Phantoms in the Smoke
© 2017 Warren Adams- Ockrassa
All rights reserved.
Portions of this text may be reproduced for purposes of promotion or review.
This is a work of fiction. The persons and events described in this story are inventions of the author’s imagination. Any similarity between them and actual persons or events is coincidental.
With thanks to Stephen King, for all those wonderful thrills, chills, and occasional moments of transcendence.
With thanks to Samuel R. Delany, for showing me that it could work.
With thanks to James Tiptree, Jr., and Ursula K. Le Guin, for more than I can enumerate.
The firelight flickered amid the trees, making fitful silhouettes of the dozen figures huddled around in a tight circle in the late October Friday evening, casting their long, uneasy shadows over the semicircle of tents that lay beyond. The air was crisp but not frigid, and the temperature was not the reason the kids were gathered so close to the mellow crackle with its sleepy-cat eyes of coals. Their faces were cast in tones of gold and orange and crimson, and their eyes were bright and wide, and breaths were held suspended in chests as young hearts fluttered fast in slim bodies; shoulders wriggled as spines tingled with delicious thrill. Jensen Haakon was telling a story, and he had a flair for it. This was one of his better ones, and most of the kids here tonight hadn’t heard it before.
“…It was too dark for anyone to see, but everyone could hear the little boy crying, so they went and got flashlights and ropes and a ladder and looked … but the well was empty. ‘It must be the wind,’ said Ruby Jorgensen, but then Becky Forster said it wasn’t windy. And she was right; it wasn’t. The night was calm and quiet, just like tonight. And Ruby said, ‘Then it must’ve been a cat.’ And that made everyone feel better, because no one wanted to think they’d actually heard a voice and crying, coming from that old well.
“But just as they turned to go, they heard the voice again: ‘Please, help me … I can’t get out…’
“So they went and looked again, and Frankie Pearce even climbed down into the well. It was empty, except for the water in the bottom, and that was still and clear and everyone could see there was no one in it. But Frankie saw some letters scratched on the wall, just above the water: JW. And numbers, too: 1917-1925.
“And then, when they all went up to the farmhouse and got Mister Peed out of bed and told him about the little boy in the well and what was scratched into its bricks, he turned pale, and he looked around at them, and he said, ‘Jeb Winslow was eight years old when fell down that well one night. Fifty years ago, in 1925. He fell in … and he drowned there.’
“And then they all heard the voice again, even Mister Peed: ‘Please … help me … please…’” Jensen made his voice crack into a sob, just like poor Jeb Winslow must’ve sounded like, and another frisson of goosebumps ran around the little circle. “And then they heard splashing, and a kind of bubbling sound … and then nothing else.
“The next day, Mister Peed filled in the well.
“But sometimes, when the moon is full and the wind is calm, when the pumpkins are in and the Jack-O-Lanterns are grinning all gold and flickering, when the leaves are rustling on the ground and the candied apples are cooling on the windowsill … sometimes, on nights just like this … sometimes the dogs won’t leave their beds and the cows won’t cud … and if you listen really close on those quiet nights, sometimes you can still hear crying, the crying of a little boy who fell into a well fifty years ago, and never got out.”
There was a long silence, the silence of a dozen kids hoping no one did anything to break the silence, including — most especially, because these things seem funny at the time to certain moderately-twisted or even sprained minds, but do a real disservice to the storyteller — shouting BOO.
No one did.
A collective held breath was let out.
It didn’t matter if the story was true or not. It didn’t matter if the kids named in the story were actually there on that night by the well or not. It didn’t even matter if a boy really drowned in the well or not, fifty years ago. For a moment, for just a moment, the ancient reptile hindbrain was on high alert in every boy and girl there; the veil between the hard-facts world of earth and sky and forest, and the realm of dreams and phantoms and visions, was thin enough to be peered through; and shivers and raised hackles made their rounds and were relished and cherished. For a moment, for just a moment, everyone there believed.
Everyone, that is, except Jensen, whose story it was; and Addy Wilder, who didn’t have to believe.
“Jeez, that was a great story, Jense,” said MeriLee Brenlow, the troop leader. Bush Club rules were that until you were at least ten years old, you couldn’t be in an overnight troop, and that all overnight troops had to have a leader who was at least fifteen. MeriLee was thus the oldest person present; Jensen was the youngest. “Does anyone else have a story?” Bailey Palmer held up his hand. “Go on,” said MeriLee.
“I, uh, well, my dad was talking to my moms one night about something he saw once when him and some of his friends were out in a troop, when they were kids like us. They were looking at the stars, and then they all noticed that one of them was moving…”
Addy tuned it out; she’d heard Bailey’s story before. She wasn’t sure about flying saucers, or Bigfoot, or the Loch Ness Monster — though any of those things could seem possible on a night like this, under the stars, amid the trees, by Halter Lake — but she figured if UFO aliens really were coming to visit, they’d want to land someplace a little more interesting than Burlingham. But Bailey was a nice enough boy, and she didn’t think he was making it up. Maybe his dad really had seen something one night, or maybe he’d been confused by something he saw. It didn’t really matter, in the end, whether it was true or not, just like it didn’t matter with Jense’s story. It was a Bush Club overnight troop (one of the last of the season), it was a week before Halloween, and it was just the right time to be telling these kinds of tales — or at least hearing them, and maybe believing them a little, for a little while.
She thought of Jensen’s story, and Tanglehollow Tree. Tanglehollow Tree was the skeleton of a cypress, its wood blackened now and hard as iron, its limbs bare of leaves all year round, its gathered-curtain trunk still holding secure against the shore of Halter. It had died around the time Jeb Winslow did (according to Jense), but would have died much sooner if the townsfolk had a practical way to get to it, chop it down, and clear it away. But it had grown with half its mass obtruding into the lake, and on the shoreward side the undergrowth was all cattails and duckweed in soft, clinging mud. Tanglehollow’s roots, below the lake’s surface, were a skein of twisted forks, knuckles, and fingers, knotting back and forth under the surface, plunging into the mud, and it was on the shore by the tree that Addy had met Ezekiel, Abraham, and Liesl. They were like herself and her friends in many respects: They knew the shore and its inlets and coves; they knew the forest and its hollows and stumps; they knew Brooker and the old schoolhouse and the new old schoolhouse, now the library. But their memories of it all ended in 1883 and she could see through them, because they had died in the foundation of Tanglehollow Tree in that year, victims of woolen swimsuits and gnarled roots, the reason that the Tiger Sharks, even now, practiced and swam nude.
Addy knew the story of Zeke, how his suit had snagged in the roots, and how Abe and Liesl had dived in to save him, only to find themselves caught as well. She knew the story from her history classes at BCS, and from the dead youths themselves; they talked to her about it. They liked to talk about the lives they’d led, and they liked it when Addy told them about life now, nearly a century after their deaths. They weren’t sad to be dead, not any more, and they’d told Addy something interesting about themselves, too: “We ain’t really here a-tall,” Zeke said one afternoon, not too long after Addy first met them. (None of them actually spoke aloud. Addy saw their lips move and heard their voices in her mind, but there was no sound at all.) “What we is, is a echo of sutthin’ happened.”
“But,” Addy said. “If you’re an echo, how come we can talk about stuff? Shouldn’t you just repeat everything I say?”
“We en’t echoes s’much as remnants,” Abe said. “Tailin’s.”
“Like when your skirts catch in a door as it closes,” Liesl said. Addy, who had never worn a long skirt in her life, nevertheless nodded; she understood the idea. “The rest of the dress is on the other side of the door, but a small bit of it is still on this side.”
“But we ’member ever’thang,” Abe said. “Includin’ how we drownt. So Zeke ain’t too far off’n it neither.”
“Where’s the rest of you, then?” said Addy, but they never answered that question.
Addy didn’t think it was strange that she could number, among her friends, three who were not on any enrollment rosters at Burlingham Contiguous School, at least, not since 1883. It wasn’t strange to her because she’d been seeing things like that, and occasionally striking up conversations like that, for as long as she could remember. Being eleven years old, that only amounted to about six or seven years, at most, but whenever it happened, it was usually the same. She’d see something no one else noticed, a flicker of light in shadows or of darkness in the light; and then, like a coil of smoke gathering into itself, a shape would emerge. Sometimes it was people, and sometimes it was things, objects, made by people. That was one reason she was never especially frightened by what she saw: She knew what ghosts were said to be, and she was fairly sure there was no such thing as the ghost of a covered wagon, or of a huge helicopter, or of a giant blimp that was shaped like a penis and rotated as it coasted through the sky. And those were only the most memorable of the things she’d seen. (The covered wagon had appeared half in, half out of her bedroom one morning, passing neatly through the wall without any damage being done to anything.)
She also wasn’t scared because the people she saw hardly ever seemed to notice her at all; or, if they did, they were friendly like Abe, Liesl, and Zeke. Most of the time it was like that day when she found the little clearing out behind Olaf’s garage, a rough circle amid the trees trees about twenty feet wide with tall grass growing bright and joyous in the sunlight. There, she’d seen a beautiful Indian girl in a simple cloth-and-chamois frock carrying another girl, dressed in very old-fashioned Pilgrim-style clothing, to lay her out on the grass and then cut away her dress with a flint knife, after which she rolled the girl onto her side, rubbed her arms and legs, and then covered her with a deerskin before they both faded into the daylight brightness once more.
Ghosts didn’t do that, Addy thought. She thought they lurked around under stairs in old dark cellars, or graveyards, or creepy attics, and moaned and did spooky things, like the boy in Jense’s story had. So if someone had asked her whether she thought the Vale was haunted, she would have giggled and said no.
She didn’t even know she was doing anything strange, at first. But one day, when she was about five or six and went with her birth-mom to the clinic for a chicken pox shot (yuck), she’d seen a man lying in bed in a room across the hall from the exam room where she was sitting. He was very thin and his skin was covered in brown blotches, and he was having a very hard time breathing. His chest looked like a birdcage with a cover over it, and it shook and rattled, because the man couldn’t stop coughing. When Doc Ryan came in to give her the shot, she said, “What’s the matter with that man?”
Doc Ryan had blinked at her. “What man, honey?”
“Over there.” She pointed. “In the room.”
Doc Ryan looked through the door across the hall to the blank wall Addy was pointing at. “What room?”
Addy understood, then. Well, she understood what was happening, even if she didn’t understand why. She could see the room, and the doorway leading into it, and the sick man beyond, but she could also see the wall with its height-chart poster on it. Doc Ryan could only see one of those things. “I mean it was on the TV in the waiting room,” she said, delighted that she came up with the lie so easily, appalled that she could so easily lie to a grown-up, especially nice old Doc Ryan. “I think it was a ’mercial for some pills. He kept rubbing his back.”
“Ah,” Doc Ryan nodded. “Backache. You’re years away from knowing what that’s like,” he said, after which came the (yuck) shot, and then a sucker.
A lot of things made a lot more sense after that, for Addy. That was why her moms both said she daydreamed all the time. She didn’t, really. She was just watching all the things happening around her, all the smoky see-through people and things. She’d seen the way the grown-ups and other kids just walked right past or through old-timey cars, or people in strange clothes that had little blinky lights in them like they were wearing strips of neon, or even whole teepees or smooth little egg-shaped vehicles, and she had always believed they knew they were there, too, and were just ignoring them because you couldn’t touch them anyway, and they couldn’t hurt you. They were just phantoms in the smoke.
But after that day with Doc Ryan, she knew that wasn’t what was happening at all. She knew she was the one who saw them, no one else.
That was when she began collecting ghost stories, but she stopped that by the time she was eight. None of them were like her experiences, at all. Whatever ghosts were, it didn’t seem to be what she was seeing. Then, when she was nine, she was reading a science fiction story about time traveling in Analog, and one of the illustrations was of the future, and in it were cars like the ones she saw, sort of, and even a blimp a little like the one she’d seen, with a long ridge spiraling along the gasbag so when the bag turned, the ridge did too, pushing the blimp through the air. The story called it an integral airscrew, both of which were words she had to look up, giggling because one of them sounded a little naughty. Then she consulted the encyclopedia on the history of blimps, and found that there was no such thing as an integral airscrew; it had been suggested for lighter-than-air ships, but hadn’t been invented yet.
That was the final nail for the ghost idea. She could accept that maybe some of what she was seeing was sort of like ghosts of the past — but of the future?
The what was in sharper focus, but the why continued to elude her.
She came back to here and now when Bailey finished his story. “Anyway, he doesn’t talk about it much because no one really believes it. I guess if, if the aliens or whatever left behind some kind of laser gun, or a Star Trek kind of tricorder or something, it’d be different, but no one ever got out of the thing. But he’s sure he saw it there in the lake, and he’s sure he saw it collecting up samples of something before it left again.”
“Maybe it was like a probe, you know, like the Viking things we sent to Mars,” said Shauna Ely. She had a crush on Bailey. “No one would get out, because no one would be on it, and it wouldn’t even be visiting to say hi or something. Just to collect samples, maybe take lots of pictures, and then leave.”
“Hey … yeah,” Bailey said. “That could be it. I bet that’s what it was.” Good for Shauna, Addy thought. It wasn’t a totally crazy idea, and it got Bailey’s attention, besides. Judging by the way Bailey was looking at Shauna now, Addy had a feeling they might even end up sharing a tent tonight. Well, good for them both, then.
“Good thought,” MeriLee nodded. She looked around. “Anyone else have any stories? Bigfoot? Nessie? But I guess here it would be Haltie.” That got some giggles. “How about you, Addy?”
“Uh,” she said, caught off guard. “Um…” She pretended to think, then shook her head. “Sorry. Nothing weird ever happens to me.”
“Oh, come on,” MeriLee said. “Nothing? Ever?”
“Nothing,” Addy shrugged.
Addy had a diary. It was camouflaged as a regular school three-ring binder, with math and science homework in the front and history in the back, just in case someone decided to peek. She knew the worst way to keep a diary private was to have a special book with a little lock on it and the word DIARY printed big on the outside for the whole world to see. Buried in the middle of schoolwork was perfect, because everyone had binders full of schoolwork, and no one ever felt like peeking, so no one ever knew it was there. It was like the smoky people and things she saw sometimes. Everyone else just looked right past it.
In her diary she kept the usual things, and had organized it, roughly, into sections such as Favorite Moments with Friends, Boys I Like (but Not in That Way), Boys I Like (in That Way), Best Places to Walk on a Foggy Day, Cool Old Buildings, World’s Greatest Meadows, and Things that Really Bug Me!!!!!!!!.
The meadow behind Olaf’s had its own entry:
Approx. circle 20 feet.
Surrounding — Birch, alder, quaking aspen, ferny undergrowth. Wild blackberry.
Meadow — Wild onion, lemongrass, oatgrass, bluegrass, alfalfa mix. Wildflowers incl. baby’s breath, daisy, zinnia, cosmos, bachelor button. Clover in patches, dandelions, milkweed. Soft dirt, sandy bed over clay, some fieldstone.
Notes — Good stars at night, and many crickets. LOTS of bumblebees. Indian girl, Pilgrim girl, one time.
Boys I Like (bnitw) included Jensen Haakon, because he was nice and told good stories around campfires. Bailey had an entry, too. So did Ezekiel and Abraham, though if she were to be totally honest, they might both have rated an entry under the other Boys I Like category, because they were both very cute, they were friendly to her, and they were muscly across the chest in a way that made her feel very warm; but they were both dead, so … so much for that.
Boys I Like (itw) included Leif Garrett because oh my God, Shaun Cassidy (ditto marks), Ben Palmer (Bailey’s older brother, fourteen and very yummy and the cutest smile because she liked his braces), and most important of all — highlighted with a hand-drawn frame of little hearts and flowers — Nick Frye, who was in sixth grade with her and sort-of already kind-of her boyfriend. Well, they’d held hands, and he’d kissed her a few times too, but not on the lips. He’d never asked if she wanted to be his girlfriend, but he had told her he liked her, so she thought it counted. They’d always been friends, but after school was out for summer last May, they’d started spending a lot of their free time together, and things had become surprising for them both. (Another Nick, Nick Tate, had an entry there too, with an asterisk. He was the man who played Alan Carter on Space: 1999, which was Addy’s new all-time favorite TV show after Doctor Who, but he was an adult, not a boy, hence the asterisk. She’d just watched “Dragon’s Domain” Thursday night, transmitted from McMurrough’s independent-PBS station, which had a special contract with England so they got the shows before anywhere else in the country. Addy didn’t scare easily, but that episode had given her the the cold creeping crawlies.)
Things that Really Bug Me!!!!!!!! had filled several pages. Not because Addy was a naturally irritable person (at least she thought she probably wasn’t), but because Miss Hollingsworth, her English teacher, said strong feelings were a good place to start with writing, and it was easy to get inspired to write about things that bugged her.
Hornets — I like bees. They leave you alone. Hornets don’t have to care, because one sting doesn’t kill them. They’re like harvester ants but with wings, only they don’t do as much good as the ants do. They’re just flying stinging mean things that get stuck in your shirt and then sting you and sting you and sting you, like it’s all your fault.
Mosquitoes — Not as bad as hornets except for all the itching!!!! If I was God and I wanted to make a special punishment in Hell just for boys who flick boogers at you, it would be full of mosquitoes and all the boys would be naked.
Puberty — Miss Nelson says it’s normal and boys will be interesting in new ways, unless I like girls more, like MeriLee does. It hasn’t really started much for me yet (except for a pair of mosquito bites and the boys-are-interesting part), but I already hate it. My hips hurt sometimes, and Jennie Selzer says her boobs bounce when she runs, even with a bra, and that hurts too, and she says periods are the worst, especially when she gets cramps. It’s not fair. Everything makes sense now! Why do I have to start having all these feelings? I don’t want my boobs to get any bigger and I want my hips to stop hurting and I don’t ever, never, EVER want to get cramps and feel like I’m being kicked in the tummy by a mule. When my boobs do grow in all the way, I guess they have to someday, I hope they don’t end up too big, like Jennie’s did. But I do like Ben’s deep voice and his chest hair. Can’t I just stop right now? But not like how Liesl did. I don’t want to die. I just don’t want any more puberty!!
Ability — When a person can do something without trying, it’s not an ability. Breathing is not an ability. Growing hair is not an ability. My hair is 18 inches long and no one says “gosh, Addy, you have an amazing ability.” So what if it’s something no one else can do? If you can do it without trying, it’s just something you do. Saying “ability„ makes it sound weird.
Hallucinations — It’s like a big steel door. Like the vault at the bank. If someone sees something you don’t understand you can say “hallucinations” and lock it in the vault and pretend to forget about it or pretend you don’t have to try to understand it any more, because it’s all locked up now and safe. But it never goes away, does it?
Visions — See above.
This was why she called what she saw scenes, not visions, and definitely not the h-word. They were a little like movie scenes in that they seemed to be projected over the regular world, they moved, and sometimes they talked; but they didn’t do much else, and they weren’t solid.
The latest story from Jensen made it into her diary, too, when she got home Saturday afternoon. About half her diary was stories like that, in their own section, Lore from the Vale. She liked the word lore, because it had an official feeling to it, a lot better than “stories” or “tall tales”, which she supposed some of it was.
But a lot of what she collected there wasn’t really lore in the sense that it wasn’t spooky stories about ghosts in wells or UFO’s; it was more like history, the unwritten history of Halter County, the Vale, and Burlingham: The stories people told about how their grandparents lived, and especially the stories people’s grandparents told about how their grandparents lived.
A Morning on the Farm — You woke up when the chickens did, because that was when the sun was starting to make the sky turn light. That woke the rooster, and he woke up everyone else. You’d get out of bed and put on your clothes for the day. If you were a boy, it was long underclothes, trousers, a shirt, a hat, and shoes if you could afford them. If you were a girl it was bloomers (sort of like a boy’s underclothes, but more poofy), a petticoat (an underskirt), a skirt and dress, an apron, and a bonnet. Always shoes. After that, you got the fire going in the wood stove.
Then you went out and fed the pigs if your farmstead had pigs, because pigs have to be fed at the same time each day or they get grumpy and won’t eat. Then you fed the chickens and collected their eggs. Then you milked the cows. Then you skimmed the cream from the day before and poured the rest into churns so it could go to the market. Then you fed and watered the horses (and if it was winter you broke the ice over the trough too). Then you went inside and churned butter from the cream you skimmed. Then you stoked the fire in the wood stove and made breakfast, which meant eggs and sausage and biscuits with gravy, with coffee you had to grind and boil in a pot.
Then the sun came up, and you went to work.
This is all 100 percent true!!!
To Addy, who was a twentieth-century girl living in a centrally-heated house with a refrigerator (replete with eggs, butter, and milk), a gas stove, and a Mr. Coffee, all that activity before the sun was even over the rim of the Vale seemed exotic and exhausting, like life on another planet: A colony world where if you didn’t start work right away every morning, the atmospheric retainer system would run down, leaving everyone exposed to the unshielded light from both suns; and the hardy but not indestructible quadrotriticale would wither and die in the dry air; and the indigenous green-skinned Xikklix Hordes would … horde over your outpost and steal all the batteries from your planet-hopper ship or something, maybe because they ate them or were building houses out of them, but no one really knew why. It was just what the Xikklix Hordes did. Part of their lore.
For her own part, Addy was a snooze-alarm user; she snoozed her alarm for up to half an hour (or until one of her moms was tapping on the door), luxuriating the the warm tangle of her sheets, burying her face in the pillow, putting off the inevitable hard angularity of the world for as long as possible. She wasn’t lazy — or at least she thought she probably wasn’t — but she liked to stay up well after midnight, reading. School starting at eight in the morning seemed arbitrary (a word from her vocabulary worksheets last year, one she liked a lot) and unfair.
What was weirdest of all was that people in the Vale still did that. Nick did that every morning. It was astonishing, flabbergasting, and stupefying (Addy really liked her vocabulary worksheets). He had shoes, at least, but only one pair, and they were from the Pay-it-Forward aisle of the Farmers’ Market, where people left clothes that still had some wear in them, and where you could buy dresses or a pair of jeans for a dime (fifteen cents if they’d never been mended or patched), a shirt for a nickel, or shoes for a quarter. Boots were fifty cents. Baby clothes were sold by weight at half a dollar per pound. Socks sold for a penny a pair, and those without any holes in them were as rare as a day late in bed, for Nick and his family. Nick had five pairs of what he called his “church socks” (because they were holey), one for each day of the school week; he had one pair of un-holey socks for the predictable use. On Saturdays he barefooted it as much as he could, along with every other kid in the Vale.
It was too bad she was a girl, Addy thought, because otherwise she would let Nick wear any of her clothes, or even take them home, if he wanted to, in their own personal Pay it Forward plan. There were times when he looked at her sundresses, and it seemed like he wished he could wear them too. She understood that; they were light and breathy and great to wear from April all the way through September, when the air was often hot and sticky. Sometimes Nick wore some of her shorts, when he came over to play or (later, after things became apparent to them both) hold hands. His favorite pair was the maroon denim, with a bright pink flower stitched on each back pocket. He also liked some of her blouses, the ones with short sleeves and soft, breathy weaves. He looked cute in them, and he said he liked how they didn’t bind or scratch. He’d come over on a summer’s weekday afternoon, or on a Saturday after his work was done at the farmstead, change out of his regular heavy shirt and thick jeans and into her softer, mellower outfits, and then they’d go to Peed’s Wharf, or Stark’s Pond, or just lie on the grass somewhere and talk about school and alien worlds and strange things goats ate, holding hands, sometimes letting long silences spin out between them.
She supposed some of the feelings she got when she was holding hands with him, or changing clothes with him in her room, had to do with all that puberty stuff. So maybe it wasn’t all bad.
She finished transcribing Jensen’s story into her diary and closed it with a little sigh. It was just after two, and Nick was due around four. She didn’t know what they’d do, and it didn’t matter, because she never knew anyhow. They just went out and did things together, looking at birds, chasing squirrels, climbing trees, lying in the sun, holding hands. But with Halloween just six days away now, maybe this would be a good time for them to decide on costumes, and carve a couple of pumpkins. Addy’s parents had grown some vines for them in their front-yard garden, and there were now five ready for the fun, one for each of her three parents, one for her, and one for Nick.
Yeah, costumes and pumpkin carving. That sounded pretty neat. But before that, she needed a long bath, accompanied by a few chapters of Le Guin’s Dispossessed, because as fun as it was to camp overnight in a Bush Club troop, it was always more fun to come home afterward and soak in nice warm bubbles for a while. Especially with a good book.
Nick arrived a little after four in his usual fashion, on horseback. His farmstead was about five miles up the slope of the Vale, a little too far for a bike, he said; Addy thought part of the reason he rode Jenny Ann into town was he didn’t have a bike of his own, because they were kind of expensive. He knew how to ride one, but he said he liked his horse better. Addy understood that; Jenny Ann was a four-year-old Appaloosa mare whom Nick had broken and trained himself, and when she was going flat out, the landscape blurred around them. No bike could do that. It was when Addy had gone riding with Nick on Jenny Ann for the first time that she realized how good it could be to feel a powerful living force beneath her, surging and driving as it carried her along; and to put her arms around a boy’s waist, her chest pressed to his back, her laughter high and breathless in his ear. She’d known the word exhilarating from her vocabulary sheets, but that was the first time she’d truly felt its meaning.
He could probably afford a bike if he really wanted one; Donny and Rog at Olaf’s regularly found old decrepit ones in salvage yards, bought and rebuilt them, and sold them for anywhere from two to five dollars. Nick earned more than that in one week doing odd yard jobs and other things around town, but he said he preferred to save, and to spend his money on other things (such as the used paperbacks the library sold from time to time, at a nickel each, to raise funds; this was a passion Addy shared, and therefore thought was perfectly natural and sensible).
Mostly he rode Jenny Ann instead of a bike because Jenny Ann was boss, and Nick loved her more than he ever would love any machine.
They led Jenny Ann around back into the yard behind the house, where she immediately began cropping grass. Her dad said one of the great benefits of Addy spending so much time with Nick lately was he no longer had to mow or fertilize the lawn. Nick went and filled a big repurposed ice-bucket with water for the horse, letting Addy brush Jenny Ann’s hide; she liked the feel of her strong build, the certainty of her exquisite power, the gentleness she showed with her soft nickers and nuzzles while Addy smoothed her mane down over her robust, glossy neck. “How was the Bush Club?” Nick said.
“Oh, it was spooky-story night. Rastus told a story about some kind of creature that appeared in New Jersey this one time and scared the bejeepers out of everyone, and Louise made one up about Bigfoot coming into Sweet Stuff and being disappointed because the foot-long hot dog wasn’t big enough. Bailey talked about the UFO thing again. And Jensen told a neat story about a boy who fell in a well way back in the 1920’s, and drowned.”
“Y’mean Jeb Winslow?” said Nick.
Addy turned to stare at him. “You know the story? It’s true?”
Nick shrugged. “Kinda. Way I heard it, Jeb was about twelve when it happened. He sleep-walked a lot, I guess. My granddad knew him. He said sometimes he’d wake up in the alfalfa, or in the pigsty, or in the hayloft. Jeb did, I mean, not my granddad. One night he managed to fall into a well. But he didn’t die or nothin’. Just woke up when he hit the water, let out an almighty holler, and got hisself pulled back out again soon enough, soakin’ wet and ’barrassed to his britches. Which weren’t easy, cause they was hangin’ up in the wardrobe at the time.”
“Oh cool,” Addy said, her eyes very round. “Does he still live here in the Vale?”
“Naw. He went off to war as a bom-bar-dee-ear and got hisself shot down over Japan.”
“I guess it coulda been worse,” Addy said. “He coulda fallen asleep and walked out of the airplane.”
“Yeah,” Nick giggled. “Anyhow, after that time with the well, he never went to sleep ’ceptin he had a rope tied around his ankle, only that didn’t work neither.”
Nick shrugged. “He all’uz untied it afore he went perambulatin’.”
“Oh, bull puckey,” she said, nestling Jenny Ann’s brush back into the saddle bag.
Nick eyed her. “Other times, he opened doors and windas and barns and sty-gates and whatnot.”
Addy opened her mouth, then thought for a moment. “That’s a good point. I guess a knot’s not a lot more than a door.”
Nick giggled again. “So whatcha wanna do?”
“Well, Halloween’s Friday, and the dance is Saturday.”
Nick reddened, though Addy couldn’t guess why he should. “I reckon so.”
“So I was thinking we could maybe decide on costumes or something. Wanna come in?”
“Sure,” Nick said, and followed her up the back steps into her house. Her birth-mom was in the kitchen, adding chunks of beef, potatoes, and vegetables to a simmering pot. “Afternoon, ma’am,” said Nick.
“Hey, honey. Stew for dinner tonight. I hope you can stay a while.”
“I’d ’preciate that very much, ma’am, kindly,” said Nick. Addy’s mom smiled and ruffled his curly brown hair.
“Come onnnn,” Addy said, tugging at his hand. Nick acquiesced and followed her down the hall to her room, looking as ever a little bewildered by the profusion of posters on her walls — Leif and Shaun because oh my God, ditto, etc.; a poster of Tom Baker grinning from the TARDIS, Elisabeth Sladen beside him; a new one showing Moonbase Alpha and an Eagle flying overhead — and by the scatter of lipstick, polish, and other girl things on her dresser; and by the small mound of stuffed animals heaped in one corner on her bed; and by the ruffled comforter with its scheme of flowers, birds, and butterflies stitched into the fabric. Nick, like Addy, was an only child; if he’d had a sister or two, she thought maybe her world wouldn’t seem so strange to him. “So what do you want to dress up as?”
“Well,” Nick said, and reddened again. “Maybe there’s sutthin’ to work out first, kinda.”
“What?” Addy said, flumping onto the mattress.
“Well…” He nudged at the floor with the toe of his shoe. “Well…”
“I was wonderin’…”
“Wondering what?” she said after about ten seconds of deep pedal contemplation on his part.
He shrugged. “I was wonderin’ if you’d like t’go to the dance with me.”
“Well yeah. You and me and Ruby and Becky and Jense and Bailey’ve been talking about it since September. Of course I…” She paused as a million-watt bulb went on in her head, and warmed her through and through. Nick wasn’t asking if she was going to the dance with all their friends. He was asking her to go to the dance with him. “Oh.”
Nick shrugged again, his eyes still locked on the fascinating spectacle of his feet.
Addy stood and moved closer to him, put out her hand, hesitated before it touched his arm. She seemed calm on the outside, but she was bouncing like a SuperBall and going eeeeeeeeeee on the inside. “You mean as … like … your girlfriend?”
“Well … yeah,” Nick said. “I … really like you a lot. And I was kinda hopin’ … you felt the same as me.”
“Nick.” She touched his arm. He looked up, startled, his dark brown eyes wide. “Yeah. I … yes.”
The boy swayed a little. “You mean you … you…”
“Yeah,” she said, “I want to be your girlfriend,” and kissed him, briefly and tinglingly, full on the lips.
“Gosh,” he said, panting a little and crimson from ears to neck. “Wow.” She giggled and turned to her closet; there was a fast quivering from somewhere in her chest that felt too fluttery and rapid to be her heart, but had to be, because she was pretty sure there wasn’t a bird living inside her. He watched as she sorted through her clothes, not seeing anything before her. “So … so … what … how do you want to dress up?”
“I dunno,” she said, turning back to face him. Him, Nick, her official for-real boyfriend. Nick, just a little shorter than she was, but who cared about that; Nick, with an adorable little spray of freckles over his cheeks and nose; Nick with big brown eyes and curly brown hair and a really cute smile and oh, who needed braces or a deep voice or a hairy chest anyway, or Leif Whoever or Shaun Whatever, either. Nick, Nick Frye, her official, for-real boyfriend. Her cheeks felt as red as his looked. “W-when I went before it was always with girls, so it was easy. We’d be twins, or ballerinas, or princesses. I guess maybe I could be a ballerina, and you could be a, a ballerin…o?”
“Well, how about a prince and princess?”
“Mmm,” Nick said.
Nick chewed his lip.
“Okay, well, did you have something in mind?”
“That Doctor fella,” Nick said, eyeing the poster. He’d watched a few episodes with her, at her initial insistence; she suspected he was now nurturing a slight affection for the show, but still thought it was weird. Well, that was okay, because it was weird.
“What about him?”
“Well, maybe we could go as him and Sarah Jane.”
Something in Addy quailed at that. She loved the Doctor, but in her head, she always saw herself as the one in the coat and scarf and floppy hat, uttering bewildering truisms as she dodged Daleks and Cybermen and Zygons. On the other hand, Nick was now officially her for-real boyfriend, he had the curly brown hair, and she was feeling indescribably magnanimous. “Uh, sure. Yeah, that’d be cool. I mean Dad has a coat and hat that would probably fit you, and I bet we could find a scarf somewhere…”
“Oh, n-no,” Nick said. “That ain’t what I was thinkin’. You know the show a lot better’n me, I mean you’d have to be the Doctor, and I was just wonderin’ if maybe you, if you, if you … got a Sarah Jane kinda dress that I might fit into.”
For the second time in as many minutes, Addy didn’t know what to say. Then several things fell together into a new kind of clarity, and she understood, and she smiled; and Nick earned himself another kiss. Then he got a few more, because that was what happened when you and your brand-new boyfriend found out that kissing was actually kind of somewhat pretty nice. It was a lot more interesting to be doing it herself than it was to watch on some dumb mushy TV show, that was for sure. Nick seemed to agree.
Then she broke out the nail polish, lipstick, rouge, and mascara, and after half an hour had Nick looking a lot like Sarah Jane. Well, from the neck up. Sort of. In the dark, maybe.
…Really, he didn’t look much like Elisabeth Sladen to begin with, but he did look like a girl, which he said was “better than lipstick on a pig, anyhow,” and that got them both giggling, and it didn’t stop until they rediscovered kissing for a while.
By the time dinner was ready she had half his wardrobe picked out: A blouse and vest, tights and some low heels that fit him and didn’t make him feel too wobbly. She didn’t have any long skirts, she told him, but she had friends who did, and it would be easy to borrow one. “Couldn’t I just wear somethin’ like that?” he said, gesturing to her buttondown shirt-style dress in October hues of burnt orange and a dark brown collar and placket, coordinated with long stockings.
She looked down. “I don’t think it’s girly enough. On you, it’d just look like a big shirt. I think we need a real skirt, Nick.”
“Yeah, you’re prob’ly right,” he nodded.
“Now put your pants back on. It’s dinnertime, and I’m hungry.”
They went into the dining room hand in hand, both of them still made up; she and Nick both did significant damage to the stew and soft rolls that accompanied it. Addy knew her appetite was because she was that age, according to the various and sundry adults in her life, and Nick was a growing strapping lad. According to her memory, she’d been that age for at least five years now. She wondered if Nick had been strapping since 1970, as well.
She helped clear away the dishes while Dad brought in the pumpkins. Nick selected a low, squat one; Addy went with one that was shaped a little like an egg. Her other mom set them up with a boning knife for the deep, rough cuts, a pair of smaller carvers for the more controlled shapes, and a big slotted spoon to scoop out the pumpkin guts with. They drew the rough faces in with magic markers, and set to work. As they refined the eyes and noses and toothy mouths, the kitchen filled with the warm scent of roasting pumpkin seeds, and Addy kept her knee against Nick’s the whole time. Talk was mostly what the Harlequin stories called smoldering flashing looks, and Addy thought if she had bosoms of any consequence, they’d probably be heaving, too.
When they were done, she and Nick set their newly-created art on the front porch, candles and all, then stood back a little to admire the effect. Hers was a long-faced ghoul, she said, with melted-looking eyes and a drawn-out, groaning mouth; his looked like a fat jolly ghost whose eyes were squinted with laughter, the mouth a wide curving grin. Addy knew how that Jack-O-Lantern felt as she stood in the yard at the end of the walkway, her arm around Nick’s waist, his around hers. She thought if she grinned any wider, the top of her head would split off.
There was a bit of smooching to be discovered there at the end of the walk, and they found it.
They went back inside to the hall bathroom, and she began helping him clean off all the makeup. He wouldn’t get in any trouble for wearing it, she knew, but you couldn’t sleep with it on unless you wanted to wake up with your pillowcase looking like an impressionist painter had snuck in overnight. “You want the polish to go, too?”
“Naw,” he said. “I like it.”
“Thanks for bein’ my girlfriend,” he said, as she scrubbed at the rouge on his cheeks.
“I was starting to wonder if I’d have to ask first.” He giggled at that. “Do you like boys, too?”
“Naw, not really,” he said.
She nodded and began dabbing away the eyeliner. “Do you wish you were a girl?”
“That ain’t it,” he said. “I just like … dressin’ up sometimes, I guess. How it feels. How I look.”
“I like it too.” She smoothed his hair and he moved in closer. “It’s not so bad being a girl, I guess. Not when there’s boys like you around.”
He giggled again. “That’s why I like bein’ a boy.”
She liked that he was a boy, too, and liked how he liked that she was a girl, nestled together with him in a shared moment, their lips brushing, their breath mingling.
They were quiet for a while.
“Do you like how they feel?”
“Yeah,” he breathed.
“They’re not … too small?”
“No,” he said.
A few more minutes or a thousand kisses or a million heartbeats flew by, and then her birth-mom was tapping on the bathroom door. “Addy? It’s going on ten.”
“Okay,” she said. “We’ll be right out.” She brushed her hair back and fanned herself while he stepped back; her cheeks were very warm. “Sorry.”
“I ain’t,” he said. “This is the best day of my life.”
“Me too,” she said, and sort of floated down the hall and into the back yard with him.
There may have been a bit more smooching before he got on Jenny Ann to go home for the night. There probably was. It was a little too dark to be sure because the moon wasn’t up, but it sounded and felt a lot like smooching, to both of them.
After a while longer, they parted, and he left.
It was wonderful, she thought, how easily things went from friend to best friend to boyfriend. It was just the most natural thing in the world, even when her boyfriend wanted to look like a girlfriend part of the time, too.
“Yeah,” she sighed, looking up at the stars overhead, listening to the steady clop-clop of Jenny Ann’s hooves as she went along Altmount toward Aaronson. “Just completely natural.”
She listened until the hoofbeats were lost in the slow susurration of the gentle breeze stirring the leafless branches, her blood singing high in her veins, a pulse throbbing in her throat as she gazed up in silence, amid silence, her eyes capturing a thousand glittering pinpricks.
Then she went inside to her room and bounced like a SuperBall and went “Eeeeeeeeeee!”
Addy’s birth-mom, Raquel, was in the living room, along with her other mom Annette, and her father, James. Hawaii Five-O was just starting, but its theme music couldn’t mask the squealing. This really wasn’t a surprise: A 747 engine right in the middle of the floor, going full-blast, wouldn’t have either.
Raquel looked over at Annette. “Puberty,” she said.
“I guess we’ll get to hear all about Nick, every minute of the day, for the indefinite future,” said Annette.
“She could do a lot, lot worse,” James said.
This, the women agreed, was true. Nick was a real sweetheart: Polite, thoughtful, and punctual; and he looked better in makeup than many of the girls he went to school with.
The things and people Addy saw were odd, sometimes; and sometimes she could have conversations with the people, and sometimes the people spoke frankly enough about what it was like to remember dying; but until that Sunday, none of it had ever been alarming.
She sat with Nick near the center of the church and held his hand, sang a hymn with him and held his hand, and listened as Parson Shellie began to deliver her talk, still holding his hand. She looked down to see he still had the polish on his nails from yesterday afternoon, making them into bright little pink lozenges, and when she looked up again she saw just the faintest hint of shadow on the chancel behind Parson Shellie, and as she watched, it condensed into a…
She worked hard to suppress a gasp, and succeeded. (She’d had a lot of practice by then.)
It was a casket.
Well, but so what? There were funerals in churches, so how could it be surprising that…
No. No, there was something wrong with this casket, there was something wrong with this scene, and there was something wrong, now, with Parson Shellie.
Addy squinted to try to clear her vision a little. Parson Shellie was right there, standing next to the pulpit like she always did when she gave her talks; but as she moved and gestured and looked around at everyone, there was a second Parson Shellie there, a double-image of her that moved out of sync.
This was new. Until now, Addy had only ever seen things that were quite a while in the past or future — the most recent vehicle she could be sure of had been a car, red with a white stripe along the sides, maybe a Plymouth, from the years when they had big fins and loads of chrome, sometime in the 1950’s. The future she could be less certain of, for obvious reasons; but if any of the smooth little rounded future-cars were from less than twenty years ahead, she’d dice, braise, fondue, and eat an entire Easter bonnet.
But Parson Shellie had only become parson three years earlier, in 1972. Since then, seventeen people had died, most of them extreme old-timers. Of their number, just over half had opted for cremation, so there were no caskets at their ceremonies, just urns. Of the remaining eight, four had died during the warm months, and their funerals had been graveside services outdoors, not inside the meetinghouse. The other four had chosen (their families had chosen) not to have any formal memorials in church at all. So in the time since Parson Shellie had begun … parsoning here, there hadn’t actually been a casket inside the church in any funeral service she’d led. This must be the future, then.
Addy’s attention returned to the casket. It still felt wrong, somehow, but she wasn’t sure how. It had the right shape, it looked like it was made of wood, and it was sitting on a trestle with flowers and wreaths all around it, just like any casket naturally would. So what was…?
The scene wavered a little. They did that sometimes. But when it happened this time, Addy realized something.
At the beginning of the month, Parson Shellie had placed, all along the base of the altar, a display of plastic apples, pumpkins, squash, and all the other fineries of October feasting and celebration. It was part of the church’s décor, and would remain in place until just before the first Sunday of November, when it would be replaced by plastic pies, turkeys, cornucopias, and cetera, which would all then be replaced again the following month, and December was always a spectacle.
When the scene she was seeing wavered, Addy saw that the decorations wavered too.
She felt herself chill to her core.
Parson Shellie would be taking the decorations, these decorations, down on Saturday, this Saturday, the day after Halloween, probably about the same time everyone was at the dance in the BCS gym. And the casket Addy was seeing, and the phantom Parson Shellie, and the phantom decorations, were all overlaying what she was seeing live, right this minute. The nonmoving parts of the scene were a perfect match for what was there; when the scene didn’t waver, there was no doubling, no blurriness at all between what was really there now, pumpkins and squash and construction-paper leaves, and what was in the overlay.
There was only one conclusion to draw: This casket, this scene, would be happening in this very church, within the next six days. Someone was going to die before Saturday.
The casket. What was wrong with that casket?
She shook her head and rubbed at her eyes. Nick glanced at her. “You all right?” he murmured.
“Mmm.” She squeezed his hand. “Sleepy.”
Parson Shellie, the phantom Parson Shellie, went over to the casket to stand at one end, her hand resting gently on its lid, and that was when Addy realized what was wrong with it: The casket was too small.
Well, it was too small for an adult.
The phantom Parson Shellie addressed the gatherers — Addy couldn’t see them; they weren’t part of this scene for her — and Addy could see the tears on her cheeks. Then she saw her take a deep breath and calm herself, and raise her hand in a gesture of benediction for the invisible congregation, before she lifted the lid on the casket. She looked down at what — who — was in it, and Addy, just before she embarrassed herself to her britches, saw who it was just as clearly as the phantom parson did.
How she embarrassed herself to her britches was this: She fainted.
Why she fainted was this: The body in the casket was that of a boy, a boy well-known to her. She knew the face, knew the profile, knew the curly brown mop of hair; and the nails of the dead boy’s hands, clasped neatly over his unmoving chest, were still painted glossy pink.
Addy woke, or surfaced, or regained consciousness, a few minutes later in the narthex. She was lying on one of the benches, with her moms, dad, Parson Shellie, and Nick all around her, watching her anxiously. Looking around and still feeling woozy, she saw most of the congregation jammed shoulder-to at the doors, their eyes full of concern. “Oh gosh,” she said.
“Addy,” said Parson Shellie. “Doc Ryan’s on the way. Just rest a little.”
She nodded, wondering how many britches she had left to get embarrassed to. The parson, her parents, Nick, oh no, Nick’s parents too, all three of them, plus the congregation, and now Doc Ryan. She looked up at her boyfriend, who was holding her hand again. She squeezed it. “I have to tell you something.”
“Can it wait?”
She looked down at his nails, bright pink. “Not very long.”
Are you sure about this? whispered her mind to her mind. Visions. Hallucinations. And you’re going to tell him — what, exactly? That you saw the ghost of his ghost laid out in a box?
I have to tell him. I have to try. He’ll believe me if I warn him about…
About what? What was it, exactly, that led up to that scene you think you saw? You don’t know what caused it, even if it’s true. What will you tell him? Stay home, stay inside, don’t feed the chickens or the pigs, don’t milk the cows, don’t ride Jenny Ann, don’t draw water, don’t go to school… Don’t do anything at all for the next week?
I bet he’d believe me if I told him everything, she thought, but she wasn’t so sure of that. Would she, if someone came to her with a crazy story about seeing past and future things that no one else ever did? Sure, people claimed to be able to do that all the time, but how right were they really, after all? What about that plane that crashed in New York back in June, and killed more than a hundred people? No one — including her — saw that coming, did they? I can try, at least. He might listen.
Maybe he would. Maybe he’d even believe you. Suppose he does. Just stays home in bed with the covers pulled up over his head, all week long. And what if there’s a fire, and he dies of suffocation in his room?
Addy groaned. She hated being smart sometimes. But she had to admit she had a point.
She didn’t even bat at the idea of telling her parents any of it. That wasn’t because she didn’t trust them, or didn’t think they cared about Nick. It was because she’d known them all her life, and knew what their response would be to her telling them she’d been seeing things ever since she could remember, and had three dead friends whom she talked with regularly, on top of her fainting episode today. Tell adults you saw ghosts, and they thought you were cute, and ignored you. Tell them you saw visions, and it was psychologists and psychiatrists and tests in hospitals and probably all kinds of pills, because that was the kind of thing fanatics and brain tumors said. And she knew it was not a brain tumor, but didn’t have time to prove it: Nick was going to be dead in days, not weeks.
Parson Shellie managed to wrangle her flock; she quietly said the service was going to be cut a little short that week, and they filtered out through the narthex, some of them murmuring kind words to Addy. She was going through britches pretty fast, but at least Nick was there, his hand still in hers. By the time everyone left, Doc Ryan had arrived, and he looked her over. “Any dizzy spells lately?” he said as he pressed his wrist to her brow.
“Huh-uh,” she said.
“Mmm.” He shined a light in her eyes while she tongued a thermometer. “Upset stomach? Strange sounds in your ears or flashes in your eyes, or loss of memory or confusion?”
“None I remember, but if I had a loss of memory, I wouldn’t remember that, would I?”
He chuckled. “How’s your sleep been?”
“Trouble dropping off, or with dreams?”
“More like I can’t stay up as long as I want,” Addy said.
“Who among us can?” said Doc. “Have you eaten or drunk anything unusual lately, or with an odd flavor?”
“Just what they serve in the BCS cafeteria, but it always tastes like that.”
That earned her a good laugh. “Have your cycles begun? Cramping, bleeding, any discomfort?”
“Huh-uh,” said Addy, “and I don’t want any of it to start. But I guess there’s not much you can do to help me there, huh?”
“Alas,” Doc said. “However, I’ve been assured by many persons whom I regard a authorities on such things that you do get used to it with time, and many of the discomforts are manageable with fairly inexpensive remedies.”
“Persons?” Addy said. “Like who?”
“My wife, for starters. And our three daughters.”
“Can you tell me what led up to this spell?”
She shook her head. “I was just … feeling a little sleepy, is all, and then … well, I woke up here.” She didn’t like lying to Doc now any better than she had when she was six. But she had do. Doc Ryan was a doctor, not the Doctor. His interpretation of what happened to her would be very different from what the Doctor would make of it; and while whatever he did in response would be based in concern for her, it could end up leading to too many complications, and she doubted she had the time to deal with them all.
Doc looked over at Nick, who’d retreated to the other side of the narthex while Doc examined Addy. “Yon swain’s a fine enough example of his type; are you the swooning kind?”
She snorted. “Not on purpose.”
“I suspected not.” He looked at the thermometer. “You’re a little warm, but only just.”
“I think that’s all the blushing,” she said.
“Could be,” he said, and helped her sit up. “I’m at a loss to find an immediate cause, but these things can happen. Something as simple as too little food can do it. For now I’m going to prescribe rest in bed, a dose of vitamin and iron supplements, and this.” He held out a sucker.
“Jeez, Doc, I’m not a little kid any more.”
“No, you’re not, but if you’re hypoglycemic, a dose of sugar’ll help until you can get home and get some real food in you.”
“Oh. Right.” She took the sucker. Lime: Things were looking up. “Thanks, Doc,” she said.
“You’re ever so welcome, Addy.” He patted her cheek gently, then got up to talk to her moms and dad while Nick nestled up beside her again.
“You doin’ any better?”
“Yeah. I just feel like an idiot.”
“I get it,” Nick sighed. “First time I tried to break Jenny Ann, she throwed me, and I hit the ground pretty hard. I was out for a while. So I know what you mean. It’s ’barrassin’ to wake up and there’s everyone in a circle all around, lookin’ like they thought you was dead.”
She swallowed hard. Dead. God. “Nick…”
“I really, really need to tell you something.”
“Well, I’m listenin’.”
“Not here. Can we, I dunno, go to Stark’s, or—”
“Doc said you’s to get bed rest,” he said.
Crap. “Yeah, okay, fine, well, can you stop by my house and we’ll talk there?”
“Sure.” He kissed her cheek as her parents came back from their talk with Doc, still looking concerned, but not actually frightened any more. “You go on and get home. I’ll amble along on Jenny Ann in a bit, so’s you can get properly comfortable. Okay?”
“Promise me,” she said.
“Promise me, Nick. Today, at my house, soon. Right away. Okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, sounding justifiably bewildered. “I promise. I’ll be along directly. All right?”
“Okay.” She kissed him. “See you soon.” I hope.
As she changed from her church clothes — a buttondown blouse and dark slacks — into her bedclothes, Addy agonized about what she would say to Nick.
Say, you know those people who use crystal balls? Well, what if I was to tell you that you don’t always need one… No.
Hey, remember in health when Miss Nelson was telling us how some people take drugs to see things? Huh-uh.
You ever been to the Haunted Mansion at Disney? You know all those ghosts? Nope.
Ezekiel saw them dry bones… Cute, but not relevant.
You’re going to be dead by Saturday and I don’t know how or why, and I’m not totally a hundred percent sure it’ll happen anyway because no scene has ever been this close to now… She could imagine the look on his face at that, even though it was nearest to the truth.
She was in her Wonder Woman PJ’s and being plied with cookies and milk (sugars, starches, and proteins) when she heard Jenny Ann’s clopping. She saw the looks that passed among her parents. “I won’t get up or run around or anything, but I like Nick, and I guess I’m awake enough to want visitors to my bed of affliction.”
Her dad studied her, then looked at her moms. “If she’s capable of launching the good ship guilt, she probably has the energy she needs to sustain herself through a visit.”
Her birth-mom sighed and shook her head, but she said, “Well, I suppose even if she does faint again, he’ll let us know right away, and she can’t fall very far off her pillows.”
“Thank you,” Addy said, with enough feeling that all three of her parents paused at the door and studied her for a while. Addy felt like she wanted to scream. It was nice to be doted on, a little, okay, when she was actually sick. But she wasn’t; what she was, was bursting with an urgency to do something, but she had no direction to point it in. For a bright, vigorous eleven-year-old, this situation is similar to what happens when a small, high-energy dog, such as a Jack Russell terrier, is let loose in a room with a trampoline, preceded by three thrown balls and a spirited shout of go get it!
Addy was pretty sure she was actually vibrating a little.
Then she heard a knocking at the front door, and her other mom went to answer it. Her dad and birth-mom lingered a moment longer, and finally left her in peace. A few moments later, Nick was there, upright and alive and safe, for now. “How you doin’?”
“I’ll live,” she said. “Close the door. Come here. Sit down.”
Addy’s approach, in the end, was to be direct.
She squirmed and gyrated and tugged at her fingers as she related everything to Nick. Everything, from the very first scene she remembered seeing (a tall white man wearing the constable’s badge getting down off a horse to give a canteen of water and a handful of pemmican to a nervous-looking black man, a runaway slave whose expression became one of disbelief when he realized that this local officer of the law was actually helping him, right out under God’s own daylight), to her epiphany in Doc Ryan’s office, to her first contact with Abraham, Ezekiel, and Liesl at Tanglehollow Tree (she’d swum close to its bolus of roots, and Liesl had popped out from behind the trunk, urging her to stay clear, and had been delighted when Addy didn’t respond by screaming her lungs out), to the events of earlier today.
She was aided by her diary, where she’d kept notes of everything. (The section title Best Places to Walk on a Foggy Day was code, though she did also keep track of such places.) In all, it took about half an hour to relate, during which time Nick said nothing. He just sat at the foot of her bed, legs crossed, chin in hand, and listened.
“I guess it sounds nuts, huh?” she said when the trail of narrative ended at the meetinghouse.
Nick was still regarding her solemnly, his chin still in his hand. He stirred and sat up at last. “My great-grammy had sutthin’ she called the knowin’,” he said. “She weren’t like you, I mean she didn’t never see no drownt kids on Halter, but she knowed when the hens was fixin’ to lay up a whole mess of eggs, when the cows was gonna run dry a few days, and when a cloudbuster was gonna drop, things like that. ’Member the storm of ’33?”
Addy nodded. They’d learned about it in history; it was an enormous hail- and rainstorm that had struck right when most farmers were about to take in their harvests for the year. Nearly half the farms in the Vale had suffered crop damage from minor to devastating, and a lot of yards in town had flooded out.
“She knowed it was comin’ long afore it come up the slope, and her and my great-grampy got their harvest in a week early, just because he believed her. Forty acre of corn safe in the crib, maybe a mite small that year but safe, while all around people’s crops was bein’ pounded to mush on the cob. They tried to tell them other folks, too, but they didn’t listen none.”
“So you … you believe me?”
Nick shrugged. “I dunno how these things work, but when someone says they’re seein’ sutthin’, you’d have to be a fool to say it ain’t real just cause you can’t see it yourself. Specially when it happens all the time. It’s real for you. That’s real enough for me.”
Addy stared at him for a moment, then launched herself across the bed and wrapped him in a close, tight hug. “Thank you,” she breathed.
“Well, you’re welcome,” Nick said, hugging her right back, just as hard. “Though I will say … you got me feelin’ a case of the shaky-shanks now. I’m scared, Addy.”
“I am too. I don’t know what happened or how or why. I don’t know what to tell you to look out for. It could be anything.”
“I know.” Nick sighed and sat back, but kept his arms around her waist. “What you saw … my … my body … did it look, uh, damaged, like? Twisted up or chewed up or, or, or mangled?”
Addy bit her lip and shook her head.
“Huh. So it prob’ly weren’t nothin’ with a harvester nor thresher. How about burned?”
“No,” Addy said.
“Okay. Okay, good. I’ve been afraid of burnin’ to death all my life. I’m glad that ain’t how I die.”
Addy stared at him, and that fast her vision was swimming, and then great racking sobs were ripping through her. She fell against him and wailed. “I don’t want you to die!”
“I ain’t lookin’ for’ard to it none neither,” he said, and even though he was holding her close and tight again, she could feel him trembling.
“What do we do?” she said. “What do we do, Nick, what do we do?”
“Well…” he said. “Whatever happened, it musta happened here in town, or in the Vale.”
“Right,” she said.
“And they’s only four or five places I go, regular, most days, and they’s only a few ways I take to get to and from ’em.”
“Yeah, I … guess…”
“So maybe if you and me go along those ways, you’ll see sutthin’ else that’ll show you what actually happened.”
“But … but what if what k-kills you happens when we’re doing that?”
Nick sighed. “Addy…”
“I know, I know! I just want you to be safe. I don’t want to be going to your funeral Saturday.”
“I ain’t hot to be there neither.” He eased her back again. “How about I draw you a map, and you can go them places yourself and see if you see aught. And maybe you can go to Tanglehollow and talk to Ezekiel and Abraham and Liesl.”
“They’re dead,” Nick shrugged. “They might see things clearer. Or different, anyhow.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, okay … yeah, maybe they’ll have ideas, or maybe they can even see … whatever it is.”
“Okay,” he said. “Can I have some paper? I’ll make a map.”
“Sure.” Addy pulled out a sheet from her binder-diary and passed it over, along with a pen. She watched Nick sketch in a rough diagram of his haunts, and the routes he took to reach them. Most of them were routes she took too, because most of the places he went all the time were the same ones she visited: BCS, the meetinghouse, her house, his house; Sweet’s, the Palladium, Stark’s, Peed’s Wharf; and three or four places he called “meadders,” which included meadows she’d found and frequented herself. “I thought I was the only one who went here, behind Olaf’s. I like to go there at night sometimes and listen to the crickets.”
“Guess we were meant to be,” Nick said. “I do the same. And I very much want to do that with you sometime, Addy. Go to that meadder and listen to the crickets, holdin’ your hand.”
“Oh Nick…” She swallowed and cleared her throat. “I want that more than anything in the world.”
He smiled a little. “You sound like you’re in love wth me.”
“Well, you’re my first boyfriend, ever,” she said. “I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how to say things. I don’t know how to be anyone’s girlfriend.”
He caught her face in his hands and wiped away her tears with his thumbs, and he kissed her. “You’re doin’ just fine. I think. I mean I never had me a girlfriend before, neither. But even if all I got is a few more days, well, I wouldn’t change nothin’.”
“Nick … don’t go, please don’t go, I’m so scared if you do I’ll find out tomorrow that … that…” She sobbed.
He drew her close again and held her, smoothing her hair while she clung to him like she was the one with the doom over her head; and when she was a little calmer, he said, “We can’t do that. You know it. We can’t let ourselves get froze from fear. For all we know there’s nothin’ we can do to stop it anyhow. But no matter what, if we set and do nothin’, whatever it was that’s gonna happen will happen. Alfalfa don’t grow on its own from us just sittin’ around and eyein’ the furrows. It needs tending and watering and care and doing. We got a plan now. You can go to those places and see if anything turns up.”
“But … but what if nothing does?”
“Well … you told me what you saw. That’s got me on pins, which means I’m gonna be that much more careful for a while. Maybe that’s enough.”
“Maybe,” Addy said. “Nick…”
He kissed her again. “I gotta go. You know how it is at home. Sunday’s supper-with-the-family day. I’ll keep my eyes open, and maybe you’ll have luck finding things too.” He sat back once more. “And I’ll see you outside the school tomorrow morning. I will, Addy.”
“Call me when you get home, okay?”
“I will.” He got up, and she did too, and followed him to the back yard where Jenny Ann was being her usual self, helping Dad with the yardwork. She’d left several piles of help, in fact. He kissed Addy, then got on Jenny Ann and smiled down at her as she opened the side gate. “You,” he said.
She squinted up at him, silhouetted against the crisp blue October sky. “Huh?”
He shook his head. “Just that. ‘You’. It’s part of a message.”
“Well … well what’s the rest of it?”
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, flicked the reins, and rode off while she stood there, shivering in her thin PJ’s amid the last of the season’s fallen leaves, wondering, wishing he didn’t have to go, wishing they could tell her folks and his and have them believe it all, so they’d agree and decide, as one, to keep Nick safe.
Then she went back inside and began laying plans.
Sneaking out, Addy reflected as she did it, was nothing at all like they showed on TV. Maybe it was because her parents weren’t suspicious and hadn’t ever felt the need to do anything to keep her from sneaking out. Maybe it was because Addy had never done any such thing before in her life. Maybe it was because she was only eleven, and starting sooner than they anticipated. Regardless, it was simplicity in itself for her to put on thermal undies, dark jeans, an old black grubby sweater and her hiking boots, and slip out the front door. It was going on midnight, the house was dark and silent, and the world outside wasn’t much different.
Except it was.
The air was frigid, but she’d expected that. The stars were bright and clear and close enough to touch, but she’d expected that too. All along Altmount, people’s porch lights were out for the night, and the streetlights were dim; the township lowered their brightness after ten to conserve energy, let the tired rest, and not disturb late-night stargazers.
Or, she thought, thinking of Nick (and thus her entire future) in a new way, lovers.
What made this night different was she was out in it without parental knowledge or permission. She had never done this before, never done anything like it before. It was with a strange sense of crossing over, of stepping through an invisible barrier, that she stole along the walkway to the streetfront, and from there made her way up along toward Aaronson. In her pockets she had a small hand-pumped dynamo flashlight — batteries would fail pretty fast in this cold — and Nick’s map, with her own annotations added.
He’d called her not quite half an hour after he’d departed, to tell her he was home safe. Addy had seen TV stories with girls literally waiting by the phone for a boy to call, and until today always thought they were stupid: If you knew his number and wanted to go to the dance, why not just call him up and ask him yourself? Her moms had both told her that wasn’t how it was usually done in most places, which was why it happened so often on TV, but her dad had nodded and said, “You’re on the right track, Addy. You see a boy or girl you like, you make sure they know about it. Don’t play games.”
She really loved her dad.
She and Nick had been silent together on the phone more than they’d said anything. She hadn’t wanted to hang up. She wanted to hear him on the other end, to hear his breathing, to know he was all right. They’d eventually rung off reluctantly, and then her long afternoon and evening of waiting had begun. She’d gone over his map, consulted her personal store of knowledge about the Vale and its environs, and worked out a plan that would let her visit the most number of places in the least amount of time, because she wanted to cover as much area as she could, and that needed efficiency.
She had no idea what she was doing, of course, and that was the real problem.
Well, she did, in that she was going to turn at Aaronson and make her way to the BCS campus, the meetinghouse, Stark’s, around behind to the brickworks, across the McMurrough campus, then back up Brooker toward Sweet’s, Olaf’s, the meadows, Peed’s Wharf, and up into the wild forest from there (hence the flashlight), making for Tanglehollow, before returning back through the woods and over to the motor court, joining the loop once more on the back side of Sweet’s before returning home. It was what she would be doing while she was following this long and wending route that she wasn’t too sure of.
Always before, she’d just let the scenes emerge wherever and whenever they wanted to, not thinking to put any conscious direction behind it. She had no idea at all how to make them happen deliberately, or even if she could. The closest she came to choosing a scene was when she went to Tanglehollow to look for her friends there, but that was easy, because Abe, Zeke, and Liesl were aware of their environment in a way most of the others never were. Most of the time, it felt like she just happened to turn up there at the same time they happened to be hanging around. There wasn’t planning involved, at least not on her part.
She tried that first as she made her way up Aaronson, her breath pluming out before her in misty clouds. Hum-de-dum, I’m just walking along, and any second now I’ll happen to find a scene…
She got as far as BCS before she admitted it wasn’t working.
The campus was spooky at night. The school sat on a little over forty acres of donated land, most of which was still what they called virgin forest, which was a word like airscrew, to Addy: It made her want to giggle, even though she knew it wasn’t naughty. Some of that forest, a rectangle at one corner, had been cleared for the BCS buildings: The schoolrooms, the offices, the shop and agriculture and animal-husbandry (giggle) classes, the gym, the small indoor pool, the library and cafeteria, the playgrounds and ballfields. The cleared, active campus area was about eight acres in size, serving around eight or nine hundred students, in all, from Kindergarten through grade twelve.
Alongside this was the spot, fenced off now, where they’d begun cutting some of the forest away to make room for a new library building, and fresh acreage for an expanded agriculture curriculum. By day, this area was abuzz with activity, literally: Chainsaws were grinding through trunks, limbs were being cleared away, and chippers were rendering everything to a fine-grade mulch. The clearing was scheduled to be done before Old Man Winter woke up for real and began dusting, then burying, the land under his fine white powders. Addy thought they’d probably make it. Construction would then commence in spring.
What made it all spooky was the uniform dimness of the lighting — it was on the same schedule as the rest of the town, of course — and the way it cast deep shadows, just bright enough to show you that it wasn’t showing you everything, not by half. The buildings, tan brick and wood, were angular hulks that seemed to huddle together under the mid-autumn stars for warmth. They hoarded their shadows jealously.
She walked among them, following the paths she knew as well as every other child in the Vale, past the Kindergarten wing, into the grades. Skeletons and ghosts, vampires and Jack-O-Lanterns, tombstones and Frankenstein’s Monsters and wolfmen and bats all leered out at her from the classroom windows. She went past bike racks and hitching posts, past the ag classes’ cowsheds and stables (a horse nickered in one of them, and Addy had to spend several moments climbing back into her skin), toward and through the parking lot; but for all her thumping heartbeats, for all her suspended breaths, not a single scene revealed itself to her.
“Damn,” she murmured, standing on the playground at the other side of the campus, looking over the path she’d taken. Distantly she heard the horse nicker again. “Oh, go and stick your nose in some oats.”
She turned and walked straight through a plate-glass wall.
She could do that without injury, because the wall wasn’t really there; nor were the bleachers beyond it, nor was the enormous swimming pool the bleachers faced, nor were the girls’ and boys’ locker rooms on the far side of the pool. This was a building that didn’t yet exist.
She walked forward carefully, gazing about herself in awe. Starlight filtered down through an all-glass ceiling, illuminating the pool, the lane markings, the gigantic Tiger Sharks team emblem on one wall. She thought of Jensen, and wished he could see this sight too. He was a Tiger Shark, and while he didn’t mind swimming in meets at the current BCS pool, this cathedral to natatory activity would have left him speechless with delight.
But he couldn’t see it yet, because it wasn’t really here: Underneath the appearance of tiles and depth and water, she could see and feel the reality of the recess grounds, its grass brown now with the season, readying itself for a snowy blanket.
She stepped out onto the pool and strolled across its watery surface, thinking: Jesus Christ Almighty.
Her giggle came back at her with a slight echo.
“What…” she said, and then heard sloshing around her feet and felt her boots begin to drag, and she bolted the rest of the way across the pool that wasn’t there yet, her feet splashing in a surface that didn’t exist. She made the other side, her heart thudding crazily in her chest, and looked back to see the pool was now empty, its basin cracked and coated at the bottom with a layer of grit and dried mud; the windows were broken out, there were creepers beginning to spread inside, and the silvery starlight fell now over a rubble of disuse where once there had been smooth, bright tile.
She stood and stared and fought to get her breathing under control. “It’s a scene,” she whispered. “It’s just a scene, that’s all.”
Scene, the silent and dead poolhouse whispered back with her voice, all.
“Screw this,” she said, and ran to the nearest exit. She threw out her arms to hit the crash bar, but the door wasn’t solid; she tumbled straight through with a yelp to somersault onto the playground. She lay on her back, dazed, and looked around.
The poolhouse — both versions, brand-new and ruined — was gone.
Why? she thought. Why did it seem so real? It was just a scene. Just a scene.
For a moment, she didn’t want to go on; but then she thought of Nick, and knew she had to. It was what the Doctor would do for Sarah Jane, after all. It’s late. I’m out without permission. It’s just my mind playing tricks.
As she got to her feet, she noticed that her boots were wet.
“Dew,” she murmured to herself, dusting grass off her hands. “It’s just dew. You didn’t really…”
Then she looked down at her hands, her dry hands, and the dry grass that clung to them.
“Oh…” she breathed. “Eff-word.”
The next stop on her journey was the meetinghouse, the place where this trip had begun, earlier today. It, like most of the rest of Burlingham, was closed up and darkened at this late hour, though there was an electric Jack-O-Lantern plugged in on the steps outside the narthex doors. Its orange orb left green imprints in her vision, and Addy instinctively didn’t stare at it. The starlight seemed brighter now; her eyes were getting used to the dark.
She skirted along the big gravel parking area to the lakeward side, where there were still hitching posts. As long as there were horses like Jenny Ann and boys like Nick to ride them, Addy figured there would be hitching posts, as well. She lingered there a while, partly because she didn’t want to go around the back of the meetinghouse, and partly to see if any scenes relating to Nick happened to turn up. After several minutes of aimless wandering back and forth, her fingertips trailing over each post, she felt it was time to move on.
Around the back of the church building was the graveyard. She took a deep, long breath, and began to walk among the headstones. Most of these were simple, either little markers in the ground, or angular or rounded upright stones. Many had flowers. Most of the stones bore names she recognized, the ancestors of her friends, of the old-blood families, of the founders, Brücke, Stark, Peed; there was even a Clive or two, dim memories of the time before the schism that had sent them off to found their own town.
There was a waver from the corner of her vision, and she looked toward it to see a marker that she was sure had not been there moments ago, a bright marble block standing at what she knew was the head of a mound of what she knew was fresh-turned earth. She groaned and went over to it with leaden feet, not wanting to, knowing what it was, what she would see.
It had been too late in the season — next week! — to sod over the soil; it lay in a smooth brown dome. There, just beyond it, was the stone and its inscription:
Nicholas Caleb FRYE
February 29th, 1964 — October 29th, 1975
Beloved and Only Son
“Stay, friend, and tarry with me a brief time;
for a brief time is all we ever have.”
She sank to her knees, her breath knocked from her by a soft and devastating body-blow of sorrow. “Nick,” she sobbed, hot tears flowing down her face. “Nick … no…” She reached to the stone and her fingers passed through it, meeting not the chill of marble but just the cold October air, and it reminded her that this future had not yet come to pass. She took great tearing breaths and swept her hands over her face, gathering herself, and when she looked up again she saw that Nick’s grave was still there before her, but the grass had grown over it. Thick grass, tall grass, weedy and untended.
She looked around again and saw the graves were all neglected, the stones askew; and she looked over her shoulder behind herself and gasped: The meetinghouse was not there any longer.
Well, it was, but overlaid on it was a scene of devastation. The old wooden building, one of the oldest in the Vale, was now nothing more than a burned-out husk, its roof gone, its walls charred and blackened, most of them eroded by fire and time, leaving only the skeleton of its supporting timbers behind.
“What the hell,” she whispered, her heart squeezing with a new and unformed dread. She looked back at the grave before her, at the marker, stained and neglected. “Nick … what the hell is going on?”
Then the world around her wavered again, and she saw she was kneeling at an empty space, the ground undisturbed, with no marker there at all. She squeezed her eyes shut and took deep regular breaths, her mind filling, moment by moment, with more questions than she could hope to find answers to.
“At least I have a date now,” she said. “October 29th.”
She stood to resume her … her vision-quest, quickened by a newfound urgency. October 29th was Wednesday, just three days away. That meant she had to find out what happened before the end of Tuesday, or Nick would die.
The path around Stark’s to the brickworks was a long meander. She’d come here many times to stroll, to fish, to swim; sometimes, especially since May, she’d come here with Nick, too. Her trek along the pond this night was overlaid, but not with any scenes; it was her memory, recalling bright warm days and the first time he’d kissed her cheek, just before he got on Jenny Ann and rode home to supper. July, that had been, Thursday the 3rd, something etched into her recall and written about in her diary. The next day they’d met here again in the afternoon for the picnic, and watched the fireworks together. He’d held her hand that evening, also for the first time, and then there’d been a second kiss to her cheek at the end of the night.
That, really, was when he’d become her boyfriend, even if they hadn’t made it official until just this Saturday.
Why did we wait so long to say what we both felt? she thought. We knew what we were both thinking. Why did we wait?
The only scene she saw here was at the brickworks, around the southern edge of the pond. It was a little like the one she’d had at BCS, and again at the meetinghouse: The chimneys were fallen, the roof dilapidated and collapsed, the ovens yawning silent and unfired, their doors rusting on their hinges. Dead, dead and dead, and as she looked over the silent scene of failure that masked the real scene of a working and productive (if small) industry, she began to wonder about something.
Her course through McMurrough’s grounds was similar, when the real gave way to the scene: There were some new buildings she didn’t recognize, because they hadn’t been built yet; but they were abandoned, their windows boarded; and all the doors were chained and padlocked. She stepped quietly among the buildings of the community college, the real and the not-yet-real, toward the Brooker side of the campus. Here, she saw a little more. There were cars in the lot, none of them any model she recognized. They seemed a little more streamlined, less blocky and square, and were smaller than the cars she knew now; and many of them had unfamiliar Japanese or Asian-sounding names: Nissan, Hyundai, Daihatsu. But their tires were flattened, their paint was lusterless, and many of their windows were broken.
She picked up her pace, wondering more.
Brooker, when she came to it, wavered back and forth almost with each of her footsteps. Smooth and even-laid brick in a neat ribbon straight north along Halter: Step. Buckled and unkempt, grass growing around the bricks, many of them missing: Step. A clean and well-kept sidewalk, streetlamps shedding their mellow late-night glow: Step. Cracks and warped concrete, the lamps dark, their globes broken or gone and the posts rusted: Step. Yards, shops, businesses, all ready to face the new morning: Step. Blank and hollowed husks, overgrown and boarded and collapsing: Step. Healthy … dead. Healthy … dead. Healthy … dead. It was inexplicable and seemed inescapable; she felt half-mad with it, oppressed by a message she could not interpret; and with rising insensate terror, she ran, fled up the road, her long black hair flying behind her, her bright blue eyes open wide and glazed with dread, tears rising and flowing; and when she came to Sweet’s she skidded to a stop, her lungs gasping and clutching at the icy air.
Sweet Stuff was lit bright as day, but it was night; she gaped at the scene as it laid itself over the silent, midnight façade of the diner. There were people in there, friends she knew from school, adults from around town, and they were all looking out the windows at her.
No, she realized; they were looking past her.
She turned and saw something in the sky, something she’d seen before, but never at midnight near the end of October: A massive summer-storm thunderhead bearing across Halter, bright-lit at its top by an afternoon sun that wasn’t there, lightning forking and flaring under its flattened base as it misted down curtains, shedding water even as it collected more from the lake it drove across. She gaped at it and blinked; and when her eyes were open again she saw it had reached the shore. All around her, rain fell in torrents, completely silent, not touching her at all.
She turned to the diner again and saw something that stood her heart in her throat.
She and Nick were ducking into the door, soaking wet and laughing.
They stopped and turned, then beckoned outside to someone else, and she could read the words on her lips as clearly as if she’d actually heard them: Get in here now, you nitwit!
She looked to see whom she was beckoning to, and recognized Jensen Haakon, his hair plastered to his skull, his shirt clinging to his trim body; he darted into the door and joined her and Nick, and they all went to sit at the diner counter and wait out the rain.
Ten seconds later, a titanic jagged flash lit up the scene, and the lone tall pine that stood just at the corner of Brooker and Aaronson exploded in a silent, raging shower of sparks, flinders, and flame.
Addy screamed and covered her face; but the scene was gone, the night was dark and quiet, and there was no thunderhead occulting the crisp and starry sky.
Then the scene reset.
“No…” she groaned. She looked behind herself to see the thunderhead again, turned toward Sweet’s once more, waiting to see herself and Nick duck in … waiting … waiting…
“Where are we?” she whispered, watching the rain pummel the road and the sidewalk and the parking lot and the diner. “We should be here by now…”
She saw Jensen then, jogging along, cutting across the lot, clearly making for home. He darted past the diner, didn’t go inside, and this time when the lightning came he was right beside the pine.
When the flash-blindness left her eyes, Addy saw the aftermath, the single smoldering shoe, the blackened twisted mass just beyond, the hair still smoking…
She sank to the chilly concrete walk, sobbing, numb with horror and not understanding; she wrapped her arms around herself, shivering at more than the cold night air. “God,” she whimpered. “Oh God oh God oh God … what’s happening … what does it mean…”
The scenes began to flash around her again, Brooker healthy, Brooker dead; healthy, dead; healthy, dead; fast and faster; and she screamed and ran, fleeing the sights, the insanity, the night, fleeing the doom that stalked and capered and shrieked silently all around her.
She became aware of herself some time later. It was still dark. She was sprawled on her back in the meadow behind Olaf’s, the one Nick said he came to at night to listen to the crickets, the one she wanted to visit with him so they could hold hands and be together, in a world where he was alive and by her side.
She’d seen herself duck into Sweet Stuff with him to escape a storm; but that had never happened. It must be the future. And that must mean there was a way to save him. But how? What was the way around, the way to avoid that cold white headstone behind the church?
“I can’t do it,” she sobbed. “I can’t figure it out. I don’t know what’s going on.” She clenched her hands and pounded the soil and screamed up into the silent inky void. “I’m only eleven years old!”
The paroxysm passed and she lay still and quiet, drained and bereft and hopeless.
The world around her wavered. “Oh no,” she groaned. “Not again.” She squeezed her eyes shut tight. “Please, no more, I can’t stand it, no more…”
A word formed in her mind: Hush.
Her eyes flew open again and she saw a figure kneeling over her, and recognized it instantly. It was the beautiful Indian girl she’d seen in this clearing once before, bearing the unconscious form of a girl in Pilgrim garb. Her see-through hand was moving on Addy’s brow, making a soothing, smoothing gesture that she couldn’t feel. She swallowed and looked up into the girl’s eyes. The girl was looking directly at her. “Did you … did you just say ‘hush’ to me?”
You are louder than most Loud People, the girl said, or at least Addy thought she was saying something like it, but not in English. You carry on so, and you forget.
“For … forget what?” Addy said, afraid to move in case it broke the … the spell, the stasis, the grace that was permitting this moment to happen.
You are touched by the Holy People, the girl said, her hand still smoothing, still soothing, her lips not moving at all. But you have no Way. Your people have all forgotten.
“Way? What way? Do you know what’s happening to me?”
Yes. I, also, see what has gone before, and what is, and what may yet be. I speak to the Holy People, and they show me what I must know.
“Are you…” Addy swallowed on a dry throat. “Are you a … a holy person?”
The girl laughed. Far from it. I have not gone Beyond. I am a … girl, as you are, in this land, in another day.
“Like … like Abe and Liesl and Zeke? They’re…”
Like them, the girl said. Yes. And like you. But not very like, either.
“Help me,” Addy said. “Help me understand. There’s a boy, he’s my boyfriend, and he’s going to die in three days and I don’t know how or why, and I keep seeing … things … the town, the whole Vale, dying, and I don’t—”
Hush. This time, Addy felt the caress. The smoke. The Holy People speak in the smoke. Do you know why?
“N-no,” Addy whispered.
Because smoke is fragile and may be torn asunder by the merest wrong move, careless murmur, stray thought. The Holy People wish to be heard, but only by those who will be still and listen. There is wisdom in silence, when it is silence shared with the Holy People. You have great power. I can feel it in you. Your power is greater than that of Laughs-at-Eagles, even, for you can see the smoke even though you are of the Loud People, and have not once studied the Way. But it is hard, because you have no Way, so the smoke comes to you only as wafts and drifts, unguided and unsought. You have no means to know what is before, or now, or after; and what is important, and what is not.
“Yes,” Addy gasped. “Yes! Help me understand. Please. There’s no time left…”
You must save your man. His fate is shared by your people. His death is their death also.
She had suspected that, more and more, ever since she saw the scene of the decrepit brickworks, but it made no sense. “How? I know he’s … he’s … he might … but I don’t know how it happens. I don’t know what to tell him to look out for. And I don’t know what he has to do with the town, the whole Vale…”
We are woven together, the girl said, like the warp and weft of a belt. She took off the tight-wove band of hemp that cinched around her waist and held it up for Addy to see, its stripes an earth-toned mix of maroon, tan, olive, navy. Our lives are but one thread, and easily broken … but when we gather ourselves, we become strong. She stretched the belt, showing its resilience. Yet one key fiber, if it unweaves, is sufficient to send all to ruin. She plucked one of the strands, pulled at it gently, gently, worked it free and tugged; and as Addy watched, the entire belt unribboned itself into a meaningless tangle of incoherence. You must save your man.
“I want to,” Addy sobbed. “I want to, but I don’t know how…”
I do not have the words to explain what I see in my smoke. Your people know many things mine do not. The answer lies in what is near, very near to you, something you see every morning and every night, and it is in your man’s hands also, weaving and weaving his fate with yours, and making and unmaking the fate of your people. Threads and strands, and he is caught short on his horse as he rides to you, and is killed. The girl looked down at Addy, her face sorrowful. More, I cannot describe. I see, but what I see has no meaning. It is nought but a chaos of color, of light and sound, a tunnel in a window. I am sorry.
“Please, can you…”
I cannot explain it. I am sorry. I do not have the words, the … the thoughts to understand.
“Well … what about Abe and Zeke and—”
They … do not see as I do, or as you do. Their understanding is … incomplete. They see their own lives, but not those of others. They would be of no help.
“God damn it,” Addy wailed. “Tell me what to do!”
It would be best for you to return to your dwelling and sit in contemplation, and do as your heart directs.
She gaped at the girl. “Are you … did you just tell me to … to go to my room and think about what I did?”
No, the girl said. Go to your room, and seek your heart’s guidance.
Then she wavered, and was gone.
“No!” Addy shrieked and leapt up, into the place the girl had occupied a moment before, her eyes wide and wild. “Come back! Come back here, God damn you, come back and tell me!” She pounded the ground beneath her, sobbing, her hair hanging down into her face, the ends wet with her tears. “Tell me … tell me … tell me…”
She sank, weak and quivering, to the autumn-dying grass.
Addy was exhausted when the alarm went off Monday morning, but she dragged herself from bed immediately, not using the snooze even once. Today and tomorrow were all she had now to figure out what killed Nick, and the drive to act was stronger than any call from any warm soft pile of blankets, or the huge toothy grin of Tom Baker, or even the sly come-hither smiles of Leif and Shaun.
She barely remembered going home the night before, even while she was doing it. She undressed and tumbled onto her bed, thinking she couldn’t possibly sleep, but darkness had swept over her instantly, so swift and complete that her actual and only next memory was the buzz from the alarm.
The shower helped clear her mind a little, and helped her feel a little more human. She washed her hair and found some blades of grass and fragments of leaves mixed in with the strands, and was glad she’d got up early enough that none of her parents had seen her before she was in the bathroom. She felt far, far too tired to come up with a plausible story as to how she’d collected yard-leavings with her head.
Maybe I could tell them I was sleep-walking, like Jeb Winslow, she thought. Ha-ha.
…No, that really wasn’t funny. Any more than it was funny to think of him walking out the bomb bay doors of a B-25, or riding one through an attack by Zeroes, watching the fuselage perforate all around him, seeing the starboard engine stutter and fail with smoke trailing behind it, seeing the port mill go next, dropping like a caged rat on a brick until the plane smacked nose-first into the Sea of Japan and killed him — but not before he carefully and methodically smashed his Norden bombsight beyond any hope of repair or recovery, so the enemy couldn’t pull it from the wreckage and learn how to make one.
“Where the fuck did that come from?” she whispered to herself, too shocked to notice or care that she’d said the granddaddy of all swears. She had seen it, seen it as clearly as any scene, and she knew it was true: That was exactly what had happened during the final few minutes of Jeb Winslow’s life. She didn’t even really know what a B-25 was or what one looked like on the outside (a bomber, duh, but that didn’t mean much), but she was certain she knew what they looked like now, on the inside. Nick probably knew. He probably had one, a plastic model kit.
She shut off the water and stood there, dripping, staring at the wall.
If Nick dies, so does the Vale.
She didn’t know how her boyfriend was connected to the health of the town, but he was.
He dies sometime Wednesday.
She didn’t know where or when or how, and the Indian girl’s words weren’t a lot of help there, but they did narrow it down. Caught short riding his horse, and killed. Jenny Ann, that had to be Jenny Ann, and something would happen to Nick on that day, while he was riding her somewhere.
To me. She said he was killed while he was riding his horse to me.
Sometime Wednesday, he’s riding Jenny Ann somewhere to meet me, and…
What the hell did that even mean?
There was a tap on the bathroom door. “Addy? You okay in there?” It was her birth-mom.
“Yeah,” she called. “Just drying off now. I didn’t faint or anything.”
“You’re funnier than Carol Burnett, honey. Breakfast in ten minutes.”
She didn’t see any scenes as she walked to school, which was a huge relief; but then, she didn’t want to see any, so maybe that was part of the reason.
She went around to the stables and waited, watching for the horse she knew, the white one with the black spots, and the slim figure sitting tall and straight in the saddle. She kept her eyes on Aaronson, her brow furrowed, chewing her lip, and only relaxed when she saw Nick and Jenny Ann emerge from the tangle of autumn-bare trees that overhung the road. She went out to meet them, and Nick halted the horse, dismounted, and kissed her. (Addy, not Jenny Ann.) “Made it safe and sound,” he said.
“Yeah,” she said, and took his hand, and walked with him and Jenny Ann to the stables. “I know when it happens, Nick.”
He looked over at her. “How did you…”
“I saw a scene. It happens sometime Wednesday.”
He paled and swallowed. “That ain’t too long. Did you figure out how?”
“Not … yet, but I have some clues. It happens when you’re riding Jenny Ann to meet me someplace. You’re … caught short.”
He studied her while he brushed down Jenny Ann, who was nosing some oats from the bucket in the stall. “Caught short? What’s that mean?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was hoping you did. Like maybe it’s a, a word for something that happens on a horse, like if it rears and your foot gets stuck in a stirrup or something.”
“Not so’s I’m aware,” he said, “but I can ask around and see if anyone knows the term.”
“Nick … don’t ride her Wednesday. Okay? Even if it’s just to school or whatever, don’t ride her at all. Or any other horse.”
“Well how am I supposed to get anywhere? I don’t got a bike.”
“Can you borrow one?”
“From who, my neighbors? What d’you think they need their bikes for, Christmas decorations?”
She felt her lip quiver, felt her eyes well. “Sorry,” she said, her voice very small. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, oh no, I’m sorry, Addy, come here…” He pulled her into his arms and held her while she sobbed against his shoulder. “I didn’t mean to be cross at you. I know you’re scared. I am too.”
“I’m just so … tired, and I feel so dumb, I feel like I’m not smart enough to figure it out, and I don’t know what to tell you except to not ride any horses Wednesday, because that’s all I’ve got … I don’t have anything else, Nick, it’s all I’ve got…”
“Okay,” he said.
She sniffled. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. I won’t go nowhere Wednesday. I’ll tell my moms and dad I feel poorly.”
“Yeah. It’s only a little fib, cause I ain’t been eatin’ since yesterday anyhow.”
“Oh God,” she sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“I ain’t. All this made me think a spell, and made me understand some things.”
“Come up to my house tomorrow after school, and I’ll show you. Can you do that?”
“I think it’ll be okay with Moms and Dad. For a little while, anyhow. I’ll ask when I get home today and call you, all right?”
“Okay.” He gave her another little squeeze, then released her, and they walked hand in hand and wan of face toward the schoolrooms. “I,” he said.
He shook his head. “I. That’s it.” He watched her expectantly.
In a moment, she got it. “Oh. More of that message?”
“How much more is there?”
He studied her from the corners of his eyes. “I’ll tell you the rest tomorrow.”
Addy didn’t feel much like eating Monday evening, either. A cold ball of dread had settled into her belly, and there wasn’t room for anything else. The day had been bad, but at least there were the diversions of school and her friends to keep her from locking in on her fear for Nick. Once she got home, she didn’t have any of that. The next episode of Doctor Who wouldn’t be on until Wednesday — oh, how that day frightened her now — and Space: 1999 aired Thursday, so there were none of her usual deep-distraction options available. She tried to lose herself for a while in Le Guin, but gave up when she realized she’d been reading the same paragraph for ten minutes solid, and hadn’t absorbed a single word.
She laid back on her bed and thought of what the Indian girl had told her, returning once again to it, as she’d been doing all day long. Caught short wasn’t a term that meant anything to Addy or Nick, so she set it aside and looked elsewhere.
Whatever happened to him, it had to do with something she saw every morning and night, something in his hands also. What did that mean? Was it a riddle? The sunrise or sunset, maybe? But … no, you never saw a sunset in the morning, or a sunrise in the evening. The Moon, then? Sometimes it was in the sky during the day … but not always, and anyway, for the last week, it wasn’t up most of the night through. Besides, none of those things were in Nick’s hands.
What had the rest been…? A chaos of color, of light and sound, and a tunnel in a window.
She looked at her bedroom window, but there was no tunnel there, just the yard and the trees and the sky; and Nick’s bedroom was on the second floor of his house, so there was definitely no chance of any kind of underground view there.
Could it be something else underground? A cellar? Cellars had windows, but … that wasn’t the same as a tunnel in a window, and you couldn’t ride a horse in a cellar. You couldn’t even get a horse into a cellar to fail to ride it in, to begin with. A mine? No … there were no mines in the Vale, and the deepest holes were the pits around the brickworks, where they dug out the clay; and while those had somewhat steep walls on three sides, they had no windows, there were no tunnels, they were well fenced off, and everyone knew to stay away. She couldn’t imagine any situation that might end with Nick … somehow taking a tumble over the side.
“Damn it,” she whimpered, and pressed her palms to her eyes, and then she was on Gallifrey taking the Time Lords final exam. It was an essay test, and there were questions about past and future history, but every time she wrote out a new answer on a page, the question changed. It’s not fair, she protested to the proctor, I can’t keep up, but all the proctor said was: Future history isn’t yet written, so work faster.
She woke up, crying, to the sounds of work in the kitchen; her moms and dad were preparing dinner and setting the table. She lay there for a while, exhausted and desolate, wishing she was smarter, wishing she could have seen what the Indian girl saw. She looked over at her Doctor Who poster, at Tom Baker’s big mischievous grin, at Elisabeth Sladen’s confident smile. “I wish I had the TARDIS,” she whispered. “I could just zip ahead and find out what happens.” She sighed. “I wish I was as smart as the Doctor. Or that he was here and I could just ask him.”
There was a tapping at her door. “Addy? Dinnertime.”
She picked at dinner, and this did not go unnoticed by her parents. “You feeling okay, honey?” said her birth-mom. “You’ve been looking tired ever since you … ever since Sunday.”
“You do look pretty unhappy,” said her other mom. “Did you and Nick have a fight?”
She sighed. “No, it’s not that. I mean we’re getting along fine. It’s just…” She shrugged.
“Are you feeling any discomfort from your belly?” said her other mom.
“Maybe that’s it,” she said, sliding easily and gratefully into the lie. “Maybe it’s my, you know, maybe it’s starting.”
“Okay,” said her birth-mom. “Well, we’ll tuck you in tonight with a heating pad, just in case, and another kind of pad too, to catch any leaks if they happen.”
“Thanks,” Addy said. She flicked her eyes to her dad. “Sorry. Maybe this isn’t good dinner conversation.”
“It happens,” he said. “It’s okay, Addy.” The warmth and care in his voice was so profound that her eyes welled and spilled, and she excused herself clumsily to ensconce herself in her room, whelmed in guilt more than estrogen.
Raquel looked over at Annette. Both women nodded at each other, sharing knowing looks that were entirely mistaken.
She failed to get any appreciable sleep Monday night, and met Nick and Jenny Ann again Tuesday morning, and refused, completely refused, to consider the possibility that this might be the last time she ever did this.
They said very little to each other after trading kisses; most of what they had to say was locked behind uncertainty about how to say it, and fear of what tomorrow might bring. Addy had secured her parents’ permission to go to his house that afternoon, but only for a few hours; he was to ride her back down no later than eight.
Nick had promised, and promised her again, that he wouldn’t ride Jenny Ann or any other horse tomorrow. So why did every beat of her heart feel like a clock ticking, counting down the hours to minutes, the minutes to seconds, and the seconds to unraveling and dissolution?
After school got out, she settled into the saddle behind him, put her arms around him, and quivered. Refusing wasn’t enough any more; she couldn’t clear the dread that after today, after this ride and the one back to her house, she would never be on Jenny Ann with him again, never sit behind him in the saddle, never feel him close to her as they shifted and rocked with the horse’s gentle gait, or bobbed in her rolling and powerful gallop.
He didn’t say anything, and that was just right; but she didn’t know if it was because he knew she wanted to savor every moment with him, or because he didn’t know what to say any more than she did. In the end, she decided, it didn’t matter.
They rode together up Aaronson, ducking under a few branches, riding clear of others; and as they rose along the slope of the Vale and into the late afternoon sun, making the transition from pavement to dirt roads, the air around them began to warm. The clopping of Jenny Ann’s hooves and the steady rock of her stride was soporific, soothing; and Addy closed her eyes, her cheek pressed to Nick’s shoulder, and she smelled the scent of autumn-fallow fields, of horse, of her boyfriend; and she let her mind float and drift out over the Vale and the town that nestled in it, the town she knew as home, where she’d been born and where many others had lived their whole lives. Her adoration for Nick expanded to swell into the valley, and she mourned the future, the scenes she’d witnessed, the desolation and loss that she sensed coming, but didn’t know how to prevent. It had everything to do with Nick, but how or why, she didn’t know. His life was precious, of course it was, not just to her alone, but also to his family and to his many other friends; and somehow that life, that thread, had become woven into the fabric of the entire community, so crucial to all that its end tomorrow — if it were to happen — would somehow be sufficient to put an end to everything she knew and cherished most.
She thought of the Indian girl again, and wondered if she’d ever sensed anything this vast.
Yes, she heard a murmur in her mind. But not as immediate.
What do you mean? she thought.
My people, the girl answered simply. But our great unweaving has not yet come to pass, and will not even begin for many summers yet.
But you’re— she thought, and stopped herself.
No more than you are, the girl said.
I don’t understand.
A belt has a beginning, a middle, and an end, the girl said. And when you traverse a thread, you follow its lone course. But when you hold the belt in your hand, do you not see it all? I live my life and you live yours, and yet are we not conversing, somewhere apart from and part of the weave?
I don’t want my thread to be without his, Addy thought.
No, said the girl. Nor do I wish it for you. Watch, Noble Girl of the Wild. Watch closely this eve, for you will see, then, what I have seen in my smoke, and perhaps it will be clearer to you than it is to me. Watch, and let your heart lead you.
Noble Girl … what?
Adeline, the girl said. In a language of the Loud People, it means noble.
How did you know that? And how did you know my name? she thought, but there was no answer. The girl was gone again.
She jolted a little and realized she’d been dozing in the saddle. She looked around and saw they were at Nick’s farmstead; there was the well-tended yard, there were the hen coops and stables, there was the barn, there were the giant rolls of alfalfa, curing in the sun. There, also, was his house, a neatly-painted and -trimmed two-level building of wood, with a veranda running along the whole front. Nick’s room was on the upper floor; she could see his gable window, the one on the right; the other window was hidden around the side of the house. He’d put up a paper skeleton in the window she could see, the kind with glow-in-the-dark ink on the ribs and other bones. It grinned and waved statically down at her.
She closed her eyes again and felt the sting of tears under the lids, and willed it down. She would not wallow in sorrow now, not on what might be their last afternoon together.
They rode to the barn and dismounted, and Addy brushed down Jenny Ann, taking what comfort she could in the mare’s quiet power and quiet grace. When the horse was nosing happily in her oats, Nick took Addy’s hand and led her across the yard. His fingers were cold and trembled a little, just like hers. They went into his house and she smelled the scents of his home, the leather and saddle-soap, the aromas of cooking and cleaning, the years of life that had been lived in this frame before he came along; the farmstead had been in his family for generations.
They went together up the narrow wood stairs to the second floor, and he led her around the landing toward his bedroom door. His room was in its usual state of neat and well-kept semichaos, the disorder confined to only a few carefully-moderated areas, with a couple of new additions: The skeleton, of course; and in the other window, he’d hung a new poster, art from the title sequence of Doctor Who, with the diamond-shaped emblem nestled in its channel of colors and shadows. With the backlighting from outside, it seemed to be glowing slightly. “Guess I got you hooked,” she said.
He chuckled. “Well, it’s a weird show … but I reckon I like it.”
She went over to the bed, a lush and thickly-blanketed solid wood four-poster large enough to berth a yacht, if anyone could get one up the slope and into the house. She settled on the bright zigzag-knitted afghan and looked around at his things: Wardrobe with shirts and jeans hanging in it; desk with schoolbooks and papers spread all across it; model planes hung from the ceiling on threads; shelves with spines displaying his taste and range: Oscar Wilde, Samuel R. Delany, James Tiptree, Jr. — holy hell, how had she not realized a few things about him long before he decided to dress up as Sarah Jane? — Zane Grey, Tolkien, Melville, Poe, Twain, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft.
He closed the door and sat on the bed beside her. Her hand immediately stole into his. “So,” she said. “We’re here.”
“So what … you said you wanted to show me something.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He chuckled. “Well, it ain’t done yet, but…” He bent over and reached under his bed and came up with a roll of … woolly fabric? “I guess, well, I guess … I was thinkin’ about how … what you saw in church. And how I … wanted to tell you, since July, how much I like you, Addy, only I didn’t, and … I don’t know why, exactly.”
“I wanted to tell you the same thing,” she said.
He let out a little breath partway between a gasp and a sigh. “Really?”
“Yeah.” Her eyes held his. “I don’t know why I was holding back.”
“Yeah. Me too. And I figured, well, if I’m gonna show you I care, I guess maybe I shouldn’t put it off, so … here.” He gave her the roll, pressed it into her hands.
She looked down at it. It was knitted yarn, about eighteen inches wide, and … and…
“Oh my God,” she breathed. “A scarf?”
“I think I got the colors right. It’s hard to tell.”
She unrolled it, and it cascaded across the swept and polished hardwood floor in all its glory, easily fifteen or more feet long, its colors broken up into bands of different thicknesses, tan and olive, maroon and navy, and if it wasn’t an exact duplicate of the one Tom Baker wore on Doctor Who, it was close enough for the government, and definitely close enough for her. She gaped at it, then at him. “Where did you get this?”
“Well, I, uh,” he shrugged. “I … made it.”
“Gets a mite dull up here some nights,” he said, and plucked at the afghan they were sitting on. “Powerful cold sometimes, too. Do you like it?”
“Like it? Like it? Nick … this is the greatest thing anyone ever did for me! It must’ve taken you months!”
“Naw, only a couple weeks. It ain’t done, like I said, I mean there’s no tassels on the ends, I was gonna put those on tonight and give it to you tomorrow, but I figured, what with … with everything and all, I figured maybe I shouldn’t wait any longer.”
Her eyes held his again. “You’re right,” she said, and set the glorious scarf aside, and kissed him, and pushed him back on his bed.
“Addy,” he said, as her fingers sought the buttons on his shirt.
“I need this,” she breathed.
He swallowed. “Okay.”
Addy woke a bit later, nestled under the covers with Nick, his bare skin warm all against her own. She’d dozed off again, but this time, at least, it was after all the rocking and swaying. She stirred and felt him shift. “Mmm,” she said.
“Gosh,” he said.
She giggled. He’d said that a lot during the previous half hour or so. But then, so had she.
She’d been well-stocked with theoretical knowledge by Miss Nelson’s classes through the years, and she’d done some fairly extensive explorations on her own (Leif, Shaun, oh my yes), so none of the general mechanics were unknown to her. It was just the specifics that were new. Nick had taken the same classes, and had surely done his own kind of practicing, so he was about as ready as she’d been for the final exam. She knew he’d passed it; she had too, twice. She stretched a little and looked into his eyes. “I’m glad we decided not to put anything else off.”
He giggled. “If I’d’a knowed a scarf would make you do that, I’d’a started knitting way back in June.”
“Nitwit,” she said, and tickled him, which made him squirm and return fire. They giggled and wrestled and rolled until they landed with thuds and yelps on the floor. “Thank you, Nick,” she said as they calmed down again. “And not just for the scarf. That makes two greatest things anyone’s ever done for me.”
“Right back at you, Addy,” he said. “I’ll be your Sarah Jane any time you want to play Doctor from now on.”
“Oh my God,” she said. “You’ve been planning to say that forever, haven’t you?”
“For a bit and a piece,” he nodded, grinning. She nestled up against him and they leaned back against the side of his bed together. “Did it … did it go all right? Did anything, you know, hurt?”
“Huh-uh,” she said, running her fingertips up and down his arm where it crossed over her chest. “I heard if you ride horses a lot, things can … loosen up. Open up. Jenny Ann’s the only horse I’ve ever ridden, but I guess it was enough. It didn’t hurt.”
“Good,” he said. “I didn’t think it did, and I figured you’d’a told me otherwise.”
“Oh, you’d’ve known.”
He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, and they cuddled together in the warmth of the soft tumbled bedcovers, most of which, she now knew, he’d knitted himself. “Love,” he said.
“That’s the rest of the message.”
She thought for a moment, and then was flooded by a burst of warmth that went beyond anything she’d ever felt, even earlier, when things were at their most heated between them. “Oh Nick.” She turned to him and kissed him. “You.” She kissed him again. “I.” Another kiss. “Too.” And with the fourth kiss, she whispered the word into his mouth.
It wasn’t much longer before they were tangled in the scarf together, but they didn’t care.
Night had descended over the Vale well before eight, and as they rode Jenny Ann down together, the spray of jewels overhead felt like the perfect garland to wreath them. Nick was, as always, at the front of the saddle; Addy was behind him, snuggled in close, and as far as she was concerned, there was nowhere else she ever needed to be again. They were tangled in the scarf once more, and between her embrace and the way they were bundled, neither of them was in danger of frostbite.
It hadn’t been her intention to be wrapped up with him like this, at first: Before mounting up, she’d wound the scarf around him alone, looping it amply and loosely. “It’s the easiest way to carry it,” she explained.
“That’s so,” he allowed. “But you should…”
“Huh-uh. You’re gonna be in front, it’s gonna be chilly, and I don’t want you to freeze. I’ll have you to keep me warm.”
“With you right there, I don’t think I need to worry none about gettin’ cooled down. Fact of the matter is I’m apt to steam a bit.”
She giggled while he swung into the saddle, and she settled in behind him. He immediately began re-wrapping the scarf around them both, ignoring her initial protests until she was giggling too hard to complain any more; it was more than long enough to cross back and forth about them, its woolen weave gathering them in a sweet, snug bundle. This was exactly the kind of adorable thing that might’ve made her roll her eyes and change the channel, several hours and a lifetime ago. Now it just felt utterly, wholly right.
And now, here they were, riding along a gravel track that would eventually merge with Aaronson, a mile or so below them, where Burlingham began in earnest. Its houses nestled comfortably among the bared trees, their windows warm yellow rectangles in the cold and moonless night.
Addy closed her eyes, feeling him embraced in her arms now, remembering how he’d felt, earlier, in her arms, in a different and much sweeter embrace. It had been nothing like she’d imagined. It had been less complicated than she expected, and more meaningful; there had been effort and sweat, and the reward was not where she’d believed she would find it. The passions were good, and finding them with him had been exquisite; but the warmth they’d shared afterward had been the true crown of glory. She still felt it now, and reveled in it, bittersweet in her knowledge that Wednesday was going to arrive soon, and she still hadn’t figured out the riddles. Maybe warning him away from horses was enough. She had to hope it would be, because she had nothing left but this night, and him. Please, if this is the last moment I’ll ever feel this way, please let this moment last forever.
“She keeps wantin’ to trot,” Nick said as Jenny Ann’s hooves made the transition from gravel to asphalt.
“Let her,” Addy said. She’d ridden this course with him before, and knew Jenny Ann liked to open up when she felt the sure pavement of the road under her.
“She’s apt to take off,” he said. “And it’ll get windy.”
“Go, Nick,” she said. “I want to feel the wind.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said, then flicked the reins and said “Ha up now girl,” and the world became a blur.
She squealed and laughed, giddy and crazy, clinging tight to Nick, her first boyfriend, her first boy, her first love; and they plunged and clattered along the road amid the trees, streetlamps acting as runway lights, guiding them as they flew toward town, under and through the sleeping branches, hard and unyielding and empty of sap; but here, here with Nick, it was warm and good and life was burgeoning in her bosom, heaving or not; and her hair flew out behind her like a pennant, and the scarf flapped along in their wake; and she thought of Gandalf and Shadowfax and knew she would never read Tolkien in the same way again as they pelled and melled into the enchanted night. “Nick!” she cried, and Jenny Ann galloped, surging and driving, carrying them along, together, together, together. “Yeah! Yeah!”
“Addy!” he called back, and let out a whoop. “Addy girl, I hunh.”
The wind was blown out of her by a shock that traveled all along her torso, and she felt herself being pushed, jerked backward, tumbling out of the saddle, her arms still wrapped around Nick, and she didn’t even have time to react with a scream before her butt was bouncing on the road, Nick tumbling along with her, both of them coming to rest in a moment to lie in a bruised, scraped, breathless heap. Jenny Ann, realizing she was suddenly riderless, halted, turned around, and clopped slowly back up to them, looking at them in That Way, the way all horses had of looking at people who’d managed to so something so foolish as fall off a perfectly good saddle on the back of a perfectly balanced creature. You had one job, that look says.
“You all right?” Nick said, sitting up.
“Yeah,” she said. “I think so.” She sat up too and began unwrapping herself from the scarf’s long looping coils. “What the hell happened?”
“Dunno. One minute we was flyin’ along, next we’re ass over teapot.” He shook his head, then looked down, then up and overhead. “Well, feed me a plate of shitsticks.” His voice was suddenly very weak.
“What…” She turned her attention away from getting up and rubbing her tailbone to what he was looking up at, and that quickly, had to sit back down. “Holy…”
“Yeah,” he nodded, still looking up.
Her eyes fell to his neck, wrapped tight in the folds of the scarf, then back up again, to where the loose end had snagged on the end of a thick limb. She could see how the fabric had stretched and torn under the stress of their combined weight. She stared and stared, the implications only partway settled in, her head shaking back and forth in disbelief. “What … what…”
“Reckon it got stuck on y-yonder branch,” he said, and his voice was as unsteady as her belly. “And … and I’m thinkin’ if you wasn’t there behind me to sorta hold me down a bit and help rip out the stitchin’, I’d’a been caught swingin’ from that tree with a broke neck and a surprised look on my face.”
“Caught,” she murmured, and his eyes met hers. “Caught short.”
The belt, the belt the Indian girl had worn. The colors, the colors … and she’d said Nick was weaving their fate in his hands … it was something she saw every morning and night … the poster with Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen in their costumes … and … oh God, oh God, a tunnel, a tunnel in a window, Nick’s poster, the Doctor Who poster … had the Indian girl seen that title sequence, playing back on a television in a chaos of color and light and sound, while Nick sat and watched and knitted?
“The scarf,” she breathed.
“Addy,” he said. “Do you think…”
“I don’t know,” she said, her mouth dry, the world around her utterly clear and focused. “You said it wasn’t done. You said you were gonna put the tassels on tonight and give it to me tomorrow.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“And Jenny Ann likes to run when she first hits the road.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“And I’m betting … I’m betting you would’ve been wearing it then, because that’s the easiest way to carry a scarf, and it’s not gonna be any warmer tomorrow than it is tonight.”
“…Yeah,” he said.
“Oh God. Oh God. Oh my God.”
“I still won’t ride tomorrow,” he said.
She nodded, then blinked, then nodded again. “I think … I think I’ll probably be wanting to ditch a day too.”
“Why?” he said.
“I’m tired, Nick.” She looked at him. “Let’s ditch together.”
“Where’ll we go?”
He thought about that. “You’re right,” he said, then stood and began untangling the scarf from his neck.
Addy helped him get the other end out of the tree.
They milled with everyone else spilling from the Palladium, going from its reasonably-cool air conditioning to the dazing wet heat of August in only a few steps, laughing and blinking and chattering about the matinée double. For fifty cents and three hours, the theater offered some of the best seats in town in the summer, especially in the balcony, toward the back, together.
They had watched both features, a back-to-back of Dr. Who and the Daleks with Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 AD. They’d been made a decade earlier and, even by Addy’s standards relative to the rest of Doctor Who, they were truly odd.
Well, they’d mostly watched both features. There may have been a bit of smooching. There probably was.
They were Addy and Nick, and that was how most of their friends referred to them now, as a pair of names fused into a unary idea. Ever since the Halloween dance (he’d managed to repair the scarf by then, though it lost about three feet in length), their status among their peers had been recognized. They’d celebrated twelvehood together (not on the same day; Addy had missed being an April fool by a little under six hours), they’d begun summer together, they’d listened to crickets in meadows together, and they were drifting lazily through the sun-gilded days together as easily and naturally as a pair of milkweed seeds.
Puberty had indeed arrived for Addy, along with all its feelings and changes, feelings she’d begun to know the leading edge of some months before she’d begun to know Nick (in that way), feelings that now left her breathless sometimes when she looked on his sleeping face, resting beside her, his head nestled on her pillows or his. Nick had noticed some of the changes too — they were showing more and more, though not as prominently as they had on Jennie Selzer, thank God — and he seemed to like the changes, and she liked the way he liked them. Similar things were happening with Nick, and they were making use of the usual precautions.
Addy was better with horses than she once was — her grade-seven classes were to include an elective in caring for and handling them, and she’d ridden Jenny Ann solo many times by now — but she didn’t think she’d ever have the natural ease Nick did. Well, she’d come across them later in life than he had. And she was considerably more proficient, now, with farm equipment than she’d ever imagined herself being, but that was due to the weekends she spent up at his farmstead, helping him keep the Xikklix Hordes at bay. She felt if she was going to be there eating his parents’ food and sleeping in his bed, it was best to earn her keep. Nick felt the same way, helping with the chores when he spent the weekend with her.
He still wore her clothes when he stayed with her. That was fair; she wore his when she stayed with him. And anyway, he looked better in makeup than many of the girls she went to school with.
They held hands as they ambled down along Brooker, the gaggle of their peers dispersing to different places, mostly homeward. A rumble from the west was harbinger of the reason: Billows had gathered, built, and were now a cottony anvil, presaging the usual events for this time of year.
Looking at it, Addy knew; she felt it all settle into place in her mind with a neat, definite click. The what was in absolute focus, even if the why still eluded her.
She halted them at Aaronson and they stood there a while, watching the storm bear down. The freshening breeze lifted at her bangs; it ran its fingers through his curls. “This is the one,” she said.
He looked at her, but didn’t question.
She hadn’t spoken with the Indian girl again since that final afternoon in October, and she’d never had a chance to ask her name, but she’d seen her around from time to time. Addy had the feeling she was checking in occasionally, but didn’t want to get too close. It was odd to imagine a person in a scene wanting to keep her distance — to Addy’s mind, they were the ones inserting themselves into her world — but she supposed everyone had a right to her own life and her own privacy, even if she had lived, or was living, more than two hundred years in the past.
Whatever that meant.
She could direct the scenes now. Not as a director did in a movie; but as she did when she changed the channel on the TV. She could sit quietly for a while, calm her mind a bit, and open herself to … whatever it was, and then there’d be that flicker, and the curl of smoke drawing in on itself, and there it was. Mostly, she still had to be where the scenes actually happened to draw them out; but she was getting better at doing it wherever she was, like the way she’d seen Jeb Winslow’s last minutes in the nose gallery of his failing B-25. She was getting better, too, at aiming for definite periods in time; she could direct her attention to almost any year, and usually get it right, give or take six months. That margin of error was also tightening, gradually; at first, she’d slipped by plus-or-minus a year and more. Most importantly, she was slowly, slowly learning how to seek urgency, how to focus in on things she actually needed to know.
Her diary’s section on the lore of the Vale was bursting, and not all of it was history any more.
“This is the one,” she said again, because she knew.
The storm hove to quickly, and when the first big fat drops began spatting the blacktop on Aaronson, she turned and led Nick back up Brooker toward Sweet’s. In moments the big fat drops had become a steady drench, welcome and cool in the sweltering air; and they ran, laughing, into the diner, then stood watching the storm walk along the land. Addy kept her eyes sharp, and when she saw the boy she was seeking, she opened the door, leaned out, and called, “Get in here now, you nitwit!”
Jensen saw her and waved, then jogged across the lot to the diner, his hair plastered to his skull, his shirt clinging to his trim body. He darted into the door and joined her and Nick, and they all went to the diner counter to wait out the storm. “Glad I saw you,” he said. “I was gonna run home, but—”
There was a flaring and titanic burst of light outside followed immediately by a colossal shattering crack. Everyone in the diner jumped; most people screamed. Addy looked around just in time to see the lone pine at the corner of Brooker and Aaronson fly apart, flinders and sparks spreading into the road, the lot, and all over the sidewalks. Shattered boughs fell, some of them still smoldering, onto the splintered remains of the stump.
“Oh my God,” said Nan Baker, behind the counter. “Did you see that? It hit that tree dead center.”
Jensen was staring at the steaming wreckage, his face draining of color. “Man.” He swallowed. “That was right where I was headed, too. I coulda been right by that tree when it was hit.”
“Yeah,” Addy said. “I know.”
“Jeez,” said Jense, and ran his hands through his wet hair. “I’m real glad I saw you now.”
“So am I,” she said, and smiled. “Just wait’ll you tell this story at the next Bush Club troop.”
Jensen giggled, a little too loudly, venting his nerves. “Yeah.”
“You’re okay now,” she said. “You’re gonna be okay.”
Nick was studying her again, but kept his counsel.
She took his hand and smiled at him, her first boyfriend, her first boy, her first love. She knew better than to imagine there would never be any others, not in the long life she was apt to live here in the Vale. There would be growing together, leaving, pairing, weaving. But she preferred to let that matter stay in the smoke.
This stand-alone story serves as an introduction to the Vale for those who have not visited before, and I think it yields a pretty good cross-section of Burlingham and its citizens. Most of the major locales in town (at least up to the year 1975) get a visit or a mention, with the exception of the Hot Pot and the Plowman’s Lunch. But those places — a coffee-and-tea shop, and a tavern — are not usually on the scopes of the typical tweenager, not when there are so many stumps and hollows and meadows to discover and explore, and horses to ride, and matinées to see, with or without a bit of smooching.
Addy and Nick are both quite bright, but not preternaturally so for the region; Burlinghamians place a high value on education. The nature of Addy’s relationship with Nick is not uncommon there; nor is her acceptance of his predilection for dressing as he does sometimes (and for the record, the rest of the Vale doesn’t care, either); nor is the nature of her parents’ relationships, or Nick’s; nor is the nature of their parents’ acceptance of Addy and Nick’s relationship when it blossoms. People there tend to mind their own business, trust that their kids are not helpless and stupid, and don’t give a lot of thought or energy to getting squeamish about various things various people might get up to. Life’s too short to waste on poking your nose where it doesn’t belong, or plucking a mote from your neighbor’s eye while ignoring the beam in your own. And, of course, sex is why we’re all here in the first place. Kids grow up, get feelings, figure it out, and life continues, as has been the case for at least the last 300,000 years of the history of the human species — which is to say, the entire history of our species. No amount of sanctimonious pearl-clutching will ever change it.
This story is also a prequel, of sorts, to a forthcoming title in the Eastern Shore series: We will meet Jensen Haakon again in about seven years, and find out that there may have been substance to Addy’s forebodings of doom.
That said, I don’t really write tragedy. There’s enough of that in the world as it is. Why the hell would anyone want to invent more? I prefer stories where the characters are all intelligent, insightful, and fundamentally decent, and where they use those traits to find empowerment and overcome difficulties, instead of being helpless victims of circumstance, cartoon villains, or thin caricatures of their creators’ revenge fantasies. I think this preference is rare enough (unfortunately) in the world of fiction in general, and popular entertainment in particular, to be refreshing.
I began writing this story, according to the date- and timestamp in Scrivener, at 8:05 PM on August 26th, 2017. I wrapped the first draft at about 1:30 PM on the 29th (according to the system clock I’m looking at right now), just over two and a half days and just over 22,000 words later.
The smoke was abundant, and the scenes were clear, and I wanted to find out what happened next, you see.
There are some writers who begin with a careful and intricate structure. They lay out the whole narrative as a framework and plan and balance and work in themes and major points and minor developments, and then, when the whole shape is roughed out, when the dots are all assembled, they sit down, begin typing, and connect them all together.
I don’t do that. I can’t. It doesn’t work for me.
Instead, I get a vague impression of something that wants to be told, an idea tugging at my sleeve, and when I stop to pay attention to it, it begins to whisper quietly to me, and I learn more, and then … sometimes, it feels as though I’m transcribing, not creating: A channel, a conduit.
Sometimes things bog. Sometimes they go awry. Sometimes I find out that I didn’t have as much there there as I thought, at first. But more often, I find myself driven along, wanting to find out what happens next, how it all turns out in the end, and then I know; and then … well, that’s why they call it a draft: Then I go back and refine and work in the details as necessary, linking in threads and themes and subplots where they fit, smoothing the rough patches, bridging the gaps.
For some writers, the process is like weaving: You must have the pattern before you can create the tapestry.
For me, I guess it’s more like weaving in the dark, and trusting the threads to know which color needs to come next.
I know how that sounds, what it suggests. But there it is.
Tanglehollow Tree had not, until this story, been given a formal name, though the history it effected (and affected) has come up from time to time in other stories in the Eastern Shore series. After Zeke got his loose woolen swimsuit caught in the roots, and Abe and Liesl dove in to save him but were caught as well, the Tiger Sharks swim team put a rule in their bylaws that no team member, male or female, would ever wear a suit while they were practicing or competing. It was better, they felt at the time, than risking any further drownings.
This rule still stands. It’s no longer necessary, but you know how tradition is.
I didn’t really expect Girl-in-the-Water (Addy’s “beautiful Indian girl”) to put in more than a silent cameo. I was very pleased when she decided to step up and help Addy get a grip on what was happening to her. If you liked her, please consider reading my novella Wolves and Cougars next; that’s her story.
(I also didn’t know Addy’s full name was Adeline until Girl-in-the-Water addressed her by it. It was the right color, when and where it needed to be.)
Addy thinks of her as an “Indian” because she — Addy — lives in the year 1975. (For similar reasons, Girl-in-the-Water thinks of Addy as being one of the “Loud People”.) “Native American” was not a common term at that time, and as a wordwright, I don’t like it when linguistic anachronisms intrude into period dialect, even if it’s stream of consciousness. It’s like watching a Western movie set in the year 1889, and seeing a jet contrail in the sky behind the actors.
That is not an excuse to refuse to use the term Native American today. We Loud People really need to stop being such assholes.
I know very little about horses by personal experience, but I’ve met a few, and they seem like good people.
Jenny Ann’s name was originally Jenny Lee, until I realized that could be read as a reference to Robert E. Lee, and of course Bo and Luke Duke’s car, neither of which it was meant to be. Nick would not have named his horse after a machine; and in any case, The Dukes of Hazzard first saw the light of day in 1979. As for General Lee the man, well … Burlingham is located in an unspecified state somewhere in the southeastern US, one lying on the Atlantic seaboard. This state would certainly have been part of the CSA in the mid-1800’s. But in Halter County, slave-owning was officially a crime, and always had been. (That “schism” which led the Clives to leave and found their own town? You’re soaking in it.) The likelihood of anyone in the Vale ever deliberately memorializing a Confederate general is dead-center zero.
That all really bugged me!!!!!!!!, so for a while the horse’s name became Annabelle Lee, but I didn’t like the scansion. Then the obvious made itself apparent; and, as a bonus, spoken aloud, Jenny Ann is slightly smoother to pronounce than Jenny Lee. That matters like hell if you need to address your horse by name in a high-stress moment.
This doesn’t represent needless angst over equine nomenclature. It’s about me not wanting to distract readers with things that do not relate to the story, or send an incorrect suggestion about any of its characters, or their character. And it’s about keeping a certain rhythm in the language, as well.
I think Jenny Ann likes her name.
In this story, Jenny Ann represents what horses usually represent: Freedom, autonomy, strength, and latent sexuality, specifically feminine sexuality. You bet your patootie there’s a reason Addy is drawn to her, just like every other tweenaged girl in the known and explored universe is drawn to every horse, even at distances well in excess of visual range. Horses are profoundly feminine power symbols, despite what anyone might believe to the contrary. (You won’t lose your penis for agreeing with me here, guys.) Other feminine symbols, as it happens, are forests and large bodies of water and the abundance of the earth, such as what’s found in a rich farmland. And, of course, valleys in general. (Bonus points if you made the link between the starry night sky and the Egyptian sky-goddess Nut on your own.)
Throughout the Eastern Shore series, the storms that roll in off Halter Lake represent the “outside” world and its attempts, deliberate or otherwise, to disrupt life in the Vale. The people there see them for what they are: Temporary spasms that pass, and nothing in particular to get overly worked up about.
The lake itself is wide enough that its opposite shore is never visible. Halter is a German word that translates, roughly, as “stopper” or “holder”, in the sense of something that keeps something else contained: The German word for bra is Büstenhalter. Halter Lake is one of the natural barriers that keeps the Vale from being overrun by the social Sturm und Drang of the rest of the nation, because the eastern shore is accessible only overland, and the next nearest city is Cliveston, about a two-hour drive to the northeast. The Vale is quite isolated, and that’s how the people there like it. They get TV. They know what’s going on. And they don’t want to have anything to do with any of it.
In 1975, Nissan was known, in the US, as Datsun. It wasn’t a brand Addy would have recognized by its name today.
The Viking spacecraft had both been launched by October of 1975, but had not arrived at Mars just yet. Viking 1 landed there on July 20th, 1976, exactly seven years after Neil Armstrong set foot on the lunar surface.
During World War II, bomber crews were under orders, in the event of a crash-landing near or behind enemy lines, to destroy the Norden bombsights in their aircraft, even if doing so meant meeting their own deaths in the process.
The plane crash in New York that Addy was thinking of was Eastern Airlines flight 66. It went down on June 24th, 1975, while attempting to land in a thunderstorm. There were 113 fatalities, which was not the full complement of passengers. The crash was determined to be due to a microburst, a sudden weather event which hadn’t been well-studied or understood prior to then. The result was improvements to radar for detecting microbursts and wind shear.
If you Google the term “plane crash 19xx”, where the x’s are any two numbers you care to select, you’ll almost certainly come up with something significant, for every year. (Including 1903; the Wright brothers’ Flyer pranged once or twice too.)
That’s not meant to be a comment on flight safety, just an observation.
Halloween night was on Friday in 1975, Wednesday was the 29th, and the Moon was in its final sliver on the night of the 31st; it had been waning for the prior week and would not have put in much of an appearance in the night sky until after midnight, so the stars would have been radiant and bright most of the night through.
July 4th was also on a Friday.
1964 was a leap year.
I check these things before I mention them specifically in a story, because it’s not hard to do, and I know there are people who look it up. I’m one of those people myself.
I played a little loose with Doctor Who’s US broadcast schedule. The BBC didn’t actually start actively shipping episodes to PBS stations in the States until 1978; however, Jon Pertwee’s episodes saw some runs as early as 1972 (he was the third Doctor; Tom Baker took over the role in 1974). The show itself has been on the air since 1963, except for a hiatus of about fifteen years (1989 – 2005). So clearly the “special contract with England” held by the independent-PBS mashup station at McMurrough Community College is rather special, indeed; it’s running new episodes of ITC’s Space: 1999 along the British schedule, and we can assume it’s doing something similar with Doctor Who.
Where Addy and Nick got their posters is a matter best left to the smoke.
It’s difficult to conceive in our post-Star Wars world (the first film was released in 1977), but in 1975, science fiction as a genre wasn’t anywhere near the saturation it’s reached today. It was largely the bourne of the extreme nerd, or the visionary, of course. Even as good as Doctor Who was — and it was good; Douglas Adams was script editor on the show for a while, and wrote some outstanding scripts for it, too — it was largely perceived for decades as a silly, goofy thing for silly, goofy kids. All of SF was viewed in that light.
Currently, the latest incarnation of the Doctor from Doctor Who is scheduled to be a woman, for the first time in the show’s run. Time Lords (of which the Doctor is one) periodically “regenerate”, usually if they’re fatally injured; in practical terms, this means a new actor takes over the role. In the past, it’s been established, both in dialogue and action, that Time Lords can switch sexes during this regeneration process. So it was only a mater of, ahem, time until the same thing happened to the Doctor.
I’ve been watching this show for decades, and it’s profoundly disappointing to me that a certain small, and predictably whiny, wedge of the fandom is up in arms about this change; you’d think someone tried to tell them horses were symbols of feminine power, or something equally nutty. I think they’ve missed the point of the show, which in its best moments is about compassion, wisdom, and inclusion, not uttering bewildering truisms while dodging Daleks and Cybermen and Zygons, and not whether the Doctor is a man.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the next season plays out, and I’m sure Addy is delighted, too.
The episode “Dragon’s Domain” was part of the first season of Space: 1999, and first saw broadcast in the UK on Thursday, October 23rd of 1975. They should’ve saved it for the following week. When I saw it (following the US broadcast schedule used everywhere else outside the Vale), I was probably about nine, and good lord. The monster they face is bad enough. What it does to its victims … looking back, I don’t know how the hell that one ever got on primetime, or anywhere near it.
That episode probably had some lasting effect on me or other, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is.1
“Hardy but not indestructible” quadrotriticale doesn’t exist outside the world of Star Trek. It was the wheat that the tribbles ate in David Gerrold’s magnificent teleplay, “The Trouble with Tribbles”, first broadcast on December 29th, 1967.
And yes, that red Plymouth with the white stripes and all the fins and chrome was Christine.
Flagstaff, Arizona, August-September, 2017
^1 ^ For those who are new here: My afterwords often employ irony.
For as long as she can remember, eleven-year-old Addy Wilder has been seeing visions of the past and future. Usually they're harmless, and she's even managed to make a few friends among the phantoms she sees in the smoke. To her, they're just a regular part of life, and nothing to be concerned about. Lately, though, her mind has been occupied by something better: She has a brand-new, official, for-real boyfriend, and a Halloween dance to attend wth him, and they'll get their costumes sorted out just as soon as they're able to stop kissing. All is right in Addy's world … until the Sunday morning when she sees something that frightens her to her core: A vision of someone she cares deeply about, laid out in a casket, dead by an unknown circumstance. Now, Addy has only a few days to discover what to do about her latest vision and prevent that death. Even worse, she knows that if she fails, everything she's ever known and loved will die, as well. This free and stand-alone story serves as an introduction to Peed's Vale for those who have not visited before, and yields a good cross-section of Burlingham and its citizens. Come and explore Brooker Street, Burlingham Contiguous School, and the farmland-patchworked valley they rest in. Come and discover the customs and morés of a town from another time, in the universe next door, where life isn't as simple as it seems, and the people are unlike any you've known.