April 22, 2003
Zack and the others were right about one thing yesterday: I don't actually have that much evidence of something going on. Most of it has been explained already. Curtis Creek is... a small town. A totally unremarkable small town, with small town problems. It's not the first time that there's been a supply freeze. With the phones down and all the information stopped, there's no way to know.
It wasn't that unusual to go without seeing a stranger in town for a while. Mr Washington said that when he was Ben's age, there was a lot of people traveling through our area, and they stopped in town for coffee or lunch. But when he got to my age, the highway was finished and there was a faster way. The town was big enough to support the Diner at the time, but the fact is that the main purpose our entire town had for travelers had long since been taken over by a McDonalds with a big parking lot, and a Motel 6.
But that was tourism, not business. The town had its own newspaper, but the newsagent always had the Nationals, to say nothing of comics and TV Guide. The Supermarket always had stocked shelves, the gas station always had working pumps.
Sometimes there would be supply delays. I remember a Town Hall Meeting over a year ago when some people were in a panic. Some of the distributors were debating cutbacks of their own, which would have made shipping goods out to us too expensive for them unless they raised the prices a lot. That alone could have killed off the whole town. Jess parents were the ones that went to them and hammered out a deal to keep Curtis Creek alive; making them our town reps with the shipping companies.
But even in the dead of winter, with half the roads frozen over and the other half snowed in, the delay had never gone this long.
It could have been as simple as a snap transport strike; or the causeway could have been washed out again. With the Aurora in the sky and all the phones off the air, there'd be no way to know.
But now I know for sure. I don't know much, but I know there's not a perfectly logical explanation. It started when we met at the Bridge.
"If I were the type to believe in bad omens?" Jess said softly. "I would be completely flipping out of my skull right now."
Jake chuckled. "Jess, how long have you lived in this town? The mist comes at this time every year."
"I know, but it never looked so... eager, before." Jess offered.
Sitting next to her at the edge of the Bridge, Jake had to admit she was right. Her parents were in their truck, parked at the turn to the Bridge out of town, checking they had everything they needed. Below them, off to the left, Jake could see the cornfield there the whole mess had started, and off to the right he could see for half a mile, where the ravine below the Bridge leveled out gently.
Mist and fog was common to the Creek. It wasn't unusual for there to be short rainstorms, or sudden chills, and then the fog would follow the ravine. But this was new, the line was clearly drawn. You didn't just fade into the mist, you could see it like a wall in front of you. Jake could see the trees, drawn in sharp contrast against the whiteness. He couldn't even tell where the mist ended and the clouds began.
And leading into the ground level clouds... was the Bridge.
Jess' parents had stopped their truck to drop off their daughter before leaving town. Jake had been at the base of the Bridge as they drove up, and clambered up to the road to see them off.
"Jake? What brings you by?" Her father called over, sounding just slightly protective.
"Ben opened up my darkroom at the wrong moment, screwed up a night's worth of long exposures." Jake waved back to the valley beneath the Bridge, where his telescope was still set up.
"It's an interesting hobby." The older man conceded. As he spoke, the sound of an engine came from the direction of the town. A moment later the Sheriff's truck became visible, and both the adults went over to talk to the Sheriff as he pulled up.
As her father turned back to the road, Jess slid over next to Jake. "The telescope photos? That's the story you went with?"
"Hey, you were there." Jake protested. "I did have to set up the camera again."
"And you had to be here now? Last time you set it up was well after dark." Jess observed, glancing back at her family. "After I got home last night? Took me a full ten minutes to realize what you meant, when you said that if something was going to happen today, you wanted to be there to see it. I didn't sleep a wink all night, thank you so very much."
Jake looked down, and scratched the back of his neck, mortified. "Sorry about that."
"What do you think is going to happen?" Jess demanded quietly, her eyes going in a constant loop, from her parents to the mist, to the cornfield off to their left, and back again.
Jake squeezed her hand. "Nothing. At least, I have no reason to think of anything, but... Well, this is where it all started, and since I was coming out here anyway, and I knew you'd be around..." The second it left his mouth he knew it was a mistake.
Jess looked at him, glancing back to make sure where her parents were, her cheeks coloring a little. "That's... nice of you." She decided finally.
Jake was spared from having to answer as the Sheriff strolled over to the end of the Bridge to join them. "Morning."
"Sheriff." Jake nodded a greeting. "Something wrong?"
"Why do you say that?"
"Well... The Sheriff shows up at the Bridge and flags down a truck before it can leave..." Jake shrugged. "I imagine there are other things going on in town that have your attention?"
Sheriff Tanner snorted. "God, yes. People are hoarding everything. Canned goods, bread, bottled water, salt shakers."
Jess blinked. "Who hoards salt shakers?"
Tanner nodded with a long suffering sigh. "Tell me about it." He waved back to the truck, as its engine started up. "The Mayor asked me to make sure they had the lists. Supplies we need urgently, the right people to contact when they get there... And with all the phones off the air, coming out to meet them before they left was the only way. The one street I knew they'd take was the road to the Bridge..."
Jake nodded as he saw the logic, suddenly feeling foolish. The strange events were getting to him, making him suspicious.
Jess waved goodbye to her parents, and her mother waved back from the passenger seat as it began its journey out of town. The truck reached the mists... and the engine stalled out. The truck rolled forward another few feet... and stopped.
From the other end of the Bridge, Jess was on her feet instantly. So was Jake. A moment after that, so was Sheriff Tanner. Nobody moved. The mists didn't move. The Bridge, the cornfield... there was not a breath of wind, not the chirp of an insect... The whole space was unnaturally, disturbingly silent.
There was no movement from the truck. A few more seconds passed before they started to realize something was wrong, and then Jess was moving, drawn in that direction slowly. Worried, Jake reached out and caught her around the middle, and she pushed his arms away distantly, almost like she was hypnotized. There was still no movement from the cab of the truck.
"Stay behind me." Sheriff Tanner said slowly, and began walking himself. Jess would have sprinted ahead of him if Jake wasn't holding her back. At the edge of the Bridge, they could both see him...
Once he got there, Jake was willing to let Jess go closer, and quickly joined her. The cab of the truck was empty. The doors were still closed, the windows still wound up... and there was no sign of anyone in the truck.
"Where are they?" Jess whispered. "They were right here. We were watching them. Where are they?" Her voice was starting to get louder, more frenzied. "Where are they... Sheriff? Jake? Someone tell me where my family has gone! Where are they? WHERE ARE THEY?"
Jake put his arms around her automatically.
"We were right here." Jess said again, like a mantra. "We were right here watching, where are they?"
The Sheriff pulled out his flashlight, shining it into the mists. It reached no further than the sunlight. No movement, no change, no sign of anyone.
"Shouldn't you go look for them?" Jake asked the Sheriff, not trusting his own voice. "I mean, they couldn't have gotten far."
Sheriff Tanner sent the two teenagers a quick look. He didn't buy that any more than Jake did. "Jake, take Jess home, I'll make a quick survey, but in this mist, if we want to do a wide scale search, we'll need more people."
"Search where?" Jess sobbed. "I didn't even see them get out of the truck! They should be right here!"
"Jake. Take her home!" Tanner repeated, shining his light into the road ahead. Jake obeyed, pulling Jess back toward his parents' car. Terrified, she went willingly, but kept looking over her shoulder.
Jake looked again in the rear view mirror as they began the drive back to town. Sheriff Tanner hadn't gone any further than the rear of Jess' family vehicle, not one inch closer to the mist.
I remember the very first time I ever experienced fear. I was four years old, and I thought there was a monster under the bed. I remember I wanted to run, but I didn't dare climb out from under the covers. I didn't want to look, because I knew something with big teeth was going to jump out at me... but I couldn't stop peering at the dark corners.
Mom came in and turned on the light and instantly the scary things were gone. And she told me that there was no such things as demons that lived under the bed, there was no axe murderer in the closet, and no monster outside the window.
And like an idiot, I began to believe her. By the time I grew up, I didn't believe in monsters any more.
Now I believe again.
Jess didn't say anything on the drive back to her house. She barely looked at me. Truth be known, I was glad for it. I had nothing to say either. We were both just sort of staring into space. I drove her back to town on autopilot. It's a good thing she had a house key under the doormat, because I honestly don't know that I could have gotten through to her if I needed her to get the door open.
It's the first time I've been inside her house. It's every bit as expensive and plush as I thought it would be. It took me forever to find the kitchen.
"Cocoa will be ready soon." Jake reported.
Jess was sitting quietly on the stool at the breakfast nook, staring into the living room at a big-screen TV that wasn't switched on. "I keep glancing at the phone like I'm expecting it to ring." Jess sighed. "It's easy to forget sometimes."
Jake nodded. "I know what you mean. I keep checking my phone for messages too."
"I'm sorry about this." Jess whispered. "It's not fair to you."
"Shh." Jake whispered, pouring her the hot drink. "Don't worry about that."
"No really, it's not fair to you." Jess insisted. "It was this side of twenty four hours ago I gave you the 'Let's Be Friends' Speech, and it's not right that you have to take care of me now..." She sounded exhausted, stress making her borderline comatose. The frenzy on the Bridge had vanished, leaving her hollowed out and empty.
"You're female. You're not meant to make sense." He excused instantly.
He put the mug into her hands and her fingers closed around it automatically. "Jake?" She whispered. "You were right, and I was wrong." She took a sip. "And by the way, that's a sentence I've had to say twice in two weeks now. You were right about this town. It's not something that can be explained away. Solar Flares don't vanish my parents out of the drivers seat of the truck. Solar flares don't..." She was sitting close to him now, knees brushing. "Listen..." She said finally.
Jake tensed from the tone of her voice alone.
Jess nearly levitated off the stool, tipping it over as she moved. "That's them. I know that's them!" She sprinted through the house and threw the front door open... to Pierce Tanner. "Oh. Sorry, I thought..."
Pierce nodded. "I heard what happened to your folks."
"I don't know what happened to my folks." Jess stressed, and Jake stepped up behind her, visible to Pierce through the door.
The Footballer's face turned to stone. "Hm. Didn't take you long."
"Just here to provide moral support." Jake said lightly. "You look after your friends when they have bad days."
"Why do you think I'm here?" Pierce challenged.
"I don't know, but I'm betting you heard it was just Jess alone in the house again." Jake shot back.
"Hey, I'm not the one making tea while she's in her bathrobe." Pierce growled.
"STOP IT!" Jess shouted. "God, just... both of you get out!" She turned around and started pushing Jake toward the door.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean..." Jake forgot his anger instantly, mortified that he'd had the fight in front of Jess, and now of all times.
"OUT! Just get out and leave me the hell alone!" Jess raged.
After a moment, he decided against arguing about it in front of her ex-boyfriend, and apologized again, stepping out onto the porch miserably.
For a while the two of them stood silently on the porch before going down the stairs.
"Well. I feel stupid." Pierce said with a sigh.
Pierce spoke finally. "Come take a ride with me."
"No, don't believe I'm going to do that." Jake said simply.
"Because I find it quite likely you'll take me out to some remote corner of the town and beat the living daylights out of me." Jake said with a casualness he didn't feel. "I'm a bleeder, I can't really do that today, I had plans."
"Well fine, I'll think of something else then." Pierce said with grim sarcasm. "Look... You were right. It's not a solar flare, and if you come with me, I'm going to prove it to you."
Intrigued, Jake followed him to the street and got into the Jeep.
"So, where are we going?" Jake asked finally.
"Over to the creek." Pierce told him. "And hey, you were there, so just between us: What happened to Jess' parents?"
"I honestly don't know." Jake let out a breath explosively between his teeth. "We were watching the damn truck, and it just... stopped moving. No doors or windows open, no movement, no bright flash, just gone."
"That's... scary as all get out." Pierce said finally.
"I know. Jess was willing to write off what happened on the plane."
Pierce shook his head. "Jess needed to believe it was lightning. She needed it to make sense, so that she could pick up her life with no problems. With her parents vanished, she can't do that any more."
"So. What now?" Jake asked finally. "Because I know you've been busy all this time. What the hell have you been doing?"
Pierce snorted. "Okay. The truth." He drew in a breath slowly, as the Jeep left the buildings behind. "You know as well as I do that the story the Mayor told us was a load of bull. That was no lightning strike. And after what happened to Jess' folks, I'm more certain than ever."
"Yeah, but... everything I come up with to explain this feels like it's coming off a conspiracy nut website. Either that or a sci-fi movie from the eighties. I don't know what the hell is going on, but it's not..."
"It's not anything that makes sense." Pierce agreed. "We're almost there."
Jake climbed out of the Jeep, and immediately his nose wrinkled. "Oh, yuck." He groaned.
"Yeah, smells worse than the locker room." Pierce agreed. "Look."
Jake looked where he was pointing and gagged. Along the Creek, which the town was named for, were two dozen fish, laying dead and rotting in the sun. "Who the hell left them there?"
"Nobody." Pierce told him. "I was here a few days ago... I swear, they just jumped straight out of the river. I saw it happen."
Jake blinked. "This kind of fish doesn't jump. And not that many."
"And not out of the river onto the bank where they... die. I agree." Pierce said agreeably. "But if you think I could catch them all to prank you, you've got a better opinion of me than I do."
"And I for one don't think that's possible." Jake said instantly. He forced himself to ignore the smell and went over. "Yup. Add it to the list of Curtis Creek Crazy."
"Ohh, you like that?" Pierce said. "You're gonna love this." He went back to the Jeep and pulled out an empty beer bottle.
"Something every teenager should have under the driver's seat." Jake commented.
Pierce rolled his shoulders, holding the bottle in one hand like it was a football. "Stand back." He warned, and Jake did so. Pierce hurled the bottle toward the bank like he was throwing a forward pass, and the bottle went a good twenty feet... where it smashed against a rock.
Jake watched, not getting it, when he suddenly saw that the shattered glass bits, hundreds of them, were not falling to the ground. The tiny slivers of glass were hovering in mid-air, inches from where they had been smashed apart.
Jake felt his jaw drop open. Pierce was grinning madly. "I know! Wild, huh?"
The small bits of glass were floating, turning in place in mid-air like a crystal artwork. After a moment, the air shimmered like a wave of heat had gone across it, and the glass started moving again, drifting very slowly to the ground like snow.
"What the hell is happening to our town?" Jake whispered, but it wasn't a serious question. The impossibilities were adding up too quickly and too often. "You know, Mayor Grady almost had me convinced." Jake admitted to Pierce. "I mean... Marie and Zack were right. The only evidence we had that something weird is going on was what we saw on the Plane... and I don't know what I saw. Between them and Mayor Grady... They almost had me convinced it was all in my head."
Pierce nodded. "So, now that we know for sure, what the hell do we plan to do about it?"
Jake sighed. "I don't know yet. We can go back to Mayor Grady. By now he knows about Jess' parents. That was his way to control the town, keep people from panicking. I assume your dad isn't telling everyone."
"No. But he will sooner or later. He'll have to if he wants to organize a search." Pierce nodded. "We go to the Mayor with what we got now, we'll have to give him everything we know, and that ain't worth jack."
Jake nodded slowly. "I woke up this morning? My feet had mud on them. It's not the first time it's happened. It happened before the Plane, before Doug Gunn... I think I'm sleepwalking."
Pierce hesitated. "Yesterday morning, I was coming back from this spot... I found Mrs Rodman. She was just wandering around, in her pajamas. When I called out to her, she jumped half out of her skin, because she had no idea how she got there. I gave her a ride home, her husband was relieved to see her since... She was sleepwalking too. And... Look, you're not on the football team, so you'll have to take my word for it, but after school, we all head into the change rooms, get into our uniforms... About eight guys have dirt on their socks when they take their sneakers off."
Jake felt his heart start to pound. "Look, when stuff starts happening, you start thinking the worst, but just because a bunch of the school Jocks have dirty socks... it doesn't have to mean the whole Team is walking in their sleep."
Pierce looked at him hard. "I... If I tell you something, will you keep your mouth shut? Because if you don't keep your mouth shut, you know that I can make it so they'll have to wire your jaw shut and feed you through a straw for a while."
Pierce sighed. "I've been seeing Tracy since the breakup with Jess... She had dirt on her socks yesterday when we... woke up, and I don't have a clue how it got there... But I do know she wasn't with me the whole night."
Jake said nothing to that, wisely choosing not to express any of the four things that came to mind. "Do me a favor, go and find Zack and Marie? I'll get Jess, we'll get our stories straight, go to the Mayor together."
"Tomorrow." Pierce said seriously. "I've had fights with Jess before. Take my word for it, give her the night to cool off."
Pierce looked at him. "What? You think we wait twelve hours and the town won't be here anymore?"
Jake looked back at the long row of rotting animals along the river. "Maybe. Plus, there's the fact that Jess is freaking out and her family is God knows where."
Pierce nodded. "Marie's going to sleep over at Jess' tonight."
Jake reacted. "She is?"
"We set it up before I came over." Pierce raised an eyebrow smugly. "What? Marie didn't come to you about it?"
I tried not to read anything into that, I really did. But Marie's been taking a greater interest in my
whatever-it-is with Jess than I thought she would.
When I got home soon after, the first thing I did was go straight to the phone, but of course it was still off. So was the TV. Funny, but I can't remember what life was like without it. Neither can anyone else, I suppose; and that's why the town is starting to go nuts.
April 23, 2003
There have been some interesting developments.
Jake heard the front gate squeak and closed his journal, heading over to the front door. He opened it before she could knock.
"Hey." Jess chirped when she saw him. "I know we were all meeting up at the Diner, but I wanted to talk to you first..."
"Sure." Jake said softly. "How you holding up?"
Jess looked at him, her mouth a thin line. "After I threw you and Pierce out? It took me four minutes to decide that was a mistake. I never knew how... awful an empty house could be."
Jake sighed. "I tried to call you the second I got home, but the phones are still off the air."
Jess nodded. "Well, I wasn't alone for long. Some of the girls from school heard about my parents, and about a dozen of them showed up, said if I had the house to myself I should throw a party."
"I wish." Jess rubbed her eyes. "You know what the worst part is? If Terri's parents had been the ones to vanish, I probably would have wanted to throw a party at her house."
"I find that hard to believe."
"No, it's true." Jess said with a sigh. She looked exhausted, with long dark bags under her eyes. "That's the thing about being popular in school. You have to go to all the parties, because if you're not there..." She rubbed her eyes.
She looked so tired and scared that Jake melted a little. "Go sit down." He said gently. "I'll get you a drink and we can head over to the Diner."
Jess yawned. "Okay."
Jake started to close the door, when he heard someone give a 'hey-taxi' whistle. He pulled the door back open again, and saw Marie coming down the path. "Hey." Jake called to her. "Good timing. Jess just arrived."
"I know, I saw her come in." Marie nodded. "I think we should meet here. Zack says the Diner is closed."
"Not enough business coming in, half the menu sold out..." Marie explained. "I told Zack to let Pierce know about the change, but they're going to be a little longer. Pierce was in detention for falling asleep in math class."
Just hearing the word 'asleep' made Jake yawn. "I know how he feels."
Marie looked at him carefully. "You look exhausted." She said finally. "You sleep at all last night?"
Jake was about to answer when Jess spoke up from inside. "So, Pierce is coming then?" Jess asked from the doorway to the living room. She sounded hesitant about it.
"Yeah, afraid so." Jake told her. "We need him here for this. When he gets here, we'll tell everyone about it, and you'll understand why."
Marie gave Jess a supportive look. "He steps out of line, we'll all beat him up for you."
"We will?" Jake repeated.
Marie smirked winningly at him, and Jess smiled, just a little, heading back into the living room.
"Listen." Jake said quietly to Marie once they were alone. "I don't want to make a big deal about this, but we still hate Pierce, right?"
"Hell yeah." Marie nodded agreeably. "So?"
Jake nearly erupted. "So why are you making plans with him about looking after Jess?"
"Listen." Marie said to him softly. "This is none of my business anymore, but this isn't the best time to make a move on Jess. It's not fair."
"I would never take advantage, Marie. You know me better than that." Jake protested.
"I mean it's not fair to you." Marie shot back. "Jess is in a bad place. She's small town, but she thinks she's big city. It's the first time in her life she didn't have a big steroid-enhanced boyfriend, or her daddy to look after her, and she falls apart."
"Her family has disappeared, of course she's feeling pretty vulnerable."
"And you're a big dumb male who's been following her around with your tongue hanging out." Marie shot back. "Don't be a Galahad about this. The damsel is officially in distress, and you want to make her all better again. And she's a mess right now, so she'll let you. Don't get the idea into your head that this is really what she's like. She will cling to you for dear life, but the second her dad walks back in the room, she'll go back to just being friends. If Pierce had kept his libido in check one week longer, he'd be here to 'take care of her', and you know it."
Marie held her hands up in surrender. "I know, it's not right that I stick my nose into this, but... I worry about you. Jess is a sweet girl, but there's nothing certain about her. I don't even think she's a real blonde." She saw the irritation on his face and looked down. "She's my friend too, but you're my best friend. And I don't think she's good for you, and I don't want the... stress of the situation to confuse things."
By the time Jake was able to summon a response, Marie had already gone into the living room, and started up a conversation with Jess about something or other.
"By the way Marie, thank you for staying over last night." He could hear Jess saying. "I think I would have lost my mind if I had to stay in that big house by myself."
"Really? That surprises me." Marie said. "You've stayed there alone before. Your parents travel fairly often."
"Yeah, but..." Jess' sigh was audible from the next room as Jake hung up Marie's coat. "Things are different now." Her voice dropped. "Thanks for your help with the other thing too."
Jake came into the living room, and pretended he hadn't heard the whole conversation. Sound traveled far too well in this house. A point that had caused trouble for both he and his brother over the years. "Can I get you guys a drink?" Jake asked them.
"Sure." Jess nodded gratefully. "I'll have a-"
"Diet Ginger Beer." Jake finished.
Marie raised her hand too. "If you've got it, I'd love a-"
"Dr Pepper with ice." Jake finished, heading for the kitchen.
Marie grinned impishly at Jess. "Efficient."
"Obedient." Jess agreed.
"A natural waiter."
"We like that about him."
"We must eat here more often." Marie said playfully.
"Better idea, let's get your boyfriend fired and have Jake become the new waiter at the Diner."
"I'm telling Zack you said that!" Jake called from the kitchen as he opened the fridge to get a soda, peering into the back for the cans. He didn't see them right away, so he shifted things around. The fridge light flashed over his eyes as he moved the carton of orange juice out of the way...
Droning engines... Screaming, everyone screaming, there's something on my face... cold... evil...
Eyes. Big... dark... Oh God, please point those eyes somewhere else...
Help me! Somebody Help Me! Get them off!
Jake let out a shriek, feeling himself hit the tile floor hard. He had his hands over his eyes, trying to block it all out... He vaguely heard someone yelling in terror, and slowly realized it was him.
"Jake! Jake!" Jess' voice was shouting. There were hands on his face and body and he lashed out, trying to push them away...
Clarity came back with sudden ferocity, like his world had instantly turned clear, and he came back to himself. He was laid out of the kitchen floor, gasping for air. His hair was plastered down with sweat, and Jess was on the floor beside him, on her hands and knees, trying madly to fend him off as he thrashed at her. Marie was kneeling behind him, keeping him from hitting his head against the tile, grabbing for his wrists, trying to keep him still.
He felt like he was in the middle of a fight for his life, but there was nothing there. Nothing but Jess and Marie, both looking terrified at his behavior.
All at once it was over. Jake collapsed so suddenly that Marie thought for a moment he had passed out. She was kneeling on the kitchen floor behind him, with him laying back against her. His head rested gently on her lap, with Jess pressed against the opposite cabinets in terror. The cold air from the fridge rolled over all of them as they tried to catch their breath.
"Jake?" Marie whispered as he settled, afraid to set him off again.
He straightened enough to slide away from Marie and sit against the cabinet doors. Jess collapsed opposite him, openly staring.
"What happened?" Jess asked finally. "I heard you open the fridge and suddenly the screaming started."
Jake scrubbed his face with his hands, heart still pounding. "I have no idea. I saw the light and..."
"The light?" Jess interrupted, her voice deathly serious. "The fridge light? It... scared you? Like it was... dangerous, suddenly?"
Marie looked up at her, noting the tone in her voice. "What? What is it?"
Jess looked terrified. "It happened to me too."
It was the strangest feeling, like I was outside my body. There was more fear in me in that moment than I had ever felt in my life. It was like being in the plane again.
I don't remember which of us decided to tell to the others first, but it was the right choice. Marie was always studying her medical textbooks, she knew us personally, and she seemed pretty sure it wasn't something to ignore. I don't know why we didn't go to our parents. Speaking for myself, I was embarrassed, like something ridiculous had happened and I didn't want anyone to know.
Marie didn't laugh at us. I remember that made Jess relax. Marie is a real gem that way.
"When did it happen to you, Jess?" Marie asked.
"At home, about three am, day before yesterday. I was trying to sleep, and I decided to read for a while. I switched on the bedside lamp... the light hit me and I just sort of... froze. And I don't mean staying still, I mean I was literally paralyzed for about three straight minutes, staring at my own lamp. If I could have taken a deep breath I probably would have screamed too."
"I sent Zack to get Pierce." Marie said quietly. "Was this what you were going to ask him about?"
Jess looked at Jake sharply, and he sighed. "I'm sorry about this Jess, but... he was on the Plane too." He was saying that for the benefit of Marie, but the truth was, he wanted them all to know what had happened at the Creek.
Marie went through the kitchen drawers for a while and came up with a small flashlight, stored in the kitchen for home repairs and in case of blackout. Marie and held it up to Jess, as though asking permission. Jess nodded after a moment, and Marie switched it on, playing the light over her eyes.
"It happens when we don't expect it." Jake decided. "Jess... why weren't you sleeping?"
"I don't know, I just... couldn't drop off." Jess shrugged.
Jake bit his lip. "I couldn't sleep last night either. Or the night before. In fact, I think I've had about three hours sleep a night since..." He fell silent, but he didn't have to say it. Everyone knew exactly what the end of the sentence was.
"None of us really talk about it, do we?" Marie said gently. "The plane? We never really talk about it. And I don't mean us, I mean anyone in town."
"Small Town Secrets." Jake said easily. "Everyone's talking about it, they're just not saying anything they're not supposed to say. After that moron at the Town Hall declared that the Plane Incident was responsible for the shelves going empty..."
"That had me worried for a second too." Jess admitted. "I think the Aurora took care of that though."
"A reasonable explanation usually does." Marie offered, like she was inching her way into a minefield. "There may be one for this."
"Okay." Jake said, being very reasonable. "Like what?"
Marie had nothing.
The front door opened. Zack had been Jake's best friend far too long to need permission to enter. "Hey guys." He called. "You'll never believe what's going on at the..." He paused and took in the severe looks of the group. "Whoa. What did I miss?"
Pierce came in quickly behind Zack, taking them all in at a glance. "I got your message. What's going..." His voice trailed slightly as he noticed Jess. "...on?"
Jess stood up with a sigh and turned to her ex-boyfriend. "It wasn't my idea."
"It was mine." Jake said calmly. His tone was direct and to-the-point. "Pierce, you told me the other day that the rest of the football team has been confiding in you about things going on... Plus the Creek. We're... comparing notes, so we need you for this."
Pierce took that in, and his eyes flicked to Jess... who nodded finally, accepting the fact.
"What about the Creek?" Zack asked curiously.
Pierce and Jake quickly and efficiently filled them in on the strange phenomena.
Zack and Marie didn't believe them.
Jess was notably silent for a long time. "Pierce... this might sound a little wild." She said carefully, getting the conversation back to the original topic. "Have you had trouble sleeping lately?"
Pierce jerked, as if caught out. "Why?"
"Because when I went looking for you, you were in detention for falling asleep in class." Zack said pointedly. "So how have you been sleeping?"
Pierce growled under his breath, not liking to admit any kind of weakness, especially to the girls. "Yeah... Insomnia, it happens."
Marie had gone over to her backpack, stuffed full of textbooks, and taken one out. "You try taking a pill?"
"Last night. It didn't work until this afternoon." Pierce admitted. "But that's what math class is for."
Marie was flipping through the pages of the Medical Textbook. "Have you been having headaches? Irritability? Muscle spasms?"
Jess raised her hand. "Headaches."
Marie nodded. "We can tick off waking dreams and hallucinations too."
"Pierce is here, so we can count irritability and bursts of anger." Jake said solemnly, and Pierce flipped him off.
"Doesn't make sense." Zack interrupted, reading the page over Marie's shoulder. "It says here that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder comes from moments of heightened danger or extreme stress, and that the flashbacks are a result of the experience. The plane ride was normal except for those last seven minutes. You guys are reacting to sudden flashes of light, cold metal... What does that have to do with the plane ride?"
Jake spoke first. "I can't..." He rubbed his eyes hard. "I can't remember those seven minutes." He sighed, confessing all. "Mom said that's not uncommon, when something really scary happens... But I honestly can't remember it."
"Me neither. I thought the plane too, but it doesn't make sense." Pierce said. "What on earth could have happened in seven minutes that set us all off and make us all forget?"
"Nothing on earth." Jake said impulsively.
Long pause. He'd meant it seriously, but the way he said it was like he was intending to make a joke... Except nobody was laughing. The word was on the tip of their tongues, the proverbial elephant in the room than nobody would go near.
It's times like this that I'm glad I started keeping a journal. Most people tell the world things because they like to talk about themselves and their problems. But you go through something like this, you can't do that. As much as you want to talk about it, you know that you can't. Hardcopy is the only way to pour your guts out without everyone knowing what you're thinking.
I never gave aliens and UFO's a lot of thought, just like I never gave the Loch Ness monster a lot of thought. If they dragged Loch Ness one day and found the beastie swimming around, I would be surprised, but it wouldn't leave me rocked to the core.
This rocked me to my core.
Finally, Jess sighed. "Fine. I'll say it first: Extraterrestrials."
Zack laughed for a moment, but it was clear his heart wasn't in it. "Listen, I get that you've all had trouble sleeping, but a lot of people do after something happens to a plane they happen to be sitting in. A couple of things have happened in this town that nobody can explain. The weirdness is getting into our heads. Look it up sometime, there are all sorts of crazy things going on in the world. Sooner or later, someone comes up with a reasonable answer... and it doesn't have anything to do with little green men."
"Grey." Jess, Pierce and Jake all corrected him in the same moment. It was unplanned, unprepared... if any of them had stopped to think for a moment, none of them would have said it out loud, but it came out as an automatic reaction.
They all looked at each other for a short beat, and all looked down at their shoes, almost in unison.
"With big black eyes." Jess added, in a very small voice.
"Small mouths." Pierce added, not looking at anyone.
There was a long chilly silence. Zack was looking back and forth, waiting for the punchline. Marie was clutching his hand tightly, her eyes locked on Jake's pale expression. When he finally looked up at her, she was the first to look away.
"We could have gotten that description from any movie. Marie thinks we have PTSD." Jess volunteered crisply, breaking the spell. "Could be it is just in our heads. We were on the plane, we found Doug. We've been there for more of the strange things than most others in the town, and we're all flashing back to bad sci-fi. None of us have seen UFO's lately, but we talked about it at the bonfire, and nobody else did, which is why it's affecting us this way, and nobody else."
The logical conclusion was soothing to all of them, but Jake hesitated. "Marie... didn't you tell me a week or two ago that all the sleeping pills in the Clinic were sold out?"
"Yeah. So what?" Marie asked him. "A lot of things are running out."
"Yeah, but why sleeping pills? It's not like everyone uses sleeping pills all the time the way we do with groceries. Even if there isn't more coming in we should have enough stored to last a while... so why are there so many people using sleeping pills at the same time?"
Marie broke it. "Jake, what can you remember from your... hallucination?"
Jake set his jaw. "I wasn't imagining it! I just... don't remember all of it."
"Fine. What do you remember?"
Jake rubbed his eyes hard. "I was... lying down. My shirt was off."
"Like an exam?" Jess asked softly. "Like in a hospital?"
Jake looked down at himself. "I already checked. No scars, no bruises... at least, nothing that wasn't there before."
Marie bit her lip. "Let's be very sure about that."
"Ex-cuse me?" Zack barked. "I know I didn't just hear you order your ex, my best friend, to strip down."
Jess and Pierce found that to be very amusing.
Marie just looked at him. "You're cute when you get possessive, but I had something a little more scientific in mind. Deanna's been teaching me how to use the X-Ray Machine."
"No." Zack said seriously. "Time out. Guys, I've played along with this, because I agree there's something weird going on, but think about what you're suggesting here. You're suggesting that this town is being abducted by aliens, one by one. Do you know how off-the-wall insane that sounds?"
"Zack, how long have we known each other?" Jake asked finally.
"Since forever, Jake."
"Have I ever kept a prank going this long?"
"What are the chances that I'm making this up?"
"Zero." Zack admitted without hesitation.
"Do the X-Ray." Pierce said suddenly. "On me."
"Why?" Zack asked.
Pierce took a deep breath. "Okay, look... you don't tell anyone this." He warned them. "After the... Incident, with the plane? You remember the FAA got into it for a bit, checked the plane over for short circuits or something?"
"I remember." Jake nodded. "I don't think they found anything."
"No, but they had one of those wand things, like they use in airports." Pierce said. "The metal detectors they wave over you? My dad kept one... The day they let us out? I went home, took a nap... And dad came into my room. I pretended I was asleep because... well, I don't know, just because." Pierce took a breath. "And I was almost sure that my dad was waving the metal detector over my face."
Jake was suddenly aware that everyone was holding their breath.
"Why would he test you with a metal detector in your sleep?" Jess demanded, her hands opening and closing into fists.
"I don't know, but it's got me a little freaked out, so if you want to X-Ray someone... X-Ray me."
"Wait." Jake put a hand up. "He tested you. Did he find anything?"
Pierce shook his head.
"Then... What would an X-Ray show?" Jake bit his lip and turned to Marie. "Marie, you can start with me."
Marie suddenly looked nervous. "You guys know that I haven't done this by myself before... I mean, I know how, I've been trained..."
Jake gave Marie his fiercest look of determination. "Marie, I don't know what the hell Sheriff Tanner was afraid his son had picked up on that plane, but he didn't find anything in Pierce and I was on the plane too!"
"So was I." Jess said quietly.
"Me, not so much." Zack put in. "But I agree we need to find out if there's something going on."
"And I'm just saying, are we sure we want to sneak into the Clinic and X-Ray ourselves to find out?" Marie pressed.
"There's an easier way." Pierce said finally.
Sheriff Tanner looked up from his desk to see Jess and Jake coming in. "Afternoon."
"Hey, Sheriff." Jess said, quickly coming over. She sat in a chair to the left of his desk, leading him to turn and face her. "I was hoping to get an update on the search for my family."
He nodded and gestured for her to sit down. "The fog is making things difficult. I have four search teams following along the edge of town limits, two more out past the Bridge where they were last seen."
"Why four in town and only two outside?" Jake asked, keeping his expression and his tone curious, but not suspicious, as he truly felt.
"The Connollys have only been missing a day. The mist makes it impossible to see more than three feet in any direction, and normally I'd chance it, but there's no way to co-ordinate or direct teams with all the radios off the air. The terrain would make it easy to get an injury, and turn two missing people into twenty. If they've been injured, or... detained, then it's far more likely that they are still in town limits, and if they haven't, then they'll be trying to get back."
"What about the Jeep?" Jess demanded, eyes tearing. "They didn't take a wrong turn, Sheriff, we were there, we saw it."
Jake laid a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. It would look to an observer like a kind gesture, but it was a warning. Jess looked up at Jake, and he thought hard at her, as though he could make her hear his thoughts. We're not here to interrogate him, we're here to distract him.
Jess gave Jake a tiny nod, reigning herself in. She got the message.
While the Sheriff looked to Jess, giving her his attention, Zack and Pierce slipped in from the parking lot door at the back of the Office, going over to the Sheriff's desk. Zack held back a little, as Pierce went searching through the drawers.
"This is a bad idea." Zack said softly, following along despite himself. "We're ripping off the Sheriff."
"We're borrowing a toy my dad isn't supposed to have." Pierce corrected him. "Ah!" Victorious, he held up the metal detector, and they both quickly made their way out.
"I don't know what it is about your dad, Pierce..." Jake said as they all met up at the Clinic soon afterward. "...but I swear I look for reasons not to trust him, and he doesn't deserve that."
"I know it." Pierce nodded, like he'd heard it a dozen times before. "It's the badge, I think. Most of my friends are the same way, looking for reasons to mistrust authority."
They had met in one of the private rooms. Marie had let them through, and slipped off to 'suggest' Deanna go get herself some lunch, giving them privacy. "Did you get it?" Marie asked. "I only got us half an hour. Deanna's not willing to leave the Clinic for too long since her pager isn't working right now."
"Yeah, we got it." Pierce said, pulling the metal detector out of his bag. "It's pretty straightforward. You press the button and wave." He held the wand over his right hand and waved it. There was a static hiss, but no reaction. Pierce switched hands and waved the wand over his watch. Beep-Beep-Beep.
Jake took the wand, and waved it across Pierce. No reaction, except for the watch, and his hip pocket, which held his keys.
Pierce looked relieved. "I don't know why I was nervous. Whatever it was my dad was looking for, he didn't find it."
Jake held the wand in his hand. "So. Who else?"
Jess rose. "Me next."
Jake lifted the wand, and hesitated. "Are you sure?"
Jess closed her eyes, held her arms out, open to him. "It's okay. I want to."
Jake slowly moved the device over her, starting with her arms, and working his way smoothly across her body. There was no response, everyone watching. Jake suddenly realized he had drifted closer to her, holding his breath.
The spell broke instantly as the metal detector came alive between them. Jess' eyes flew open, and she almost stepped back, alarmed at how close they had come to each other. Jake's hands were behind her now, moving up past her shoulders, almost as though he was holding her. The beeping had started at her head, right at eye level.
"What is it?" Jess whispered. "What set it off, Jake? I don't have caps, fillings, braces, so what's in my head that sets off a metal detector?"
"I don't know." Jake whispered. "But we'll find out. I promise, I'll protect you."
It was the cheesiest thing he ever said, and he'd said with an audience of his closest friends and her ex-boyfriend. But in that moment, it was the most honest oath he'd ever sworn.
Jess leaned forward and took him in a tight embrace. Jake felt someone take the wand out of his hand, and he didn't even bother to look, wrapping his arms around Jess tightly.
Zack had quietly taken the wand and played it over his own face. There was no reaction, and he looked to Marie. "Well, that tells us something."
"It means that only some people have this thing." Marie agreed. "Deanna tells me in medicine, being a doctor is like being a detective, you have to use logic and deduction." She was silent a long moment. "Jess? Did this start for you after the plane?"
Jess nodded slowly, peeling herself out of Jake's embrace quietly.
Jake bit his lip and handed Pierce the wand. "Right between the eyes, right?"
Pierce lifted the wand and waved it across Jake's face.
"Oh God..." Marie and Zack both breathed, looking at their closest friend like he was about to burst into flames any second.
"Marie?" Jake said finally. "You're sure you can work the X-Ray Machine yourself?"
Marie took a breath. "Yeah. Pretty sure." She led the way into the next room, where the X-Ray Machine was. It was a table, long enough for a person to lay on, with a projector mounted above it, on a motorized slide.
At the foot of the machine was a bench with a computer. Marie went over to it and tapped at the keys. "Okay... I can get the image up on the screen here, but printing one out like you see on the hospital shows is a little beyond me." She bit her lip. "Just so you know? I've never done this before. At least, not by myself. The computer does almost all of it, but..."
Jake squeezed her hand. "I trust you."
Marie squeezed back, and went to the computer. "Take off everything metal, and lay on the table, facing me."
Jake did so. The table was cold and he could feel the bile rising in his throat. The waking nightmare he'd had in his own kitchen was of a feeling like this, and he didn't like it one bit.
Above him, the Machine came alive, the projector rolling on a track, the whirring sounds loud in the tense silence.
"Now, hold perfectly still." Marie said, studying the screen in front of her. "I'd rather not do this more often than we need to."
Jake was suddenly struck by the clandestine nature of this. Marie was taking an awful risk with her part time job, and her plans for the future. There weren't a lot of Medical Centers in Curtis Creek. If she got caught doing something that could get her fired...
"Okay." Marie whispered. "You can... stand up now." She whispered, and her voice was low and hollow. Jake rose, and found everyone in the room crowded around the image on the screen. None of them were smiling. In fact, they seemed perturbed.
"What?" Jake demanded, freaked out by the looks on all their faces.
Marie turned the screen around to show him. There was his X-Ray, and there in his skull, right between his eyes, too far back to be anything else, was a perfect sphere. "What is it?" He demanded, putting a hand to his nose automatically.
Marie chewed on her lip. "The shape is perfect, looks like it's about... maybe two centimeters long? The... color says it's solid, made of some kind of metal..."
Jake interrupted her. "What. Is. It?"
"I don't know." Marie confessed.
"Me next." Jess said finally.
The result was the same of course, to the surprise of nobody. We already knew there was something there, that it was metal, that Jess and I had one each, and Pierce did not.
We were right there, right on the edge. On the edge of what I still don't know.
Pierce demanded we X-Ray him too, but we didn't find anything there. I honestly think the lack of this... whatever-it-is scares him more than if he had one. The only reason we went looking at X-Rays was because his father had been scanning him, and found nothing.
Marie checked a few medical books and declared that removing them from our heads would almost certainly be fatal.
We are rapidly running out of ideas. What do we do now? What can we do? They've got us. They're IN us.
"How the hell is it possible?" Jake whispered. "How is it possible that I've got something in my head the size of a ball bearing? Why doesn't it... Why am I alive? And how the hell could it get there without my knowing?"
The five of them shivered in the X-Ray room of the Clinic.
Pierce lifted the metal detector Wand again and waved it over his own face. No reaction. Pierce checked the Wand over and did it again. Nothing.
"I don't get it. What's the difference?" Pierce demanded, and Jake suddenly realized the footballer was scared.
"Pierce, there's nothing in your head." Jake told him seriously. "Something I've long suspected, but it's nice to see it confirmed now." The joke was thin, but Pierce's fierce gaze softened, glad for it anyway. "So what's wrong?"
Pierce rubbed the back of his neck. "The three of us were all on that plane." He said awkwardly. "I was there when we found Doug. If this started on the plane, then why have you both got one and not me? Why do I have the nightmares, if I don't have... whatever it is." Pierce was stalking like a caged tiger, worried and getting aggressive. "What made them ignore me?"
"Them?" Zack repeated the key word.
Long silence as they turned that over in their minds.
Jess' watch suddenly started beeping. The small, but unexpected tone made them all jump.
Jess looked at her watch and glanced at Pierce. "Pierce, you have Practice."
Pierce looked at her like she was insane. "Who gives a rat's ass about..." He interrupted himself. "Dammit. No, you're right. Nothing we can do now that we couldn't do in an hour."
Jake picked up the metal detector from the floor and pushed it at Pierce. "How long until your father notices this is missing?" He asked. "Because... other than me and Jess, the people on that plane were the football team, the cheerleader squad, the coach..."
Pierce took the wand back swiftly. "All of which will be at Practice with me. Good idea."
"I'm going with you." Jess grabbed her bag. "What do you want to tell them?"
"Nothing yet." Marie put in. "Not until we know what to say."
"We'll meet back here afterward."
"We can't." Jake and Marie said in the same moment.
"We hang around the Clinic, we're gonna get caught." Marie explained. "And caught by Jake's mother."
Zack spoke up at last. He'd been so quiet that the others had almost forgotten he was there. "We can meet at the Diner. It's closed for... well, for the Duration, but I've still got the keys."
I wonder if this is what people with cancer or brain tumors go through.
There's something in my head, and I don't know what it is. I don't know how it got there, and I don't know what it will do to me. It could have been there my entire life, or just since the plane, and I have no idea.... just no idea about anything.
Dad says that people are most afraid of what they don't understand. The thing I'm most afraid of is inside of me.
I don't know why we decided to keep it a secret at first. We had a pretty good idea of what was happening... or at least what we thought was happening. Jess' watch beeping was actually the saving grace of the day. If the moment had gone on much longer, we would have lost it one way or another.
As planned, we all met at the Diner. We had the place to ourselves of course. Without supplies, the place was closed up. Not even Zack's father was there.
Zack and I got there first and talked about what was happening, trying not to get too carried away before the others arrived. We wondered what was taking Marie so long, when Jess was actually the first one to show up. She was only there a minute before Pierce came in...
Jake put his Journal away as Pierce came into the Diner and collapsed down into a seat next to Jess. He looked... haunted. Hunted. Like he was expecting something to attack him any second. "The metal detector has a volume control." He said tightly. "You can get a reading without it beeping out loud. Today at practice, I waited for the whole team to sit on the bench, and then I walked along behind them. I tested the whole team in one sweep. They all set off the detector. All of them." He rubbed his face hard. "Near as I can figure, every single person who was on the plane has an Implant."
"Except you." Zack said softly.
Pierce glared at his savagely. "And what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
Zack recoiled from the sudden anger.
Pierce shook his head. "No, sorry... that was..." He yawned, and Jake suddenly noticed how bloodshot his eyes were. "I didn't mean anything."
"Neither did I." Zack agreed.
Heavy silence. They were a tense, awkward, exhausted little group.
Marie came running into the room at a dead run, skidding to a stop. "J-Jake?" She croaked out, her eyes were red. "I need to talk to you."
Zack sent his best friend a quick look of shock, and Jake rose, concerned. Marie led him a little bit away from the rest of them, and buried her face into his shoulder. Calm, patient, gentle Marie was six inches away from hysterics, sobbing out a secret to Jake.
Jess and Pierce tried to act like they weren't straining to hear them, and Zack was physically stopping himself from rising from his seat and running to his girlfriend.
A moment later, Jake returned to the table with Marie, almost holding her up. "Marie, tell them what you just told me." He said softly.
Marie sniffed. "T-the.... The X-Ray Machine... I thought that.... I don't know why. I was scared, I guess. We checked Jake, Pierce, Jess, even Zack, but I wasn't on the plane so nobody bothered... The Machine was still on, and all I had to do was push a few buttons and at first I thought I'd got the images mixed up but... The thing in your heads?" She wrung her hands. "I've got one too."
Stunned silence. Pierce reached into his bag and pulled out the metal detector, waving it over Marie's face.
"She wasn't even on the plane!" Zack hissed, horrified. Automatically, he looked to Pierce. In their already small group, he and Pierce were suddenly in a category by themselves. They were the only ones of the group to be free of the invisible presence that had secretly reached from obscurity and pressed cold fingers into their skulls.
"I'm sleeping fine, I don't have the nightmares..." Marie's hands were trembling. "How can I have this thing in my head and still be normal?"
"Normal?" Jess repeated. The implication was not a kind one.
Marie flinched. "Not... I don't mean that you guys aren't normal, I just..." She looked down. "Sorry."
There was a long heavy silence.
Pierce bit his lip. "I... I saw this movie once, about a soldier back from the war after being wounded. He acted the same way we've been acting. I had no idea if that was what was happening to me, so I went to the library and looked it up... All the books on Insomnia, Post Traumatic Stress, Nightmares... All of them are checked out."
"All of them?" Jess repeated in disbelief.
"I checked the directory, and all of them have been checked out in the last three days." Pierce said seriously. "So I snuck behind the counter and checked the records? Only two of them were checked out by people on that plane." He spread his hands wide. "Whatever it is, it's not just affecting us."
There was a heavy silence that lasted several seconds.
"Guys..." Jake said finally. "How many people in this town have been taken?"
Before he'd even finished speaking, Jess had slapped down a sheet of notepaper. Jaw hanging open, Marie unfolded it. It was filled with line after line of names.
"That's a lot of people." Jake said stupidly.
Jess nodded. "This is my list of the people on the Missing Persons board at the Sheriff's office." She said. "And... the search teams."
"The people searching for your folks?" Zack asked. "What about them?"
"Well... Near as I can figure..." Jess took a breath. "All the people who went searching outside of town... never came back."
"How has this not gotten out?" Marie asked in quiet awe. "A town this size, everyone knows it if a cat disappears, so why doesn't anyone know about this?"
"I'll take that one." Pierce said coldly. "When my dad, or the Mayor, organizes search parties, they go into businesses, houses... They ask people to search in teams as they're found. So one team of searchers will come from the post office, another comes from the coffee shop. You know that most businesses in this town are run by families..."
"So when someone goes missing, so do the people who would report him missing." Marie finished with growing dread.
"What I can't figure out, is why they aren't coming back." Pierce said quietly. "This has been going on for weeks. My dad has been taking calls at night." Pierce explained. "He thinks I was asleep but... none of us have been sleeping apparently. He keeps telling everyone who rings that they can't be listed as missing for 24 hours." He tapped the page. "I've been logging the caller ID's on the second handset. Dad doesn't know I've got this."
Jake was looking at the list. "I've seen some of these people around town recently." He shook his head. "Gerry Hunicutt just this morning. They haven't gone anywhere."
"Thirty six hours ago, he was missing. For a full day." Pierce insisted.
"Just like we were missing on the Plane, only not as long." Jess whispered. "So why are all the people in the search teams not coming back, when the rest of the people on that Missing Wall are?"
"We've learned something else too." Jake said quietly. "We learned that whatever the hell is going on, Sheriff Tanner knows more about it than he's letting on."
Zack shivered. "You don't know that."
"If my dad didn't know something about the Implant, he never would have come into my room with the metal detector." Pierce said sullenly.
"So what do we do? Just come out and demand an explanation?" Zack snapped. "We go to the Mayor's Office and demand to know what he and the Sheriff are not telling us about the Aliens running around putting things in our heads?"
"You know, when you say it out loud, it does seem kinda crazy, doesn't it?" Jake admitted.
"I tried to tell myself it was all a dream." Jess admitted finally.
"Been there." Pierce commented. "We've got the X-Rays now. That's evidence. I mean, real, tangible evidence."
"Of what?" Marie countered. "Could be a dozen things..." They all looked at her, and she looked down. "Okay, no it couldn't. But there's no way to know what these things are until... well, until somebody lobotomizes one of us to get it out, and frankly, I don't wanna do that. And our theory that something happened on the plane just got shot to hell, because I've got one and I wasn't on the plane... and Pierce doesn't have one, and he was on the plane."
Marie had shut the door on the whole thing. What little they knew had suddenly crumbled away to almost nothing in their hands, replaced with a few fragments that they couldn't explain.
"She's right." Jake said with a sigh. "We got nothing but a couple of X-Rays, and something weird happening out at the Creek."
"Actually, we don't have that any more." Pierce piped up. "I went out there this morning, tried the bottle trick again? Nothing. It all went back to normal since the other day."
Everyone let out another explosive sigh. Another dead end.
"If we want to convince anyone that we're not lying or insane, we need serious, hard, smoking gun proof." Zack said finally. "We don't have that. All we've got is the nightmares of three kids who were in a mid-air mishap, and a few X-Rays that point to something we can't explain, and even that has loopholes."
"So we do nothing?" Pierce snapped. "I know you'd prefer it if we all hid under the bed and hope things work out on their own, Zack. But I can't do that. Whatever it is, most of my friends, and my father all seem to be in the middle of it, to say nothing of the rest of this town."
"My parents too." Jess put in. "Everyone's telling me to go home and think good thoughts, telling me to let the Sheriff handle it, and he's in this up to his neck already. I have something in my head."
"So do I." Marie added, brushing a hand over her boyfriend's arm. "Zack, you're the only one with nothing on the line here..."
"Nothing?" Zack repeated. "God, you really think I'm that much of a coward? My best friend, and my girlfriend have been... abducted, and Implanted with something. My family's livelihood has been shut down, and won't open again because my town seems to be cut off from the world." He looked at all of them, furious. "You guys think I'm that desperate for a way to make my life easier that I'll forget all that? I got skin in the game too!" He calmed back down, reigning himself in with difficulty. "But we got zip!"
"You know, I remember reading once about this CIA experiment. " Jess said softly. "They started spiking the water supply of small towns or something, so they would see what happens." She shrugged. "At first, I thought this was something like that."
"Monsters on Maple Street." Jake said.
"It was a Twilight Zone episode." Jake explained. "A small town had the power go out after a UFO sighting. Streetlights, radios, cars, everything. By switching the lights on and off in various houses, the aliens managed to make the town rip itself apart. All the paranoia resulted in a lynch mob."
"We all saw how they looked at us at the Town Meeting." Pierce put in suddenly. "I didn't see who said it, but there were people agreeing with him, about how it all started with the Plane."
"Nobody's looking at us." Marie said in her calming voice. "They might have thought it before the Aurora, but not any more."
Then Jake straightened swiftly in his seat. "Oh, sonofabitch!"
Everyone jumped at the sudden eruption. "What? What?!"
Jake stood up and zipped up his jacket. "The reason we can't make sense of who's got an Implant and who doesn't?" He said. "Its because we assumed it happened on the Plane. But it didn't. Marie's right, there's too much going on that people can't explain. But we of all people know what the rest of the town seems to have forgotten."
"That the weirdness didn't start with the Plane." Jake reminded them. "This started long before that."
Pierce snapped his fingers, suddenly on his feet. "Doug Gunn."
"He reappeared after being gone for years." Jake nodded. "So you guys tell me: Did this start when he came wandering out of the cornfield in a daze? Or did this start when he vanished?"
The others quickly got up and followed him to the door, onto the idea. "If this started when we were barely out of preschool, it would explain why we don't all remember." Marie said, actually seeming relieved. "In fact, this must have been going on for a long time, because when you were in kindergarten, I was in another state. So I must have got mine at some point in between."
"This has been going on for years; it's just that we noticed it now! We have to talk to Doug." Jake summed up. "He's been keeping the details of this to himself for way too long."
"Wait, this is actually bad news!" Zack put a hand out. "If this has been going on for years, then how come we didn't notice it until now? What else has been going on all this time without our knowing it?"
Jake bit his lip. "In all the movies... this is how it happens. It starts with something small, and then the small things build up. Until..." He quickly shut himself up.
"Until what?" Jess asked softly.
Jake let out a breath. "Until they're ready to do whatever they're planning to do. They let us see nothing, until it doesn't matter what we see..."
Zack reacted. "What... If they've been laying the groundwork for this long... What are they building to?"
The thought was chilling, and everyone paused, halfway to the door.
Pierce got them moving again. "Let's go talk to Doug."
I don't know when the involvement of the 'others' stopped being a possibility, and became an accepted part of the conversation. We stopped talking about whether or not there were Aliens involved, and started talking about what they'd been doing all this time.
And how to prove it.
I remember once Zack and I had one of those long involved discussions that teenagers seem to have about TV. We talked about aliens. I said that having Aliens around would change the whole world. He said it would change nothing. He said that people have been half expecting them since Star Trek, Star Wars, War of the Worlds, etc.
But suddenly it wasn't fiction any more. We'd all been telling each other it was impossible all day, and now we were on our way to talk to the Abductee, trying to find something we could take to Mayor Grady that would prove our town is being messed with by beings from another planet.
Six hours ago, that sounded insane to me, but on the way to Maggie Gunn's shack, that changed. The word 'insane' lost all meaning.
Just like the first time my life took a left turn into crazy, Pierce was driving...
"I can't see a thing past the fog." Pierce complained, slowing the Jeep. "Visibility in the mist is... pathetic."
"You got the headlights on?" Jake asked. Ahead of them was a near wall of mist, just like at the Bridge. Pierce was hesitant to just drive into it, even slowly.
"I turn them up brighter, they'll just reflect off the mist and blind us." Pierce told him, slowing down a little more.
"You sure you know which way you're going?"
"I'm sure of exactly nothing at this point, I can't see more than thirty feet." Pierce said. "I'm going by the compass in the dashb... huh."
"What?" Jake looked over. The Jeep had a few bells and whistles, including a compass. The display was spinning. One second it said they were going north, the next that they were going south, then north again. "Problem with the Jeep?"
"Was working fine when we got to the Creek." Pierce countered. "Was it like this in town?"
"Nope. Just... Actually, come to think of it, the mist was strong like that at the Bridge too." Jake thought, and leaned out the window to call to the others, riding in the back. "Zack!" He shouted. "Turn on the spotlights!"
Zack reached up and switched on the hand spotlight on the top of the Jeep, as had been done that first night at the cornfield. The bright lights made it a little easier to see, the bright lights bouncing off the thick moisture in the air ahead of them, lighting up the mist...
And Pierce pounced on the breaks.
Everyone squawked, grabbing onto anything they could, and nobody was hurt. In front of them, at the edge of their visibility, was a bright red four wheel drive, with mud around the wheels, and through the windows, they could see the backseat was loaded with personal effects. Bags, boxes...
Pierce pulled the Jeep to a halt, and stepped out. "Hello?" He called out. No answer.
"Who's 4X4 is that?" Marie asked. "Anyone recognize it?"
"Joni Mitchell?" Jess suggested.
"Janice Mitchell." Pierce corrected her with a roll of his eyes. "Janice Mitchell and her husband work in the Mill. Joni Mitchell is a singer, and she doesn't live in Curtis Creek."
Jake started to head toward the red 4X4, when Jess reached out and grabbed him from behind. "Wait!" She hissed. "Remember my parents. Remember..."
Jake hesitated. "Guys." He said softly. "If... Just know, that if this doesn't work, I'll be feeling as stupid as I look. Pierce, you got a flashlight in the Jeep?"
Pierce reached into the glove box and fetched one. Jake took it, switched it on... He played the bright strong light over his hand, and tossed the whole thing over closer to the 4X4...
By the time it landed, the light had gone completely dead.
"That's disturbing." Zack said, his feet frozen. "We should get out of here. Now. We should..." He stammered out the words, but didn't move an inch.
"Well..." Jake said. "That... I mean..."
Pierce headed over to collect the flashlight, but Jake reached out and caught him by the sleeve. Pierce looked like he wanted to laugh, but even the big athlete was borderline terrified.
"Why are we reacting like this?" Jess asked helplessly. "It's a flashlight and a 4X4. There's nothing... Why are we acting like this?"
Pierce turned on his heel decisively, and headed for the longer grass. A moment later he began digging around.
"What are you looking for?" Marie asked him, when a quiet squeaking came from the area around Pierce's feet, and two large field mice came running out of the long grass.
"MICE!" Jess shrilled and immediately jumped two feet in the air, landing on Jake's back. Jake immediately hooked his arms back under her knees, giving her a piggyback ride.
The two mice ran away from Pierce, heading for the mists... As they approached the point of the 4X4, they hesitated, freezing in place as though they'd seen a predator. Pierce came up with a rock in his hand, and threw it. His aim with a rock was as good as with a football, and it came down inches from the nearest mouse. The small creature bolted forward on instinct...
Everyone stared, eyes boggling at the sight. The mouse was in clear view, perfectly visible. It didn't slip into the mist, there was no flash of light, it had just vanished completely, evaporating like it was never there.
Jess slid down off Jake's back, arms still around his shoulders from behind.
"Where is it?" Zack whispered.
"My mom." Jess whispered in horror. "My dad. It happened to them that way too. We saw it. Jake, you were there, we saw it!"
Pierce swallowed, eyes going to Jake. "Dude, I was... I was going to go over there. If I had gone to get that flashlight..."
"I don't understand, why does it turn off machines, but snatch living things?"
"Well maybe they don't like Machines." Jake said thickly, not knowing why, not really caring.
Marie looked at him like she'd seen a ghost. "They?"
Pierce bit his lip. "Everyone shut up for a second. I gotta think."
Jess was still moaning for her parents, looking at the empty 4X4. "Look at it, Jake. It's full of stuff. All their belongings. They were running out of town. They were trying to escape, and they didn't even make it past the Bridge. Where are they? God, where are they?"
Pierce had out his map of the town. "Marie, Zack, can I borrow you a second?"
The two of them headed over, while Jake stayed where he was, holding Jess tightly. "It'll be okay." He whispered to her.
"They haven't left, they vanished." Jess whispered back. "It means they're not going to be found... and neither is anyone who's going out to look for them. Jake, they're not coming back! I'm alone now."
"Hey." Jake said, pulling her chin up to make her meet his eyes. "Look around, you got four people right here. And you can count me twice, because you won't lose me."
Jess pressed her face into his neck, and his senses came alive with the soft silk of her hair.
God, I love this girl. He thought silently to himself, embracing her.
"Guys?" Marie called. "I hate to interrupt your little moment, but if we can get your attention over here for a second?"
Still holding Jess, Jake made his way over to Pierce, at the hood of his Jeep. On the town map, he had made three 'X' marks. One at the cornfield, one at the Bridge, and one where they were at the Creek. "What are you marking?"
"Where things have disappeared or shut down for no reason." Pierce explained. "Jess' parents at the Bridge, the flashlight that night at the cornfield, and here with the 4X4."
"Don't forget Toni's ATV." Jake reminded.
Pierce nodded swiftly at the reminder. "Right. I picked it up..." He thought for a moment and put another X on the map. "There." He took the pen and drew a line through the X's, connecting the dots, one to the next to the next. "That shape make any kind of sense to anyone?"
"Wrong idea." Marie said. "Hang on, my backpack's in the Jeep." She clambered up into the tray and got her backpack, still stuffed full of her homework. She got back down with a drafting compass. "Okay... like this." She adjusted the compass, put one pin into the map... and drew a big circle. The large circle went all the way around town in a perfect loop, and the line she drew went through the three marks perfectly.
"My God. It's not a Dead Zone." Zack whispered. "We're surrounded. The whole damn town..."
"That's why the shipments stopped coming in, and why we can't contact anyone outside town limits." Jake agreed, voice hushed.
Pierce looked at Marie's compass and swore. "Mrs Marinera promised that Math would save my life one day, and I laughed in her face."
A nervous little giggle broke out, as they all looked back to the invisible line. They were at the edge of the circle on the map, standing at the limit of their universe.
Jess looked to the mists like she was expecting them to attack her. "Pierce, your dad was there when my parents vanished. He knew what it meant. That's why there are four teams in the town, and only two going into the mist." She sniffed. "All the people that have vanished and come back in this town, and the ones that strayed too far... don't come back. Three people to a team. Every day since my family vanished, six more people have walked off the world." Slow tears started rolling down her cheeks. "Like my mom and dad."
"I want to go home now." Zack whispered.
"Me too." Jess said in a very small voice.
Marie spoke up next. "The search will be over for today, won't start again until tomorrow morning. We go to the Mayor tomorrow with what we know, get him to stop Sheriff Tanner from sending people out too far."
"Whoa, hold on." Jake said. "You understand what we're saying? You want to tell Mayor Grady that we think Aliens are abducting people out of our town?"
"Jake, it's... too big." Jess said finally. "We need to tell someone what we know."
"We don't know anything!" Zack objected.
"We know enough."
"I'm just saying, this is kind of a point of no return here." Jake insisted. "We all sure we want to do that?"
"Jake, someone's gotta warn people!" Marie pointed at the red 4X4, still fifteen feet away.
Pierce spoke up, with steel in his voice. "Mayor Grady and my dad are best friends. They go back all the way to high school. My dad knows more than we do, and I'm betting he'd tell Mayor Grady something. I'd bet my Jeep on it."
"So what? You want to march into the Mayor's Office and demand to know what they're not telling us?" Zack snorted like it was ridiculous.
"Why not?" Pierce shot back. "I mean, really? Why the hell not?"
"All right." Jess said finally. "The search starts again at eight tomorrow morning. The Mayor will be in his office around the same time. We'll get there early, meet up and tell him what we know. And what we think."
Marie stayed with Jess again. Jake glanced over at Pierce as they dropped the girls off and drove back toward the town. "I never would have thought of that trick with the map." He said finally.
Pierce nodded, steel in his eyes as he watched the road. "Thank the Coach. He drills those plays into us over and over, makes us memorize the field diagrams. If I can think like I'm reading a map all during a football game, I can think it anywhere."
Jake nodded. "You can be a real jackass sometimes, Pierce... but you're not bad."
"And you're a complete dork sometimes, Jake." Pierce returned quietly. "But you're not bad either."
They come at night.
At least, that's what all the movies and books say. I'm looking back at my journals for the last few weeks and I'm astonished how many hints there were. Something was going on in this town, something impossible. So impossible in fact that nobody noticed it.
Well, I'm noticing it now. And I'm afraid to fall asleep. Since the plane I've only been getting a few hours a night anyway, but now that I know, I don't even want to try. It's two in the morning, and I'm scared to try and sleep. I don't know if I'm afraid of my nightmares or if I'm afraid of them coming back for me.
One thing you can say about small country towns, the nights are always pitch black,
Except that the nights are not pitch black any more. The Aurora is still going in the sky, giving the night a green and yellow glow. It would be pretty, except that I'm honestly not sure if the Aurora is a coincidence, or if there's a big UFO with a can of luminous paints up there, spray-painting the sky-
"Aah!" Jake nearly leaped out of his chair, halfway between a scream of terror and a gasp of surprise. The gasp cut off his shout enough that it probably didn't go any further than his room.
There was a shadow in his bedroom window, cast against the eerie green and yellow glow of the sky outside. Then the shadow shifted, and Jake let out a sudden breath. "It's not locked." He croaked out, trying to get his heart-rate back to normal.
The window slid upward, and Jess peeked in, looking embarrassed and amused. "Sorry." She mused. "Come outside for a minute?"
"Probably better than you getting caught in here, now that I just squealed like a girl." Jake climbed out the window, feeling the roof tile on his bare feet.
"I don't sound like that when I squeal." Jess teased, and she rolled her eyes immediately at herself. "And that sounded a lot dirtier than I meant it to."
Jake's house was two stories, with the bedrooms on the top floor. Beneath his room was the porch, and the porch roof was directly outside his window. Off to the left was Ben's bedroom window, dark and quiet.
Jake wasn't worried about the roof. He and Ben had played out here often, and the lattice that climbed the wall beside their front porch was as good as any ladder. He'd used it himself plenty of times.
Jess looked great, as always, dressed like she'd just stepped out of a magazine. She pulled a bag of potato chips out from behind her back. "I come bearing gifts. This may just be the last bag of potato chips in town."
"The last bag?"
"People heard there were no trucks coming in and went a little nuts." Jess explained. "The adults started hoarding gas and groceries, the kids went wild and cleaned out the junk food aisles."
Jake chuckled as she opened the bag and held it out to him. They sat together silently for a while, eating chips. "You decided not to have midnight snacks alone?"
"I couldn't sleep." She said with a sigh. "And I knew you wouldn't be sleeping. Marie's snoring like a band-saw, so I thought..."
"I'm glad you came." Jake said softly, settling next to her.
"I looked it up." Jess offered. "The longest a person can last without sleep is two weeks. Anything over a few days you start having hallucinations, a few days more, psychotic episodes."
"Yeah, you could get so wired you'd think your town is under attack by aliens." Jake deadpanned.
"Aliens, you say?" Jess commented dramatically. "Why that's the craziest thing I've ever heard."
Jake rubbed his aching eyes. "We're going to have to sell it. With the Mayor? He's going to laugh us out of the room."
"He might, but Sheriff Tanner knows." Jess pointed out. "What happens when he finds out his son knows about the Implants?"
Jake hesitated. "You think we should leave well enough alone?" He kicked himself the second it came out of his mouth. "Sorry. That was stupid."
Jess yawned hugely. "I can't leave it. Not until I get my family back."
"I'll help you." Jake promised. "But the Sheriff isn't our dad. I wonder what Pierce is thinking?"
Jess snorted. "On the way over here? I'm pretty sure I saw his Jeep parked down the street from Tracy's house. His father is still on the search so... I don't suppose there's a lot of 'thinking' going on at all."
"Listen, is Pierce going to be a huge problem?" Jake asked. "Because he's been right on the money about all the stuff we're looking into, but if he's a problem for you, believe me, I'll happily tell him to get lost."
Jess shook her head. "This is... Jake, it's all of Curtis Creek. We're seeing the Mayor tomorrow. You really going to risk not doing this right, just because I can't stand my ex-boyfriend?"
"Yes, if you asked me to." Jake said simply. "And I wouldn't blame you."
Jess was silent a moment. "You really would, wouldn't you?" She sighed. "You are very sweet. Quit doing that, I'm not that nice of a person."
Jake grinned. "Yes, you are."
Jess rolled her head back, looked up at the sky. "You know, back when I was a kid, I used to read travel guides, more than anything else." Jess confessed. "I would pore over the photos, wonder what the weather was like there, imagine myself dressed how the people would dress... I would take vacations in photographs."
"What?" Jess said, smiling a little.
"I did the exact same thing." Jake confessed. "That's actually how I got interested in astronomy." He explained. "My dad had taught me about why stars are more visible here than in the city, and I got the telescope... I was a kid, and looking through the scope wasn't as fun as Star Trek. I went to the library and went over the telescope controls, and I was about ready to give it up right there."
"Astronomy suddenly involved math." Jake confessed. "Then Mayor Grady saw me with one of those instruction manuals about how to point a telescope the right way, and he went to one of the shelves. He handed me a book about the Space Program. I saw a bunch of photos that the Apollo Astronauts took of the moon. I was jazzed, because... They were the only holiday snaps that were taken in a place other than Earth."
Jess smiled. "For me it was my mom. I was having a tantrum over something, can't even remember what. I told her how bored I was all the time. Mom gave me a firm talking to on the subject. She told me the world was far too interesting for boredom to be an issue, and she showed me a copy of National Geographic... Rome? Paris? And there's a small town somewhere in Tibet where the women wear such gorgeous robes..."
"If we ever get past the Bridge again? I want to see it all." Jess said dreamily. "Of course, planning a world tour takes some planning and coordination, so you'll have to come with me, to organize all that. And you'll need Zack to come along in case you get bored, and he'll need Marie to keep pushing him into actually doing stuff..."
"You don't want to bring any of your friends? Terri? Christine?"
"Oh, please. Those two calorie counters in Europe?" Jess snorted. "Italy doesn't have a meal to its name without carbs, they'd starve to death."
Jake chuckled warmly, and was about to say something else... when the sound of movement close by made them both fall silent. Over to their left, Ben's bedroom window had slid upward, and the boy was climbing out. He froze instantly when he saw both of them sitting on the rooftop outside the window. "Oh. Hello."
"Hello." Both teenagers said back brightly. They acted amused that they'd caught him sneaking out, but they knew they were in trouble too. Jess being over this late would have been as damaging to Jake as sneaking out would have been to Ben.
The boy knew this too, and bit his lip. "I won't tell if you won't."
"Deal." Both teens said together, and Ben went back inside, shutting the window behind him.
"Where exactly does a nine year old go at two in the morning?" Jess asked, amused.
"I don't know, but he's been doing it a while." Jake nodded. "I found out just over a week ago."
Jess just looked at him.
"I know." Jake said quietly. "Jess, we did it all the time growing up. We'd sneak out, get our bikes and go down to the Creek. We use to catch fireflies in jars, make s'mores... There was only one rule. Don't tell anyone."
"This is what I missed huh? Growing up without siblings?" Jess said with a smile. "I think it's sweet. Very Norman Rockwell." She looked him over carefully. "Except you need a shave."
Jake chuckled. "Why did you come here, Jess?"
"Well, it wasn't because I wanted to talk about Pierce." She admitted. "I wanted..." She looked down. "I wanted to be here, because when I'm with you, I'm not worrying about what planet my family is on." She hesitated. "At home, Marie's taking care of me, but... until my family gets back, I want to be here." She put her arm in his and leaned into him a little.
Jake was suddenly hyper-aware of her presence as he licked his lips and looked at Jess... She looked back, giving him one of Those Looks... And her nose started bleeding.
She saw his face change. "What?" A hand went to her nose and she let out a breath explosively. "Oh... dammit." She hissed. "Way to kill the moment."
"Killed it dead." Jake admitted with a wry grin. "Tissues are in the bathroom, I'll get you some, and stop blushing, you'll bleed faster."
Jake headed into the house as quietly as he could, and went to the bathroom. He saw the tissues on the counter, and reached for them. A moment later he noticed the rubbish bin next to the sink.
It was filled with blood-stained tissues.
"Something wrong?" She asked him when he came back with a handful for her.
Jake sat back down, hugging his knees to his chest in open worry. "The bin in the bathroom? You're not the only one having nosebleeds. There are enough tissues in the bin to make me think that this has been happening a lot, given how often mom cleans out the bathroom."
Jess took that in and slid over a little, laying her head on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Jake."
He shivered. "It's the Implant, isn't it? My whole family has them too."
"Your family, the football team, Marie..." Jess shivered. "Jake, I'm starting to think that more people have them than not."
"Tomorrow." Jake said. "Tomorrow we talk to the Mayor."
Jess nodded. "I still can't sleep. And odds are you can't either. Do you mind if we sit here, not sleeping, until my nose stops bleeding?"
"Sounds like a fun night." Jake smirked, and slid his hand into hers.
Jess wasn't wrong. I haven't slept properly since the plane. I've been getting in catnaps all the time, twenty minutes here and there. But it's not nearly what I used to get. And now I know Jess isn't sleeping either.
Jess had to go as the Aurora started to fade. It vanished in the coming dawn, and if the sun was rising, it meant Marie would be waking up at Jess' house soon and wondering where she was.
I miss the moon.
April 24, 2003
The plan to confront the Mayor was not as successful as I might have hoped. It wasn't even as successful as I thought it really would be.
The Mayor's Office was just a room of the Town Hall. The Town Hall was always open, as the center of town, used for functions, church socials, bake sales… Even when there wasn't a meeting, there was always someone making use of the Main Hall. The Sheriff's Office was tacked onto the back of it, part of the building, below the clocktower.
Jake and Zack got there minutes after Jess and Marie. "Where's Pierce?" Jess said by way of greeting. "I thought he was coming with you guys."
"We went looking for him, but there was no sign of him at his place, his Jeep wasn't there."
Jess bit her lip. "Did you try-"
"We tried her place too." Jake said quietly. "No luck."
Marie and Zack sidled a little closer to each other, as though they hadn't heard that. "The search is set to resume in twenty minutes, if we're going to talk the Mayor out of sending more search teams, we can't wait for him."
The four of them headed inside to discover that on this particular day, the Main Hall was being used to coordinate the search for Jess' Parents. Maps of the town were up all over the place, with lines drawn over it, dividing up the town and surrounding area into blocks that each team could examine.
"Are you feeling strong enough?" Marie asked Jess quietly. They would have to go through the Main Hall to get to the Mayor's Office.
"I was expecting more people." Jess admitted, nodding slowly. "Pierce tells me that the majority of people are now working as runners."
"Well, that's inevitable I guess." Jake offered. "With the radios down and the phones with it, the only way to get in touch with people is to actually send someone to deliver a message. Either that or we put a hundred guys all over town with whistles and have them blast out Morse Code back and forth."
Jess was impressed. "You know how to read Morse Code?"
"Yup." Jake confirmed. "Never once used it though."
"Me neither. Carrier pigeons?"
Pierce wandered up the hallway in no particular hurry, going from one wall to the other, looking at the photographs hanging on both sides. "What carrier pigeons?" He asked softly. "Are they missing too?"
"No." Jess snorted, and headed into the Main Hall.
"Ooh, good. Because if the pigeons go, then we're really in trouble." Pierce nodded. "Listen, you better not let me see my dad see me."
Zack blinked. "Why?"
Pierce just looked at him vacantly. "Why what?"
Jake's eyes widened in realization. "Oh my God, you're drunk."
Pierce took in a shuddering breath. "I'm not drunk.... But I tell you one thing: I may be a little bit really drunk."
"It's eight thirty in the morning!" Jess hissed. "How the hell do you even get drunk that early?"
Pierce shrugged. "I don't sleep. Who cares what time it is if you never sleep? I had dinner at two am last week, just for the hell of it." He yawned. "I had bacon."
The other four all looked bleakly at each other. This day was off to a bad start, and they hadn't even started yet. "Pierce, where's your Jeep?"
"Roun' back." Pierce said, the slur becoming a little more noticeable.
"Give me your keys." Jess said crisply, and Pierce handed them over to her without incident. "Good boy. Go find a place to sit down until you sober up, okay?"
"Hey, no. Yeah, no. No, of course I can still help!" Pierce insisted. "I want to come in with you!"
"Pierce, you go in there, and-"
"I WANNA GO IN WITH YOU!" Pierce shouted.
He was getting loud and agitated, and Jess was at his side instantly, calming him down. Marie and Zack traded a look with Jake. This was not going well.
Jess turned away from Pierce, still holding his hand, and laid it out for them. "Okay, look. I've had to deal with drunk-Pierce before, and for the most part it's just a matter of letting him be in the room. He'll behave himself, we just have to give him somewhere to sit." She looked over her shoulder at the football star. "Right?"
"Right." Pierce nodded, the motion making him weave a little.
Jake tried not to think about the fact that she had experience in these situations, and nodded. "Well, we can't leave him out here."
"Because of my dad." Pierce jumped in quickly. "He and Grayor Mady are best friends." He slurred. "If dad knows stuff about the nimp... and bout the impe... About the thing in your heads, then Grady will too."
Jess was stopped by half a dozen people on their way through the hall, and she made polite chit-chat with them until she could get away from their well intentioned support. The others reached the hallway outside the Mayor's office quickly and waited for her until she caught up, hovering outside the Mayor's Office, letting time pass as they checked the notice boards, and the photos. Every wall in the hallway was covered in framed photos. Almost everyone in town had a place in the town history. And almost all of the images included Mayor Grady, smiling broadly at the camera with them, like he was part of every family.
"Listen guys, I realize this is a lousy time to mention it, but this is not going to work." Zack said finally. "We all agreed that the Mayor probably knew more than he was saying, and so we had to confront him, right?"
"We said it was possible." Jake corrected.
"Right, but my point is, if he was hiding something then what we have won't convince him to tell anyone, and if he's not hiding anything then what we've got wouldn't convince a third grader."
"Don't be such a cynic, Zack." Marie told him.
"No, guys... look at this hallway. Wall to wall it's photos of things people do in this town, and everyone is smiling, and Mayor Grady is in more than half of these photos. The ones he's not in, he's probably holding the camera."
"He's a popular guy, Zack. We know that."
"Yeah, but my point is: this isn't some villain in a black hat you're talking about, this is Mayor Grady. We know this guy. We like him, remember?"
"I know." Jake said quietly.
"You remember five years ago, my dad swerved to avoid an animal on the road, totaled the truck? Mayor Grady gave my dad his truck for three months, no charge."
"I remember." Jake said, nodding gently.
Zack leaned forward. "You remember back in Kindergarten?" He put in. "Someone accused our Principal of being on drugs, Mayor Grady did the interviews himself. He knew I was scared, he asked me about baseball. He asked me about my favorite baseball team, and when I answered, he shook my hand, told me to consider myself interviewed. A few days later he sent me a baseball, signed by Guess-Who."
Jake sighed. "I know Zack. I love the man too. He was the one that taught me about the constellations my first time looking through that telescope. But none of that means he's not lying to us." Jake reasoned. "I think he's a great guy too... I just think he knows more than he's telling the town about what's going on... So lets go ask him about it."
The others nodded at that, and Marie checked her watch. "It's time."
Jake went to the office door, checked the others over his shoulder, and knocked.
"Come in." The Mayor called.
Jake opened the door and led the way in. Mayor Grady was sitting behind his desk, and he rose to his feet when he saw he had company. "Kids..." He noticed Jess. "Jessica." He said warmly, coming around his desk to shake her hand. "How are you holding up? You know, we really weren't expecting you to come in, but I promise you, we're doing everything we can. Have your friends here been looking after you? Making sure you eat?"
His tone was warm, part father-figure, part gentleman, and Jess smiled, a little bit charmed by it. "They have. They've been taking real good care of me, Mister Mayor."
"That's good." Grady smiled at all of them. "It's good to have people you can count on when times are hard. So. How can I be of service to the five of you today?"
We laid it all out for him. We started with Doug, our reactions to the flashes of light, and what we remembered, which wasn't much when we said it out loud.
Pierce was still out of it, so I told him about the fish, about the compass spinning around. Jess told him about the Bridge, and followed that with Janice Mitchell's 4X4.
He took our claims seriously, or at least was gracious enough to treat us like adults, and never dismissed what we said out of hand. It is the single most honorable quality about Mayor Grady, that he takes everyone seriously, even when he didn't agree with them, and I for one, was never more grateful for it.
"Okay..." Grady said after they were done, giving each of them a measured look. "Let's be clear on a few things. You're saying that you all remember being abducted by Aliens."
"No sir." Zack said. "Jess, Jake and Pierce do."
"Well..." Jake hesitated. "We remember something like that, but it's not like we can clearly..." He trailed off. Somehow, saying it all out loud to an adult, and someone in authority, made it all seem so... silly.
Grady nodded slowly. "Okay. Have any of you actually seen aliens in town?" He asked them seriously.
Jake looked at Jess, and she looked back helplessly. "No sir."
"Have you seen UFO's? In the sky? On the ground, landed?"
Zack was sinking into his shoes as none of the teenagers were able to answer.
"I know it sounds insane, but it just seems like this is the time for insane ideas." Jake said, feeling dangerous ground beneath their feet.
Mayor Grady smiled a little. "Kids, Lloyd McDermott came in two days ago, convinced that the Communists were landing. I tried telling him the Cold War ended thirty years ago... he says that's just what they wanted us to think." He chuckled. "It's not an uncommon reaction, looking for extraordinary reasons to explain extraordinary circumstances. Ever since the Plane, things have..."
"It didn't start with the Plane." Jake jumped in. "It started when Doug Gunn skipped a decade."
Marie picked up the story. "We were the ones that found him, and we knew him back when we were kids, so we started investigating, and this is what we came up with."
"Aliens?" Grady responded.
Marie started counting on her fingers. "Missing people returned, blocks of missing time, planes vanishing off radar and coming back again, waking dreams about bright lights and little grey men, insomnia, anomalies on X-Rays, radio signals dropping out, strange lights in the sky. It's every indicator in the book."
"Which book?" Grady pointed out. "It's every cliché out of every movie ever made on the subject. You can see how easy it would be to let your imagination get away from you."
"Mister Mayor..." Jake tried again. "It sounds nuts, but there have been weird things happening, and it's scaring people. We just wanted to add some things to the story that you don't know, and point you in the direction we see it leading."
"Jake, there are a lot of things happening in the world that don't make sense. 99% of them have a perfectly logical explanation."
"And 1% doesn't." Jess said.
"And that makes 100% total." Pierce put in suddenly, and Jess squeezed his arm tightly.
"We saw things vanish at the mist!"
"You saw something go into the mist, and then you couldn't see it again? That's what fog and mist does." Grady raised an eyebrow. "And before you say it, I know they haven't come back. That's why the whole town is mobilized to find them."
"What about the Implants?" Marie asked quietly.
Grady just smiled softly at her. "Marie, there's a reason we don't let med-students run the X-Ray machines. I don't know much about it, but depending on the settings, you could get a reading like that from bones, calcium, who knows what else? I mean, what really does your story boil down to? More than two thirds of your case for extraterrestrials had already been explained long before you came in here."
Jake put a hand up. "Mayor Grady, I would have accepted Solar Flares for why the town went dark, I would have accepted a trucker's strike as the reason why the shipments stopped, I would have accepted too much TV as why I had flashes of Little Grey Men, but you add them all together and the odds just stack up. I don't even know what the logical explanation is for a spinning compass and a time-shifted kindergartener..."
The Mayor looked at them patiently. "Jake, that land near the Bridge, do you know who originally owned it?"
"It was my grandfather. He sold a slice out of the property to build the Bridge. When they were building, they did a geological test. That whole area has magnetic properties. That's why the compass' went crazy at the cornfield. That's probably what happened to all the electronic gizmos. The whole town is off the air because of what's happening, so that effect probably got stronger." He chuckled. "Give it a few days till the Internet comes back, you can probably look it up and make sure."
"Magnetic rock doesn't make kids vanish and reappear ten years later." Jake countered.
"Jake, I know that." Grady said soothingly. "Before the phones got knocked off the air, I was contacted by the FBI, and they agreed it was most likely an error in their fingerprints database giving a false positive."
"You saying the kid we found wasn't Dougie?" Zack asked, surprised.
"Well, like you keep saying: If he was Doug Gunn, he should be nearly adult by now." The Mayor said logically. "They were going to collect all the missing persons reports and send me photos so that we could compare, but then of course we got cut off..."
"The photos we have here say that it's Doug. If the FBI think it's a mistake, then they'd have to check in other ways. Dental, DNA... Why didn't you call for a DNA test?" Jake asked quietly.
Grady seemed surprised by that. "On 'Doug'? That's not standard."
"It's not a standard case." Marie pointed out. "It would explain for sure if it was really him."
The Mayor shook his head. "We don't have the facilities here." He explained, as if trying to get a point across to a child. "We'd have to send it up to the Federal Police Laboratories. It would literally make what happened to that kid you found a federal case. Do you want that to happen?"
"We want to know what's going on in our town." Zack told him.
"And I want to keep Curtis Creek from becoming another Roswell."
"Roswell does pretty well for itself."
"As a circus attraction." The Mayor argued.
"I like the circus." Pierce piped up, and Jess elbowed him.
Mayor Grady gave Pierce a long, careful consideration. "Pierce? Have you been drinking?"
Jake piped up, putting them back on message. "Sir, it sounds to me like you're trying to pretend it never happened."
"That's exactly what I'm trying to do." The Mayor said, suddenly fed up. "You've met Doug's Aunt. Imagine what happens when a hundred reporters, a few dozen conspiracy nuts, and every fringe UFO fanatic in the country lines up in their front yard to get a look at the boy who skipped a decade." His eyes narrowed. "It wouldn't be the obvious, would it?"
"What do you mean?"
Grady looked infinitely forgiving. "Jess, I know how much you want to get out of this town. You picturing yourself on Television?"
Jess' face hardened. "There's something going on in our town that we can't explain, and quite frankly, it's scaring us. Why won't anyone ask some questions?"
"Plenty of people are asking questions my dear. People have been asking questions about aliens and UFO's for decades, and none of them are getting listened to either." The Mayor rose to his feet. "Kids, do you want to put your hands up and say that you think one of your schoolmates was abducted by aliens ten years ago, until you found him? Are you prepared to say that your plane was taken by a spaceship from another planet, and held for less than seven minutes, when everyone else, including the pilot and the FAA, say that it was static charge? Are you prepared to get a reputation as liars or lunatics? Because either way you'll never get a job, never get taken seriously ever again."
"If I didn't know better, Pierce, I'd swear he was threatening me." Jake said casually.
"Well, I'm pretty drunk, but yeah... I'd say that's exactly what he was doing." Pierce agreed.
Silence. Jess, Marie and Zack were all looking at each other awkwardly, not comfortable with the direction Pierce and Jake had taken the conversation.
"It's not a threat, Jake. It's a simple dose of common sense. This is a small town full of people with long memories." The Mayor said simply. "Do you want everyone to think you are crazy? Because that's exactly what's going to happen. Everyone will think you're either deliberately making it up, or need professional help." He let that sink in. "When was the last time you heard a reasoned, thoughtful debate about the existence of extraterrestrial life? Every time it gets mentioned, someone plays the X-Files theme music, someone plays a few clips out of Star Trek, someone makes a joke about 'probing' and just like that, whoever is speaking on the subject becomes a national joke. So sue me if I want to spare you and the rest of this town from that."
He was polite, he was calm, he was reasonable, and he was right. It wasn't a discussion, it was an execution. By the time the Mayor had finished speaking, the high school students felt foolish for even bringing it up.
He looked at them, patient and tolerant. "When I was your age, my father died. His car went off a Bridge in Houston, and they never found the body. Everyone knew what happened, but nobody could bring him home. A week later, I saw a man walking through the woods, and I thought it was him. I tore the town up trying to find answers. It didn't help, it made me crazy, and my mother, rest her soul... I just made things worse for her."
"My dad doesn't know we're here." Pierce offered, staring at his shoes like the rest of them.
The Mayor nodded. "Good." He said simply.
"Sir," Jake said tightly. "I don't know everything either, but I do know that our town has no goods coming in, and no people going out. The next town might as well be on the moon for all we can get from it, and not only is there no communication with the outside, but any communication that needs a signal beyond the Bridge has ceased to function, as we slowly watch the stores run dry. There's a word for that... Blockade."
Grady just looked at him. "Blockaded by an alien conspiracy?" He repeated.
Jess rose. "You said when I came in that you would do anything you could for me. Will you stop sending search teams out past the town limits?"
Grady looked strongly at her. "Jess." He said seriously, his voice going deeper and harder than any of them had ever heard. "You're the next of kin, you can ask the town to call off the search, or give information that would help us define the search grid."
Grady came around the desk and sat on the edge of it, bending forward to look deeply into her eyes. "Jess, your family is missing, and the people of this town are volunteering to look for them. If you tell them not to look, and it later turns out that... Well..."
Jess said it for him. "If my parents are found in a shallow grave next year, and it turns out I called off the search too early, I have to live with that."
"More importantly, you'll have to face up to a lot of people and explain why you wanted the search to stay so close to town." Grady nodded. "You sure you want to take that risk? Based on nothing but the fact that you are worried about the search teams being abducted by aliens?"
It sounded ridiculous, and everyone in the room suddenly knew it. Jess looked to Jake, asking silently for his support. He gave her a nod, and Jess straightened her shoulders. "Yes, Mayor Grady. I'm sure."
"You guys aren't even out of high school yet. If you make your lives about trying to find the answer to a question you don't understand, you'll never find the answers, and you'll waste too much of your life chasing the wind." Grady paused, taking their measure. "About a month after my father died... I gave up my crusade. And the next day I went back to school. And the day after that, I went out with my friends. And a day after that, I visited my father's grave. Life went on, and I got on with living it. The world is like that sometimes."
None of them had an answer for him.
He smiled. "Jake. The Festival is next week. Your father still planning to play guitar for us?"
Jake smiled, just a little. "He's been practicing all week."
"Marie? Your mom still going to make up some of that great lemon butter? Every year she makes a mountain of scones and ginger biscuits for the bake sale, and I know you help her with them."
"Yes sir." She whispered, barely audible.
The Mayor nodded. "Kids, why don't you all go home now? This has been a long week, full of scary things, but the day is young. Go enjoy it. I promise, I won't tell anyone about this crazy UFO nonsense."
Jake bit his lip. "May I just ask one more thing?"
"Do you have any fillings?" He asked politely. "Like in your teeth? Bridgework? Braces? Anything like that?"
The Mayor blinked in surprise. "No, nothing like that. Why?"
Jake reached into his backpack and pulled out the metal detector wand. Before anyone could say anything, he brought it up quickly to scan over the Mayor's face. It only took a moment before it beeped.
Jake put the detector away. "Thank you for your time."
They all filed out, and the Mayor watched them go with a sigh.
Jess threw herself at Jake the moment the door closed behind them. "You knew, didn't you?" She demanded. "Before you pulled the wand out, you knew it'd find something."
"Call it a hunch." Jake said simply. "Let's get something to eat."
"The only food in town is what we make ourselves." Marie reminded him.
Jake didn't seem bothered by it, most of his mind elsewhere. "We have spud growers. We can buy some potatoes, Zack still has the key to the Diner, we can make fries."
Jess sat on the edge of the counter while Jake and Zack worked the frier.
Marie came in and folded her arms across the back of Zack's shoulders, leaning into him while he worked. "I can't believe we just did that."
Zack snorted. "Either we did it, or it was a very intense version of the 'showed up to school in your underwear' dream. Only more embarrassing."
"And I can't believe the Diner ran out of food in less than a week." Jess pointed out.
"My dad told me once that to keep storage and refrigeration costs low, the big cities have an average of a weeks worth of food on hand in the Supermarkets." Zack commented.
"A two week trucker strike would be enough to starve a hundred million Americans?" Jess seemed nonplussed.
"Probably less given the way people go through food." Pierce said. "I wanna help."
"Pierce, it might be best to wait until you're sober before we give you a deep fryer full of boiling oil." Jess said kindly.
Pierce nodded. "'kay."
"In fact, shoo." Zack said seriously. "Rule Number Two is not to have a crowded kitchen when you're working the fryer."
"What's Rule Number One?"
"Do whatever the cook says." Marie recited, and kissed Zack on the cheek from behind. "We'll clear out."
Everyone headed out of the kitchen, except for Jake.
"Well." Zack said as he dipped the handmade fries into the oil again. "Looks like we've run out of diversions."
"I don't know, Zack, we could try and find new ones." Jake offered "How's the weather?"
"Clear skies right now." Zack retorted. "But I was hanging around the Mayor's Office this morning, and a bunch of crazy teenagers think that there's a chance of meteor showers tonight."
"Meteor showers you say?" Jake remarked. "I heard some lunatic thought that was actually an alien invasion. Can you imagine the crazy things a person will believe?"
Zack yawned. "Jake, you remember the time we went to the baseball game and accidentally knocked the drinks table over?"
"You remember we figured if we could clean up all the spilled sports drink before the team got back in from the game, nobody would know?"
Jake winced and smiled broadly at the same time. "I remember. We mopped it all up, squeezed it out into a bucket and refilled all the cups."
Zack nodded solemnly. "Nobody knew why the whole team got sick at the same time." He turned off the fryer. "My point is, that until an hour ago, that was the guilty secret I swore I would take to my grave. After today, I would make that story my answering machine message."
Jake grinned. "Well, the day is young, we may yet find a way to screw up worse. We've got a drunk footballer, his jilted ex-girlfriend, a med-student who likes to play with X-Ray machines, a geek convinced his town is under attack by aliens, and you."
On that note, Zack held up the tray of hot chips. "And lunch is served."
The two friends shared a bitter grin and headed out into the Diner.
Even with a whole Diner to themselves, the friends sat in their usual booth. Zack set the bowl down between them and they ate slowly for a while. For several minutes, nobody said anything. It was not the first time they waited for someone to say what they were all thinking.
"Well. That was a disaster." Jess said after a long while. "Remind me. Did we actually think that coming clean and being honest with the Mayor was a good idea last night?"
"If we did, we must be pretty stupid, huh?"
"I feel like I just had a front row seat to a public execution." Marie complained. "He made us look like idiot children, and I am actually on the very edge of thinking that he's right. He didn't even raise his voice, Jake. He threw out our ideas, laughed in our faces, forgave us for thinking what we did and accepted our apology for wasting his time. How did he do that?"
"To say nothing of the fact that if my parents are ever found, I just made myself the chief suspect in their disappearance." Jess added.
"So. What now?" Zack asked. "We told the Mayor, right? Isn't it up to him now?"
"Does it seem like he's going to take action to you?" Jess asked him sarcastically.
"Not a bit, but my point is, we can't really appeal to anyone higher, because they're all out of town. We've already decided that we don't trust the Sheriff, and anyone in town that we tell will probably go to one or both of those two men." Zack told them seriously. "And if we did get through to someone else, what would we tell them? Because so far, telling them what we think, and doing it honestly, didn't seem to help."
"He's right." Marie said finally. "So what do we do?"
"Jess, you can call me a chicken if you want, but just think for a second." Zack said. "We went in there with a promise of what some of us almost remembered, and a few ideas on what half of us thought it might mean. We backed it up with X-Rays we shouldn't have taken and doubts about mysteries that have already been solved. Not exactly an airtight case." Zack spread his hands wide to each of them. "We looked like idiots in there... And frankly, we shouldn't be surprised. We just walked into the Mayor's Office and tried to convince him that freaking Flying Saucers took Jess' parents."
"Well, something did." Jess said acidly. "And frankly, Zack... I'm a little sick of you trying to talk the rest of us out of trying to do something about that. You guys get to go home to your families tonight. I don't."
"Yeah!" Pierce agreed, a little too loudly.
Long silence. Zack had the decency to look embarrassed by the conversation. "You're right. I'm sorry." He hesitated. "If I had a clue what to do about any of it, I would be the first to insist we do it. Does anyone actually have anything approaching an answer?"
"Not even close. I don't even know for sure what the question is." Marie said finally. "But we tell enough people, maybe one of them has some information that nobody else does, and maybe someone comes up with a solution that we can't think of on our own. We keep quiet, what happens then?"
Jake looked at each of them in turn, his voice getting stronger and clearer. "There are... moments. Moments when you have to make a choice, about what to do, knowing that whatever choice you make, it's not just you that gets affected. This is one of those moments. Whatever we decide to do next, I think it's best that we do it together... And if it's affecting more people in this town than just us... We want to decide carefully." He looked at each of them, looking deep in their eyes one by one. "There are two options. Option one... we call this off. I don't know what's happening, but we made our case to the Mayor himself and we got laughed out of the room. Whatever comes next, if anything, is on him now." He paused. "Unless we take Option Two, and keep going."
There was a long silence, and finally Jess raised her hand. "I have to keep going. I know what I saw out at the Bridge, then again at the Creek. Nobody else believes it, but I do. I have to keep going."
Marie bit her lip. "The Mayor can say what he likes, I did the X-Ray right. He's right about us putting our future on the line. We'll be laughed out of town if we try to keep going. That said... we can't stop now. There's something in my brain and I don't know what it is."
"Me too." Pierce slurred. "My dad's in it up to his neck. If he's still in, then-n-n I'm in."
Everyone looked at Zack, who shrank a little under their gaze, but his voice was clear. "People in this town are marked. My father might be on that list. For sure my best friend and my girlfriend are. If this all turns out to be make believe, I promise I'll be the first one to think it's funny. Until then, I'm with you, Jake."
It isn't in my journal, because it didn't occur to me until weeks later... But that day, that meeting, was the start of us. The Curtis Creek Survivors began at that moment.
As they came out of the Diner, they swiftly discovered that someone was waiting for them.
"Pierce!" Bellowed a voice from behind them. All of them jumped as Sheriff Tanner stormed up to the group, absolutely furious. He swiftly ignored the others and glared at his son. He leaned in and took one sniff of his clothes. "Where'd you get the booze?"
"How'd you hear about this so fast?" Jake asked.
"I'm the Town Sheriff, I have a working relationship with my best friend the Mayor." Tanner snapped. "You know what it's like to have the Town Mayor tell you that your son is drunk at nine in the morning and telling stories that wouldn't last five minutes on Star Trek?"
"Okay, I can explain that." Pierce slurred.
"Please do." His father growled out.
Pierce promptly threw up violently all over himself, and everyone but Sheriff Tanner took three huge steps back.
The Lawman reached out and confiscated the metal detector from Jake pointedly. "This is not a toy!" He said seriously, and glared savagely at all of them from behind his reflective glasses. "Go home. All of you."
"Yessir." The four of them said promptly, intimidated.
Sheriff Tanner dragged Pierce away by his ear, and the other four slowly threaded their way back in the opposite direction.
"What do we do now?" Jess asked.
"I don't know." Jake admitted. "For now, let's go home, think a few things through... We can meet up later, maybe at the Town Hall. There's a Town Meeting tomorrow tonight, and I don't know what happens next, but I'd bet you good money Mayor Grady's going to say something."
"He'll have to. He sent my family out to find out what happened to the supply lines, and then he sent out search teams to find out what happened to my family. Tomorrow night, then." Jess nodded. Marie went with her a few feet and spoke quietly for a while.
Jake headed in the general direction of his house, not in any hurry, and Zack kept pace with him. They'd spent a lot of time over the years of their friendship this way. For a moment, it was just another afternoon.
"You really want to call it quits?" Jake asked finally.
"Jake..." Zack said gently. "You remember that time you thought a wasp nest would be a great way to get Mrs Marinera out of school in time for the math test?"
Jake smirked. "I remember the stings. All of them."
Zack smirked a little at the memory. "The school principal went through the classes, trying to see who did it, and there was both of us in the nurses office trying not to scream..." Zack sighed. "And you know I'm scared of wasps."
"And spiders." Jake added, a slow smile spreading on his face. "And heights. Water. Fire. Horses. Tuesdays."
Zack knuckled his shoulder. "You know I'd to anything for you, but this isn't the high school stuff we do... I mean, this is getting thick real quick, you know?"
"It is." Jake agreed. "Doesn't mean we're wrong to keep going. How many times has one of our teachers said you should never quit?"
"This is different."
"Is it? We're involved in something that gets more important every day, and because it's getting bigger, we're wondering if it's too big for us."
"I'm not wondering, I'm saying it: This is too big for us." Zack said, his voice rising a little. "Why doesn't anyone else see that?"
"We all see it, Zack. We're just not planning to bow out just because..."
"No, enough!" Zack suddenly shouted, and Jake jerked back. Zack was immediately contrite. "Sorry."
Jake looked at him carefully. "What happened?"
Zack looked embarrassed even discussing it. "Marie and I... had a fight."
"You. Every conversation we've had for the last week has been about you and Jess... Marie's been a little too... invested in her ex-boyfriend's love-life, so I asked her if..." He didn't bother to finish that thought. "And then she got ticked because I was acting jealous of my best friend, and then I got mad, and then she got mad and I haven't spoken to her since yesterday. At least, not without all of you and the freaking Town Mayor along to join in."
"And didn't that work out so well?" Jake agreed sarcastically. "Zack, you know it's been over between me and Marie for a long time."
"I do, but I always thought it was a little odd that you and she were such good friends after." Zack admitted.
Jake rolled his eyes in exasperation at the old argument. "I asked you. I asked you if it was going to be weird. You said no. You said it twice, in fact."
"I know, I know." Zack sighed. "Look, this isn't the time for this."
Zack looked to Jake. "And one of us has got to talk to Pierce."
Jake nodded. "I'll do it."
"No, I'll do it." Zack shook his head. "There's something I want to ask him."
"What's that?" Jake asked in curiosity.
"Don't worry about it." Zack shook his head.
"Zack?" Jake pressed.
Zack sighed. "I don't know, okay? Pierce is a thug sometimes, but he's been on the money about everything he's tried so far..." He hesitated. "Don't take this the wrong way, but you know I love you, right?"
Jake nodded. "We're family."
"And it's because we're family that I can say this." Zack said seriously. "There's only two people in our little circle that don't have Implants in their heads, and that's either good or very bad..."
Jake felt a tingling in his fingertips, like he'd just got a shock from something. Zack had been his best friend forever, and now there was something that divided them. Something that put him in a category with Pierce Tanner, and left the rest of them in a different place.
Zack was aware of it too, and he gave his almost-brother a pained look. "It's not because... Look, he's drunk, and when he's sober he'll still be a bully, but he was on the plane and I wasn't. For some reason, everyone on the plane was marked except him, and people on the ground are getting marked, but not me." Zack shrugged. "So yeah, I want to see if I can sober him up and talk to him about it."
Jake nodded. "Okay. If you find anything, come tell me?"
"Yeah. If not, I'll see you tomorrow night at the Town Hall." Zack promised. "We still friends?"
Jake sighed over-dramatically. "I don't know, Zack. I don't know. I really, truly don't know if I can ever recover from this unspeakable, horrible, heart rending betrayal of everything I once held trustworthy and true in my chaotic little life." He sighed again, being as ridiculous as he could get. "This experience has left me tossed helplessly on a sea of confusion and misery. Oh God, Zack... how could you do this to me?!"
Zack was laughing, but hiding it. "See you tomorrow night."
David Colbert was playing his guitar when Jake got home. He was a farmhand, as a lot of people in Curtis Creek were, and though his wife and eldest son had often told him he could play professionally, he was happy as things stood already.
He gave his son a nod as the door closed, and Jake started for his room when his father strummed the G chord a good bit louder. Jake sighed and turned on his heel, returning to the living room.
For some reason, David Colbert never spoke aloud while he was playing guitar. Somehow he managed to get his point across through the notes he played, and Jake waited patiently for his father to finish the song.
David finished with a flourish and set the guitar down. "Festival's coming up. Don't want to look like an amateur in front of the whole town."
"Sounds all right to me." Jake assured him.
"Jake." His father said calmly. "Sit down. We need to have a conversation."
Jake tensed and sat down. Nothing good ever followed those words.
"Mayor Grady came to see me this afternoon." His father said. "He says you and your friends have an... Interesting theory about recent events."
Jake sighed, squeezing his eyes shut. "Ah. Well, that didn't take very long."
"Well, what did you think was going to happen?" David demanded. "Jake, you just went to the Mayor and suggested that our town is..."
"I was there." Jake put a hand up, not wanting to rehash the whole thing, yet again.
"Jake, listen to me, I'm your father." David said seriously. "Do you have any idea how crazy this sounds?"
"I do." Jake admitted. "If I didn't before, then I did after this morning."
"So either you don't believe it yourself, and you're just stirring up trouble..." His father said carefully. "Or you do believe it... in which case we may need to have this conversation with someone else..."
Jake's eyes flashed. "You want to have me committed?"
"You think that the family of a girl you have a crush on were abducted by aliens, and you somehow managed to get her to agree with you. To say nothing of her calling off the search outside the town limits." His father argued. "Jake... If I had gone half as far as you have, your mother would have thrown me out by now."
Jake had wilted trying to convince the Mayor, trying to tell his father was so much worse. "Dad, I know it sounds strange..."
"No, it doesn't sound strange. Saying you saw her parents on America's Most Wanted is strange. Saying that Aliens did it is completely off the wall insane. Jake, you convinced her to call off the search. Do you have any idea how ridiculously criminal that is? Her family is missing, and so far your contribution has been to tell people that the bogeyman did it, and stop people looking." David shook his head. "Is this just so you can spend more time with Jess?" He asked. "Because... Don't get me wrong, I'm glad to see you happy, and Jess is a beautiful girl... But this is not the way to do it. Terrifying that poor girl with this craziness, when she's already lost her parents?" David shook his head slowly in disgust. "Jake, this is not what you do. I hope I raised you better than that."
"Yessir." Jake said promptly.
"If you honestly think that Jess will turn to you to rescue her, you're out of your head. And frankly... you don't want her to."
Jake reacted. His father only opened with compliments to soften the blow. "You don't like her."
"I like her fine."
Jake thought. "Then... you don't want me dating her?"
"Jake, I'll admit that I don't know her that well, but everything I've heard about her says that she'll never be happy with this town... And I know you don't plan to leave Curtis Creek. At least not permanently."
"Dad, Jess and I haven't even been on a date yet." Jake said, annoyed. "But I like spending time with her. It's not like we're picking out furniture for-"
"I know you're having fun, but..." His father took a breath. "Jake, just having fun with a pretty girl is the sort of thing Pierce would do. In fact, that's exactly why she dumped him."
"Jess and I aren't like that." Jake flushed bright pink. "Dad... I'm not really comfortable talking about this with you."
His father nodded. "I understand. But take some advice, if you keep trying to push this ridiculous idea on the poor girl, then not only are you going to hurt her terribly, but you could actually put people in danger. And when someone comes along and asks her why she called off the search, what is she going to say? That after talking with you and Zack, she was convinced it was the right thing to do?"
Jake hesitated. "I don't want to get anyone in trouble..."
"I understand." His father said evenly. "You want to help. You want to find a way."
"But this isn't the way. Jess is your main concern right now. Look after her, because she needs lots of love and support from everyone. She does not need the only people she can turn to pushing this kind of lunacy, like it's even remotely possible."
"I know." Jake whispered.
David sighed. "I tried to talk down the Mayor. He was... worried. Worried about Jess' parents, and worried about her. Jess isn't the most... stoic of people. Losing your whole family can do things to your mind, make you think things you'd never consider. If you try and encourage that, then whatever happens, you're just as responsible." David shook his head slowly. "And if you honestly think that what you told the Mayor is true... Quite frankly, Jake, I think that Jess isn't the only one who will need a great deal of help."
Jake went cold inside. Was his father really suggesting...
His father rose, patted his son on the back and headed for the door. "I won't tell you to stay away from her, but lay off the nonsense. She doesn't need more things to be scared of, she needs support. There's nothing else you can do." With that, he ended the conversation and headed for the stairs.
"Wait." Jake called after him.
David stopped and looked back at his son. The teenager was hesitating, fighting a brief, pointed battle with himself, before finally speaking up. "There is one thing I can do." Jake confessed to his father at last.
Ben was drawing in his room, when there was a knock at the door. With a slick, practiced move, Ben slid the drawing pad under his bed with one hand, and pulled out a video game with the other. "Come in." He called innocently.
The door opened, and David and Deanna came in. Jake was visible at the door, peeking around the door frame.
Ben looked up as his parents sat down to look him in the eye. "Ben." His mother said. "Have you been sneaking out in the middle of the night? Other than the night your father had to come pick you up?"
Ben's eyes blazed at Jake, who just looked back sadly.
"Your mother asked you a question, Ben." David prompted firmly.
Ben looked at his brother, suddenly sad. "I thought we were on the same side. You were the one that showed me that spot."
Jake nodded. "That was a long time ago, and things are different now."
David sighed. "Ben, do you have any idea how dangerous it is? Sneaking out in the middle of the night? What if you tripped on the curb and cracked your head open? Two in the morning, you could be laying there until dawn. And what if it wasn't on our front step? What if it was out on the edge of town? Out near the Bridge? What if we never found you?"
Ben never took his eyes off Jake.
David looked across to his elder son and rose. "Come on, Jake."
They both went out of the room and David closed the door behind them. "Is there something you're not telling me?" He asked Jake carefully. "Because I knew about the two of you sneaking out years ago. I didn't mind, because I figured you'd look out for each other, and because the town is safe, and because... Because that's what brothers do. I had overnight camping trips with your uncle when I was your age... But times have changed, even in Curtis Creek." He paused to let that sink in. "So with that in mind... is there something you're not telling me about Ben sneaking out?"
Jake was tempted to tell him everything, but his father had made his feelings on the subject very clear. I can be honest, or I can stay out of a padded cell. He told himself. "I was just worried about him, is all." Jake said. "Nobody likes the idea of being out after dark any more."
David nodded. "Jake, I know you're worried. But things will get better. Trust me, I've lived longer than you. These sorts of fights work themselves out."
"I hope so." Jake admitted.
The door opened, and Ben stormed out, shoving past his brother like he wasn't even there.
"Ben?" Jake called after him. "I had to."
Ben didn't even look back, going down the stairs like an angry wind.
Their mother came out of his bedroom in time to see it. "He'll forgive you." Deanna said gently. "He's young, he'll probably be over it by dinner time."
"Forgive me? Mom, he still hasn't forgiven me for stealing a red vine his first Halloween out trick or treating." Jake sighed.
"Jake, you did the right thing." His father said firmly.
"I know." Jake told his father. "But I can't help but feel like I let him down."
Jake couldn't sleep, again. He stared at the ceiling, yawning, but couldn't drop off.
The door creaked, and his eyes went quickly to the doorway. "Hello?"
A small silhouette was framed in the doorway, roughly four feet high. In the ghostly green glow, the dark shadows wrapped around the figure that hovered outside his room. Jake froze, paralyzed. "W-who's there?!" He hissed, trying to shout bravely, but barely getting a squeak out.
The small slender figure reached out a hand toward the light. Jake tensed, expecting to be frozen by the light again...
The lights switched on, and Jake hissed as the sudden assault of light blazed against his eyes. He fought to see, not wanting to look, but unable to look away... And relaxed sharply. "Ben?"
His little brother just looked at him coldly.
Jake checked the clock on his bedside table. "It's two in the morning... What's wrong?"
Ben just stared him down. "They said I couldn't trust you. They said you didn't care any more." There was a tear forming in his eye. "They said you'd tell... and they were right, weren't they?"
Jake rubbed his tired eyes. "Who did?"
Ben glared at him. "I told them you were my brother. I told them that brothers look out for each other. But they were right."
Jake erupted. "Ben, who the hell are THEY?!"
Ben started to cry, but he never shifted. Tears rolled gently down his face as Ben stared at his older brother, as though he'd just found some dark ugly secret.
Jake got out of bed, and reached out for his brother. "Ben. You need to be honest with me now. Weird, freaky stuff is happening all over our home... What do you know about it?"
Ben wiped his face, seeming more angry than anything else. "I'm not supposed to tell you that."
"Who says?" Jake hissed, mindful of their parents in the next room. "Ben, say what you want to say to me!"
"They're my friends." Ben said, the words forced out of his mouth. "Okay?! Happy now? They're nice to me. They care. They told me I couldn't trust you, and you were going to ruin it!" His younger brother said this with biting anger, as he shook Jake off and stormed out of the room. "And they were right."
Jake watched him go, hands shaking.
I did what I could with my brother. He'll never forgive me, but I had to keep him inside at night. I don't know if he's hanging out with Aliens or some gang of pre-teen drug dealers, or who knows what else, but he's inside for one night at least.
The meeting with the Mayor was bad, but having the same conversation with my father was an eye-opener. He heard that I was honestly worried about the town. He heard that my own theories had the word 'alien' in it somewhere, and my own father was almost ready to have me committed.
I went and looked into it today. Mrs Mackellar told me UFO's are in the 'New Age' category at the library, which would be fine, except that it's the same place you find stuff like crystals, ghosts, vampires, and astrology. That gives you a rough idea of how seriously people take things they can't explain.
Believing in aliens is enough to have your own family think you're unwell, and thinking they're in the area is enough to convince them that you're insane. I have to wonder if maybe this is happening more often than I know. How many people in town have come to the same conclusions I have and just refuse to talk about it?
More than that, how many people across the world have seen or experienced something? The books say that for every experience reported, there are at least a hundred that aren't. I chickened out in the local library. I didn't want to face The Mackellar Beast with a stack of UFO books in my hand after getting a pasting from the Mayor and my dad.
The internet would be better, or at least more private… but there's still no signal. I don't know why the rest of the town hasn't put it together yet. It's happened before, losing the feed, but it's never taken longer than a day and half to get it back up.
I can't sleep. It feels like there's a monster in every dark corner. Reading this UFO stuff is as bad as watching a horror movie before bed.
And then there's Marie.
What Zack said has been on my mind too. I warned him that this might be an issue,
he adored her, and
Never mind. I want them to be happy. I want them to be happy together. When Marie and I broke up, we weren't bitter, we both knew we were better as friends.
I can't imagine that she's jealous, but I know she doesn't approve of me with Jess. What I can't figure out is why. Jess is great. Marie and dad are right, it would be easy to push her into something right now, but I'd never do that.
I am not smart enough to figure out an alien invasion and my best friend's love-life with my ex.
I know I have to tell the others about what Ben said. I know I can't put it off for long.
Jake was still staring at the ceiling, the light show in the sky continued for the fourth night in a row, when he heard the creak. The loose floorboard in the hallway made creeping down the hall impossible. His brain was already playing tricks, making monsters out of the shadows on the wall, so he tensed. Then another footstep, further away from his room. He relaxed. It was just his father, probably heading downstairs for a snack. He tracked the footsteps with his ears. Creak. The hallway. Bump. The handrail at the top of the stairs shifting. Squeak. The third step from the bottom.
The utterly normal sounds were actually putting Jake at ease for a moment, when suddenly he heard the front door open and close.
Still wide awake, and curious now, Jake got out of bed and went to his bedroom window. Sure enough, it was his father, walking up the driveway to the street. He wasn't walking with any purpose, he was just meandering slowly toward the mailbox.
Jake felt his jaw drop when his father walked into it. He didn't shout, or give any indication at all that he felt it. He just backed up a step, walked forward into the mailbox again, and then stepped around it, as though blind.
Jake felt his heart start to speed up.
And then the hallway creaked again.
Jake spun around, watching his closed bedroom door with paranoia, but there was nothing. A moment later, another footstep, further down the hall as before. His mother then. Maybe she was looking for her husband.
Jake went to the door, and opened it slowly. Nothing terrible flew at him, so he stepped out into the dark hallway, and caught the silhouette of his mother shuffling in the dark. "Mom?"
His mother made no response, didn't pause.
Jake hesitated and switched on the light. The darkness was banished instantly, and Jake felt himself relax slightly. Things always seemed less terrifying in the light.
But his mother didn't react. She just kept moving slowly toward the stairs. He followed, catching up with her. "Mom?"
Her eyes were open, but her expression vacant. She looked straight through him.
"Okay…" He whispered to himself in a smothered panic. "What do you do… you… can wake up a sleepwalker. Yeah, I read that." He was babbling to himself awkwardly. After a moment, he tapped his mom on the shoulder. His mother didn't react. He tapped hard. "Mom!" He raised his voice. No response.
Spooked, Jake went to his little brother's room, and opened it without knocking. "Ben? Wake up, there's something…"
His brother was gone. The bed was empty, and the window wide open. The lights of the Aurora outside were giving the room an unearthly feel, and Jake was starting to get scared, swearing at his brother tightly under his breath.
His mother was still making her way down the stairs, with no apparent problems regarding balance, or tripping on the creaky wooden steps.
Jake watched her go for a moment, considered his options, and ran back to his room for shoes.
By the time he got his shoes on, his mother was already out the door. He ran after her, taking the stairs three at a time.
He got outside the house, the whole street glowing in green, just in time to see his mother walk into the mailbox herself. She shuffled around it and moved into the street, apparently following the path his father had led. He ran out into the street, just in case there was a car coming, even at that time of night…
And that's when it got really scary.
The street was full of people.
Jake was tiptoeing in and out of them. The Aurora in the sky was strong, and near constant. The bright green and yellow lights were waving gently over the people in the streets, all of them shuffling like they were blind. There was no sound, not even the crickets. Just a town street, full of dozens of sleepwalkers.
A zombie movie was far less entertaining when you were in one. But they weren't moaning, weren't lurching… They had their eyes open, but they weren't seeing anything. Jake waved his hand in front of their faces from time to time, and then quickly stepped out of their way before they ran him down.
"...Jess." He said to himself finally, and he started running toward Jess house.
It took him twenty minutes to get there on foot, and every street was full of sleepwalking townsfolk. People he knew, faces he he recognized. People from his school, people from church, people from camp...
Most of them in pajamas, some of them in regular street clothes, some of them in underwear, some of them wearing nothing at all. Nobody had stopped for clothes or shoes, none of them seemed aware of anything around them...
Jake kept running, turning his head left and right as if they were going to sneak up on him, but without exception, nobody was even looking in his direction.
Jake heard something at last. It was a girl sobbing. Afraid to raise his voice, caught in the horrible spell of the spectacle, he followed it slowly. It took him a few minutes to weave his way in and out of the sleepwalking town, but eventually he saw her. It was Jess.
Jess was sobbing, tears streaming down her face as she kept pace with her neighbors. Jess was wandering in and out of all of them, fear making her hysterical as she went from one person she knew to the next. "Someone? Please? Wake up!" She sobbed, gripping her hair in both fists. "Wake up! What's going on?" She saw Jake, realized he was awake and ran forward, pushing her face into his chest. "Why won't they wake up?" She bawled. Her voice was thick with horror. The horror that came from something impossible before her eyes.
"I don't know." He whispered soothingly. "Just… hold on, Jess. I don't know what's happening, but we'll figure it out."
"I was…" She hiccuped a bit. "I couldn't sleep, and… And then I heard the door shut, and I called out, and nobody answered me…"
"Come on." He told her gently. "Let's get off the street."
I wish I could say I was strong for her, but the truth is, I was more scared than I had ever been in my entire life. I could feel my hands shaking, and I wrapped my arms around her as tight as I could just to stop them from trembling.
Jess was calming down. Enough to stare at her hands while she spoke. "I remember the first time I ever saw Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. You know the film?"
"Love that movie." Jake admitted.
"Me too. I remember being so terrified of the aliens." Jess sighed. "The things they did made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up... Thing is, the aliens in that movie were good guys. Just... saying hello. Once you got a look at them and turned on all the lights... they were actually wonderful to watch, flying around on screen. The only thing that was scary about them was... You didn't know what they were until the end. The only scary thing about them was that they were different. I never forgot that. It became a personal motto for me."
Jake nodded. "It's not quite the same, is it? It's not like the movies."
Jess shook her head. "No. This might just be their way of saying hello, but... I've never been this scared in my life."
Jess smiled a little at him and he was suddenly aware of the fact that he was alone with her; curled up at the breakfast nook with his beautiful dream girl.
Jess flushed a little, suddenly aware of it herself. Their knees brushed together slightly, but neither moved away. The most terrifying night of their lives was happening, and the two of them were sitting alone in her kitchen.
Jess met his eyes, and licked her lips. "The world's all out of control." She said finally, softly. "Makes you want to... I don't know, but it makes you want."
Jake nodded, heart hammering. "Yeah. Yeah, it does."
And the back door opened. Both of them leaped up, half afraid of being caught out, half convinced they were about to be attacked by something from another world.
The back door closed, and Jess drifted closer to Jake subconsciously. Jake grabbed the first thing his fingers touched, which was the cutting board. Even with the lights in the kitchen on, the hallway was dark and spooky, contrasting the light with the pale green glow...
Shivering with fear, Jess drifted to the edge of the room, out of sight of the door. Jake did the same... And he saw who it was. "Marie!"
"Marie?" Jess exhaled and came around the doorway to look. Marie had come in through the back door, shuffling along slowly. She didn't answer, and Jess turned the lights on, revealing her eyes were open, vacant. She brushed past Jake without noticing him.
"She's still asleep." Jess said quietly. "She had to have been out there for over an hour!"
"How did she find her way back here?" Jake breathed, and turned on his heel. He ran through the house to look out the front windows. Outside, the crowd of sleepwalking townsfolk were shuffling their way home, all of them going indoors again.
A light touch rested on his shoulder as Jess leaned over him to get a view outside. "Those are my neighbors. They're all going back to their own homes..."
Jake looked back through the house. Marie was slowly climbing the stairs. She wasn't using the banister like she would if she were awake, her head didn't turn to follow the number of stairs she had left...
Jess and Jake followed her all the way back to the guest room. Marie's door was open as she entered the room and climbed into the bed. A moment later she was still. Jake tucked the blanket around Marie's shoulders, and brushed her hair back, getting a look at her face. "Poor thing." He said softly.
Jess nodded. "It explains why everyone's so tired. Even asleep they don't get any rest." They were discussing the most chilling thing either of them had ever experienced, but their tones were detached, as though it was happening to someone else. The panic had passed, the fear dulled to worry and an attempt to understand. In a week of impossible, unexplainable things, they were finally getting used to it.
"I wonder why we didn't..." Jess shrugged. "Why we didn't start sleepwalking with the rest of them? We have the Implants in our heads too."
"If I had to guess?" Jake said. "Maybe... We were awake?"
Jess nodded. "I was awake. You think that only sleeping people would sleepwalk?" She said and quickly rolled her eyes. "And yeah, I heard what I just said."
Marie blinked sleepily at the sound, and her eyes opened. "Jake?" She yawned. "What are you doing here?"
I told her she was dreaming and then I bolted. I don't think she bought it.
My family was back in their beds when I got home. By the time I was halfway there, the streets were empty again. It was like it had never happened.