Random note #1: You have no idea how annoying it is for me to write "mom" instead of "mum". I like my U's, okay?
Random note #2: I just noticed that Cary's wearing a bandage on his hand for the entire movie. That's a cool little detail I'm going to have to chuck in somewhere.
Random note #3: A lot of people have asked me how long it takes to write these chapters. It's probably about twelve hours total, spread out over a week or two.
Random note #4: Had a cool idea for the semi-mythical 'sequel story' that would make it pretty interesting (and much more sci-fi). We'll see...
Enjoy the chapter! There's some pretty sad stuff in this one, so I hope I've done it justice :-)
Joe waited awkwardly on the corner of South and 29th, resplendent in his new air force costume. Martin stood opposite, wearing his detective's jacket and a particularly sloppy tie. Behind them, actual air force men were walking back and forth – perhaps a dozen of them, buzzing around the house on the corner, ferrying boxes in and out the front door.
A couple of the neighbours had come out to watch. The boxes were all the same type, the sort of flimsy cardboard thing you'd use to store old papers; company records maybe, or receipts. A waist-high wall of them was stacked up on the sidewalk next to a couple of parked jeeps and trucks, and every thirty seconds another man would come out and add to the pile.
"What are they doing?" Cary whispered. "Whose house is it?"
Preston shrugged. "Maybe we should ask." The others were all clustered around Cary and the camera – Charles with his headphones, Preston with the script, and Alice, doing Joe's job and holding up the boom mike.
So far, they'd been pretty much ignored, but the whole situation still made Joe nervous. Well, more nervous; the Air Force are meant to be looking for us, aren't they? He glanced behind him, at the house. It was beige brick, sitting on a little hill, with a couple of big windows and a neatly trimmed lawn. No one seemed to be home.
Ugh, don't think about that now. Think about your lines. Think about what you're going to do. Don't be too obvious, don't be too subtle, just act natural—
"Joe! You ready?" Charles called out.
"Uhh… I guess?"
"Great. Okay, everyone quiet. Three, two, one, action!"
The film reel started whirring. Joe jerked into action and handed a manila folder to Martin, stained a little from his sweaty fingers.
"What's this?" Martin asked.
"He worked at Romero – Chemical. Found out some things, the company was doing. And after what you told me last night at the bar… I thought you should know."
Martin flicked through the folder. Behind him, one of the air force men heaved a box into a waiting truck.
"Are – are we gonna get in trouble for being here?" Cary whispered.
"Shhh!" Charles retorted. "Production value. It's production value."
"Stop talking about production value, I think the Air Force is gonna kill us!"
"Cary. Shut up."
"Don't you think it's just a little bit—"
"Shhh." Charles kept watching the scene and absently shoved his hand over Cary's mouth, who slapped it away irritably. "Don't – cover my mouth!"
"…We just made this discovery today," Joe said seriously, ignoring the catfight behind the camera. "You understand this is top secret?"
"Of course." Martin nodded grimly.
"I would never have given you this information unless we had worked together in Vietnam."
"Those were hard times."
"I'd rather not talk about it."
Alice smiled as she watched Joe act, standing up straight, stumbling over his lines a little but generally getting through them okay. Suddenly, she heard the sound of an approaching engine; she glanced down the hill and saw a lone police car threading its way along the street. Coming towards them.
She wondered who it was, and immediately got a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"Understood," Martin was saying. "You're a good friend."
Colonel Nelec stood by the front window of the house. He was an imposing figure in green and blue, his craggy face half in shadow (even with the curtains open, it was dark and gloomy inside), and he watched his men go through boxes, drawers, desks, looking for one specific thing – one specific, VERY important thing.
They hadn't found it yet, which annoyed him. It also made him slightly nervous. As he stood there, waiting by the window, Sergeant Overmeyer walked over with some more bad news. "Nothing so far," he murmured.
Nelec sighed. "How much more is there?"
"About sixty more boxes in the basement."
"What – more tax returns?" He rolled his eyes.
"…It's here somewhere," Overmeyer replied confidently. "We'll find it. If not, Woodward will tell us where it is."
"Let's hope so. But I'd rather get it without his help." Nelec looked out the window, and suddenly noticed a group of schoolkids standing on the corner. They appeared to have some sort of movie camera and were filming in front of the house. "What the hell is that?"
The police car crunched to a stop next to one of the waiting air force trucks, a couple of metres from where they were filming. Cary was the first to notice who was sitting behind the wheel. "Joe," he murmured.
Joe turned around.
It was his father. Sitting behind the windscreen and looking right at them, jaw clenched. After a second or two he switched off the engine and stepped out of the car.
"Hey Mr Lamb!" Preston said brightly.
Jack ignored him and walked straight over to Joe, quick and angry. "Get in the car," he said tersely.
Martin stared open-mouthed. The others exchanged confused glances.
Joe just stood there. His dad began dismantling the camera, snatching it from Cary's hands and pulling it off the tripod. Screws clattered to the pavement. Once he had it free, he walked back to his son, slapped a hand on his shoulder and pushed him toward the car, not saying a word. Alice had to dodge out of the way.
"Mr Lamb, that's your camera, but… technically that's my film," Charles called after him.
No reply. Jack just stalked over to the police car and opened the door, shoved Joe into the passenger seat, tossed the camera in after him. He shot a venomous glare at Charles, then walked off towards the house without a backwards glance.
Joe sat alone in the back of the car, feeling angry and sullen and helpless. The others could only stand and stare, annoyed and confused and afraid.
"What the hell!" Charles mouthed at him.
Alice frowned, tapped her chest. "Is it me?"
Joe shook his head. Sometimes, it was better to lie.
Colonel Nelec walked down to the garden, casually, confidently, taking in the sunshine. His boots crunched on the dry grass as he made his way over to the police officer who was standing on the lawn. Jack was tense, coiled up with anger, his hands planted on his hips; anger at his son, at himself, at the goddamned US Air Force. In contrast, Nelec was the picture of control, and as he came to a stop he clasped his hands behind his back.
The military man was taller and Jack had to look up to meet his eyes. There was silence for a moment.
Then: "No more games. I want you to tell me what's going on."
"I would like to help you out, Deputy. I really would. But we operate on a need to know basis."
Nelec smiled. Jack ignored him. "Why're you're trucks sweeping the town?" he asked.
"I can't tell you."
"It's classified. We will be out of your way shortly."
"All right, then I'm sure you won't mind me contacting D.C," Jack said pointedly. "Talk to some friends about 'Walking Distance'."
Nelec was good; he barely reacted. But one of the men behind him twitched at the name.
Still, there was no reply.
"All right, we'll do it that way." Jack turned and started walking back to the car, and got about half-way there before Nelec called out after him.
"Deputy! Let's talk…"
"...Just not here."
Joe peered through the car window at the two men talking. He wondered what his stupid dad wanted; half a minute ago he'd started walking away, but then the air force colonel had called him back.
A couple of quick nods. He saw them shake hands.
Charles and Alice and the others were still standing there awkwardly, looking at him with concern on their faces. Once again, his dad was ruining everything. His whole stupid summer. He clenched his fists, ground his boot into the floor, so hard that it hurt. Angry and sick and sad, all at the same time.
Overhead, the sun beat down from a pale blue summer sky.
A photo sits on a table in a tarnished old frame. In it, there are three people, sitting on the grass by a red-painted swingset.
Jack Lamb is one of them. He looks younger, carefree. Happy. Joe's there too, looking about five or six, kneeling behind his parents and smiling adorably. Jack rests his chin upon the shoulder of a beautiful woman, holding her in his arms; she has long brown hair and a kind face and stares at the camera with dark, enigmatic eyes. Her name was Elizabeth.
The photo sits there as it always has, on a table by the window.
A key clicks into the lock.
A rattle. The silence is disturbed. The front door suddenly swings open and Jack strides through. A second later, Joe follows. He's still wearing the air force uniform, a pretend solider, the blue beret clutched in his hand.
"This is new, all of this, for the both of us," Jack says tersely. He shuts the door. It's not quite a slam. "Dealing with anything. Just us. So, I'm gonna make this as simple and as clear as I can."
He walks to the table and throws down his keys. Joe stops in the middle of the room, red-faced, unable to react. "You're not friends with Alice Dainard. When I say 'no,' I don't mean 'maybe'… I don't mean 'yes'… I mean 'NO.'"
He pushes past into the study and slaps the camera down on his desk, glares at his son; then starts going through a drawer, speaking quickly. "I've known Louis Dainard for a lot of years. He's been nothin' but trouble. Your mother used to say he's not such a bad guy, he just needs a chance, that he was sad." He looks up. "Well, I tried to be good to him. And I can't, not anymore."
Jack shuts the drawer, walks over, looks his son right in the eye. Joe stands there sullenly and meets his gaze.
"I will not allow him or his daughter in this house," Jack says forcefully. "I will not allow you to spend time with her, doing projects or whatever it is that you do. That's it. I hope we're clear on that."
He pushes past again, bumping Joe's shoulder.
Joe doesn't react for a moment. Then he speaks up for the first time.
"We're not clear."
His father turns on him, voice full of menace. "What'd you say?"
He stands his ground. "We're not clear."
"Joseph Francis Lamb—"
"You and I aren't clear about anything. We couldn't be LESS CLEAR." Anger, indignation, helpless fury. "Just because mom died doesn't mean you know anything about me. You DON'T. You don't know anything about Alice, either. She's KIND."
"We're not gonna have this discussion right now—"
"She's NICE TO ME!"
Joe had never yelled at his father before, not once – but here he was, screaming in the living room with tears forming in his eyes.
"I DON'T CARE WHAT SHE IS! Her father is an irresponsible, selfish son of a bitch!" Jack takes takes a sharp breath, tendons bulging in his neck. His voice goes down to a whisper which is somehow even worse. "Now, you listen to me. I've got 12,000 people in this town who're scared out of their mind. They've got one person to rely on. It used to be someone else, but now it's just me."
…they stand there, breathing heavily, their faces inches apart. Joe, red-faced, about to cry. His father, mouth twitching, the fury in his eyes gradually fading. Giving way to uncertainty.
Jack turns away and walks to the door, steps through and slams it behind him as quick as he came in.
A quiet house.
Joe sniffs, and wipes frustrated tears from his cheeks.
Riding. The click of the wheels, the buzz of the chain, the handlebars cold beneath his fingers. Joe pedalled up the hill, past weatherboard houses and dark, empty cars. The army uniform was gone, traded for his old blue jacket and jeans and a backpack across his shoulders. At the top of the hill there was a big grassy area surrounded by a chain-link fence; Joe crossed the street and rode through the open gate.
The cemetery was beautiful at this time of night.
A vast, rolling field, surrounded by the remnants of ancient forest – oaks, ashes, pines, looming thick and dark. A cluster of white-painted funeral buildings with the old water tower perched in the distance. Gravel paths, criss-crossing the grass, dotted with flowers. The sky was a gentle pink, mixed with grey, and the air was perfectly still.
And the graves. So many graves, stretching over the hill.
There was only one that mattered.
Some time before, night had fallen. Crickets chirped from the trees; streetlights twinkled in the distance. Joe sat with his back to the cold, hard stone, staring blankly across the grass.
He missed her.
May 26, 1942
February 3, 1979
Beloved Wife and Mother
So, so much.
They said it was good to feel sad, that he should always cherish her memory. They said it would take time. And he knew he was getting better. But sometimes, he would be mucking around with Charles or eating dinner with his dad and something would happen and that painful, incredible emptiness would flare up red and raw all over again. He always came here thinking it would help, thinking that just being here, close to her, would somehow fill the hole left in his heart.
It never did. It was all he could do to try.
The locket was cold in his hands. Silver, glinting in the starlight.
And every day, you forget something else about her, what her hair felt like, how she laughed, some other golden memory. So you try to remember. You keep it around your neck and feel it against your chest and hope it'll somehow keep her near. You keep trying to hold onto her even though she's gone forever. Is that so wrong? He clicked the locket open and held it up to his face, stared at the tiny photo inside.
A smile every day when he came home from school. A kiss on the cheek on a cold winter's night. Always that same longing – the need to feel close to her one last time.
The crickets chirped in amusement.
A bouquet of old flowers was propped against the grave. He and his dad had put it there last week. It had seemed like an important gesture, at the time, but it was just one of many – one of thousands. Thousands of granite headstones, arranged in neat little lines, dotted with rumpled flags and flowers of their own.
We all miss them.
But we can never bring them back.
His dad should've been able to understand. He should've been the only person who could understand, except he… didn't.
'Just because mom died doesn't mean you know anything about me. You DON'T.'
Or maybe he did understand. It was impossible to know, and that was the single most frustrating thing about it. Jack Lamb just kept it all inside, behind a clenched jaw and sad eyes, pretending that things were normal. Pretending that they were all right.
They weren't. And Alice had been the only thing that he could hold onto.
He'd known her less than a week, but somehow, with her, he didn't feel alone. Instead, he felt happy. He felt whole. He could smile, laugh, in a way that he couldn't with Charles and his other friends. He could talk. She understood. And now, his dad was trying to take it all away.
Alice wasn't her father. She was different. And she hadn't had anything to do with…
Joe looked up. A faint crashing noise, somewhere in the distance.
And there it was again – louder, this time. He jumped to his feet, peering into the darkness.
After a moment, he knelt down and rummaged around in his backpack for his flashlight. He switched it on and held it out in front of him. Pale white light swept over the cemetery, over crosses and flowers and neatly-trimmed grass.
His breath caught in his throat. He whirled around, holding the torch like a weapon. As his imagination took over, Joe began to think that being all alone, in a cemetery at night, probably wasn't such a good idea.
Graves, trees, shadows.
There was a gravedigger's storage shed at the eastern end of the cemetery, a square white building with a tiled roof and big gated doors. Something was going on inside; the lights were on, but they were… flickering, and there was this low thudding, scratching noise. And, peering closer, he could see stuff flying past the windows – dirt, it looked like. Clumps of dirt, as if a dog was digging a hole.
A really BIG dog.
Suddenly, a shadow pressed itself up against the window.
She had pale skin and a beautiful, open face, and she held a baby in her arms – a few months old, with dark eyes and the thinnest brown hair.
She smiled. It was a warm smile, infectious, even through the ghostly light of the projector.
Joe couldn't help smiling a little too.
She looked up and said something to the camera, made a face. There was no sound, but he could imagine her voice. The camera moved closer and suddenly the baby woke up, began to squeal, reaching for his mother's face.
'Go away!' she mouthed, laughing. 'You're scaring him.'
The person behind the camera loved them both very much. You could see it in the way the camera moved, the way it focused on that smile.
She was twenty-four years old.
The projector whirred softly. Joe lay on the floor of his bedroom, leaning on his arms, staring up at the images that danced upon the wall. His face was bathed in pale, flickering light, keeping the darkness at bay.
As soon as he'd got home, he'd found the plastic bag of film reels he kept on the top shelf of his cupboard and had been watching them ever since. Not because he was scared – he'd forgotten the shadow in the cemetery as soon as he'd come through the door. But because…
Remembering was nice. Remembering was all he had.
She leaned against a fence, somewhere in their garden, surrounded by a tangle of overgrown bushes. Her hair fell freely around her shoulders, around the straps of her summer dress. She was answering a question, speaking to the camera. Speaking to his father. She touched one of her earrings absently.
She was twenty-six years old.
The projector buzzed, and suddenly cut out.
Silence. Blackness. Joe frowned, waited to see if it would come back on. He leaned over and flicked the switch a few times, but – nothing. Then he checked his alarm clock, and sighed disappointedly. The screen was dark; another power failure.
He stared blankly at the wall, lost in memories.