The Center: Crossroads (3)

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The Center: Crossroads Part 3
by Matt Zenn

  Author's Note: The first story is done. I'm going to post it in parts so I have a little more time to work on my next story. :P Hope you all enjoy it. ~Matt  

CHAPTER 6



“Are you certain it was her?” Agent Emerson asked me yet again.

I was being interviewed by someone from the FBI.   The week had officially gone from strange to unbelievable.

“I think so,” honestly, I was beginning to wonder myself.

“Think or know?” he pressed.

I thought for a moment, “I only saw the girl in my mirror for a second.   When I saw the picture of Maria my gut told me they were the same person but I can’t say for sure either way.”

Agent Emerson looked to his older partner who had been sitting quietly to the side.   Agent Garret stood and was about to say something when his phone rang.

“Special Agent Garret,” he said automatically.   A moment later his face soured and he turned away from me, speaking in hushed tones. “We’re working it as a kidnapping,” there was a pause as he listened before blurting out “Terrorist attack?   Are you kidding me?” the anger that showed on his face built until finally he said simply “I understand,” and hung up the phone.   Agent Emerson looked to him for answers but all he got was, “We’re done here.”

“What?   Why?” his partner questioned.

“It’s been handed off to a different department,” the way he said it seemed to pretty much kill any further questions Agent Emerson might have had.   “Mr. Cross, thank you for your time.     If you think of anything else please give me a call,” he handed me a card.

This was totally going in my scrapbook as soon as I got home.

“There should be someone else in to talk to you shortly. Please stay here until they arrive,” he continued.

Awesome.   More waiting. I should have kept my mouth shut.

I waited for what seemed like a long time for the next group to arrive and then I was driving home.   I’m sure there was some stuff that happened in-between those events but when I tried to think about it the memories just wouldn’t come together.   Looking back on the day big chunks of it were vague.   I had the distinct idea that I had talked to someone and been told I could go home but all of the details were hazy to the point of being basically non-existent.   I was more than a little afraid that the food poisoning was doing something to my brain.

Pulling to the side of the road, I tried to remember what I had forgotten.

“Holy crap, I forgot my shake!” I looked at the clock in my truck and flipped a quick u-turn.   How had it gotten so late!   The Wytex rep would be done handing out the shakes in less than fifteen minutes.   If I missed two in a row I was out of the program.   

Part of me would have been happy to get out of the study, I really wanted the tremors to stop, but there had been enough drop outs already that we were getting dangerously close to the fifteen hundred student minimum.   If we went below that then Wytex would not be obligated to pay the school the other half of the ten million dollars it had promised for participation in the study.

Everyone that actually talked about it seemed to agree that the whole thing felt a little shady but with ten million dollars on the line no-one seemed eager to question it too harshly either.   The fact that our sports teams were performing above expectations this year also helped people look the other way.

Even beyond the money, I can’t blame the school system for wanting to be a part of the trial.   Wytex provided free physicals at the beginning of the year for anyone in the school system that wanted one, even if they weren’t interested in signing up for the trial.   It wasn’t just a cough and out physical either.   They did everything, including blood work and a weird CAT scan kind of thing.   I have no idea how it worked but they injected me with some kind of dye, I stepped into this plastic cylinder, a bunch of lights passed over me and after about five minutes they let me out.   A week later we all got the results of the physical back and it included a copy of the scan.

The scan was pretty cool. It’s primary function was to provide a detailed measurement of the person’s muscle mass but it also told you what your bone density was and a few other things.   I wish our doctor had a scanner like that.   The print out they provided looked like an x-ray on acid.   People were comparing each others scans to see if you could tell who was who based on their insides.   No one picked mine as being me.

Once every two weeks they picked a group of one-hundred fifty participants at random and feed them back though the same machine; I think I’ve been tagged every single time.   I know they want to get good data from this trial but it has to be costing them a fortune.

When I finally pulled back into the school parking lot it was ten minutes after the Wytex rep normally would have been gone.   I pulled around to guest parking on the off chance he had been delayed by something and got lucky.   Dr. Callow was carrying a pile of the plastic flats out to his little SUV as I pulled in next to him.

“Dr. Callow?” I said hopping out of my truck.

He ignored me as he sat the trays inside.   He counted everything twice and then closed the hatch of his vehicle.   His right hand drifted casually beneath his coat and stayed there.   Only then did he turn to even look at me.   “Yes?”

I could actually feel him stabbing me with his eyes, “My name is Aaron Cross.   I’m on the football team?” I knew he recognized me at this point but he sure didn’t act like it.

“Is there something I can do for you?” his tone suggested that perhaps he would like to help push me into a well.

I hesitated a moment.   I had missed the time when we got the shakes.   With all the stuff that had happened over the last couple days, dad and Coach would probably understand how I could forget.   If I just let this go I would be out of the study and maybe things would get back to normal.

But even if dad and coach understood they would still be disappointed.

Dangit!

“I know I’m late for getting my shake but I was talking to the FBI because I thought I saw the missing girl from South Central and it took me a while to get here.   Sorry.   I really don’t want to drop out of the study.   Could I maybe get my shake now?”   I smiled in what I imagine to be my most pathetic way and waited.

For a moment I thought he was going to say no out of hand but instead pulled out his iPad. “What did you say your name is again?” He still sounded irritated but something about his demeanor had changed.

“Cross comma Aaron,” I said quickly.

He typed and poked at the screen for several seconds and then opened the hatch and began pulling out flats until he found the one with my bottle. “It won’t be cold,” he apologized as he handing it to me. “Oh, I need to read you the disclaimer,”   he started fumbling with the pad.

“It’s ok,” I said before he could launch into the spiel “I had some problems with cramping, diarrhea, vomiting, lightheadedness and... no I guess that’s it,” he was marking something down on the pad, “but I’m pretty sure it was a bad sandwich and not this.   I do still have the spasms I mentioned before though.”

He paused in his typing and then did some kind of screen gesture.   “If you have that many problems you’ll probably get removed from the study.   Why don’t you let me read the disclaimer to you one more time.   ‘Aaron Cross.   In the time since last receiving your previous allotment of Protein Formulation 7G have you experienced any unusual discomfort or inexplicable,” he heavily emphasized inexplicable, “phenomena including but not limited to: lightheadedness, dizziness, nausea, constipation, diarrhea, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, visual or auditory illusions, double vision, muscle cramps or priapism.’”

I thought for a moment, “Nothing inexplicable.”

He actually smiled a little bit.   It creeped me out.

Handing me the shake he continued the rote, “Here is your shake.   Please drink the contents, replace the lid and sign.”

I did and handed the bottle back to him, “Thanks Dr. Callow,”

“Don’t mention it,” he said seriously. “Ever.”

I nodded and climbed back in my truck.   That was one seriously odd guy.


~oOo~



When I finally got home I started getting ready for my training before realizing I didn’t have to.

I’m not sure how long I stood in the foyer trying to figure out what to do instead.   For all intents and purposes I had never been in this situation before.   It wasn’t the first time I had been unable to practice but usually it was because there was something else taking the time instead.

“Homework,” I mumbled and slowly walked to the dining room table.   Josie was flitting about but, with the exception of a random hug while I was writing a current events paper for my civics class, she left me alone.

When I finished a little over an hour later I knew there was no way I could go a week without exercising.   My legs were jumping all over the place and I had so much excess energy that it was killing me.

I had promised the two men who had the most influence over me that I wouldn’t but at the same time....

I walked into the kitchen and found mom buffing her nails while she waited for supper to finish baking. “Mom?” she started slightly and looked up with a smile.

“Yes sweetheart?”

I fidgeted for a few seconds, mostly because I couldn’t stay still, “I know you and Dad and coach want me to take it easy for a few days but if I don’t do something it’s going to kill me.”

“No exercising AJ,” she said sternly, “Pushing this will just make it take longer to recover from,”   At my look of panic, her eyes softened.   “Your sister is watching TV why don’t you go see whats on.”

Ugh!   I hate TV. There’s never anything on. “Isn’t there something else I could do?”

“AJ,” she said conspiratorially, “go see your sister before dad gets back in from the shop.   You have about a half hour before we eat.”

I didn’t get it but I wasn’t going to fight her either. That only led to fail.

When I went looking for Josie I didn’t find her in the living room.   Honestly that shouldn’t have surprised me too much.   Dad was about the only one who used the TV in there.   I listened and heard music coming from the basement, which is the full size of the house and pretty deep.   Dad had more or less refinished it into an exercise/dance/rec room with a room for another one of his shops and a laundry room at one end.

Dad didn’t believe there should ever be a time when you were doing ‘nothing’. Josie had her laptop hooked up to the TV and was playing some version of Dance Dance Revolution.

On her hands.

Little show off.

I watched her for a little while and she wasn’t actually doing all that well but the fact that she could do it at all was insane.

When she got to the end of the song she rolled to her feet and grinned at me.   She was breathing hard but had a look of triumph about her.   “Want to try?” she gasped.

I chuckled, “Maybe on my feet Jojo.   How did you figure out you could do that?”

She shrugged and plunked herself down in the sofa, “It’s boring when I use my feet, so I made it better.”

Seemed reasonable, “So you just have to step on the arrow on the pad when the corresponding arrow is inside the other arrow?”

Josie stuck her tongue out at me.

“What was that for?” I asked in no little shock.

She rolled her eyes and didn’t answer except to gesture at the pad.

What is it with girls anyway?

I was about to step on the pad when she shouted “Shoes!” causing me to recoil.

“Sheesh, Jojo!   Give me a heart attack why don’t you,” I squatted down and removed the offending footwear.   Once that was done I started up a new game.   She was playing on easy so I didn’t have to fiddle with the settings much at all.

She was right.   It was boring with your feet.

Hard difficulty was more of a problem but even then it was mostly because some of the movements were really unnatural.   While I was working at it Josie ran up to her room and came back down with another mat.

“Why do you have two?” I asked while she was setting it all up.

“So you can dance with friends,” she said in a slightly distracted manner.

“Like who?”

“Mary, Donna, Cori, Raven and I used to play all the time,” she spun around to face me.   “only they got bored because they couldn’t beat me even if I was playing hard and they were on medium.   Plus mom and I play sometimes but hopping like this really isn’t her friend.   You know?”   She made a bouncing gesture with her hands well in front of her own breasts and then pantomimed being smacked in the face with them.

Wait.

When did Josie get breasts!?

Awesome.   I was going to have to kill someone over this.   I could just feel it.

“I even got dad to try it once but he thought it was stupid so... are you OK Aaron?”

Dad had tried it?   Dad let other people into the house?   When did this nonsense start? “Yeah.   So you have friends over here a lot?”

“Uh-huh,” she smiled.

I hadn’t really had a friend over to the house since the falling out with the Bockmans.   I brought a few guys over a year ago but dad pretty much killed that.   I needed to be practicing, not screwing around.   I also don’t think he appreciated how they were gawking at mom.

Neither did I, come to think of it.

The really distressing part was that unless there was free food involved or I told them my mom would be wearing a bikini or really tight sweater or something I don’t know that I could list four people that I would just hang out and do ‘nothing’ stuff with.

I must have looked sad or something because Josie gave me a big hug.   “Play?” she said simply.

“Sure,” I smiled.   Better than getting down over nothing.

I wish I could say the dance off was epic but the truth is that she destroyed me.

In retribution I tickle tackled her.   She squealed and tried to get away but she didn’t have a chance.   We were both laying on the floor, giggling and panting when mom came down to get us.

Maybe not having something to do all the time was okay after all.




CHAPTER 7



The next day things started finally getting back to normal.   There was still talk about the assembly and the missing girl, but it wasn’t the huge distraction it had been.

Personally I was still itching to get back on my schedule but I could tell that dad knew what he was talking about.   I thought I had felt fine the day before but in retrospect I was dragging and knew I still wasn’t anywhere near one-hundred percent.

Everything was high-school normal until lunch.   I sat down at the far end of the team’s table as usual.   It was very odd: I was expected to eat with the team but I wasn’t supposed to actually interact with them unless they instigated contact.   The only one that might actually do that was Darrel and he was in a different lunch period this semester.   As a result my lunch was not terribly entertaining but at least the food the team got was a step above what everyone else had to eat.

I picked through the chicken and vegetables without appetite but slowly started to make a dent in it.   About fifteen minutes into the period I realized someone was talking to me.   I had been so tied up in my own thoughts I hadn’t noticed.   Looking up I saw one of the guys from the Cross Country team standing at the edge of the table.   Apparently my blank look was enough for him to repeat himself.

“So did you actually see Maria on Monday or what?”

Several of the older players were looking at him with obvious irritation.   He was crowding their space without permission.   As he waited for me to answer several people had to brush past him where he blocked the aisle.

“I’m not sure,” I shrugged “Why?”

“Maria and I are friends, we go running almost every morning together,” as he spoke he sat down across from me.   

The other players were getting more tense by the second.   To an outsider the idea of a players only table might seem like snobbery or something but the truth is that there is a lot of stuff that goes on with a team that they can’t let just anyone know.   Something a simple as who has a strained calf muscle can be used against you by another team.   As a result, if the team doesn’t know someone they tend to treat them like a spy.

I tried to express the fact that he was breaking a fairly major taboo without actually saying it but he apparently misinterpreted my look.

“Maria and I live right at the dividing line between here and South Central.” he explained unnecessarily. “I have a better picture of her,” he reached for his wallet when one of Brian’s enormous hands clamped down on is shoulder.

“Take a walk,” Brian rumbled.   The guy hesitated a moment and was almost thrown out of the seat.   “I said: Take a walk.”

Leave it to Brian to find a way to make things extra awesome.

Once the guy was gone Brian sat down across from me.   Squatted might be a better term.   He really didn’t fit at the tables very well.   I noted that his right wrist was heavily taped; he must have hurt himself worse than I thought.   We stared at each other for a moment and I flinched first, returning to my food.

“How’d you do it?” he said quietly. The tone of his voice was threatening but it was edged by something else I couldn’t recognise.

“Do what?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

Brian glared at me like he thought I was making fun of him.   Images of him ripping my arms off suddenly sprang to mind.   “The weight.   How did you get it to move like that?   There is no way you are that fucking strong.”

I had to give him credit; he was sticking to the lie.

“I’m sorry you hurt your wrist Brian but you shouldn’t have been screwing around like that.   It isn’t going to mess you up for...”

“Listen to me you little dumbshit!”, his left hand smashed into the table making my entire tray leap into the air.   I managed to snag the milk before it toppled.   My hand moved so fast I couldn’t believe it, then my arm spasmed and threw the milk in Brian’s face.

We were both so shocked by what had just happened that neither of us moved.   The noise of the cafeteria lowered in waves as what I had just done rippled through the room.

I was dead.

Brian seemed to grow right in front of me. He clenched his right hand into a fist and flinched.   We both looked at his bandaged hand.   His jaw set, he stood up and walked out of the cafeteria.

He should have murdered me.   What the heck was going on?   I looked down the table hoping someone might feel obligated to explain what I was missing.   Half of them looked every bit as confused as I was and the other half were purposefully not looking at me at all.   I started eating again and the cafeteria returned to it’s previous state of chaos.

This really wasn’t my week.



~oOo~



When I got to study hall there was a note waiting for me to see coach in his office.

I was actually surprised it had taken so long.

I walked down the halls, wondering what he was going to do this time.   The milk thing wasn’t as heinous as what happened with the weights but it was still bad form for members of a team.   Unfortunately, the fact that Brian started it and that it was an honest accident didn’t really factor into it.

When I reached his office Coach was looking at something on his heavy duty tablet laptop.   I knocked and he waved me in almost immediately, so things were either okay or they were really, really bad.

“Double A,” he nodded to a seat and I took it. “I need you to stop harassing Brian.”

My jaw fell so far open I’m surprised it didn’t come off entirely.   After a couple seconds my brain finally manged to process the crazy words that Coach had just used. “What? When?   What?!”

“You aren’t in trouble Double A but you are in Peters’s head and I need you out of there.   He can’t spare the space,” despite the jokes I could tell he was actually serious.   I think I could feel parts of my brain dying.   “I don’t know what happened but he’s focused on you when I need him focused on the game.   Get me?”

I nodded but the truth was I didn’t get it at all.   Why was Brian going through all this psychological, back handed stuff instead of just breaking me in half during a practice.   Beyond taunting I had thought mind games were beneath him; maybe even beyond him.

Coach sighed. “I need you to be the bigger man here.   Can you do that?”

“I guess,” I said uncertainly “what do you need me to do.”

“I need you to not come to the game tomorrow night.   I need you to do everything you can to avoid Peters until after then.   The team needs him Double A.   Can you do this for them?”

Not dressing for the game was bad.   Short of being cut, it was about the worst thing coach could do to a player.   Not being able to even go to the game might actually have been more devastating for me though.   The original punishment I arguably brought on myself.   This seemed massively more unfair. “Yeah coach.   I can do that if it will help the team,” I said stiffly.

“Good,” he seemed relieved; almost as if he had actually been giving me a choice. “After the game we are going to get this sorted between you two.   I just do not have time at the moment.”

In a dull monotone I asked, “Is there anything else, sir?”

“No AJ.   You can go.   I expect to see you bright and early Monday morning, so don’t do anything to slow down your recovery.”

“Yes sir,” I walked slowly out of his office and back to study hall.   

Once again the rest of the day wizzed by in a blur.   I can’t explain why not being able to go to the game was so bad for me except it felt like I really wasn’t part of the team anymore.   I know it sounds dumb but it was like my entire world was coming to an end.



CHAPTER 8



For the first time I could remember I was leaving school at the same time as everyone else.   I got my Wytex shake from Ms. Doer, who had apparently replaced Dr. Callow and then headed out to my truck.

The parking lot was complete chaos.   I knew it was like this but it’s another thing to be in the middle of it.

I don’t really fear anything in my truck; it’s been used hard enough that almost everyone else has more to lose than I do in an accident.   Even so, I didn’t feel like dealing with the mess and I didn’t have anywhere I had to be, so I could afford to wait until things cleared out a bit.

A cold shiver ran down my spine but it may have just been the October breeze kicking up.   

Then I looked into the parking lot and saw Maria.

It was the damnedest thing.   She was standing next to a little baby SUV staring farther into the lot.   There were people wandering all around her but no one else seemed to have noticed her.

“Maria!?” I shouted at her and began moving her way. Her head snapped around and she glared at me with an odd mixture of anger, sadness, joy and lust?   I was getting more from a simple look than I felt that I should.   Her body language was angry to say the least and stopped me short; right in front of a girl driving an X-terra.   I managed to get back out of the way before she flattened me but she still flipped me off and yelled something derogatory.   “Fucking retarded football players!” or something like that.

I take Advanced Placement classes and have a B+ average, thank you.

When the SUV passed, Maria was gone.   I hurried over to where she had been standing but there wasn’t anyone there.   Looking in the direction she had been focused, I saw the guy that had talked to me at lunch.   He was chatting up a couple girls while leaning against my truck.

He wasn’t going to hurt it or anything but why was he touching my truck?

As I approached he quickly ended his conversation with the blonde and brunette.   We both watched, as they walked away, in appreciative silence.   With the girls gone, he smiled but it had an odd tension behind it.

“So can we talk here or is the gorilla going to get twisted about that too?” there was a bit of challenge in his voice.

“Who are you?” I asked.   He might have introduced himself earlier but I didn’t catch it.

“William Hughes,” he said with a little annoyance.

The name seemed familiar.   I had played baseball with a Willy Hughes.   I looked at him again and finally recognised him. “Willy?” I smiled.

“That’s me Double A.   How have you been bro?” he was trying to act like everything was normal but his eyes were haunted.   As he talked to me he was constantly scanning the area, as if afraid he would miss something important.

I looked at him skeptically, “Not bad.   How about you Willy?”

“I’m good,” he lied badly.   If I didn’t know better I would think he was on drugs.   Huh, I guess I don’t really know better for that matter.   “You said you saw Maria?”

“Yeah,”

“Where?”

I pointed in the general direction of where I had seen her on Monday. “She was just standing there staring at me.   I only saw her in my mirrors.   When I turned around she was...”

“Just gone, right?” his nervousness was getting worse and it was starting to affect me.

“What’s going on Willy?” I asked quietly.   Suddenly him being willing to sit down at the football table made more sense.   He was spooked beyond reason.

He was quiet for a little while as he wrestled with something internally.   “Can we go somewhere else and talk about this?”

That seemed like a really good idea.   Between his jumpiness and thinking I had seen Maria again I was starting to get kind of spooked myself.   “Let me check with my mom to see if it’s OK,” He nodded and stuck his hand in his jacket pockets.   A few seconds later he started bouncing up an down on the balls of his feet to help keep warm.

Sasha picked up the Studio’s phone on the fourth ring, “Care to Dance,” she always manged to inflect it like she was asking a question. “This is Sasha speaking.”

I cleared my suddenly tight throat, “Hey Sasha, is my mom there?”

“Sorry AJ.   Jackie stayed home today.   Can I help you with anything?” just the sound of her voice was cranking my engine.

Oh, crap!   Did not exercising turn me into a total horn dog or something?   I had to get back on my routine!

“No I’ll just check with her at home.   Thanks Sasha,”

“Anytime AJ, see you soon.”

“Bye Sasha,” I gasped and then shut the phone.

She was going to kill me.   She was going to tease me until I had an aneurysm or something.

“You ok, Dude?” Willy asked from where he was sheltering himself next to my truck.   Why he was wearing shorts in October I just don’t know.   Cross Country runners are weird.

“Just cold,” I lied.   I dialed my mom’s cell number.   She turned it off at work but if she was home I normally could get a hold of her.   After seven rings it went to voice mail.   That was strange.   Mom hardly ever let her phone ring through.   Images of the guys that had attacked her ransacking our house flashed across my minds eye.   I knew there was was no way but I still wanted to make sure.   “You like Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes?”

“Sure.   I guess...” he said noncommittally.

“Awesome,” I unlocked my door, tossed most of the stuff that had built up off the seat and then pushed open the door from the inside. “Get in, we’ll go to my place to talk.”

“Uh, I have a car you know?” he gestured to a little red Honda.

Why was it that everyone else’s vehicle was better than mine?

“Nice,” I nodded approvingly, “then just follow me.”



~oOo~



When we got to the house mom’s car was in the garage but dad’s truck was parked halfway in the yard.   He was actually on the grass.   He never did that.   I cautiously moved to the kitchen door and found it was partly open.   My heart pounded in my chest.   Something was very wrong.

“Dude? What the hell are you doing?” Willy asked in a harsh whisper.   I held up my hand and he quieted down.

“I have a bad feeling,” I whispered as I carefully pulled open the screen door.   Once inside I heard grunting coming from the kitchen and then my mom cried out.   

I was about to bolt for the kitchen when Willy snagged my arm and pulled me back toward the door.   “Trust me dude.   You do NOT want to see what is going on in there,”

“Let me go!” I easily shook him off. “I have to help!”

“Ewwww! That’s messed up dude!”

“What the hell are you talking about!   Someone is hurting...” I looked from the open door to dad’s truck, “my ... mom ... oh.   Gross.” I had almost walked in on my parents having sex in the kitchen.   “Damnit!”

“What now?” he had a stupid grin on his face.   I think he was enjoying my horror.

“I eat at that table,” I shuddered.

As I was trying desperately not to visualize what was going on in my house a boxy little car pulled into our drive way and Josie climbed out.   She waved to who ever was dropping her off as they drove away and then to Willy and I, as she walked our way, shivering slightly.

“Hi, Aaron,” she grinned, “Hi William!   Are you here to play with my brother?   Why are you guys standing outside?   It’s freaking cold out here.”

Will and I exchanged a look, “Uh, Jojo.   Who was that who just dropped you off?”

“Cori’s dad.   We were supposed to go to a movie but her parents figured out out she’s been dating this guy they hate behind their backs so now instead of going to a movie she’s grounded for life.   Again.”

My sisters life was far more interesting than I had been giving it credit for.

She rubbed her arms and blew out a big breath just to see if there was a cloud, “Why are we outside again?”

“No reason,” I lied poorly.

“Yeah.   Nothing suspect or emotionally scarring happening at all,” Willy confirmed and I kicked him in the leg for it.   The reasons I never invited him over when we played baseball were starting to come back to me.

“O...kay... well I want cocoa,” she started walking toward the house again but I caught her arm and spun her around before she made more than a few steps.   “Hey!   Aaron!”   she protested.

“How about we go to a movie?”   I grinned, “I just made a little extra money so I’ll even pay for the tickets and then we can go out to eat.   I’ll pay.”

“I’m in,” Willy smiled and I scowled at him.

Josie’s face turned suspicious.   “You hate movies, and you hate to spend money.   Why don’t you want me to go into the house?   Did you kill mom and dad?”

“What!?   No! Where do you get this stuff?” I couldn’t believe she would even suggest that.

“Are mom and dad having sex or something?”

Willy started laughing like a hyena.

I wanted to die.   I rubbed my temples as a splitting headache hit me.   How could she be so nonchalant about it?   Why did she even know about sex in the first place!

Oh god.

She was the same age I was when Janie and I...

I was not going to consider that possibility.

I wanted to deny what was going on inside but instead I barely managed to nod in confirmation.

“Did they at least make it past the kitchen this time?”

“What do you mean this time?” my world was spinning out of control.

She shrugged, “When mom gets upset it makes her... uh...” I was glad to see her at least blush over the whole thing. “...frisky?”

Why did I not know this?   Why did she?   Why were we still talking about it? Oh god!   Was that why I found mom’s bra behind my dresser!?   I couldn’t think about this anymore.   It was time to change the subject and get out of here, “What movie do you want to go to?”

She pulled out her phone to check the time, “Missed it already.   Is your friend ok?”

Willy had stopped laughing and was staring toward the barn.   He was pale and sweating in the cold.   “You OK Will?” I asked, suddenly feeling very nervous myself.

“Let’s just go to Fun Town and get some pizza,” he said stiffly. “Now, please?”

Josie nodded in agreement and we piled into vehicles.   On the way to the Fun Town Mega Arcade Josie texted mom to tell her where we were.

I had to wonder if maybe the arcade would be held up or if we would be abducted by aliens on the way there.   Things I would have never thought possible were seeming more and more likely the longer this stupid week wore on.



~oOo~



Fun Town Mega Arcade is one of the few remaining places in Omaha where you can actually find arcade machines.   The building takes up an entire city block and has bowling, laser tag, mini-golf, go-carts, arcade machines of every type and a bunch of stuff that I hadn’t even bothered to look at yet.   There are two restaurants, mom joked that it was because you got hungry just walking between them, and after paying the ten dollars a head just to get in the door we quickly moved to Pedro’s Pizza.   Even in the partial seclusion of the restaurant the place was incredibly noisy.   Why Willy had picked this place for a talk was beyond me.

After a brief argument over what to get on the pizza, things finally calmed down enough for us to talk but instead we ended up just sort of staring at each other.   The pizza arrived and Willy and I ate in silence while Jojo regaled us with all the crazy things her friends were doing.   I was only paying half attention but I was pretty sure that dad would have murdered us if we had tried half of the stuff that just her friend Raven had done.

The meal finished, Josie looked back and forth between us as if waiting for something. When neither of us spoke she decided to fill the silence herself, “So what are you doing for spirit week?   I have this awesome outfit for dress like a pirate day and...”

Will pulled out a twenty and slapped it down in front of Josie, “I need to talk to your brother.   You can have this if you go away for at least an hour.”

“Dude!” bribing my sister was weak.

“Okay!” Josie grinned, grabbed the money and immediately fed it into a change machine. “If you need me I’ll be at the DDR machine.”

“No sharking, Jojo!” I said seriously.

She blew a raspberry my direction, laughed and then took off onto the floor.

“What the hell was that?” I barked at Will once Josie was gone.

Will dropped his head into his hands, “Sorry man.   How do you take that?   She never stops talking.”

“She’s my little sister,” I really didn’t get what his problem was. “What do you want to talk about?”

“Right.   OK,” he took a deep breath, “I think Maria is haunting me,” the incredulous look on my face spurred him on. “I’m serious man!   I’ve been seeing her all over the place and then she’s just gone!   Plus...” he shuddered and took a long pull from his coke.

“Plus?” I prodded.

“Plus... I don’t want to talk about it.” he was turning a little green and I worried he might be getting sick.

“Dude we could have not talked anywhere!” between the two of us we had shelled out almost a hundred bucks already.   He was darn well going to talk... or maybe Laser Tag.   That would be good too.

“Fine! Fine. It’s just kinda weird and creepy and I don’t really want to think about it,” he paused for a few seconds but I stayed quiet.   Eventually he continued, “She’s been in my room every night since she disappeared.   I couldn’t see her the first night but I felt her.   The next couple nights I just saw shapes but sometimes it was her and some times it wasn’t and she seemed really angry.   Then last night she touched me,”   He shuddered and I thought he was going to burst into tears. “I woke up and something was holding me while I slept but there was a ... it felt like Maria but she had a... I can’t say it.”he dropped his head back into his hands.

“That’s messed up dude,” I said in shock.   I tiny little part of me was kind of turned on by the idea but I stomped that down immediately.   “Maybe it’s just bad dreams brought on by her disappearance?”

His voice took on a manic tone, “That’s what I thought at first too!   But it wasn’t a dream!   I’ve been seeing her out of the corner of my eye everywhere I go for the last couple days!   I thought I was going crazy but then I heard that you saw her too!” He clamped onto my arm, “You saw her, right Double A?   I’m not crazy if someone else is seeing her too!”

I was beginning to question if that was necessarily true.   Willy was oscillating between acting totally normal and coming across like a crazy person.   “How did you know Maria again?” I asked suspiciously.

“She lives a couple blocks over from me.   We both do Cross Country,” he was drawing random patterns in the water from his Coke.

“Right.   What else?” maybe if he talked about it he’d at least feel better.

He thought for a while, “Maria is one of those girls that liked to hang out with the guys.   We’ve been friends since forever and unlike most of the girls I know she never hit that point where she stopped being cool and got all weird and girly.   You know what I mean?”

“Did you guys date?”

“Nah, we’re just friends,” he fidgeted for a moment, “but I have to admit lately I got the impression she wanted to be more than that.   I just couldn’t see her that way though.”

“I’m still not hearing anything that makes me think you aren’t just missing your friend,” I told him bluntly.   “I thought I saw her but there are a bunch of girls at school that kind of look like her.   Sorry man.”

“No.   No.   You’re right,” he laughed sadly. “If it wasn’t for the Marco thing...”

This was new. “Marco thing?”

“Marco Silva?   Plays football for the Tigers?”

“Oh!   Yeah, I know Marco,” I said with distaste.   Marco was a Junior tight end for South Central.   He was about my height and weight actually.   We didn’t have that much social contact but we met at a bonfire one night and he didn’t impress me.   Marco was one of those guys that was absolutely certain the entire universe was dangling between his legs. “What about him?”

“It was Marco,” he said like I was being thick.

“What was Marco?”

“The player from South Central?” he leaned in closer “The one that was attacked on Sunday?   That player?   It was Marco!”

“Holy shit!” the guy was an ass but I wouldn’t wish something like that on him.   “Are you sure?!”

“Oh yeah.   It hasn’t gotten around our school so much but I was talking to Maria’s older brother, Hector and he said that someone had beaten the shit out of Marco and then... done stuff too him.” he shuddered.

I still wasn’t getting it.   I’ll blame it on the food poisoning. “What does this have to do with Maria?”

“I think her ghost raped him!” he blurted.

“Keep it down dude!” I looked around to make sure no one was paying too much attention to us.   A few heads had turned our way but they went back to what they were doing almost immediately. “Do you have any idea how crazy that sounds!   There’s no such thing as ghosts but even if she was one: Why would she do that!”

Willy’s head was bobbing manically, “Revenge maybe?   Marco and Maria were kind of a thing for a while and then they weren’t.   Normally Maria told me everything but she wouldn’t talk about what happened between them and she got really angry if I asked about it.   Whatever happened she hated him after that.   Like, try and run him over with her car, hate.   I think he took advantage of her and this was her getting revenge.”

It was crazy but it actually made a certain amount of sense, “You don’t think Marco is somehow involved with her disappearance do you?”

He shrugged and sort of shook his head to the negative, “No.   Maybe.   Not really though.   This was a while back.   I don’t think Marco would consider anything Maria could have done to him a threat.   He’s a total douche bag,” The jealousy in his voice was obvious but he didn’t seem to recognise it.

“Would Maria be the type to try and get revenge?   Especially like that?”

“A few months ago I would have said no and probably punched who ever suggested it as possible,” He worried his lower lip. “Lately she’s been acting really aggressive though.   It started around the same time Marco and she split and I figured it was just that but I don’t think it was just that.”

“What then?” I asked, taking a drink from my water. My throat was suddenly very dry.

“I don’t know, man.   She was just different.   Really frustrated and angry for no reason.   She was always big on exercise but the last month or so she’s been going way overboard.   She had a little growth spurt and was getting seriously ripped.   I swear she had doubled her squat.   It was almost like she was on steroids or something.”

I didn’t want to ruin his image of her but there was a reason coach had to take the rumors about me juicing seriously; it happened all the time. “Is that possible?”

“No,” he said with total certainty. “Not Maria.   She hates needles.   Every time she has to have blood drawn she gets all woozy.   Last time she actually passed out.”

I slumped against the table a bit. “I don’t know what to tell you man.”

“Just tell me you saw her.”

“I thought I did,” I admitted, “but I’m not as sure now.   Sorry.”

Will slouched lower in his chair looking defeated, “Nah.   It’s cool man.   I was just hoping you might know what was going on.”

I laughed a little at that, “You know way more than I do Will,”

“I guess,” he said so quietly I could barely make it out.

He looked so lost and sad it just killed me, “Do you know where she disappeared?”

“Sure,” his voice was hollow, “I was at the meet when she vanished,” he covered his eyes and tried to push back the tears, “I was fucking there and I didn’t do anything to help her.   I should have been there for her!”

“Dude!   Look at me!”   he looked past his hands and sure enough his eyes were wet.   I sympathized with his predicament but this was a bad place to get all weepy.   I wanted to spare him the embarrassment if I could. “What happened at the meet?”

“Nothing,” he choked back the tears, “It was just a normal meet except that she disappeared.”

I looked at him incredulously, “What about the knocked down trees and the dead naked guy?” I whispered.

His face contorted in confusion, “What dead naked guy?!   There were some downed trees but nothing,” his eyes went hazy for a moment.

“You okay Willy?”

“Yeah,” he shook his head, trying to clear it, “There was so much going on with Maria disappearing the day is sort of a blur.   I don’t remember anything about a dead guy but now that you mention it, there was something weird with the trees,” he rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, “I can’t seem to remember what though.   What’s going on Double A?”

I leaned back in my chair and looked him in the eye, “I don’t know Willy but I think we need to find out.”




CHAPTER 9



I woke the next morning at three thirty or so, I really need to find that stupid clock.   I tried to go back to sleep but my brain wouldn’t stop long enough for me to drift off.   So much had happened in the last four days that I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget anything important.   Something about Willy’s inability to remember what had happened at the Cross Country meet was bugging me.   I felt like I knew something important but I couldn’t figure out what.

After laying in the dark for awhile I got up and quietly cleared the piles of junk from my desk.   The paints and brushes I put away in the closet where they were supposed to be anyway.   The rest of it was just old homework and other stuff I needed to go through and decide what I wanted to keep.     After looking around for a good place to set it, I balanced it all precariously on my bed.

I really needed to clean this place soon.

I rifled through the drawers of my desk and for once actually wished I had taken dad up on his offer to give me a laptop for Christmas.   Josie had taken one and she used it all the time.   I just took the money and used it to buy a really nice oil brush set that I had thus far used two brushes out of.   The brushes were awesome and I really liked to paint when I had the time.

It just didn’t seem like I ever had the time anymore.

After far too long I found an old steno pad which I had used for sketching back when I first got the art bug.   I hadn’t looked at it in probably eight years.   Slowly I turned through the sketches which I had so carefully rendered on the thin yellow paper.

Most of it was crap.   Every once in a while I’d find something that wasn’t bad though.   Maybe a little rough and heavy handed but solid none the less.

I reached the end of the sketches and turned a couple pages further in.   I then tried to write down everything odd that had happened over the previous week and what Willy and I had decided to do about it.   The top of the list was Maria appearing to Willy as a ghost.   Even as I wrote it, it seemed crazy but he was absolutely convinced of what was happening and I had seen just enough strangeness that I had a hard time discounting it completely.

Next came the naked dead guy in the woods that maybe didn’t even exist; followed by the knocked down trees.   The FBI was still poking around and so was another agency but neither Willy nor I were sure which one.   Our general consensus was that it was either military or maybe CIA but we really didn’t know.   I’m not really into conspiracy theories but it really did feel like someone was trying to cover something up.

Will and I discussed a number of possible ideas but eventually decided to visit the site of Maria’s disappearance on the   upcoming Saturday.   The odds of us finding anything was basically nil but with a little luck it would make Will feel better.   He liked Maria a lot!   Way more than he wanted to admit to even himself.

I sat quietly in the light of my desk lamp as realization of my own loneliness crept up on me.

I shook away the morose feelings as best I could.   I was just tired and sitting alone in the dark was a good way to end up depressed.

There was a slight thump and scrabble which came from outside my window overlooking the front porch.   My heart pounded in my throat and I sat as still as I could, listening.   When nothing except the usual creeks and groans of the old house followed I was able to work up the courage to look outside.   I scanned the area as best I could but saw nothing out of the ordinary.   It was probably just one of the cats.

Stupid cats.

I returned to my desk and reviewed the list one more time.   It looked more or less complete and my eyes were getting heavy so I turned off the light and climbed back into bed.

Of course that spilled the various piles of stuff I had forgotten there all over the floor.

“Dangit!” I cursed under my breath.   I couldn’t decide if I should get up and clean up the mess or leave it for morning.

The light in the hall clicked on and my door opened a crack.   “Is everything OK sweetheart?” mom asked quietly enough that if I had been asleep I doubt I would have heard her.

“I’m fine mom, just had a little trouble sleeping,” I replied.

“Are you sure,” she sounded worried.   The food poisoning must have been worse for them than it was for me.

I yawned theatrically, “I’m sure. Good night, mom,”

“Good night, AJ.”

The hall light turned off and so did I.

...to be continued...



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