February 15, 2006

NaNoWriMo - next chapters

Sorry it's a couple of days late, been busy. Previous chapters are here. And in the extended entry are chapters 11 and 12.

Enjoy. Leave feedback. Thanks.

Chapter 11.

I was actually looking forward to going back to school in the morning, right up until the point where I opened the door and found, parked at the curb, the police patrol car with my friend Officer Ossie at the wheel. He was waiting for me, and when he signaled for me to get in there wasn’t much I could do except comply.

I settled in, and he pulled away and headed in the general direction of the school. I stared out the front window, trying to remain disinterested like Mom wanted. That lasted until he asked me just what the heck had happened last night. I looked directly at him for the first time and saw the mouse that Mr. Brown had hung under one eye, it looked painful. In comparison, I’d gotten off lightly, even though my jaw still ached and there was a good sized bruise showing. I started by trying to explain what my Mom had said and what her reasons were, and why I thought they made sense and so I should just shut up and not discuss it any more. He didn’t say anything, just kept driving, and my words just petered out and we drove along in silence. I hated that.

When he dropped me off at the school – a block away would’ve been better, but the rumor mill would be chugging away at full speed this morning anyway – I told Officer Ossie thank you, and I’m pretty sure he understood that I meant thank you for his trying to help last night, and for his not pressing the subject this morning. Before he left, I started to tell him that Mr. Brown was the man who clocked him, but he interupted me before I could finish and said he already knew. With a simple “see you later�, he was gone.

I’d been looking forward to being back at school, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. During first period, a note was slipped under the door and Miss Beverly absently scooped it up, glanced at the name at the top, and dropped it on my desk as she walked by, intent on her lecture. I had to reread the paper twice, because it was asking me to report to the “Zombie Lab�. After class, I showed it to Miss Beverly, who apologized and crumpled it up before tossing it into the trash can.

There was another note during second period, but this time the teacher caught the “joke� and threw it away immediately.

Third period, and the note under the door requested my presence at the bottom of the lumber pile in woodshop. This was cruel enough to cause the teacher to send me, with the note, down to the office. I handed the note to the principal’s secretary, and she immediately sent me in to see him. When I told him about the other two notes, he sent a runner to each class to retrieve those notes from their respective trash cans. He told me that I shouldn’t worry about these notes, and that he’d make sure that whoever was responsible would by caught and punished severely. As I walked back to class, the PA system clicked on and, to my chagrin, the Principal made that same announcement.

Great, so now I was officially a stool pigeon and the whole school knew it. This just wasn’t turning into the triumphant return to school that I’d pictured in my mind. On top of that, for the rest of the day, in the hallways fellow students would walk by and randomly tap me on the yellowish remnants of the bruise in the middle of my forehead. That is, those who didn’t lightly and playfully slap me on the much more prominent bruise on my jaw. By lunchtime I had a pounding headache and didn’t feel like eating at all. I was so miserable that it wasn’t until after lunch that I realized that I hadn’t seen Autumn all day. None of my “friends� would’ve given me a straight answer, the office wouldn’t have given me any kind of answer, and I was no longer allowed to go to her house to check on her to make things were ok, so I resigned myself to waiting until school again tomorrow, or hopefully she’d come visit my house today after school.

Mondays. School sucked. At least nobody tried to kill me, but hey, the day wasn’t over yet.

I walked alone in the cold morning air the following morning. I was half-expecting to see the patrol car parked out front again, and was relieved to not find Officer Ossie waiting for me. The previous day had been so bad that I considered this a high point, which goes to show how just low my spirits had sunk. I had resigned myself to another day of head tapping, jaw slapping mischief from my peers (merry pranksters that they were, I could have happily strangled each and every one of them by the end of the day yesterday), and had armed myself with a bottle of extra strength aspirin to deal with the consequences.

I was at my locker before the first bell when Autumn came up to me. She asked how I was doing, and then noticed the bruise where I’d been punched. I quickly filled her in on my walk home from her place Sunday night, and she couldn’t believe all that had happened. She’d missed school yesterday at her mom’s insistence, although she never got a solid reason as to why.

I didn’t say anything, but I wondered if I hadn’t been the reason.

Since I couldn’t go to her house any more, we made plans for her to accompany me to my house after school, and we separated to head to our classes.

The more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that Mrs. Crisp had kept Autumn out of school on the day after I’d been beaten up. Mr. Brown was part of ZAPT, we already knew that, and Mrs. Crisp had several members of ZAPT staying at their place, hence Mrs. Crisp may have known ahead of time that I was going to be ambushed on the way home that night. It didn’t completely add up, but it wasn’t an impossible thing to believe either. I say I was bothered, but angry would be a better word.

The anger must have shown in my eyes, because very few people played tap or slap with me during the day. I was even relieved when, in a display of immature normality that I’d missed more than I realized, William and the rest of the gang waylaid me during gym class and, shouting “timber!�, buried me under a pile of laughing bodies. Whatever else, I guessed that it was their way of saying that everything was ok between us.

On our way home, Autumn sensed my mood and gently tried to coax me into talking about it with her. I was still trying to frame it all in my mind, because I knew that we’d have to discuss it, but I didn’t want to come right out and accuse Autumn’s mom of being involved in my recent, ah… mishaps. Even though that’s exactly what I was thinking had happened.

Five minutes after we’d gotten to my house, we were in the kitchen raiding the icebox when Ms. Halliday said goodbye and headed for the front door. Autumn immediately wanted to follow her, and despite what my Mom asked of me, I agreed because I too wanted to see one of Ms. Halliday’s mysterious disappearances. We watched through the front windows until she was almost to the corner, and then quietly slipped out the back door and began to trail Ms. Halliday.

Within a block, Autumn grew excited as she recognized the route that Ms. Halliday always took when walking to that field. I think she was showing off a little when she led me down two smaller side streets in a bit of a shortcut, and was proud of herself when Ms. Halliday appeared a short while later, right on schedule.

After Ms. Halliday had passed and we resumed our discrete trailing, Autumn pressed me again about my mood. I thought that I’d figured out a logical and gentle way of saying what was on my mind, but really, I was fooling myself. Face it, there’s no good way to tell your girlfriend that her mom knew I was going to get beat up and did nothing to stop it. Autumn listened to what I was saying and, to her credit, took it about as well as could be expected. In other words, she didn’t immediately try to murder me (and I had some recent experience in that, so I thought I could recognize it when I saw it), although I’d bet it was in the top two or three on her list of considered reactions. Autumn was a quiet sort of angry, which worked well since we were trying to follow someone without being too noticeable, and we argued in low voices as we walked along. There was no real denying my main points; that we knew for a fact that Mr. Brown was part of ZAPT, that Mrs. Crisp had friends in ZAPT who were in town, and that Mr. Brown and his friends were the ones who had assaulted me and then dumped me in a heap on my front porch, bearing a threatening note, as if my unconscious body wasn’t warning enough.

Even though Autumn insisted that Mr. Brown had never come to their house, nor had she seen the “drunk� guy who seemed to be Mr. Brown’s accomplice, that didn’t change my basic facts. I believed Autumn with all my heart, I knew she was telling the truth, but it was also true that people in an organization that her mom was involved with were dangerous and violent.

I had been caught tailing Mr. Brown. Then I’d been seen hanging around the Crisp house. Someone had decided that it was time to intimidate me into leaving well enough alone. I repeated that again, and again there was nothing Autumn could do to refute it.

Could ZAPT have done the vandalism at the research lab? I didn’t even bother to point that out. I didn’t have to, because it was obvious that ZAPT was capable of such an act, and just because everything added up like two plus two equals five, that just meant that we didn’t have all the facts yet.

Autumn stopped suddenly, and I thought she’d had enough and was about to turn around and go home, but she grabbed my arm and together we watched as Ms. Halliday turned off of the roadway and headed straight out into a meadow.

Chapter 12.

There was no way to follow more closely, the area was too open. I watched intently as Mr. Halliday, without a glance to either side, strode through the autumn-browned waist high grass. At the far end of the field, well, almost to the far end, she seemed to bend or stoop for the briefest of moments and then disappeared from view. Autumn immediately wanted to head out in pursuit now that I was here, but I wanted to wait and observe for a few minutes, just in case. Autumn waited with barely concealed impatience, reminding me that she’d seen this same performance several times, and that she had yet to see Ms. Halliday reappear from wherever it was she had gone. Just the same, I thought that caution was appropriate, especially considering my recent encounters with Mr. Brown and his associates (and I hadn’t for a second forgotten that Ms. Halliday and Mr. Brown appeared to be buddies). So I watched carefully while Autumn continued her quiet argument with me. She was still very angry about my allegations, and by now my temper had flared as well and the words were getting sharp and it wouldn’t be long before someone said something that we’d regret. At this point I didn’t know what to do to prevent it, nor did I want to let it distract me from what we were there to accomplish.

After several minutes of observation, we headed out into the field, following the trail of bent grass stalks left in Ms. Halliday’s wake. I walked in the lead with Autumn several feet behind me. I would have rather she’d stayed behind, but she was having none of that, and once again I had to bite off a pointed retort when she angrily insisted that she was coming along whether I liked it or not.

The walk across that field was absolutely brutal. Not because of the terrain, but because we were still in the midst of our first real fight. We’d gotten to the point where both of us were ready to say the heck with everything and turn back around when we found what we were looking for.

The ground at the back of the field sloped sharply down towards a rocky streambed, which was dry at this time of year. Ms. Halliday’s disappearing act made sense now, since what she actually did was walk down a steep little path that slanted across the slope. I grabbed Autumn’s arm and pulled her down into a crouch beside me, signalling to her to be quiet while we checked out this hidden bit of terrain. There was nobody in sight. It looked like we’d been lucky, for we could have easily walked right up on Ms. Halliday and any number of others without realizing it, and we hadn’t been particularly quiet nor careful during our approach.

Autumn tapped my arm and pointed down the streambed, and there, set back on a rocky shelf, was the opening to a cave. I didn’t think it likely that Ms. Halliday had gone inside, and Autumn and I got into another angry, albeit whispered exchange over the possibility. Finally, I’d had enough and started down the sloping path. Autumn scrambled after me.

She seemed surprised when I started to enter the cave, but the way I saw it was that I’d made the promise to find out where Ms. Halliday had disappeared to, so I was going to follow through, at least this far. Once I’d checked things out inside though, I was headed home.

It wasn’t much of a cave. Once past the entrance, I stepped aside to let the light shine in. I wished for a flashlight or even a candle, but we hadn’t counted on finding a cavern, so for now I’d check what I could without being stupid.

To my left, the cave ended not six feet from the edge of the opening. The floor was dusty and littered with small rocks and pebbles, which made me think that the ceiling probably wasn’t about to fall on me. I didn’t have to crouch, but I found myself doing so anyway since the ceiling was very low in spots. The back wall was only about ten feet inside and looked solid. Looking over to the right, I saw a crevice in the wall, an opening that might lead to deeper chambers.

Making my way over there, I squinted into the gloom and tilted my head, trying to see beyond the immediate opening. Deciding that I could squeeze in a little farther without losing all the light, I shifted sideways and pressed myself into the crevice.

I peered into a small dim chamber, and the very walls moved as if alive. I felt something against my hand and looked down to see something, no, several… oh god, several hundred… somethings crawling up my arm.

With a inarticulate cry I threw myself back out of the crevice and scrambled for the cave entrance in a blind panic. When I stumbled out into open air, I threw myself on the ground and began to flail my arms to get them off of me. I could feel them in my hair and on my face and neck, and I would’ve screamed if they hadn’t been on my face, forcing me to keep my eyes and mouth tightly shut.

Autumn was actually laughing out loud as she sat down on me. I could hear her close to my ear, whispering my name and telling me that things were all right, that I would be ok, and that she would help get them off of me. I barely registered her hands as they carefully slid along my arms and neck, scooping handfuls of ladybugs away and then shaking them towards the cave entrance to dislodge them.

Shut up.

Ladybugs are ravenous and ferocious predators, eating up to fifty aphids (their favorite prey) every day. They set upon the soft bodied aphids and rip them to shreds with their mandibles, swallowing great chunks of still-struggling victim. As cute and lovable as people believe them to be, ladybugs are among the most fearsome killers on our planet, and it’s a good thing that they’re so small, otherwise we’d be fighting them for our survival.

Ever since learning that in biology class, I’ve been creeped out by ladybugs. I know it’s silly but I can’t help it. The thought of their tiny armored body crawling along my skin, and knowing that if they were larger, or I were smaller, that I’d be prey is enough to keep me awake at night.

I was still shuddering and picking ladybugs out of my hair when Autumn went into the cave. She wanted to make sure that the crevice was really a dead end, since I couldn’t be sure because I had been in the process of freaking out. I almost threw up when she emerged a few minutes later with her hair alive with ladybugs, thousands of them crawling across her clothes and skin. We had found their hibernation spot for the winter. After helping her get rid of most of them (and being very careful about where I put my hands, not just because of the ladybugs, but for Autumn herself underneath), we watched as the last small cloud of them disappeared back inside the entrance. Autumn confirmed that we’d seen everything in the cave. This wasn’t good news, because we now had no explanation for where Ms. Halliday had disappeared to, other than somewhere other than the cave. I wasn’t at all sure there would be a safe way to observe her once she reached the streambed, short of laying in wait for her in the field. Even then, it would be hit or miss as to which day she might come, and because of the tall grass, if we weren’t very careful crossing the field, our presence would show like the wake behind a boat in the water.

As we walked back home and discussed the mysterious Ms. Halliday, no mention was made of our argument before. Nor of the ladybugs. I guess they’re good for something after all.

Posted by Ted at February 15, 2006 11:55 AM | TrackBack
Category: Zombies of Autumn

More please.

Posted by: BLUE at March 7, 2006 03:06 PM
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