April 26, 2003? Maybe 27th?
Maggie said that she had a hiding place just inside the town limits. A place where she could wait for them to come again, and hide until she could do good. Maggie was planning a counter attack for ten years.
It took some doing to find it, but we had all night. And the night was lasting a long time.
Believe it or not: That was the low point. My family had come back to themselves properly while we searched, and suddenly realized that something was happening. We had to tell them the story five times. Zack's dad wanted to build a fire at least, to warm up a bit. We stopped him, not willing to start a fire. My dad didn't believe it at first, but we were close enough to Town that he could see the buildings burning. Eventually, he believed we were not insane. Mom thought it was a bad joke and demanded over and over that we stop it.
Not one of them was willing to take our word for it. Not one of them was...
It's wrong to focus on this after everything that's happened tonight, but they all seemed mad at us for some reason. It's not like I was expecting a parade, but some comment from our families that we'd been brave about it... An admission from my dad that threatening to have me committed was a bad call. A perfectly understandable one, I'll grant you, but still.
The only coherent thing Mom said, once she stopped telling me to quit with the cruel joke, was to ask where Ben was.
The search took almost five hours, but we found Maggie's shack eventually, but the Saucers had apparently found it first. It was a smoking ruin.
Pierce suggested we go back to his fishing shack. It wasn't far, and the Saucers had found it too; but we picked through the rubble enough to find two backpacks. Mine and Jess'. It was enough to get some clean clothes, a little food and my Journal back. And then we drove a good distance away from even the ruin of the shack, and waited.
We had nowhere else to go for a while. We just sat around the Van and listened to the sound of explosions in the distance. Once it became clear the sun wasn't coming up, mom believed. It was scary. She sort of... caved in on herself... I don't know what she was looking at, but it wasn't us.
Zack's dad said little, but the way he looked at me... I wasn't sure if he wanted to salute me, or blame me for what happened to Zack. He believed us faster than any of the others. I think he knew that I would never make a joke of something happening to his son.
Marie's parents were so much like her, or I suppose I should say that she was like them. They were unflappable, at least to us, but Marie later confided to me that they weren't handling it as well as we thought. They stayed close together, and didn't like it when Marie came over to talk to me or Pierce.
And Pierce was acting the same way he did in his cell. A tiger pacing the cage. He didn't want to stay with us, and we could all see it. I think only Marie and I knew why.
His father was still out there somewhere.
The adults all stayed in the back of the van, still a little woozy, and some of them still expecting it to be a dream.
Pierce was outside the van with his father's shotgun, keeping watch, pacing around. Jake and Marie stayed in the cab of the Van, dozing in and out as the adrenaline faded.
Jake's father came up to the sliding panel in the van to take a look out the front windshield. "What time is it?"
"Don't bother with your watch." Jake said without looking. "According to my clock, the sun should have come up sixteen hours ago."
Boom. In the distance, there was the sound of an explosion.
His mother shifted behind them. "Jake? What about Ben?" She croaked. "What happened to Ben?"
Jake felt kicked in the stomach, yet again. Marie's hand rested gently on his shoulder, offering what comfort she could as they looked out the windshield to the world outside.
"I failed him." Jake said softly.
Marie's touch on his shoulder tightened, and she pulled the door beside her open. "Outside." She said shortly, pulling him along behind her.
They stepped out of the van and Marie took the gun off Pierce. "Beat it." She told him simply.
Pierce read the situation instantly. "Yes ma'am." He quickly made his way to the Driver's side door and climbed in, leaving them alone.
Boom. Another explosion, echoing from far away.
Marie led him by the hand a little ways from the Police Van and sat down. Jake did the same. "I can't handle this if you lose it." She said softly. "I'm the reason that Zack came back to town with us, and it all happened, and we're here now... and if you fall apart, so will I."
Jake scrubbed his face with his hands and nodded. "My brother went with them willingly, my best friend... and Jess."
Marie said nothing. "It's been a long night, in more ways than one."
Boom. The explosions were far enough away that they could almost think it was thunder.
Jake looked over at her and smiled. "You had a lot of opportunities to say I-told-you-so about Jess, and you didn't take them. Thank you for that."
Marie chuckled. "I remember once I lost my favorite doll, out on a school trip. I went running into my kitchen, tears rolling down my face and begged mom to tell me where she was... Mom said she was so sorry I lost Dolly, but if I hadn't taken her everywhere with me, I probably wouldn't have lost her."
Jake snorted. "Gotta love parents. No matter how bad your day, they can still add a little guilt on top of everything."
Marie slid over and laid her head on his shoulder. "You saved my life and my family tonight, Jake. I can't bring myself to say 'I-told-you-so' about any of it." She yawned. "Besides, I just meant she was shallow, I didn't think she would work with aliens from Planet X to abduct our whole town."
Jake looked at Marie. Marie looked at Jake... And they both burst into hysterical mirthless laughter. It was harsh and painful and tears were steaming down their faces by the end of it, but eventually they settled.
Boom. Another blast, and both of them looked back toward their town. Too far to tell which building had been hit, too far below the horizon to see the blast. "What's happening back there?" Marie murmured to herself.
"I don't want to know." Jake sighed.
"I really miss Zack." She confessed after a while. "And I know you do too."
Jake nodded, eyes red. "Yeah. I feel like I should have been able to..."
"This isn't a movie, Jake." Marie said gently. "The plucky teenagers save the world from an alien invasion? That's more far-fetched than aliens to begin with. We never really stood a chance. But we saved our families, and we lived, and that's not such a bad thing."
"Guess not." Jake admitted.
And then the world went pitch black. The sky went from and eerie green to a deep darkness. No moon, no stars, no lights of any kind. They both froze, unable to see anything, not even each other.
"Jake?" Marie whispered, and Jake put a hand out, feeling for her. She did too, and they quickly gripped one another by the arms. A moment later the Police Van's headlights lit up, almost blinding them, but guiding them back.
When the Aurora vanished, the explosions stopped, and Mr Washington suggested we go back to town. He said that it was probably over.
He was right. The whole town was gone. All of it. Every house. Every building. The streetlights were all off, the roads drew a grid around row after row of burning wreckage. Every house had been destroyed.
Aside from billowing smoke, nothing was moving. Not a single sign of anyone remained. Curtis Creek was gone. Nothing but rubble.
I remember being very still. Nobody said anything, but I could hear sobbing from the back seat.
And then, the final indignity: Jess' house was the only one still standing. We went there, almost hoping to find her cowering under her bed. No such luck. The place was empty.
"How did you know this place would still be here?" Marie asked Pierce.
"Just a guess. I figured being a collaborator had its perks." Pierce said plainly. "Jess volunteered before we started hearing explosions."
"Wonder where she is." Jake commented.
"You can ask that about a lot of people. Jess, her family, Mayor Grady..." Pierce bit his lip. His tone was leading. "And my dad."
"You're going after him, aren't you?" David Colbert spoke from the couch. Deanna didn't wake up, still shuddering weakly as her husband stroked her hair.
"I am." Pierce nodded. He sent a glance at Jake and Marie. "Sooner or later, there'll be a reckoning. Dad helped both sides, and both because he wanted to protect me. As a lawman, I don't know where that puts him, or me... but I have to find him." He glanced at the five adults, and glanced at Jake and Marie. "Your families are here. Mine ain't."
Everyone made their goodbyes and the Sheriff's son left them.
Jake and Marie walked him out, and kept an eye on the vehicle until it was out of sight. The Saucers had done their work well. They had not seen a single vehicle of any kind. Every car, Jeep, Truck, 4X4, Motorcycle... everything had been destroyed. Jake and Marie were left standing on the front step of the only house they could see that hadn't been burned to the ground.
"For what it's worth..." He said finally. "You were right about Jess."
"You said that already." Marie commented quietly.
"I don't mean tonight, I mean what you were talking about days ago. If I had my head on straight, I would have seen it too. When you asked me what she brought out in me? The answer was... nothing. I told myself she was something more than she was, but she didn't change and neither did I. And I think that if Pierce hadn't been an idiot, I'd still just be helping her with her homework. I was... convenient to her."
Marie nodded. "My mom told me once that everyone goes through a relationship like that at some point in their lives."
"For not listening to you when I had the chance. Or anyone else, for that matter. You, Dad, even Pierce warned me." Jake said. "But you and Zack? Your opinion means everything to me. I have no idea what I was thinking."
"She's blonde and popular and pretty, Jake. What you were thinking is not that hard to define." Marie drawled.
"No, I suppose not." Jake snorted at his own foolishness. "Marie? You remember what it was like in there?"
"It's possible I may never be able to forget."
"They had most everyone I know in that place." He started counting on his fingers. "Jess, Sheriff Tanner, Mayor Grady... They're collaborators. That's three. Our families, minus Ben, plus the two of us? That's nine total. Pierce makes ten. Twelve if the Spacemen decide to honor their end of the deal and give Jess her parents back."
"I've been thinking the same thing. Those ten-maybe-twelve people are probably all that's left of this entire town." Marie nodded. "What are you going to do when you see them again?"
"What are you going to do?" He asked her. "What will they do now?"
"Honest to God, I don't know." Marie admitted.
They sat together on the porch swing, arms around each other, breathing slowly as the seconds ticked by in the endless night. They had been through a war together, against things they had no conception of, and though they had lost all their friends to the menace, they had seen each other through.
Endless night. Jake thought suddenly. Then why is the horizon... A spike of fear went through him. The light was growing brighter in the distance. Not a green glow, a brighter one, paler and clearer.
The Ship coming back? A searchlight? He thought, feeling his heart race.
"What is it?" Marie asked softly, feeling him tense. He pulled away from her and went over to the edge of the porch, peering into the distance.
"Look." Jake said finally, beyond exhausted. "Sun's coming up."
Deciding to go out to the edge of town was the easy part. Getting our families to be okay with it was much harder. They flatly forbade us to go back, but truthfully, I didn't much care what they said. That sounds worse than it is. We'd decided to investigate, we'd decided to fight back, we'd gone into the Town Hall and an Alien Spaceship and back out again, all without their permission. Or their help. In fact, most of what we did was over their objections. I didn't realize it until just now, but we took on an Alien Invasion all by ourselves.
We didn't have a working car left, but we weren't in any hurry. About halfway there, we found a couple of bicycles, and the twisted remains of their owners by the road. The bikes still worked, and Marie and I took them.
It wasn't until we were halfway there that I suddenly realized. To get out of town, we'd have to go to the Bridge... past the cornfield.
The two of them pedaled, not saying much to each other.
The Bridge was the closest point on the Dead Zone that they could reach, and the fastest way to find out whether or not it was really over.
They were halfway there when they saw someone walking down the road. Two people. Without having to talk about it, they both skidded their bikes off the street, and hid in the long grass. Outside of town, it often grew out of control for weeks, even months at a time, making a decent hiding place.
But as the two people passed by, Jake couldn't help himself. It was Mr and Mrs Connolly. Jess' Parents. Jake jumped up and shouted over to them. "HEY!"
The Connolly's both spun, startled. "Jake?"
Jake went running up to them. "What happened?" He demanded of them. "Where's Jess?!"
"That was going to be our question to you." Mr Connolly growled. "We were driving away from town, our wheels hit the Bridge and... Then suddenly we were on foot. What the hell happened to the Bridge? Did the structure collapse on our truck?"
Marie interrupted them carefully. "Is that all you remember?"
Mrs Connolly had realized by this point that something unexpected had happened. "Kids, tell us what happened. Obviously we missed something. Is Jess all right?"
Jake and Marie traded an eloquent look. There's an interesting question. Jake told Marie without saying anything.
Not the time. Marie shook her head a little. Aloud, she returned her attention to Jess' parents. "Go home. You know the address, and yours is the only house left in town still standing. You'll find our families there, they'll give you the broad points. We're looking for Jess now, as a matter of fact."
"What do you mean 'the only house still standing'?" Mr Connolly demanded. "What the hell is going on?"
"Mr Connolly?" Jake interrupted. "At the Bridge... is the mist gone?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact. How long were we... unconscious?" The last word came out as a question. "I don't really know..."
"I know exactly how you feel." Jake nodded, picking up his bike. He sent Marie a look. "We gotta get to the Bridge before they do. She and Pierce are the only two people in town with working vehicles."
Marie got the point instantly and grabbed her own bike.
"By the way..." Jake said to Jess' father. "I think I should take this opportunity to end the suspense: I'm not interested in dating your daughter."
They weren't the only people we saw as we rode on toward the Bridge. In fact there were dozens of people slowly walking their way back into town. It was Marie that realized who they were. It was the Search Teams. The ones that had gone out looking for Jess' family. They had been returned to us too.
That wasn't our problem. Our problem was that we were heading for the Bridge.
They both came to a stop as the valley full of corn came into view.
"Is it me, or does it look a whole lot meaner?" Marie asked quietly.
The corn was waving in the breeze, and Jake shivered, though it wasn't that cold. The wall of mist was gone. The closer they got to the Bridge, the clearer it became that the long siege was over, or at least, less visible. Jake slowed a little as they got closer, remembering the 'night' before.
The Police Van that Pierce had taken was parked a good distance away from the valley, and they both braked to a stop beside it. There was nobody inside. Jake fished around in the glove box came came up with a pair of binoculars.
He looked through them, scanning the cornfield and the Bridge out of town. There was still a visible bit of wreckage hanging down from the Bridge, and the ashes of their bonfire from an eternity ago was still there.
"This is where it all started." Jake commented. "For us, at least. It feels like such a long time ago." He waved at the valley. "And all the animals coming out of the cornfield doesn't help."
"Well, we know it wasn't just people getting snatched by the Dead Zone." Marie commented. "I expected more people coming out though..."
"I think..." Jake bit his lip. "The Connolly's woke up where they vanished. My guess is that you come back in where you went out. If we went down to the Creek, I bet we'd find Janice Mitchell wandering around in a daze."
At that moment, there was a distant gunshot, coming from the Bridge.
Jake and Marie traded a quick look, and immediately started pedaling toward it. "I can remember a time we would be running away from gunshots." Marie hissed over at him.
"So can I. It was yesterday." Jake hissed back.
Nevertheless, they put all their speed into getting to the Bridge. Jake saw the twisted remains of his own bike, still leaning against the structure. He could see the place where he'd hidden, getting the infamous pictures, and the part of the Bridge that had collapsed, sending him into the valley below. There was still enough of it intact to drive across.
And parked at the edge of the Bridge, almost out of the town, was the truck they had caught a glimpse of while they were escaping the Town Hall the night before. It sat empty, with a bullet-hole through the windshield, and one of the tires shot out.
Jess, Mayor Grady, and the Sheriff were all handcuffed to the truck's front bumper... And Pierce was standing guard over them.
Pierce gave them a cocky grin. "Hey. Look what I found."
The adults had the good sense to keep quiet, but the second she saw them coming, Jess tried to jump up without moving. "Jake? I'm sorry-"
Marie cut her off. "Shut up, Jess."
Jake was pointedly looking away from the blonde young woman. "So, what did we miss?"
Pierce slung the shotgun across his shoulder and filled them in. "Well, I figured if all the buildings were gone, then there would be no reason for these guys to stick around. When the sun suddenly came back, I saw people walking out of the distance like something out of a horror movie and I freaked out a bit... until I realized that I knew who they all were."
Jess interrupted him. "If they're the people who went into the Dead Zone, then-"
"Shut up, Jess." Pierce warned her, and resumed his story. "Anyway, I figured the Bridge is important to us because it's the fastest way out of town, and also the place where the Aliens show up, so I came here first. I parked a ways up the street and kept watch. More people emerged here too. It was the search teams that didn't come back."
"Yeah." Jake nodded. "We saw The Connolly's."
Jess spoke up instantly. "You did?! Where?!"
"SHUT UP, JESS!" Everyone yelled at her, and she shrank a little under their wrath.
"Anyway, none of them had a clue what had happened, so I played along, pretended I didn't have a clue either. Most of them split up, heading in different directions. A lot of them were coming in from the farms around the outside of the Dead Zone, so they went back the way they came... And I stayed here. About half an hour passed, and the Three Stooges here showed up. They were heading across the Bridge, and I stopped them before they could get far."
"Trying to get out before what was left of the town came after you, huh?" Marie commented to Mayor Grady. "I guess this wasn't in the plan."
Grady said nothing, unable to meet her gaze.
Sheriff Tanner met her accusations easily. "I worked for them, and then I didn't any more. Because of that, my son came out the other side safe and sound. Whatever that means for me, I'm fine with it."
"What do we do with them?" Pierce asked finally. "I mean, it's not like we can lock them up at the cells in Town Hall any more. And if we try to take them to the Courthouse, we'd have to... Well, explain this whole thing, and I doubt we'd convince anyone of anything."
Jake sighed. "Let them go."
"What?" Marie, Pierce, Grady and Jess all blurted in open shock.
Jake waved around. "If they're not leaving town, where are they going? He asked. "Sheriff, you want to know what happens next? You keep these two close until we sort this out."
The Sheriff nodded, eyes on his son. Pierce was not particularly forgiving.
Marie scowled and unlocked Jess' cuffs. "Everything works out for you, doesn't it?" She sneered quietly to Jess. "You got your family back intact, your house is the only one left standing... You stayed in my house, ate my food, begged us for help, then you turned traitor, got Zack killed, shot at us... and you got everything you wanted."
Jess looked past Marie to Jake, who still refused to look at her. "Not everything." She said quietly.
Marie held out a hand and Jess took it, standing up. A moment later, Marie slugged her hard across the jaw, and Jess was knocked flat on her rear, seeing stars. Pierce and Jake let out a chorus of catcalls in response. Marie stood over Jess, glaring so hard the blonde recoiled further into the dirt. "That was for Zack."
Pierce looked to Jake. "How'd you ever let this one get away?"
"This from the man who got shot down by Jess?" Jake shot back.
Marie came over and took the shotgun off Pierce. "Now get outta here!" She yelled at the three prisoners. "Start walking. Better yet, RUN!" She fired a blast in the air over their heads, and the three of them took off running toward the town.
Leaving Jake, Marie and Pierce alone at the Bridge.
"The mist is gone." Pierce offered. "We have the only working cars and trucks for a hundred miles. I say we go for it."
"Go where?" Marie asked him practically.
The three of them sat there for a while. None of them wanted to go back to the ruins of their home, none of them wanted to leave their families behind.
After a while, they started hearing engines again. Coming from the other side of the Bridge. They all spun at the first hint of noise, suddenly feral. Fear had made them suspicious, paranoid, lethal.
"Who the hell is that?" Pierce snarled, taking the shotgun off Marie. They could see a cloud of dust coming up the road.
"I don't know." Marie told him, sliding up against the bridgework.
"Fight or flight, Jake?" Pierce asked quickly, as the sound of engines grew louder.
Jake hesitated. "They're coming from outside of town... and on the ground. That hasn't happened all week: I say we stick around."
And so the three of them stood in the middle of the Bridge, as though standing guard.
Very quickly, the oncoming vehicle became visible. It wasn't one truck, it was twelve. Five Humvees, five troop carriers, one supply truck, and bringing up the rear, an armored truck. All of them wore the colors of the US Military.
"Well." Jake said in an oddly thin voice. "We were wondering who to call."
The lead vehicle pulled up to a halt at the end of the Bridge, and the passenger side door opened. A man in uniform, clearly the one in charge stepped out of the Humvee, and took them all in with one long, slow glance. Three teenagers, a damaged Bridge, Pierce with a shotgun, Jake covered in cuts and burn marks, and a truck with a bullethole through the windshield behind them. "Morning. You kids wouldn't happen to be from Curtis Creek, would you?"
They said nothing, uncertain.
The soldier leveled a steely gaze at them all. "Colonel Connor Yates, United States Marine Corp. I've been assigned to investigate what happened here, to see if we can figure out what happened to Curtis Creek that put you all out of contact."
Jake smirked, just a little. "That... is something of a long story."
"Give me the short version."
Jake sighed. "Aliens invaded our town."
"Aliens, huh?" Colonel Yates took that in for a moment, and burst out laughing. "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard."
The guy behind him started laughing too. And there they were, a few kids just barely out of a war, and the first authority figure they could possibly trust was laughing in their faces. Jake just stared at him. So did Marie. Pierce looked ready to shoot the man, but there were a few military vehicles close by to change his mind. They just stared at him, with dull, exhausted eyes.
"Jake?" Marie whispered. "His driver..."
Jake looked past the Colonel to the Humvee he'd stepped out of. The kid behind the wheel did look familiar. He was staring at Marie and Jake with a disturbing intensity, his jaw hanging open.
Colonel Yates looked back at his Humvee, and saw it too. "Private, front and centre."
The young soldier quickly opened the door and came out to join them. Jake got a closer look at him, and was more certain than ever that they had met before... and then he noticed the soldier's name tag, sewn over his heart. Private D. Gunn.
"Doug?" Jake whispered. "Dougie Gunn?"
"Yeah..." The soldier whispered. "Yeah, Jake; it's me..."
Doug Gunn was now full grown, wearing a uniform, had apparently gone through basic training already...
"Missing time." Marie whispered. "That's why the sun didn't... Oh God, Doug... how long?"
Doug was still staring, almost crying. "Found you at the cornfields..." He whispered. "Like you found me."
Marie nodded. Jake and Pierce were still gaping. Yates was looking back and forth between them, weighing up what he was seeing.
"Doug, answer her." Jake pressed, terrified of the answer. "How long have we all been in the dark?"
Colonel Yates fielded that question himself. "Nearly eleven years."