changed the second they had privacy.
Jake was furious. "In my room, Jess? Of all places?"
"Nothing's going to happen." She said quickly to him, mortified. "I mean, he's still got a roommate, and... I'm paired with Trish, and you know she wants the room to herself because of Danny..."
Jake turned back to the closet, making a show of hanging up his jacket. "You don't have to apologize to me, Jess."
"Right. Why would I?" She said quickly.
"Why indeed?" Jake mumbled under his breath, almost out of patience. "Murray says he's taken up smoking too. He can talk you into drinking, and God knows what else..."
"Oh don't worry, I don't smoke. Never will." Jess promised. "And when he does, I have a reason not to kiss him for a while, because of his breath."
Jake reacted. "Why are you looking for reasons not to kiss your boyfriend?"
Jess flushed. "I'm not. I don't. Why would I... I mean, you saw us when you came in and..." She was almost babbling. "It's just... I like being with him, and it's not like we'd get the chance back home. Just, y'know... company. Sleeping. Together. For company. Not for..."
Jake was turning bright red, anger and awkwardness fighting for first position on his expression. He turned to the window and stared hard enough to burn holes through it. "You really don't need my permission."
"I know, it's just..." Jess hesitated. "I mean, we're friends, right? We can tell each other things?"
"Sure." Jake said awkwardly. Please merciful God, let that be the end of it.
"So if you wanted to tell me something... You know you could. And should. Right?" Jess said softly.
For a moment, Jake hesitated, wondering if that was an invitation. "He's not a nice guy, Jess. Pierce is just... not a nice guy. You deserve better. And you have to know that the second he manages to get you into bed, he's going to lose interest."
"HEY!" She shouted in outrage.
Jake swiftly lost his nerve. "No, forget I said that, it's none of my business." He stared at the window in front of him without seeing any of it. "You just... you deserve better. That's all."
Jess looked at him sadly a moment, and stood up. "I'm glad you had a good night." She said weakly and squeezed his shoulder, the light touch electrifying him for a moment before she left the room, looking like she was about to cry.
Jake's forehead thunked against the wall the second he was alone. Stupid, Stupid, Stupid.
April 12th, 2003
The Star Party was over, but I had to fill in another day, because I was taking the same plane back as the rest of them. Daphne sent me a message saying she'd already hopped her flight home, so seeing her again was out. Jess avoided me all morning. But she was avoiding Pierce too. So much so that I wonder what happened between them after they left my room.
I think I'm reading too much into it, but I think Jess is starting to get annoyed by Pierce's impression of an octopus. I don't know for sure, because she hasn't spoken a word to me yet. But we're on the flight home now and she's sitting across the aisle from him instead of next to him.
With not much to do, I went online at the local library and looked up the news story about Doug, so I could show the others. Mayor Grady seems to have the situation under control. There hasn't been an interview with Doug, or with his aunt.
Pierce says that his father kept the kid at the station while the chaos died down, and then snuck him and his Aunt out to her place before all the reporters could start demanding answers. Maggie Gunn actually lives outside the town limits, and as far as I know, she doesn't have a phone. It's a pretty isolated spot really, but I think that's what Doug could use right now.
Mom said he was talking again, but he wasn't saying much. I wonder if-
"What the hell are you writing, Jake?"
Jake looked up from the book at Pierce, who was kneeling on his seat, peeking over the back of it to look at him. "I keep a journal, and..."
Jess, across the aisle and a row in front of Jake, turned in her seat to join the conversation. "And what are you writing about, Stargazer? Thinking of starting a relationship advice column for the local paper?"
Jake felt the barbs hit him, and didn't argue about them. "It's been an interesting week." He told them lightly. "You should know, you both were there. I called mom before we took off and apparently Doug is indeed speaking English again."
"Good, because that was kind of freaky." Jess agreed. "Before I forget, his aunt wanted us all to come see her. She was very insistent about it."
"Probably wants to thank us for finding him." Pierce guessed as he turned back in his seat to sit down properly. "Do either of you actually remember the kid?"
"I remember my dad keeping me inside for a while after he vanished." Jess volunteered.
Jake snapped his fingers. "Yes! I remember that too."
"What the hell is that?!" Pierce demanded from his seat. He was looking down at the ground. Jess rose to lean over him, and Jake leaned across the empty seat beside him to look out his own window. Far below them was the Bridge, and next to that was the cornfield…
And in the corn was geometric design. A circle inside a circle, connected by three lines.
"It's a crop circle. It's a freaking crop circle." Pierce said stupidly. "That wasn't there when we took off, was it?"
Jake let him sweat for a bit, and smiled. "Relax. My mom told me about that too. She told me that Grant and Lockett have been arrested."
"Again?" Jess quipped sitting back down.
"They were playing a practical joke. They wanted to take advantage of all the interest in our town from the UFO Nuts." Jake explained. "Mom says it worked out, because the reporters were convinced that since the crop circle was an obvious fake, then maybe reports about Doug were a hoax too. Most of them went home."
Murray came over the PA. "Folks, we're now making our final approach and getting ready to land. All passengers will please fasten their seat belts until the plane comes to a stop. Thank you for flying Air Murray, and when I'm rich and famous and own my own international airline, you can tell your kids that you flew with me first."
Jake grinned at Murray's southern twang and settled into his seat, putting his seatbelt on. Jess and Pierce and did the same. Jake could hear Pierce whispering to her across the aisle. "You call him Stargazer? How come we don't have cutesy little nicknames for each other?"
"We have plenty of nicknames for each other." Jess hissed quietly.
"I mean ones we can use in public." Pierce hissed back, and Jake sat quietly behind them, pretending he hadn't heard anything.
The engines changed pitch as the plane came in to land. Jake heard someone up the front of the plane shout in disbelief...
And then the sun flashed so bright for a moment that everything washed out. Jake threw his hand up automatically to block the light, but it was no good. It was a flash of light so bright that for a moment Jake could see through his own hand like an X-Ray. He turned his head away from the windows, and got a look at Jess. Her hair was standing up on end, the blonde shoulder length locks floating in the air like a halo.
Is the plane falling? Jake thought shrilly to himself, and the light suddenly vanished. The air changed, and Jake felt his ears pop.
The entire cabin was dead silent. Later, Jake would wonder about that, wondering why nobody was yelling or shouting. But everyone was frozen, gripping the armrests of their seats, staring at nothing.
Up the back of the plane, Tracy gave a short yell of shock. "We've landed! We're on the ground!"
Her shout set off the whole plane into a shouting, yammering chaos. Everyone ran for the windows, and sure enough, the plane had landed. It was on the ground, right where it was supposed to be, on the landing strip. The engines were off, and Jake suddenly realized why it had been so quiet.
Pierce looked to Jess, gone completely pale. "Jess?"
Jess had reached across the aisle to the row behind and grabbed Jake's hand in a death grip. "Jake?"
Jake was trembling. His heart was pounding, his mouth was dry, his hands were shaking, his palms were sweating, and he couldn't seem to catch his breath.
Everyone was shouting over each other, screaming hysterically.
I'd had a similar reaction once before as a kid, when I fell down the side of the Creek valley. I'd busted my leg and I couldn't even stand up, and when I looked up, I realized that I had landed on a snake nest. It was the same feeling in the plane.
It was a total panic reaction, the way prey feels when the predator is right there in its face. My body was reacting to something, and reacting with absolute terror. I really don't have a clue why, even now. I had no thoughts in my head, no ability to think at all. I was freaking out completely, mind shut down. I have no idea why, but I was truly and completely paralyzed with fear, for no apparent reason.
And I'm pretty sure the others were all feeling the same way.
The Sheriff loaded us all into a school bus. Now that I think of it, I wonder where he got that from. The bus hasn't worked in ten years, and nobody bothered to repair it because we didn't need it in a town this size.
He had Murray locked up tight for a while. The rest of us were in the School Gym, just milling around. None of us were really talking about what happened. We just sat there on the bleachers, shivering. I don't think any of us were really looking at each other either. I still can't tell why. I didn't see anything terrifying. Just a flash of light...
After about an hour, we were a pretty sorry bunch. Two dozen shell-shocked high school kids, staring into space. Nobody knew what to say, and nobody could tell why we were so... Scared.
Pierce stood up after the longest hour of my life, and went over to the sports rack. He picked up a basketball, and came back over to the bleachers. He picked Merril, one of the wide receivers. I could see real well from where I was, Merril didn't want to get up. Pierce, thug that he is, wouldn't take no for an answer and just yanked him out onto the court... A moment later they were playing basketball.
It was so completely normal that everyone suddenly woke up, as if from a bad dream. The silence became less hostile, less oppressive. We were all just watching a game. Pretty soon a couple of others joined in.
I hate him, but Pierce was the one that woke us all up. Heroic bastard.
"I talked with Peter Malik." Jess offered after a while, sitting down next to Jake on the bleachers. "He said that he was on his Gameboy when it happened. The game he was playing had a timer. He said that we lost seven minutes."
"I wonder what Daphne would make of that." Jake hummed quietly to himself.
"Zack and Marie are outside." Jess said finally. "I saw them through the window. They're pacing around, waiting to be let in. A lot of people are. Families, friends..."
"What about your friends?" Jake asked her. "Because..." He swiftly lost his nerve. "No, never mind."
She looked over. "No, go on. What were you going to say?"
Jake licked his lips, trying to decide if he had the nerve to ask, but he could feel his mouth saying the words anyway. "When I invited you out to the cornfield for the bonfire? You only asked to bring Pierce. I figure your usual clique are party animals... Not their kind of place, I admit, but Pierce brought booze anyway, no parents around, nobody at all around... I half expected them to show up with a bunch of people and make it a huge deal."
Jess flushed. "I didn't tell them."
"If you don't mind my saying..." Jake said slowly. "You never bring any of your friends around when we do stuff. The Diner, the Creek, the Festival... You come, and Pierce comes along to stick with you, but you never bring..." He trailed off when he realized Jess was notably looking away from him. "Your friends don't like my friends, do they?" He guessed, not offended.
"It's not that they don't... yeah. They don't like you." Jess sighed. "They think that... Doesn't matter."
"They figure you can do better." Jake guessed.
"Stop reading my mind." Jess complained. She squared her shoulders, as though expecting a huge fight. "It's not anything against you. It's just that... They don't have the same interests you do, go to the same parties..."
"It's okay." Jake assured her. "I don't like them either."
Jess snorted, and then hesitated, before making a confession. "Neither do I."
Jake smothered a burst of laughter. "What?"
Jess waved a hand back and forth, trying to phrase it. "I never met any of them until I became Student President and then suddenly, there they were. I have no idea how that should matter, but... It's just impossible to take them seriously. They just showed up when I got popular."
Jake lowered his voice, not confident with what he was about to say. "And Pierce? Did he just show up when you got popular?"
She didn't answer, and they sat in silence for a long time.
"Pierce did good." Jake admitted finally. "I take back some of the things I said about him."
Jess gave him another one of those smiles. "Some. I can live with that." She paused. "You're wrong about Pierce. I know he's hard on anyone who's not part of the football team, but he's only ever been good to me."
Jake said nothing, but it was clear he didn't agree.
Jess looked around. "Sheriff's been keeping Murray for a while now... What do you think they're talking about?"
"Probably want to know what happened." Jake offered. "Somehow he landed us."
Jess rubbed her eyes. "Do your eyes hurt? Because my eyes hurt like I was staring at the sun the whole time."
Jake nodded slowly. "Mine too."
The door opened, and Mayor Grady came in suddenly. "All right everyone, gather around."
The kids did so quickly.
"The FAA has been contacted. Incidents involving planes are in their jurisdiction, and there will be a full investigation. None of you have done anything wrong, so you're all free to go. However, I would ask you to keep this matter quiet. We just got done with the fringe press, and we don't want-"
"What The Hell Happened To Our Plane?" Someone yelled impatiently from the back of the crowd. An instant later everyone was shouting something similar.
The Mayor let out a shrill 'hey-taxi' whistle, and the crowd settled. "We don't know exactly what happened. Officially, the FAA will report on that at some point next week." He paused. "Near as we can figure, it was an accident. Murray just told us the story. A few days ago, Eddie Sisko warned everyone about the possibility of electro-static build-up in the air. We were worried about it knocking out our electronics, but I guess at that altitude... We suspect it was a lightning strike caused by the energy in the air. The energy took a liking to a metal plane, and knocked you all out, and fried most of the systems, including your radio and transponders. Murray was blinded by the flash, and lost all his instruments. He was able to set the plane down, but with the radio gone, and his navigation gone... Speaking as a former pilot myself, that's a very dangerous position to be in."
Jake raised his hand. "If the charge could knock everyone out, why was Murray still awake?"
"I have no idea Mister Colbert, but I for one am extremely glad that he was." The Mayor said easily. "I look around this room and I see a lot of faces I know, from a lot of families that I consider my friends. This could have been the darkest day in the history of Curtis Creek, but thanks to Murray, you all came out of it safe."
Everyone burst into applause. Murray took it in stride, tipping his cap to them, and everyone whooped, coming forward to shake his hand, slap him on the back, give him a hug, and in the case of a few of the Cheerleaders, kiss him gratefully.
Pierce sidled over next to Jake casually, both of them applauding grandly with big smiles on their faces. "You buy a word of that, Stargazer?"
"Hell no. Lightning strike? It could happen with enough charge in the sky, but it wasn't the weather that made us lose that much time. We didn't wake up, we were never out." Jake responded quietly, still clapping his hands together. "Something went on up there."
I didn't even care that he'd taken on Jess' nickname for me. I didn't realize it until I got home, but it feels like Pierce and I have formed something of an alliance. I still hate him, but it's like we have a common mission suddenly.