Random note #1: I find it irrationally annoying to write "mom" instead of "mum". I like my U's, okay?
Random note #2: Lots of people have asked me how long it takes to write these. It's probably about twelve hours total, spread across a week.
Random note #3: Had a cool idea for the semi-mythical sequel 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. And please leave a review if you have time – it really does help. Thanks!
The Soldier: Part 1
Joe waited uncomfortably on the corner of Kidson Road, 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, buzzing around the house on the corner, ferrying boxes through the front door.
A couple of the neighbours had come out to watch. The boxes were all that flimsy cardboard type you'd use to store old papers – company records maybe, or tax receipts. A waist-high wall was stacked up on the sidewalk next to a line of parked jeeps and trucks, and every thirty seconds another man would emerge and add to the growing pile.
"What are they doing?" Cary whispered. "Whose house is it?"
Preston shrugged. "Maybe we should ask."
The others were clustered around Cary and the camera: Charles with his headphones, Preston with the script, 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 (or at least, more nervous than he already was). 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!"
Before he quite knew what was happening, the film reel started whirring.
"I came as soon as I could," Martin said. "What's happening here?"
"Military police investigation," Joe replied. "It was a suicide."
"Suicide? Who was it?"
"A former Air Force officer. He called me last night, said he had a secret that he couldn't keep any longer." Joe jerked into action and handed a manila folder to Martin.
"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. Joe prayed no one would notice how sweaty his hands were. 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. "This proves it. They knew, the company knew. Thank you so much for the information."
"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 cruiser threading its way along the street. Coming towards them.
She wondered who it could be, and immediately there was a sinking feeling in her stomach.
"Understood," Martin was saying. "You're a good friend."
Colonel Nelec waited 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 rather gloomy inside), and he watched his men search through boxes, drawers, desks, all looking for one specific thing. One very important thing.
They hadn't found it yet, which annoyed him. It also made him slightly anxious, though he'd never let it show. As he stood there, waiting by the window, Sergeant Overmeyer walked over with some more bad news. "Nothing so far," he murmured. Overmeyer – a thickly-muscled, dark-skinned man – had a curiously flat voice. The voice of someone used to obeying every order he was given.
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 glanced 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?"
"…Looks like kids making a movie…"
The police car squeaked to a stop next to one of the parked air force trucks, a short distance from where they were filming. Cary was the first to notice who was driving it. "Joe," he murmured.
Joe turned around.
It was his father. Sitting behind the steering wheel, 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 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 marched back to his son; slapped a don't-argue hand on his shoulder and pushed him toward the cruiser, 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 simply stalked to the police car and shoved Joe into the passenger seat, tossed the camera in after him and slammed the door. He shot a venomous glare at Charles, then walked off towards the house without a backwards glance.
Joe sat in the back of the car. Alone. Helpless. He was breathing heavily, cheeks flushed with a strange mixture of anger and embarrassment. The rest of the group could only stand and stare, sympathetic and confused.
"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 to the garden, casually, confidently, taking in the sunshine. His boots crunched on the dry grass as he made his way to the police deputy standing on the lawn. Jack was tense, coiled with anger, 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 striding 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 to leave, but then the air force colonel had beckoned him back.
A couple of quick nods. He saw them shake hands.
Charles, Alice and the others were still gathered on the corner 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, sick, sad, all at the same time.
Overhead, the sun beat down from a pale blue summer sky.
A photo lay on a the table in a tarnished old frame. In it, three people sat on the grass by a red-painted swingset.
Jackson Lamb was one of them. He looked younger, carefree. Happy. Joe was there too, perhaps five or six years old, kneeling behind his parents and smiling adorably. Jack rested his chin upon the shoulder of a beautiful woman, holding her in his arms; she had long brown hair and a kind face and gazed at the camera with dark, enigmatic eyes. Her name was Elizabeth.
The photo lay there as it always had, on a table by the window.
A key rattled in the lock, disturbing the silence. The front door suddenly swung open and Jack strode through, held it open. A second later, Joe followed. He was still wearing the air force costume, a pretend solider, the blue beret clutched in his hand.
"This is new, all of this, for the both of us," Jack said tersely. He shut the door. It wasn't quite a slam. "Dealing with anything. Just us. So, I'm gonna make this as simple and as clear as I can."
He walked to the dinner table and threw down his keys. Joe stopped in the middle of the room, 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 pushed past into the study and slapped the camera on his desk; then started searching 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 looked up. "Well, I tried to be good to him. And I can't, not anymore."
Jack shut the drawer, walked over, looked his son right in the eye. Joe stood there sullenly and met his gaze.
"I will not allow him or his daughter in this house," Jack said 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 pushed past again, bumping Joe's shoulder.
Joe didn't react for a moment. Then he spoke for the first time.
"We're not clear."
His father turned on him, voice full of menace. "What'd you say?"
He held 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 gulped a sharp breath, cords bulging in his neck. His voice dropped to a whisper that was somehow even worse. "Now, you listen to me. I've got twelve thousand 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 stood there, breathing heavily, their faces inches apart. Joe, red-faced, about to cry. His father, mouth twitching, the fury in his eyes gradually fading and giving way to uncertainty. Realising what he was saying. Who he was saying it to.
Jack turned away and walked to the door, stepped through and slammed it shut as quick as they'd come in.
A quiet house.
Joe sniffed, and wiped frustrated tears from his cheeks.
He rode. Up the hill, past weatherboard houses and empty cars, mind blank, focusing on the click of the wheels, the buzz of the chain, the handlebars cold beneath his fingers. H'ed traded the ill-fitting army uniform for his old blue jacket and jeans, a backpack across his shoulders. At the top of the hill 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, bordered by the remnants of ancient forest – oaks, ashes, pines, looming thick and dark. White-painted funeral buildings clustered in the centre, the old water tower perched in the distance. Gravel paths criss-crossed the grass, dotted with flowers. The sky was a gentle pink, slowly mixing 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 in the trees. Streetlights twinkled in the distance. Joe sat with his back to the cold, hard stone, staring blankly across the field.
He missed her.
May 26, 1942
February 3, 1979
Beloved Wife and Mother
So, so much.
They said it was good to feel sad. They said it would take time to heal, to move on, and that he should always cherish her memory. And, when he considered it, he knew he was getting better. But sometimes, he'd be mucking around with Charles or eating dinner with his dad and something would happen, something completely innocent and that painful, incredible emptiness would flare up red and raw, all over again. Afterwards, he always came to the cemetery thinking it would help, thinking that just being here, close to her, would somehow fill the hole in his heart.
It never did. But he had to try.
The locket was chilly 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 hanging round 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, which he and his dad had put there last week. It had seemed like an important gesture, at the time, but it was only one of many – one of thousands. Thousands of granite headstones, arranged in neat 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. Sometimes, his father looked at that locket as if… as if wanted to throw it away, out of sight, like he couldn't bear the reminder. '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. Jack Lamb just kept it all inside; hid every feeling 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 he could hold onto.
He'd properly known her for less than a week, but somehow, with her, he didn't feel alone. Instead, he felt happy. He felt whole. He could smile, and laugh, in a way that he couldn't with Charles and Cary and the others. He could talk. She understood. And now, his dad was trying to take that away.
Alice Dainard wasn't like her father. She was different. And she hadn't had anything to do with…
Joe looked up. An impact, somewhere in the distance.
There it was again – louder. He jumped to his feet, peering into the darkness.
Joe knelt down and rummaged around in his backpack for his flashlight. He switched it on, holding 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 completely alone in a cemetery at night probably wasn't such a good idea. We had to make a movie about zombies, didn't we.
Graves, trees, shadows. Irrational fears.
There was a gravedigger's storage shed at the eastern end of the cemetery, a square white building with big gated doors. Something was clearly 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.