The Center: Crossroads (4)

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The Center: Crossroads
Part 4

by Matt Zenn

 
Author's Note: I'm working on the next story for this but between the holidays and the Comic Store I have gone to for the last fifteen odd years closing (which has been a huge distraction. It's like saying they were closing "home") it's going a little slower than I had hoped it would. Just a Heads up.~Matt
 

CHAPTER 10


When I got up Friday morning it was just before dawn.   I ran around the near pasture for a half-hour to get my blood pumping and felt much more like myself.   I helped Josie with the morning chores and then mom made us waffles before we all headed off to our destinations for the day.

The game was away this week and I dressed in my blue suit for the occasion.   I might not be able to dress or even go to the game but I’d support them however I could.

The talk about the weirdness from earlier in the week was all but gone.   People were discussing what they were going to wear for spirit week and how far they thought they could push things before they were sent home to change.

The day was otherwise pretty typical.   In order to avoid Brian I ended up sitting with Willy and his friends at lunch.   It was actually kind of fun to have people to talk to during lunch again.

When school got out, I grabbed my shake, made it to my car and headed home without any weirdness happening at all.   Willy had wanted to change the plan and check out the place Maria had disappeared that night but I still hadn’t mentioned that I wasn’t going to the game to my parents and expected that to be a little bit of drama.   Reluctantly he agreed to wait until Saturday.

I have to admit part of me just wanted to make sure there was plenty of day light left when he got there.   I wasn’t really scared but I was feeling cautious.

~oOo~


~oOo~

I walked into the kitchen to find mom and Josie giggling while doing dishes.   “AJ,” mom dried her hands, “I thought you would just ride with the team,”   She smiled, “We’ll just have to take you’re father’s truck instead.”

Time to get this over with, “Is dad home yet?”

“He’s getting ready for the game,” her face turned suspicious, “Why?   What’s going on AJ?”

“I just need to talk to dad about tonight’s game is all,”

Mom pursed her lips in a less than pleased fashion.   After standing up to her glare for a few seconds she relented, “He should be in the den.”

“Could you come along?” I asked very quietly.   Part of me wanted her there so I wouldn’t have to explain it twice.   Mostly I knew that she could help blunt dad’s anger if he really went off the deep end.

Rather than say anything she simply nodded and waited for me to lead the way.

We walked in silence to the den, where-in I saw my dad flipping through one of the scrapbooks he had kept over the years.

Dad loves football.   He loved playing it it.   He loves watching it.   He loves that I’m playing it.   Give him half a chance and a beer and he’ll regale you with stories from playing in High School for the Spartans and College for the Cornhuskers.

He doesn’t really talk about his time with the Miami Dolphins.   He blew his knee out before the end of his rookie year and that was the end of that.   He came back to Nebraska and has been working as a physical therapist for the hospital ever since.   I get the feeling there was more to him not going back than just the injury.   He doesn’t seem to like the NFL.   He doesn’t even watch the games.

“Dad?” I said quietly, pulling him out of his memories.

“Yes, AJ?” he smiled.   With a little luck it was a smile that indicated a forgiving mood.

“Dad I...” the words caught in my throat.

“Spit it out, boy” dad said firmly.   His good mood seemed to be gone already.   Awesome.

I took a deep breath and let it all go at once, “Brian Peters has been acting weird and coach thinks it’s because of me so he asked me not to go to the game so I don’t get in Peters’ head when he needs to be focused on the game sorry dad.”

It took dad a moment to sort out exactly what I’d said.   “Huh,” he said, unfazed “Was that all?”

It was like he didn’t understand how big a deal this was.   “Yes, sir,” I nodded.

“Do you mind if the rest of us go?” he asked with a guilty smile.

“JP!” mom scolded.

This wasn’t at all what I had prepared myself for!   “I guess not,” I stuttered.

“Good!” he stood up and clapped me on the shoulder.   “Next week will be better AJ.   The rest of us need to get moving.”   Dad hustled us all out of the den.   Mom made a few objections but dad wanted to go to the game and he just wasn’t hearing it.

When we got to the kitchen Josie had finished the dishes and was waiting in her coat by the door. “This is Sparta!” she shouted and my dad echoed her.

“Are you sure you’re okay with this AJ?” mom asked as she gave me a hug.

I squeezed her back, “It’s okay mom.   It’s just a game.   There will be lots of other games.”

“Get you’re coat Aaron!” Josie giggled while trying to avoid a bear hug from dad.

“I’m not going Jojo,” I said, trying my best to sound like it didn’t bother me.

Josie stopped scrambling, “Why?” she asked with obvious concern.

“Just a failing of one of the other players Josie,” dad said lightly.

Josie thought for a second and then unzipped her coat and started to take it off, “I’ll just stay home with Aaron then.”

“You don’t have to do that Jojo,” I said before either of my parents could object themselves, “I know you like watching the games.   Go, have fun.”

Josie rolled her eyes and hung up her coat, “I like watching you.   If you aren’t playing why would I care?”

“Because it’s fun?” I ventured.

She waved a hand at me dismissively, “Is it alright if I stay home with Aaron mom?”

It was pretty obvious that mom would have liked to stay home as well but when she glanced at dad in his bright blue Spartans sweatshirt it was clear that they would be going to the game. “Ask your father,” was all she said.

“Can I daddy?” Josie asked; hitting him with the puppy dog eyes at the same time.

“I suppose,” he said with a hint of disappointment.

Josie gave dad and mom a hug and then the parents took off for Papillion.

Once they were gone I turned to Jojo, “So, what do you want to do tonight?”

~oOo~


~oOo~

Three hours later I sat stoney faced and tried to ignore the pencil my little sister was jamming into my right eye.

"You know that if you ever tell anyone about this I will find out don't you?" It came out a little slurred.   I blame the bobby pins in my mouth.   If I ever figure out how she gets me to do stuff like this I swear I'll patent it and make a fortune.   I shifted the pins a bit to make talking easier, "Then I'd have no choice but to find you and cut all your hair off."

Josie took a step back with a look of horror on her face.   She self-consciously pulled her incredibly long thick blond hair into an embrace.   "You wouldn't!"

"Wouldn't I?" I replied with a grin that sent several pins tinkling to the floor. If she actually believed her hair might be in danger I knew she'd keep quiet.   Rapunzel wishes she had hair like my little sister.

"But... but..." she sniffed and her lip began to tremble.

Before she could get the water works flowing I relented.   I knew she was probably faking but I couldn't stand to see her cry. "Hey!" I tried to reach up to grab her chin but my hands were caught under the beach towel she had draped around my neck. "No need for that!"   I smiled until I caught her eye.   "You know how pretty I think your hair is; there's no way I'd ever do anything to it!"

"Really?" she snuffled again and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

Guilt crisis averted.   Thank god.   "Of course!" I smiled and received one in return.   Certain she was no longer going to have a melt down, I shifted to my game face.   "But seriously, if you ever tell anyone I'll shave you bald as a cue ball."

For a moment I thought she was going to open up the water works on me again but then she laughed. "I won't tell anyone Aaron.   I really appreciate you letting me practice on you. Getting the make-up too look right is really tricky."

I nodded and the hair scratched against the back of my neck, “Why do I have to wear the wig again?”

She rolled her eyes as if it was the dumbest thing she’d ever heard, “Because that’s how Egyptians look.   Duh!”

I wanted to argue but couldn’t find any particular fault in her reasoning.   The fact she still hadn’t let me see what all she had done was starting to wear on me.   “Are you almost done?   What time is it anyway?”

“About eight,”   she said glancing at the creepy shifty-eye cat clock on her wall.

I quickly estimated when mom and dad would be likely to get home. “How long will this stuff take to get of?”

“Not too long,” she brushed something across my cheeks and then rubbed at it with her thumb.

“Well wrap this up.   Mom and dad could be home...” an errant sound caught my attention, “Did you hear that?”

Josie stood still and listened, “Hear what?”

My blood ran cold, “It sounded kind of like...”

“We’re home!” mom shouted up the stairs.

“Oh shit!” Josie swore.   I was too busy trying to disengage myself from the towel to chastise her for swearing.   I started desperately rubbing the make-up off my face with the towel to Josie’s horror, “My work!   My towel!” she gasped.   “Stop it!   Stop!   You’re just smearing it around!   Take these!”   She handing me a box of something that looked like wet naps.

“Are you here?” mom said I we could hear her climbing the stairs.   After a few steps she stopped and retreated back down the stairs.

My heart was racing, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, but I was still terrified of getting caught doing it.   When she stopped coming up the stairs both Josie and I relaxed a little.   She grabbed one of the wipes and was about to help me get cleaned up when I heard a very different footfall on the old staircase.   Mom’s tread was light and had a distinct clip-clop sound from her heels.

This was more of a thud.

My heart stopped.   All I could hear was that sound as it drew inexorably closer.

“I know it’s silly Jacob.   Stop laughing at me!” Dad’s steps faltered slightly as I suspect mom shoved him.

There was a weighty pause and after a moment I made out the sounds I had come to associate with my parents making out.

It was the first time I could remember being glad that they were so openly affectionate.

I jumped out of the chair and was about to bolt for my room but Josie stopped me. “Walk,” she said as she pulled off the wig.

With carefully measured steps I crossed the landing between the second floor bed rooms.   Sure enough, when I glanced down the stairs my parents were kissing.   Ick.   I hurried into my room and over to the mirror I kept by my easel.   As fast as I could, I scrubbed away the offending materials, threw away the wipes, hid the box of wipes and even thought to stir the waste basket to better conceal the remains.   I was never doing anything like that ever again.   Make-up was just out.   Period.   Why did I let her talk me into that in the first place?

Just when I was sure I wasn’t going to be disowned, dad opened my door with out knocking.   “So how were things tonight?” he asked casually.

“Normal.   Totally a normal night,”   As I spoke I could feel all the places where I had missed while cleaning up.   The light was dim at the moment, cast only by a single desk lamp.   So long as he didn’t see me too closely I’d be fine.   “How was the game?”

“That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about,” Dad looked around for a place to sit but there was only one chair in my room and I was using it. “How about we go down to the den?”

“Here,” I said jumping up and gesturing to the chair while I hopped over to my bed, “What happened at the game?”

Dad groused a little about the admittedly too small chair but managed to sit without breaking it.   Dad was being quiet and pensive which was very unlike him. “I know you’ve been having some problems with Brian Peters.”

Understatement. “Yeah, he’s been acting like a total psycho.”

“Well, be careful around him.   He was in a very dangerous place tonight and I think it may have been directed at you,” he said solemnly.

This new information completely evaporated my concerns over a little bit of makeup. “Wh...why would you think that?” I stuttered.

Dad ran a hand through his thinning hair and leaned back in the chair which groaned in protest, “He was going out of his way to hurt people tonight.   He was jumping offsides and he singled out the kid they had in your position even though it was off his route.”

“What happened?” I asked nervously, if Peters was really trying to hurt people it would be bad.   My stomach was suddenly very cold.   “Was anyone injured?”

“Yeah,” he nodded sadly, “they had to haul a half dozen of their players out before Coach Wiese had enough and ejected Peters himself.”

“Whoa...” that just didn’t happen, “Why didn’t the refs stop it?”

Dad shook his head, “I don’t know AJ.   It looked obvious to me but it’s different on the field.”

“Who won?” without Peters in the game anything could happen.

“Go Spartans,” Dad smiled but it didn’t have the joy I would usually expect.   “It was tight but they pulled it out.   Do you actually want to play football Aaron?”

When I was first learning to drive a manual transmission I panicked and ended up completely burning out the clutch plate.   I imagine that my brain made that same sound and smell when my dad asked me that.

“AJ?” Dad reached over and shook my knee, which was apparently enough to get my brain moving again.

“Yeah.   No.   Of course I want to play,” I was having a little trouble breathing and felt very tired all of a sudden, “Why?”

Dad sighed, “Your mother and I were talking tonight and we don’t...” he closed his eyes and set his jaw, “I don’t want you to feel like I’m pushing you into playing.   You’re a natural AJ.   I love to watch you play and I think you could go far with it but it needs to be something you want.   Not something I want for you.”

I really had fallen into a parallel dimension.   It was the only explanation.   

My jaw worked uselessly for a while before I finally managed, “I’m really tired tonight.   I can’t think about this right now.”

Dad nodded and stood, “I hope you keep playing but if it’s time to move on to something else then it’s time.   I won’t be any less proud of you.   Night AJ,” he patted me on the leg as he walked out of the room.

“Night dad,” I said absently as my brain tried it’s hardest to assimilate this new reality.

I was already more or less ready for bed so I turned off the light and tried to sleep.   A minute later I turned it back on and got up to do my evening stretches.   When I finished, I felt a little less like a leaf on the wind and went back to bed.

A half hour later I was still awake.   My chest hurt and it reached all the way through to my back.   No matter what I did I couldn’t find a comfortable position.   I twisted and stretched and cracked my back but the pain wouldn’t ease up.   It was nothing in comparison to the cramps but it was still really annoying.

An hour after that I noticed that my nipples felt really weird.   They were hard and puffy and I could feel them when they brushed against my t-shirt.   It didn’t feel bad, it actually felt kind of good but it was really weird and I didn’t like it.   I thought about telling mom but I didn’t want any part of that conversation.

Finally around midnight the pain finally eased and I drifted off into fitful slumber.

~oOo~


~oOo~

Some time later I was shaken awake.   I rolled over to see who it was but between my sluggish brain, bleary eyes and the darkness I only registered a vaguely female shape.   “Wuh?” was I all could manage.

“I’m scared,” she said.

“That you Jojo?” I asked blearily.

“I’m scared,” she repeated. “I don’t want to be alone.”

“You’re getting too big for this Jojo,” I objected but the weight of history had me scooting over to make room for her.   “Night Jojo,” I rolled to my side and put my back to her.   I felt her climb into the bed but rather than taking her side as usual she spooned up behind me and wrapped her arms around me.

At once I was awake and completely alert.   I knew without question it was not Josie in bed with me.   Everything from the lack of the smell of her lilac shampoo to the contour of her body was wrong.   Most horrifying was the hot, hard thing pressing into the small of my back.   My heart   pounded in my chest.   I wanted to move but it was like my body was no longer under my control.   “I love you, Marco,” she whispered, “Please let me inside of you.”

I felt her penis, there was nothing else it could have been, begin sliding lower and lower.   My shirt rode up in the back and I knew what was going to happen next!

With titanic effort I managed to twist in her grasp and push her away from me.   She felt surprisingly solid for a ghost.   With a thump she fell out of bed to the floor.

The look on her face was pure confusion. “You...you aren’t Marco!   How did you...   Oh my god!   You touched me?!” she stuttered.

“I’ll do a hell of a lot more than that!” I growled as I spun my back to a wall, “I wouldn’t normally hit a girl but... you don’t exactly count.” my eyes drifted to her still erect penis and I goggled slightly.

It wasn’t fair.   It just wasn’t fair.

A smile spread across her lips, “You touched me,” she said it as if this was a major revelation for her.   “You touched me!”

I thought she was going to start bouncing up and down with happiness.

A second later she actually did start jumping for joy, “You touched me, you touched me, you touched me,” she chanted.

“What the hell...” I mumbled.   I had absolutely no idea what to make of her behavior.

Suddenly she was in my face and kissing me full on the lips.   Try as I might I couldn’t pull away; my lungs burned and then I was laying on my stomach in bed with my back arched gasping for breath.   “Must have had my face in the pillow,”   I rationalized.   The dream was still incredibly vivid and in spite of all reason I was incredibly turned on.   I buried my face back in the pillow and started running play routes in my head.   “Just what I need,” I grumbled.

“Are you okay Aaron?” a voice asked quietly from near my bed.

My entire body convulsed in surprise and I bounced right out of bed. “Ouch,” I grunted.   It hadn’t really hurt but it’s just one of those thing you say.

Josie was trying to keep from laughing too loudly, “Are you okay?” she whispered again.

“What are you doing in my room?” I hissed as I rubbed a small knot on my head.   Maybe it hurt a little bit.

“I had a weird dream about that girl that disappeared and when I woke up I heard you talking to yourself so I thought maybe I could....” she fidgeted with her hands rather than actually ask if she could sleep with me.

I didn’t really want her in bed with me at the moment, I was really horny, and the dream was still fresh enough I was having a hard time separating it from reality.   “Turn on the light a second,”   I said suspiciously.

“Why?”

“Just do it Jojo,”

After a few failed attempts she managed to get the light on, “Now what?” she asked a little peevishly.

“Nothing,” I yawned, “I just needed to see for a second.   Bad dreams, you know?”

She nodded, “I can stay?”

I swear; you tie her hair up and put her in a pink Super Girl night shirt, she might as well still be six years old.   I smiled in defeat, “Sure Jojo.   Just stay on your side alright?”

She nodded and turned out the light, “Night Aaron,” she said sleepily, as she climbed into bed, falling asleep almost immediately.

I lay in bed trying not to think about the nightmare and all the weird feelings it had dredged up but the more I tried not to think about it, the more it was the only thing I could think about. Fortunately, before long I felt Josie’s comforting presence and drifted into dreamless slumber.


CHAPTER 11


I woke the next morning to some minor cramping in my abdomen.   The heavy quilt was on the floor and Josie was curled up next to me, fast asleep.   I tried to change position without waking her up but nothing I tried seemed to be helping.   Fear that I was going to have another attack like Monday night bounced through my brain but I knew that panicking wouldn’t help.   After a few minutes of this I tried to get a better idea of how to remove myself without disturbing her.   

That’s when I noticed she was drooling all over me!

Without further concern for her rest I bounced out of bed and grabbed a rag to try and blot up the saliva which had pooled on my chest. “Gross!” I whispered harshly.

“Morning Aaron,” she smiled, “You look grumpy.”

“You slobbered all over me again,” I grumbled.

“Oops,” she blushed, wiping her chin on the sleeve of her shirt, “Sorry,” she lolled her tongue out of her mouth a somewhat disturbing distance and then wrapped it up to touch the tip of her nose, “Mah tung es tuh beeg,” she slurred.

“Stop that!   It’s weird!” I barked.   Her tongue really was too big for her mouth. I think I actually heard mom talking to Dr. Rogers about it a couple times.   His diagnosis was basically that growth spurts can be very strange. “I’m going to go change,” I said removing my shirt and heading to my dresser.   This was intended as a hint for her to leave but apparently she didn’t get it.

Jojo looked at me while I tried to find a shirt. “Have your boobs always looked like that Aaron?” she questioned.

“I don’t have boobs!” I snapped at her in horror, causing her to giggle.   “I have pecs!   Girls have boobs.   Boys have pecs.   Sheesh!” I looked down at the topic of conversation and had to admit they did look a little off.   Mostly it was my nipples.   They seemed puffy and maybe a little larger than I remembered.   As I watched, the cold air in my room really hit them and they became very tight and hard.   I touched one and actually jumped at the sensation.   “That’s new,” I said under my breath.

“Mine get like that when it’s cold,” Josie offered helpfully.   Before she could catch my look of scorn she sniffed the air, “Bacon!” she hooted and bolted down stairs without another thought.

I stood in my room playing with my nipples for far longer than I probably should have.   They were really hard and touching them felt good in a way that kind of made me horny.   The weirdest part was that it actually seemed to be making the cramps go away. “That’s messed up,” I decided and pulled on my shirt.   The feeling of the t-shirt sliding over them was not at all pleasant but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t deal with.

The fact that I was totally nipping out though my shirt was more of a concern.

“Breakfast, AJ,” Mom called up the stairs.

“Just a second,” I hollered back.   As fast as I could, I rooted around for a softer t-shirt and then pulled a hoodie over my head.   The thought that maybe I should mention this to mom flashed through my head.

“Get your butt down here AJ!” dad yelled and as quickly as it had come the idea flashed back out.   Without another thought to my weird bumps, I hustled down stairs before dad got any more irritated.

Man, was I hungry.

~oOo~


~oOo~

After breakfast I felt terrific.   Euphoric might even be a better term.   After almost a week of dragging ass, the lingering weakness and overall lethargy was finally gone.

My overly playful behavior soon got on dad’s nerves and he sent me out to burn some of it off.

I ran and jumped and flipped the tractor tire a few dozen times and all in all just tore the place up.

When I was done I was exhausted but still euphoric: I was giggling, singing and dancing for no reason.   I knew I was acting like a total spaz but I didn’t care.   I felt too good to worry about it.

When I went inside I tried to play with Jojo but she wanted nothing to do with me until I had cleaned up.   The shower was a little strange.   My nipples were still acting all haywire and my skin was more sensitive than I expected.   At first, it was really uncomfortable but after a while I started to enjoy it.

Exactly how much I enjoyed it I’ll leave up to your imagination.

When I was finally out of the bathroom, I decided to grab a protein shake to tide myself over.   Mom was in the kitchen working on something at the counter and on a lark I snuck up behind her and poked her in the ribs.

She jumped and shrieked and took a swing at me with the knife she was holding.   Her eyes were wild and it took a moment for her to recognise me. “Oh AJ!,” she gasped, setting the knife down on the counter, and then holding her hand to her heart. “Don’t do that!   You scared the life out of me! Oh god!” she covered her mouth as she realized what she had done with the knife.

It wasn’t the first time I had surprised her like this; she didn’t like it but she had never reacted so violently before. As I watched tears welled up in her eyes and she tried to stop them but couldn’t seem to do it.   Mom never reacted like this.   Why was she so upset...

Those assholes at the Village Inn!

God I am such a fucking moron!   She gets attacked and then I scare her.   What the hell is wrong with me?

I wrapped her up in a hug, “I’m sorry mommy,” I said quietly as she cried into my chest, “I didn’t mean to scare you so bad.   I just thought it would be funny.   I’m really sorry.   Please don’t cry.”

She hugged me and cried for a little while longer but recovered very quickly.   “It’s okay AJ,” she responded when she was able.   “I over reacted.   Please promise me you won’t do that anymore.”

“Never again,” I said quickly, “sorry mommy,” by that point my eyes were also tearing up and I ducked my head into her shoulder.

After a while standing like this, I noticed that Mom’s hug had become uncomfortably palpatory.   “Have you lost weight?” she asked, apparently recovered.

Not this again.   “No mom.   I’m fine,” At least she didn’t seem so upset anymore.

“Are you sure?   You seem thinner than usual,” her groping moved around to my ribs and it tickled.

I bounced out of her grasp, “Stop!   Stop it!” I gasped through giggles. “I’m fine.   I’ve been sick, so maybe I’ve lost a few pounds but it’s no big deal.”

She looked me over critically, “I suppose.   How about a sandwich?”

I put my hands up to try and fend her off, “I was just going to grab a protein shake and then...” my phone rang and for a brief moment I was confused.   Everyone that called me was here.   I quickly pulled the phone from it’s charger and checked who it was.   “Hey, what’s up?” I answered into the phone.   To mom I mouthed ‘sorry’.   She rolled her eyes with a small smile and returned to chopping celery.

“Not too much,” Willy responded.   “You ready to go?”

I had completely forgotten that we were going to check out the track today.   Awesome job Cross.

“How long will it take you to get here?   Or was I coming to you?   What are we doing again?”

Willy sounded a little concerned, “You alright Double A?   You seem kinda spacey.”

I laughed. “That’s fair.   Just had bad dreams last night and I’ve been feeling weird all day,” The line was quiet for long enough I wondered if we had been disconnected. “You still there Willy?”

“Was the dream about Maria?” he asked quietly but it clear he was very much on edge..

“Yeah...” I admitted warily.   Thinking back on the dream and how I had reacted to it was not something I was eager to do.   “Why?”

“I have to check a couple things but I should be at the truck stop in about an hour.”

“Right!” I confirmed as the plan finally started coming back to me.   “I’ll see you then.”

“Sweet.   Watch your back man,” he said ominously and then hung up the phone.

“Huh,” I grunted as I closed my phone.

“Who was that?” mom asked casually.

“Just a friend,” I replied defensively.

Mom turned and leaned against the counter, “Boy friend?   Girl friend?” mom was on the hunt.   Resisting was pointless.

“Do you remember Willy Hughes?” I asked.

Mom thought for a moment and then did the one thing I was really hoping she wouldn’t do, “JP!” she called loudly.

“Yeah?” he called back.

“Do you remember a Willy Hughes?”

Without a pause he answered, “Wasn’t he that weird kid who played Little League with AJ?” his voice was getting closer. “He was the one that thought it was funny to sit on his cleats. Why?” he asked standing in the doorway to the kitchen.

“AJ was just talking to him on the phone,” she smiled happily.

“Why are you wasting time talking to him?” dad asked me bluntly.

“JP!” mom chastised him.   “So what is Willy up to these days AJ?”   mom asked, still giving dad the eye.

“He’s in Cross Country...” I began.

“Uh huh,” dad interjected.   It was pretty obvious that Cross Country was exactly where dad would have expected Willy to end up.

“JP,” mom warned once again.

I decided my best chance of getting out without explaining too much was to forge ahead. “He and I started talking at lunch earlier this week and we decided to hang out today.”

“That’s wonderful!” mom grinned.   “Isn’t it JP?”

Dad turned and headed back the way he had come, “Get it out of your system, boy.   Practice starts up again tomorrow morning.”

That was about as much approval as I could hope for from dad.   Awesome!   “Yes, sir.” I replied smartly.

“So what are you two doing today?”   mom asked returning to her work.

I shrugged, “Not totally sure.   I’m supposed to meet him at Stauffer’s pretty soon and we were going to decide there,”   It wasn’t exactly a lie.

“All right,” mom smiled again.   Me hanging out with Willy sure seemed to be making her happy. “Just be sure you call once you know what you’re up too.”

“Will do,” I smiled back.   This was so much easier than I expected. “I should probably get going.”

“See you later sweetheart.”

“Bye mom.”   I hightailed it before any more questions could be formulated.


CHAPTER 12


I sat in Stauffer’s Truck Stop waiting for Willy long enough I felt compelled to either leave or order a piece of pie.   I decided that if Willy wasn’t there by the time I finished my pie I would give him a call to see what was keeping him.

About the time I finished the pie, my phone rang. “Where you at Willy?” I asked as soon as I saw who it was.

“Outside,” he said cryptically.   “Hurry up.   I’ll drive.”

“Okay...” I was going to ask what had taken so long but the line was already dead.   “Weird.”

I paid for my pie and headed outside.   Willy was idling in front of the doors and I could see he had a passenger in the back seat but no detail about them.   When I approached the car he pushed the passenger side door open and said, “Sorry I’m late I had to pick up someone else,” he rolled his eyes toward the back seat.

I climbed into the car without really looking, “Whatever dude.   Why all the cloak and dagger.”

“Get in,” he ordered, “I’ll explain on the way.”

“Sure...” I hedged and climbed in the car.

Once the car was rolling I turned in my seat and finally got a decent look at the other passenger.   Her dark brown eyes were large and, though it was a little hard to spot covered as they were by a pair of horn rimmed glasses, turned up just slightly at the corners.   Her skin was a light caramel color which contrasted badly with the bright green of her Property of East Omaha Giants Track and Field Department sweatshirt.   After a moment I realized that her hair, which was tied off to the side in a high pony tail, matched her sweatshirt.   It was hard to get much more with her sitting in the back of the car.

“Cross country?” I asked her, already knowing the answer.

“Yup.   Football? she said in a similarly dismissive tone.

I nodded, “Did you know Maria?”

“We were friends before I moved and I had to transfer to East.   Plus, I think her ghost has been trying to fuck me for about a week,” she said it so casually that if I hadn’t been paying attention I probably would have missed it.

“What!” I turned to Willy, “Ok, what the hell is going on?”

Rainy squinted at me, “She tried to get you too didn’t she?”

“No!” I said too quickly and too loudly, “I’ve been sick and it’s messing with me.”

“OK.   So did she get anything inside you?” it was like she hadn’t heard me at all, “Cause she had me pinned down and when I tried to push her off I went right through her like she wasn’t there.   I could definitely feel when she touched me though,”   she shuddered.   “When I went through her she shrieked in frustrated rage and then I was waking up and she was gone.”

“Sounds like a bad dream to me,” I said trying to believe it myself.

“You know you’re crying right?” she said without any real emotion.

“What?” I wiped my cheeks and my hand came back wet.   “Dammit.”

“Just a dream, huh?” she asked in a monotone voice with just a hint of sarcasm.

“Yeah... probably,” I admitted and turned away from her, “So why are we going to the woods again?”

Willy answered first, “Rainbow and I...”

“Rainbow!?” I laughed, “Seriously?” I turned around and the face that met me was the heart of seriousness.   “Sorry.   Please go on Willy,”

“Whatever.   Like I said, Rainy and I were asking around with all the kids that were at the cross country meet and we all have these weird blank spots.   Nobody noticed them until someone else started talking about it but it’s like there are just missing chunks that no one can account for.”

“And we need to figure out what everyone has forgotten and why?” I asked questioningly.   I had absolutely no idea where we would even start.

“So we’re going back to the woods and with a little luck it will jog our memories or something,” Rainy added.

“Sure.   I guess... why am I going though?”   It had made a lot more sense when it was just Willy that would have been going.   Now that there were two of them I felt a little superfluous.   I didn’t know Maria and if all the weirdness surrounding her would just go away I would have been really happy.

“Because of all the kids we’ve talked to that have been seeing her ghost you’re the only one that wasn’t at the meet and the only one that has seen her when she wasn’t directly messing with you,” she said levelly.   “At least as far as we know,” She leaned forward in the seat and squinted at me.   “Are you a witch?”

“Don’t push it Rainy,” Will barked.   Rainbow leaned back into her seat laughing to herself.   To me Will added, “Sorry man, she can get kinda weird sometimes,”   Rainy kicked the back of his seat in retaliation. “Hey!   Feet on the floor!” he yelled and the car swerved violently for a moment.   “If I find foot prints on the upholstery!” he threatened.

I braced myself and looked back to find Rainy finally taking the time to belt herself in, “That’s great,” I smiled.   “Still doesn’t explain the spy act.”

“Oh that,” Rainy grinned, “Willy and I are pretty sure the Fed’s are watching us all.”

~oOo~


~oOo~

After turning off the main road it was going to be at least twenty minutes before we would finally arrive.   I was unsure how long the whole thing would take us, so I decided to check in.   Pulling out my phone I dialed mom’s cell.

“Good luck with that,” Rainbow said with an audible smirk.   “Can you hear me now?” she said derisively, “Nope!”

My phone failed to connect and I canceled the call to try again.

“No luck?   Shock!   Maybe that’s because this whole part of the county is a freaking dead zone.   Who are you trying to call anyway?”

I spun in the seat to face her, “What is with you?   Just let me make the call!”

“I’m not stopping you, genius!   What the fuck is your problem? I’m just saying that you’re wasting your time.   You’re the one going all psycho over it.”

Her voice was cute; her lips pouty and attractive; her words reasonable, if aggressive; I had never wanted to punch a girl as much as I did her at that moment.   The pain and frustration of the week bubbled up and I clenched my hands into fists trying to control the urge.   There was a crunch, pop and the smell of burned plastic.

“What that fuck was that?” Rainbow said sniffing the air before rolling down the back window.   “Did your brain just short out or something?   Are you a robot!?”

“Will both out you just shut the hell up!” Willy yelled, sniffing the air himself, “What the hell is that?” his eyes gained a look of panic, “My seats aren’t on fire are they?!   What is that?”

The moment of anger past, I unclenched my hands and suddenly felt something digging into the meat of my palm.   “Ow!   What the...” I looked at the offending hand and found it filled with vaguely familiar pieces that had once been my phone.   I had crushed it like a dixie cup.

“You okay?” Rainy said unbuckling her seat belt to lean forward.   

I stared at my hand, trying to figure out how I had crushed my phone so completely without even noticing it happen!

“Holy fuck!” Rainy gasped when she realized what I was holding, “You really are a robot!” there was a pregnant pause, “Do it again!” she pulled out her phone, “Here, you can use mine.”

Willy glanced over at the mess of parts in my hand, “Geeze Double A, anger problems much?”

“Not normally,” I said, still in shock.

The car skidded to a stop and Rainy and I bashed heads in the process.

Somehow she managed to hit me in exactly the same spot I had cracked the night before.

“Sorry!   Sorry,” Willy said as he turned around to look behind him.   “I missed the last turn off.   You guys ok?”

Rainy and I rubbed our heads where they had connected, “Yeah I’m fine,” I groaned.

“Maybe a little warning next time!” standing up in the back seat, she leaned between us and commandeered the rear view mirror.   “I knew I should have driven myself!   If I get a bruise from this you are so going to hear about it!”

As she was leaning between us I was able to get a better idea of what she looked like.   Like Willy, she was wearing shorts even though it was far too cold for it.   For that matter Willy’s shorts at least hit him below the knee.   Rainbow wasn’t exactly wearing short-shorts but they were a heck of a lot closer to that than Capri's.   Her legs were long for her height and had a muscularity that some runners seemed to develop and others wished they did.   They terminated in the kind of butt that rappers seemed to be obsessed with.   It was big and round, high and tight and well proportioned for her body.

At least if you like them a little on the big side.

I have seen some pretty butts in my time and this was probably the prettiest butt I’ve ever seen.

“What the fuck are you doing?” she said hotly.   “Are you staring at my ass!?”

I blushed. “What?   No!   I... I was... Oh come on! It’s right in my face!   What do you expect me to do?”

“I want you to act like a gentleman!   I expect you to act like the perverted knuckle dragging neanderthal you clearly are.   I should have known that a football player,” she made it sound like something you would scrape off your shoe, “would only be able to think with the little head!”

“What in the hell is your problem!” I responded angrily,   “You’ve been nothing but a bitch since I got in the car!”

“Oh you did NOT just call me a bitch!” she said twisting around to get a better look at me, her eyes were wild and dangerous.

“B. I. T. C. H.” I repeated.

She lifted a hand to slap me and at that moment Willy slammed on the breaks.   Rainbow lost her balance and I tried to catch her but she ended up tumbling face first into my lap.

“Both of you get the fuck out of my car!”   Willy shouted and started pushing us toward my door.

Rainy wriggled and squirmed trying to get her hands into a position to push away from me and every time I tried to help she squealed and thrashed about.   Her face was rubbing right against my groin; I could feel her hot breath through my pants and predictably ended up with a raging hard on.   After a fifteen second eternity I finally pushed the door open, grabbed Rainbow, and sat her outside by main strength.   As soon as she was clear I climbed outside myself with Willy pushing me all the way.

Rainbow and I stood outside of the car blushing and trying not too look at each other.   Willy, in the meantime, crawled through the interior of his car looking for damage and cursing the entire time.   After a lengthy pause Rainy said haltingly, “Wow.   You’re really strong,” she smiled awkwardly at me. “Too bad your so dumb,”   she patted me on the cheek and then took off toward the woods.   “The track ran by here.   I’m going to go check it out.   Tell Will that I’ll meet you guys at the starting line.”

“No.   Wait.   Stop. We should stick together,” I said quietly under my breath.   I didn’t really want her to get killed by an axe wielding maniac or anything but a little quiet was welcome.

Something about that girl irritated the heck out of me.

That didn’t stop me from watching her butt retreat into the woods though.

I looked back toward the car and Willy had calmed down a bit, “Can I get back in?” I asked as I opened the door.

“Yeah.   Sorry about that.   It’s just that this is only my car as long as I take care of it.   If dad sees any damage he might make me drive a P.O.S. pick-up truck or some... thing...   hey there’s where we’re going!” he smiled at me and pretended not to notice the look of annoyance on my face.   “Thanks for coming Double A.   I didn’t want to do this alone.”

I decided it was best to just let things go and climbed back in the car, “You have Rainy here.   She might be helpful.   Maybe.   Why did you bring her, anyway?   No offense man but she’s really annoying!”

Will leaned back on the head rest of his seat, “Oh man!   Tell me about it!   I’m just glad you were here or I would have gotten both barrels.”

“Then why did you bring her?” I asked incredulously.

“Because we’re friends, she cares about Maria and she wanted to come,” he answered simply. “Besides,” he smirked, “would you want to try and say no to her?”

I thought about it for a moment and then lifted a hand and we banged knuckles, “We should probably try and catch up with her.   She said she’d meet us at the starting line.”

“That works,” he started the car, “I think I’ll take my time getting there.”

We rolled quietly forward but when we got to the parking area there was already a vehicle there. I noticed that it had government plates and my gut told me that it was the FBI.   “Keep going!” I hissed and sank down in the seat.

“What?   Why?” he asked in confusion.

“Cops!” I said tensely and gestured toward the car.

Willy accelerated past the pull off and continued down the road until we were over the crest of a hill.   “Was it the FBI?” he asked almost in a panic.   “How did they know where we were going? Oh geeze!   We have to go back for Rainy!”

“I know!   Give me a second to think!” We had to get Rainy out but if the FBI caught us messing around they would undoubtedly give us a lot of grief. “How did you know about the FBI?” I asked, as what he had said fully registered.

Willy looked around nervously, “They talked to a bunch of Maria’s friends.   They wanted to know if she had any enemies or if she had said anything that might make us think she was going to kill herself or run away or anything like that.   Pretty much what you would expect but it’s just these two guys and Rainy and I are pretty sure they’re up to something.” he paused for a second, “What about Rainy?”

He was right.   The other stuff could wait; we needed to get Rainy out of there.   I sat up in my seat and spotted an over grown lane that led into the woods toward what was probably an abandoned farmstead. “There.   I said pointing to the lane.   We pull in there and then make our way on foot.”

“Where?” he asked, squinting.

“Right there,” I pointed again.

“Dammit, hold on,” he leaned across the car, opened the glove compartment and pulled out a pair of glasses.   “Where?” he asked again after putting them on.   I pointed again. “Oh yeah, I got it now,”   he carefully pulled into the lane and then drove far enough that we were difficult to see from the road even with the sparse fall vegetation.

“You know we could probably get in a lot of trouble for this right?   I mean screwing around with the FBI can’t be a good idea,” I pointed out.   We sat in the car for a minute thinking about what we were doing.   An involuntary grin crept across my face.   When I looked at Willy he had the same look on his face.

This was awesome!

“You know orienteering?” I asked before we got out of the car.

“Enough for Nebraska.   They make us learn a little bit when we join cross country.   You?”

I looked around and determined where north was, “I should be okay.   I learned the basics when I was in ROTC last year.”

“Man, when do you sleep?” Willy smiled and opened the car door.

I grinned back, “Sleep?   I know not this ‘sleep’.”

Willy laughed but quickly stifled it, “I probably have more experience running though terrain like this,” I nodded in agreement. “So I’ll take the lead.   We want to be quiet, so I’ll take it slowish.   If you have trouble keeping up let me know.”

“Dude,” I scoffed, “I’m only thirty seconds off of a four minute mile.”

Willy shook his head, “On a track maybe.   This is different.”

“Whatever,” I rolled my eyes.

Willy gave up the fight, “Just try not to break anything Double A.”

~oOo~


~oOo~

Fifteen minutes later I was leaning against a tree, sucking wind.   I couldn’t get a stride going.   You had to adjust every step and watch out all around you constantly.   Willy, on the other hand, looked bored.   “This sucks,” I gasped “Why... would you do this?”

“It’s fun?” he said softly. “You just need to relax and you’ll be fine.   You seem to have a pretty good eye for what not to tread on so that’s a big thing right there.   You ready to go?”

I took a deep breath and nodded.   I was totally adding this to my exercise regime.

After the break I started to get better at not wasting so much energy and we covered more ground much faster.   Suddenly, Willy called a halt and then back tracked about a hundred feet. “I think we passed the trail,” he whispered.   Sure enough Willy found the trail the meet had been using and we started down it.   “The starting line is this way,” he whispered “but knowing Rainy she’s gotten bored waiting for us and taken off on her own.”

“How do we find her then?”

“Keep your ears open for bitching,”

“Thanks for that,” I snarked.

After a few minutes of walking in silence I thought I heard voices.   I tapped Willy on the shoulder and we both knelt down to listen.   Though indistinct we could tell that the voices were male and what direction they were coming from.   Suddenly my choice of a basic gray sweatshirt, rather than Spartan Blue, seemed rather inspired.   Will pointed in the direction of the voices and made a walking motion with his fingers.   I shook my head ‘no’ and made a gesture as if being hung.   Will snickered and then started toward the noise heedless of my opinion.

God, I hope we don’t get shot.

A couple minutes later the voices were easier to understand.

“You must be reading it wrong,” Agent Garret said.   He sounded a little irritated.

“I’m telling you boss.   This is the spot.   The GPS coordinates in the time stamp say that this is where we filmed the footage.”

“The footage we don’t remember taking?” Garret asked.

“That footage exactly Boss,” Emerson replied.

Willy and I crept a bit farther and found a clearing about fifty feet across with the two agents standing at its rough center.

“The time stamp has to be wrong Emerson,” he looked around, “trees don’t just pop back up.”

“I know it doesn’t make any sense boss but that’s exactly what seems to have happened,” he gestured to the clearing.   “I mean this all looks pretty normal but the footage looks more like...”

“Tunguska circa 1908?” Garret finished.

“What?   Oh.   Yeah.   Sure, Boss,” Emerson squatted down and tussled the grass a bit, “the file I found on my SD card should be legitimate.   This is where they found the body right?”

“Should be,” Garret said thoughtfully.

“What are you thinking, boss?” Emerson asked rising to his feet and dusting his hands together.

Garret looked pensive. “Manning’s pattern may have something to it,” he said ominously.

Emerson was clearly unconvinced, “I know you like this for some kind of big conspiracy boss but I still think the odds are better that Cross is our perp.   I mean, come on.   We move out of the seventy-two hour window and he just happens to see her but can’t provide anything useful?   Sounds to me like someone who doesn’t want people to stop paying attention to his hard work.”

They thought I was behind Maria disappearing?   I hadn’t even heard of her before all this started!

“It would certainly fit classic serial killer behavior,” Garret agreed. “but that seems to be about the only thing that really tags him for that.”

Well that’s good to know!

Willy and I crushed ourselves to the ground as Agent Emerson began scanning the area, “If you say so boss.   All I know is that Manning’s pattern is huge.   If there’s a single organization behind it it has to be insanely well funded and connected.”

Garret raised an eyebrow toward his much younger partner, “Looking for a new job, Emerson?”

“You know what I mean boss.   Manning’s thing has kids disappearing all over the country, if there’s a group doing it then they would have to be able to move throughout the country, pretty much at will;   be large enough to field multiple teams at the same time and have those teams be well enough trained that they could disappear into the night with only a handful of witnesses indicating there was anyone out of place there at all,” Emerson shook his head, “It’s too big, boss.   Even if a government or one of the really big corporations wanted to kidnap or kill a bunch of kids for some reason they’d still get caught if they tried it on the scale we’re talking about.”

Garret grunted, “Don’t disagree with anything you’re saying Emerson but if the pattern isn’t there then what did Manning find?”

“Order in the chaos?” he shrugged, “If you look at a big enough sample you can probably find some connection between a group of them.   Besides,” he continued in an almost patronizing tone, “crazy people are really good at finding non-sense patterns and Manning is a nut job.”

“Manning is eccentric, I admit, but...”

“Boss!   He caries a blond pigtail wig everywhere he goes and is convinced that every single thing that goes wrong is the work of demons!”

“How is your magic pendant?” Garret asked sardonically.

Emerson touched his chest self consciously, “It’s not magic.   It’s lucky.   There’s a difference.”

“Manning has some screws loose.   Fine.   He also has an uncanny eye for patterns.   Especially those that involve kidnappers.   He says that someone is disappearing kids and my gut says he may be right.”

Emerson was about to say something in response when a shriek ripped though the silent woods.   The agents took off in the rough direction of the sound and I was about to follow when Willy grabbed my arm and pointed in two different directions.   I wasn’t sure why he wanted to split up but I didn’t have time to question it either.   He took off into the woods and I finally got to see what he could do without me slowing him down.

He just vanished.

A second later I took off as well.   I wasn’t sure where I was going but with a little luck I’d get there all the same.

Not long after that, I caught flashes of someone in green sprinting through the woods.   I adjusted my angle to intercept and was only barely able to make it.   Unfortunately, because I arrived a little late I had to catch her from behind.   She shrieked again and tried to pull away from me.   We tumbled but I was able to roll so that she landed on top of me and I took the brunt of the crash.   Her eyes were closed tight with fear and she was screaming and struggling to get away from me.   My hands were tied up trying to keep her still and I really needed her to stop screaming at me.

So I kissed her.

When I did she froze for a moment and then kissed me back.

I don’t know why I did it.   She bugged the crap out of me.   I certainly didn’t want to kiss her but as our lips press against each other and our tongues began to wrestle I realized that all I wanted to do was kiss her.   She melted into me and it was perfect.

I didn’t even mind the rock jabbing me in the shoulder.

Some amount of time passed and she finally came up for air, “Do you have a condom?” she gasped, running her hands against me.   I inwardly cursed myself but shook my head no. “OH thank god,” she said with a smirk and leaned back in to kiss me again, “If you did I would have fucked you right here and I’m pretty sure someone would hear us.”

I was trying to come up with any response to what she had just said when I heard a twig snap. We both froze, unfamiliar voices made way to my ears.   “I can’t believe you talked me into doing that out here,” a girl said quietly.

“We had to wait for the FBI Agents to leave, right?” I could hear his grin. “I wouldn’t want to try and contact anyone with them around.   Might as well do something fun while we waited.”

The girl laughed, “I swear Sean, you are the most insatiable...”

Her sentence was cut off and what I interpreted as face sucking followed.   I gestured away from them and Rainy kissed me on the lips before quietly crawling away.   I wasn’t sure who the other kids were but I didn’t want to borrow any more trouble if I could help it.

After we had some distance Rainy and I picked up the pace.   Following her proved a little easier than following Willy and something about chasing her through the woods was a serious turn on.   

When we got back to the car and Willy was nowhere in sight, we started making out again. “So are we dating now?” I panted.

“Will you just shut up and kiss me?” she growled.

I saw no particular reason to disobey orders.

~oOo~


~oOo~

About twenty minutes later Willy loped back to the car and caught us necking. “Huh,” he said causing us both to jump and blush. “Would not have predicted that.   We should go before we get caught.”

Rainy and I stood up holding hands, “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I kept the feds running away from where I thought Rainy was headed,” he blew out a breath, “Wasn’t easy though.   The younger one has some serious moves.”

We climbed in the car and backed out of the lane.   As we rounded the final twist Willy stopped short.

The FBI agent’s car was blocking the way out.

Willy shifted into drive but Agent Emerson was standing in front of us with a hand on his gun.   He hadn’t drawn but the message was clear, “Turn off the car and put your palms on the ceiling,” he said with authority.   Willy followed the instructions immediately but Rainy and I hesitated.   “All of you!” he added.   We did as he said.

Agent Garret pulled their car in behind us and climbed out.   In the mean time,   Agent Emerson had pulled us from the vehicle one by one and gently zip tied our ankles. “You really think that is necessary Emerson?” Agent Garret asked with amusement.

“I’m not going to try and chase them down again boss,” he was covering it well but up close he was clearly winded.   “I’m not making them super tight or anything.   Everyone comfortable?” he asked us as a group.

Willy and I shrugged but Rainbow said, “Not really, no.   Why are you detaining us exactly?   This area is used by the Omaha Public Schools as a cross country track and my friends...”

Emerson completely ignored her and walked over to Garret where they began talking in hushed tones.

“Don’t ignore me!” she said angrily, “I’m talking to you!   Hey! Come back here!”   when it became clear that Emerson was not interested she started to sulk.

“Don’t worry about it Rainy,” I put my arm around her and she snuggled up against me, “they just want to scare us so that we talk but since we don’t know anything I don’t think it’s going to work.”

Willy actually managed to smile, “Yeah.   If they were really serious they would have taken us somewhere and kept us separate before they questioned us.   This feels more like an attempt to psych us out so we don’t keep messing around out here.”

Emerson and Garret had stopped talking and were looking at Willy.   Garret had a look of amusement on his face but Emerson just looked annoyed.   After a moment Emerson walked over, pulled out a knife and started cutting the zip ties.   “Just don’t try and run.   Deal?”   We all nodded.

Agent Garret walked over to us and smiled, “You seem like smart kids.   Except the shorts thing,” he amended, “Aren’t you two cold?”

“Maybe a little,” Rainy admitted quietly.   Willy just nodded his agreement.

“Tell you what.   How about we go somewhere and get a coffee or cocoa or whatever it is you kids drink and we can talk.”

He might as well have been holding a sign over his head the said ‘trap’ but what were we going to say?

At our reluctant looks he backed off a little, “You two were friends with Maria.   Correct?”   Willy and Rainy nodded. “Well my partner and I are just trying to figure out what happened to her and the more we look into all of this the less sense it makes.   If you want to help Maria then you need to help us.”

“Yeah,   okay,” I said quietly and caught stern looks from both of my friends.

I had friends.

I had a girlfriend.

I couldn’t help but grin which only seemed to increase their annoyance with me.   “We want to help Maria, don’t we?” I asked them and they both agreed silently. “Well I don’t have any idea how we do that.   We need help,” I nodded towards the agents.

“I just feel like such a sell out,” Rainy muttered.

Emerson laughed, “Don’t sweat it kid.   It happens to the best of us.”

...to be continued...



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