March 08, 2006

NaNoWriMo - again, finally

Chapters 13 and 14 are in the extended entry.

You can find chapters 1 and 2 here.
Chapters 3 and 4 here.
Chapters 5 and 6 here.
Chapters 7 and 8 here.
Chapters 9 and 10 here.
Chapters 11 and 12 here.

There now, all caught up.

I know it's been awhile. No promises, but I'll try to get back into the once-a-week posting of this story. We're almost to the point where I'd lost a few chapters, so after this I'll be back to winging it.

Enjoy. Leave feedback. Thanks.

Chapter 13.

That night I tried to imagine where Ms. Halliday might have gone after crossing the field. I had a general idea of the lay of the land out in that direction, and it occurred to me that by following that streambed, you could possibly wind up fairly close, but behind the research laboratory. Before I fell asleep, I decided that I wouldn't volunteer that theory to anyone, but if Officer Ossie happened to offer me another ride, well, Mom couldn't be too unhappy with me if I mentioned it in passing.

As suddenly as the tension had built in our town, it seemed to dissipate. Posters stopped appearing overnight. Neighbors realized how petty they were being and became neighborly once more. Nobody beat me up again. It was as if everyone had, in one collective moment, taken a deep breath and counted to ten.

I still wasn't allowed to go over to Autumn's house, but she came over to ours every afternoon after school, and we did homework and one day after our first meager snowfall we made a pathetic snowman together in the front yard. We also learned more about being boyfriend and girlfriend, and I found out that I could make her tingle too.

I hadn't seen Officer Ossie lately, nor had Ms. Halliday visited the field again (at least on the days when Autumn had been able to follow her). Autumn was absolutely bubbly one day because she had happy news. The police had let them know the night before that a big break was about to happen in the vandalism, er, kidnapping case. But a few days later she seemed deflated because the authorities kept insisting that the big break would happen "any day now".

All of this was, as I'm sure you've already guessed, the calm before the storm. Or at least the next wave of turmoil to come crashing over the town. Once again, for some reason my family was the target. We'd minded our own business and not been a participant nor subject for the town gossipmongers. We'd managed, except for Autumn Crisp's daily visits, to completely separate ourselves from the local controversy. Yet still we found ourselves in the middle of "zombiegate", as some local reporter had tagged it (if you don't get the reference, look it up in the library: history section). And this time, there was no way we could ignore it and let it go away.

We were wakened from a sound sleep in the middle of the night by a banging on the front door. I had just pulled on my robe and stumbled into the hallway as Mom headed past me towards the front room. I stood there, scratching and yawning, when Mom opened the door a fraction and peered outside. Mom cried out, then immediately slammed the door shut again and stood there, arms akimbo and face pale, eyes wide as she leaned heavily against the door as if to hold out whatever it was she had seen on our front porch. She looked like she wanted to vomit. She looked like she wanted to pass out. It was a toss up as to whether she'd do either or both, and in what order. I was scared out of my wits, because I'd never, ever seen my Mom look like this.

Steeling myself to be the man of the house, I took Mom's arm and gently led her to the sofa to sit. Ms. Halliday, roused by my Mom's cry, appeared at the entrance to the room and, seeing Mom's shocked condition, moved to sit beside her, putting an arm around her and patting her arm in comfort. Ms. Halliday looked at me with dread and confusion in her eyes, for she realized that something, she knew not what, had frightened my Mom into her current state. I moved to the door and, grasping the knob and taking a deep breath, flung it wide open to confront whatever it was.

The porch was empty.

Just as I'd heavily exhaled (I hadn't even realized that I'd been holding my breath in anticipation), both Mom and Ms. Halliday cried out in unison. A split-second glance confirmed that the porch was empty, and the walkway and yard beyond, and then I spun towards the ladies to figure out what they had seen that I hadn't. As I turned, I came face to face with the cause of their terror. More accurately, I came face to arm with the cause, or rather, the arm that was the cause, because an arm, an entire, grotesque arm from shoulder to fingertips, had been nailed to our door with a large spike directly through the palm.

RAL had made it's reappearance in a big, big way, and judging by the announcement, they had decided that we were among their biggest enemies.

I stared at the arm for a moment, not really seeing it, but wondering how in such a short time and over such a seemingly innocent thing like walking a pretty girl home after school, things could come to this. One zombie-loving group scheduled regular intimidation and beating sessions for me, while another zombie-hating group had just begun their intimidation efforts. One side or the other had also tried to kill me, and I'd decided that it had to have been RAL, since ZAPT had already had several chances if they had actually wished me dead. Wasn't that a comforting thought? The group I actually knew something about (and the police knew too) wasn't the one I had to most worry about, it was the completely unknown and mysterious group.

Ms. Halliday called my name from behind me, and I shook myself out of my reflections enough to remember to close the door and thus hide the severed arm. I called Ms. Halliday over and quietly explained that I wanted her to call the police while I stayed and watched over the door. She looked at me questioningly, but she didn't know about the missing note that had lured me into the woodshop that day, and I was determined not to have another piece of evidence disappear right from under our noses. With a nod, she moved to the phone and made the call.

This was a thousand times worse than that night at the Crisp house, because this time it happened at mine. Whoever did this had threatened my Mom. Despite my best efforts, I kept slipping over the edge of reason and blindly raged about. When I'd calm down again I would remind myself that unless I was thinking clearly I wouldn't be able to protect Mom, but then I'd find myself thinking about the situation and once again be seeing red.

The police were there quickly and in great numbers, even though it was the middle of the night. Mom sat at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a cup of tea and answered questions posed by two detectives. One of the two I'd seen the night Granddad had been kidnapped, the other had introduced himself as on special assignment from the state police. They asked their questions calmly and quietly, reassuring Mom that everything was going to be all right.

Ms. Halliday also answered questions, even though she'd come on to the scene late. It didn't sound as if she were able to shed any light on the matter, but I doubted that she was telling everything she knew. I was pretty positive on that point.

As I talked to another detective, I watched two guys in lab coats examine the arm nailed to our front door. I was fascinated as they took countless photographs from every angle and distance and then they taped paper rulers to the door and took even more pictures. The detective peppered me with question after question, scribbling notes the entire time. Once he learned that I'd been at the Crisp house the night the first zombie hand had been found, he wanted to go back and go over in detail everything that had happened since then. He seemed very interested in my "accident" at the school, and I told him that I'd watched over the arm until police arrived because of the note that turned up missing that time. I also told him about the beating I'd gotten at the hands of ZAPT, but I think he knew I was lying when I said I didn't know the names of my assailants. We also covered thoroughly my assertion that it was the RAL who'd done this, and why I thought they had also been responsible for the attempt on my life.

Before dawn the old doctor from the research lab arrived to examine the zombie arm. Once again they ruled out the possibility that it belonged to Granddad or the other kidnapped zombie, but it was disturbing that this arm was right handed, as was the hand spiked to the post near the Crisp house. Someone out there had at least two zombies, and maybe as many as four.

I also got the impression that the police were starting to treat this like more than simple vandalism or a series of trivial, unrelated events. As far as I was concerned, it was about time that they took this seriously.

The sun was already up before the police finished with their initial investigation. As soon as it was light enough, patrolmen fanned out through the neighborhood to look for anything suspicious that might've been missed in the dark. As a reassurance to my Mom, a patrol car was permanently assigned to our immediate vicinity, and would drive by the house at least twice an hour.

I wasn't even going to try to go to school, but I was much too wound up to go back to bed. In the meantime, I decided to write down everything I could think of related to the present circumstances, thinking that maybe by putting it down on paper, it might jog my memory or maybe let me see a connection that I'd been missing. That took several hours, and at the end I was yawning, and managed a short nap. When I woke up, Mom fixed us a late lunch and told me that Ms. Halliday had packed up her things and moved out.

Chapter 14.

Autumn stopped after school, her main news being that her mom was probably not going to allow her to come by any more. Our response was to sit close together on the front room sofa, my arm around her shoulders and her head leaning against me. We talked about the situation, and she actually had me laughing a little as she relayed the best of the rumors from school that day. By best, I mean craziest of course, and some were so wild and imaginative, you had to wonder at the type of mind that could dream up such scenarios. I also told Autumn that I was going to speak to Officer Ossie the next time I saw him about Ms. Halliday's walks out to that field and the possibility that you might be able to approach the research lab from behind via that streambed.

All too soon, it was time for Autumn to head back to her house. As luck would have it, we were saying goodbye on the front porch (tingles!) when the patrol car drove by. I waved it down and when Officer Ossie pulled over, I asked him to take Autumn home, and then I'd appreciate it if he could come back here, for I had some things to talk about with him.

I sat on the front porch and waited. When the car returned, Officer Ossie asked if I wanted to ride along for a bit, so I ran in and told Mom where I'd be. She was fixing dinner, trying to distract herself by keeping busy, and told me not to be too late. I ran out and climbed into the car.

As Officer Ossie pulled away from the curb, I asked him how he was doing after the other night. He looked a little sheepish and then apologized for not being more help. He went on to tell me that when he realized where he was, he was staring straight up at the stars. It took him a few minutes to collect his wits and crawl to the car. He was still dazed, and instead of calling in on the radio he found himself behind the wheel, sitting in front of the police station with the engine idling. When other patrolmen came out of the station and headed for their cars, they spotted him and that's when he realized they'd been looking for him. He hadn't answered the radio calls, he didn't remember hearing them. The police doctor said he'd suffered a mild concussion from the punch, and he'd been put on light duty status for most of a week. In fact, the closest he'd been to doing real police work was picking me up the morning after, because the chief knew we were friends and was hoping that I might talk about what happened and some leads would develop.

As we drove along, I told him about my suspicions about the RAL, detailing step by step what my thinking was and why I thought that way. He listened silently, and when I asked him point blank about what the police had discovered about the RAL, he told me that he really didn't have any information at all. I must have looked skeptical (probably because I was), but he insisted that he wasn't involved in that side of the investigation and anything solid that had been developed was being held very closely. That was a big if, because he hadn't even heard hints or rumors about it, which was unusual in and of itself.

Officer Ossie did agree that my reasoning seemed sound about the RAL. I changed tack and asked him if they'd found Mr. Brown. Once again, my policeman friend looked slightly embarrassed as he admitted that they had no idea where Mr. Brown was, but that they were actively looking for him. I remarked dryly that the police seemed to be doing a whole lot of actively looking without actually doing much actively accomplishing.

Figuring that since I wasn't learning anything anyways, I might as well ask anything and everything on my mind. I next asked Officer Ossie what they'd learned about the kidnapping of Granddad and the vandalism at the research facility. He surprised me by admitting that they'd gotten some solid leads there, and then confided that they knew of two people involved for sure. They hadn't made any arrests because the police were hoping that these two would lead them to the others or even to the kidnapped zombies. So far, those two had been laying low, staying close to where they were living and being careful not to have contact with each other nor anyone else. Officer Ossie hesitated, then told me that if nothing happened in the next couple of days, then one of the two would be very publicly arrested, in the hopes that it would drive the other into trying to contact his conspirators. It was a long shot, but at this point the police were getting a little desperate to make some progress.

I hadn’t been sure if I was going to mention Ms. Halliday and her trips to the “disappearing� field, but since he was confiding the investigation information, I decided to let him know about what Autumn and I had discovered (without mentioning Autumn just yet). I gave Officer Ossie directions, and we soon found ourselves parked at the edge of the field. Getting out and locking the doors behind us, we made our way across the field, I signalling to be quiet (just in case) and Officer Ossie taking careful note of the area as we walked along.

Coming up to the dropoff to the streambed, Officer Ossie looked surprised. He hadn’t realized that this was even here, despite the fact that the road was fairly busy and people passed by every day. He surveyed the area from the lip of the slope, and his experienced eye noticed the cave entrance. I explained that I’d already explored the cave, and that it was small and dead ended just inside. I didn’t mention the ladybugs.

When I told him that I thought the streambed might lead to close behind the research facility, Officer Ossie agreed that it looked like that might be true, and asked me several more questions about Ms. Halliday and how often she’d been coming out here. Then he surprised me by telling me that I shouldn’t come out here any more, and that neither should Autumn, because it might be dangerous if we were to get caught following Ms. Halliday. He told me that he was going to come back sometime in the next few days with some other officers and that they’d explore the area and follow the streambed. He promised me that he’d let me know what they discovered.

We walked back to the car and got in, driving down the road a ways, we turned around at the research facility’s parking lot and headed back into town. Officer Ossie dropped me off at my house and we said goodnight.

Despite the increased police presence, the Righteous Army of the Living made a big push over the next couple of days. Suddenly it seemed like their flyers were posted everywhere. Autumn told me that even with the ZAPT people watching their street, someone had snuck in and nailed another poster to the pole just down the street from their house. Mrs. Crisp had been livid, and went down to the police station and really raised hell.

ZAPT hadn’t been idle either, increasing their activities in response to the RAL. Unlike the mysterious group, ZAPT had decided to come out openly and several of their members were seen around town putting up posters and handing out flyers. Most people still avoided them, but I noticed that a few people would stop and talk to them. Gradually, their presence was coming to be accepted.

A third group emerged to make things interesting. Mrs. Partridge, the parson’s wife, had decided that the best way to calm the troubled waters currently stirring in our town was to drive out the troublesome elements. Of course, who the troublesome elements actually were was decided by herself, and I’d heard there was a merry row that happened when her gaggle of followers made an appearance at the Crisp house to insist that they move immediately because God wanted it that way.

I knew it was only a matter of time before Mrs. Partridge showed up again on our front porch, and I wasn’t sure whether I was dreading it or looking forward to it for the entertainment value.

In any event, Mrs. Partridge was gaining adherents every day as she talked to anyone and everyone who would listen. Her main point being that everything in town used to be calm and peaceful before the “zombie� problem arose, and that it was the Crisp family who had brought the trouble down upon us all. As for my Mom and I, the fact that Autumn Crisp was my girlfriend made an excellent excuse to tie us into the undesirable camp, and with God’s help the town would be rid of a whore and her evil spawn, who was obviously a bad influence on the wholesome and well behaved children in town.

I rather liked being described as “evil spawn�.

I didn’t like Mom being described as a whore, but she had three phrases that she always used that fit the situation. First, “if it looks like a duck� (being realistic, Mom was, charitably put, “easy�), the second was “sticks and stones�, and probably the key to everything else Mom ever did was “it’s what’s in your heart that matters�. Mom had a heart of gold and always had a kind word for everyone, so I wasn’t worried (too much) about Mrs. Partridge and her sheep. Thinking on it a little bit more, I figured that we’d be getting a visit from the Reverend Partridge any day now as well.

Little did I know that “any day now� would be that very afternoon, and that the Reverend would be accompanied by Mrs. Partridge herself.

When we heard the knocking at the front door, I got up from the table where Autumn and I’d been doing homework. Opening it, I found myself looking into the kindly eyes of the Reverend Partridge, and the not-so-kindly eyes of his wife. I honestly think that she was giving herself a headache as she tried to set me afire with nothing more than her gaze.

I smiled and held the door open, inviting them in. Mrs. Partridge turned crimson (and I would swear I actually felt a tiny smouldering sensation) when I asked them if they’d like some tea. The Reverend smiled behind his hand, apparently he’d found out from someone about his wife’s last visit and the humorous way she’d been routed before even beginning her righteous chastisement.

As they entered, I called out to Mom, letting her know that we had visitors. The whole time, Mrs. Partridge’s head scanned from side to side as if on a gimbal, trying to memorize every detail of our home. I think she was disappointed that we hadn’t been caught in mid-debauch or whatever it was she imagined went on. Reverend Partridge stayed by the open door and, pointing to the hole still visible, asked if that was where the zombie arm had been nailed up. At my nod, he asked if I’d like him to put a blessing on the doorway, and since I couldn’t see anything but good coming of such an act, thanked him.

While the Reverend spoke his words in the doorway, I heard Mrs. Partridge choke and sputter a little when Mom came into the room. To be honest, I think the reaction occurred when Autumn followed Mom in, bearing a tray with tea and cookies. I wasn’t too worried about Mom, because she’s tough, but I’ll admit I was watching carefully to make sure that Autumn didn’t burst into flames.

We all sat down and Mom served tea. As we talked, I realized what it was about the Reverend that I admired so. Everyone, no matter how important or influential (or not, as in our case), received the same genuine courtesy and respect from that man. He treated everyone as if they were royalty, without being patronizing about it. The Reverend Partridge was the Golden Rule personified, and I determined to make myself more like him.

After we’d sat for a short while and sipped and nibbled (Mrs. Partridge took one grudging sip and demurred on the cookies), the Reverend Partridge looked at his wife and she apologized to Mom for the things she’d said. It wasn’t terribly sincere, and the Reverend noticed that too but said nothing. After Mrs. Partridge spoke her words, she turned to me and apologized specifically for what she’d been saying about me. Her eyes were downcast the entire time, and it took her some effort to do it, but I’ll give her credit for actually apologizing (even though not one person in the room believed a word of it for a second).

I wondered if Mrs. Partridge would continue on with Autumn, but after running out of words to me she sat back down, still staring at the floor. Reverend Partridge told Autumn that he and his wife would be paying a visit to their house as well later that evening, and he’d appreciate it if she let Mrs. Crisp know beforehand.

I wondered if Mom would let me break her rule just for tonight, because I really, really, really wanted to be there to hear Mrs. Partridge make her apologies to Mrs. Crisp.

The Reverend and Mrs. Partridge stayed for a little while longer, and it was an odd feeling all around. Mom and the Reverend chatted away as if they were old friends (no, not that I know of, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did know), while Mrs. Partridge sat quietly and stewed. It was as if she emitted a chill field around her that defied anyone to feel comfortable and at ease, a field that her husband and my Mom seemed immune to.

I received a hearty handshake from the Reverend as they left, and I thanked him again for blessing our door. Mrs. Partridge barely touched my hand when I placed it out for her, she acted as if I were contagious or something. At this point, I felt more sorry for her than anything else, because it must have been a long hard life to get through with a soul as black as hers. With a final round of goodbyes, they were gone and I closed the door.

Turning around, I saw Mom and Autumn staring at each other, until both dissolved into giggles.

Posted by Ted at 11:26 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

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 11:55 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 06, 2006

NaNoWriMo, it's serialriffic!

I humbly present Chapters 9 and 10, in the extended entry.

Thanks once again for all the feedback, every bit is appreciated.

I haven't forgotten the "name this story" contest, it'll be posted in the next few days when I get a chance.

Previous chapters:

Chapters 1 and 2.
Chapters 3 and 4.
Chapters 5 and 6.
Chapters 7 and 8.

Chapter 9.

Horrified, Mrs. Crisp had called the police, and when they arrived accompanied them to try to identify the former owner of the hand. It definitely didn’t belong to Granddad, and the research center looked it over and said that it didn’t belong to the second kidnapped zombie either. That meant that someone somewhere had access to another zombie and they weren’t afraid to use that barely-sentient creature to make a point.

As bad as the severed hand was, the flyer was probably even more disturbing. Claiming to be from a group calling themselves the “Righteous Army of the Living�, the flyer stated that hunting season on zombies and those who protect them would be open soon. Nobody local had ever heard of the group before, so they’d sent it, hand and all to the regional authorities. So far, the regional cops had drawn a blank too. Normally, something like this would be treated as a crank, but the exclamation point of the hand made it very clear that the cops had better get on the ball and take this seriously or someone not a zombie could get hurt.

Mrs. Crisp was demanding police protection for her and her daughter since it was obvious that the flyer and hand were meant to be seen from their house. I was glad to see the police take the threat seriously, even if they continued to insist that my mishap was an accident. I had never told Officer Ossie about my last encounter with Mr. Brown, and Officer Ossie had never brought up Mr. Brown again after the first time that I’d mentioned seeing him sneaking down the alleyway. I tried to obliquely bring it up by saying that it sounded as if two competing groups, one pro-zombie and one anti-zombie, were squaring off in our town. Officer Ossie admitted that the authorities were concerned about just such a situation, and were quietly planning ways to counter anticipated actions by either or both groups. That was the end of our visit, and after reminding me to be careful (be really careful), he said goodbye and left.

As expected, by the following day most of the town knew about the RAL and their threat against Mrs. Crisp and anyone else who sympathized with her. A few more posters had been hung up in various locations, although no more hands (or any other body part) had been included. In addition, ZAPT had gone on a flyer binge in retaliation, posting as many overnight as had been seen over the entire previous week. Ms. Halliday had spent the morning in town and was passing along the latest gossip over a game of Chinese Checkers. Mom seemed not to care overly much, having complete faith in her “live and let live� philosophy. As for my “accident�, she sided with the police on the matter, and when she brought it up at all it was only to remind me to be more careful in the future.

Autumn stopped by after school, but she seemed distracted. I had noticed that she’d grown more and more distant in recent days, and was resigned to the fact that I was going to lose my first girlfriend, and probably sooner rather than later. When she sat down to talk, Ms. Halliday and Mom made their excuses and retreated to another part of the house. As soon as they’d left, Autumn leaned in and gave me a big hug and followed it up with a warm kiss that left me tingling.

I’m pretty sure it was the kiss.

Somewhat reassured that our boyfriend/girlfriend status was reasonably secure, I encouraged Autumn to tell me about what had been going on. After first making me swear that what she was about to say would stay between us alone, she confided that her mom had called in some favors and that “old friends�, as Mrs. Crisp called them, had come visiting, talking earnestly late into the night over cups of strong tea. Moreso, Autumn had caught glimpses of a few of these people around her neighborhood, as if they were watching over the Crisp house. She was certain that they were members of ZAPT, and was very worried that her mom seemed to be falling back into their sphere.

Autumn then asked me what I had heard from Ms. Halliday. I relayed the gossip and rumors that she’d told me, which mostly consisted of who was accusing who of various transgressions, real and imagined. It looked as if the current atmosphere in town was providing the perfect excuse for people to air grudges against their neighbors, and things were rapidly growing ugly in a few places. No, Mr. Brown had not been mentioned at all, and I couldn’t think of a way to bring him up without sounding out of place and possibly arousing suspicions.

Only then did Autumn and I talk about what happened to me. It wasn’t that she didn’t care, but we needed to exchange information on the sensitive things going on before we were interupted again. In fact, Autumn was telling me about how inspectors had been going over every inch of all of the industrial arts shops, looking for similar dangerous deficiencies. I didn’t think they’d find any, because Mr. Franks and his colleagues were very good teachers and were always meticulous when it came to safety. Autumn didn’t know what, if anything, had been found during the inspections, but she did say that Mr. Franks didn’t appear to be concerned about the possibility of finding other problems. She also hadn’t heard either way about the missing note I had carried in, and other than myself and Mr. Button, nobody else had read the note, although most of the students in that class remembered him handing it to me and me leaving the room.

Mom came in to ask if we’d like some tea and cookies, but Autumn said that she needed to run. After the zombie hand incident, Mrs. Crisp wanted her home in time to have the animals fed and taken care of before dusk. I couldn’t disagree with her reasons. Autumn hesitated before leaving, and I stared at Mom until she got the hint and left the room again. I was left tingling again (it was the kiss, I was sure of it now), and Autumn promised to stop by again the following morning.

Ms. Halliday stayed in for dinner that evening, which was unusual. She professed to being concerned about the latest happenings and talked about possibly going to visit her sister in another town until things calmed down here. I tried not to perk up too much at hearing this, because it sounded like the perfect alibi if she wanted to “disappear� for a period of time as she and Mr. Brown did whatever it was they were conspiring to. I made a mental note to tell Autumn about this possibility, but reminded myself that we had no real evidence that Ms. Halliday was connected in any way to ZAPT.

On Saturday morning I woke up for the first time in days without a headache nor slightly blurred vision. In fact, I felt good enough to get dressed and go for a walk, because I was sick of being cooped up in the house. Walking through the neighborhood in the still morning air, I breathed deep and just let my mind go. I’d been doing nothing but brooding for long enough, and the fresh air was doing me a world of good.

When I got home, Mom was still sleeping, so I put the teakettle on and grabbed a pear. Thinking that I’d heard the newspaper smack on the front porch - which would be a first, considering we have the world’s worst paperboy when it comes to accuracy – I opened the front door and almost had my head knocked upon.

I made a suitably startled noise to see the small crowd standing there, whereas they made four, no – five suitably startled noises (I didn’t see Mrs. Grover in the back, and she’s rather short). The lady in front, who had had her hand raised to knock on the door, and almost my forehead with the opening of said door, was none other than Mrs. Partridge, the Parson’s wife.

Now the Reverend Partridge was a genuine blessing to our town. He always had a smile for everyone, he was known for his kind words, and you could count on him for a fair and just opinion if his wisdom was called upon. Everyone loved him, even those who didn’t attend his church.

Mrs. Partridge, on the other hand, was a hateful, judgmental harpy whose sole delight was lording (pun intended) it over all that she was the beloved Reverend’s wife, as if that good man’s reputation somehow bestowed itself automatically upon her. She had exactly four friends in town (three and a half if you count Mrs. Grover, who’s rather short), and here they were, standing on our front porch.

Recovering from their start, Mrs. Partridge asked to see my Mom. I apologized for my Mom not being available at the moment, but I’d be happy to take a message and let her know that they had visited.

Thinking to bluster her way past the boy before them, Mrs. Partridge sniffed that they would wait for my mother to become available, and she made as if to sweep past me.

We wound up nose to nose, because I didn’t move a muscle. You learn not to be bullied in your own home when you run a boarding house. I grew up dealing with people like Mrs. Partridge, who believed that not only were they better than you, but assumed that you believed it too.

She waited a good ten seconds – count it out: one alligator, two alligator… it’s quite a stretch when you’re face to face with someone who expects you to back down – before she huffed and took a step backwards.

I almost managed to not smile as her entourage tried to back up a step as well, about a half second too late, causing them some awkward fumbling as they got themselves straightened out again in front of our door.

With a gleam as cold and sharp as steel in her eye, Mrs. Partridge opened her mouth to say something, something that would surely put me into my place once and for all. Something devastating and scathing, something to put aright again her universe.

Mrs. Partridge stood there, ramrod straight, with her finger extended into the air to put the exclamation point on her words. Her lips formed the opening sound.

What came out was a loud, high pitched whistle.

She sounded like a teakettle.

I couldn’t help it. I burst into laughter, and so did two of the ladies behind Mrs. Partridge. The timing could not have been more perfect, and at any other time I believe even someone as sour as her could have appreciated it. Instead, with a quick glance to the left and to the right, she silenced her two comrades (I wondered what sort of punishment they would be forced to do for their treasonous laughter), Mrs. Partridge silently extracted a long envelope from her bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, and after seeing them make their way off the porch and down the steps, I went back inside for a cup of hot chocolate. I giggled all over again with every delicious sip.

I found the newspaper later, in the hedge.

Chapter 10.

The envelope was sealed, and officially stamped with the church markings. I knew that Mom would ignore it, and I also knew that it wasn’t an official letter from the church. Mrs. Partridge had been chastised several times before about involving the church in her personal crusades, usually for just such an act. More often than not, she would attempt to intimidate someone by implying that the power of the church was being brought to bear, when no such thing had occurred. It wasn’t even an abuse of her authority, for she had none whatsoever. Still, she would try yet again, and somewhere down the line her long-suffering husband would apologize for her and try to make amends.

Mom surprised me and actually opened the envelope and read the letter inside. I expected her to just toss it into the trash. I should’ve realized that she was more than a little worried about this whole zombie situation, especially since it was beginning to affect our little corner of the world. I watched her read the letter without any change in her expression, and then she handed me the letter without a word and left the room. I could hear Mom puttering about the kitchen, rattling the dishes in her normal fashion. She was good at hiding her emotions, but I was good at reading her moods. This time, though, I had no idea whether or not the letter had had any effect on her, nor if she might be on the verge of tears, laughter or even rage.

I read the letter through quickly once, then reread it slowly and carefully, to make sure I understood all the various pokes and jabs and assumptions and prejudices in there. What it all amounted to was that we were being notified that, because of our involvement with Mrs. Crisp and Autumn, that we would be “watched to make sure that we caused no more trouble in our fair town�. Of course, it was Mrs. Partridge and her gaggle that were “notifying� us, and if it really bothered me I supposed I could go see the Reverend. All I’d get for the effort though, would be an apology (sincere), and another arrow stuck through Reverend Partridge’s long-suffering soul.

Later that day, Autumn stopped by again. We sat on the front porch and drank big cups of steaming hot tea and talked (ok, yes, there was tingling involved, but that’s all I’m going to say about that).

Autumn was still doing her best to follow Ms. Halliday whenever she left our house. Usually the trips were uneventful, but occasionally Autumn would find herself retracing her steps of the walk out of town. On these journeys, Ms. Halliday would always head for the same field, begin to cross the field, and then disappear, as if from plain sight. Not having seen it myself, I couldn’t begin to guess what was happening in those situations. We agreed that as soon as I was given the ok to go back to school – and allowed to do other activities – that I’d accompany Autumn as we trailed Ms. Halliday and figure out this mystery once and for all.

Autumn had seen Mr. Brown once, but Ms. Halliday and Mr. Brown passed each other on the sidewalk as if they had never met each other. Very odd.

She also told me that despite the proximity of her ZAPT friends, Mrs. Crisp was beside herself with worry for the kidnapped zombies now that the RAL had announced it’s presence in the area. Considering that the RAL believed in euthanizing zombies as a matter of policy, I think I’d have been climbing the walls too, wondering if those murdering fools had somehow gotten hold of Granddad. Nobody thought that Granddad and the other zombie was dead, but if RAL got their hands on Granddad, his remaining life (such as it was) would be measured in fractions of an hour rather than days.

Granddad hung there like a physical presence for the rest of the day. When the afternoon shadows started to get long Autumn said she needed to get going. I ran inside and managed to convince Mom that I was well enough to go for another walk. So, arm in arm, I walked Autumn home for the first time in almost a week. Just being together in this familiar way seemed to lift both our spirits, and we enjoyed ourselves right up until the moment we turned onto her street. There, leaning against a picket fence, a man I didn’t recognize stared holes through me as we walked by. Autumn softly sighed, and I caught a barely perceptible nod of greeting from the man out of the corner of my eye. He was, I’d already guessed, one of the ZAPT people that Mrs. Crisp had called in to keep an eye on her house and street.

For the first time ever, I felt less than welcomed in the Crisp household. The lady sitting in the front room never stopped staring at me, even as Mrs. Crisp smiled warmly and thanked me for walking Autumn home. I should say that her mouth smiled warmly, because the smile never reached her eyes. Her grey eyes stayed cold, and I was surprised to see the change that recent events had brought on in her. She seemed tense and perpetually ready to uncoil, as if a spring had been too long compressed and strained to release. Even her face had noticeably aged, her mouth drawn tight and her skin taking on a papery look. There was no offer of tea or root beer, and when her eyes darted to the window and then the clock for the third time as we chatted, I told Autumn that I would see her in the morning at school and left, headed for home. Somehow, a goodbye kiss just didn’t seem like a good idea. Dang.

The guy at the corner annoyed me just by being there, so I made sure to smile and wave as I passed. He scowled at me, which meant that I annoyed him, so we were even as far as I was concerned. All I really cared about was that he did his job well enough to keep Autumn (and Mrs. Crisp too I suppose) safe from harm.

I walked through the deepening gloom of the evening, passing houses where porch lights cast welcoming pools of light in front of their doorways. It was dinner time, and through windows I could see families gathering together around tables. Outside, it was as if I were all alone in the world. My feet knew the way home, and my mind wandered as I idly watched the dragon plumes playfully dance away from my face as I exhaled into the cold night.

Becoming more aware of my surroundings, I noticed two figures on the sidewalk up ahead. I couldn’t make out who they were, mainly because they were standing in the darkest stretch in between two street lights. They were talking, one rather loudly and sounding at least a little drunk. I briefly considered crossing the street, but rejected that notion since I was within a few minutes of my house, and while drunk and disorderly wasn’t unknown in our town, it wasn’t common either. I felt safe enough to walk on by without a word passing between us.

That is, right until I saw that one of the two was the “drunk� guy that Mr. Brown used to distract me that day in the alley. I started a little bit when I recognized him, but tried to cover as best I could and kept right on walking. Sensing their movement to follow, I sped up my steps and was about to break into a full on sprint for home when another shadowy, yet familiar shape stepped out from behind a dark tree ahead. Mr. Brown had made an appearance, and things were not looking good for the home team.

Just then, the cavalry arrived in the form of a patrol car pulling up to the curb adjacent to me. Looking through the side window, I saw Officer Ossie and breathed a huge sigh of relief. He saw the alarm on my face and immediately climbed out of the car. I figured at this that my three assailants would have already retreated, so I was very surprised to feel strong hands grab me around both arms. As I twisted in their grasp, I shook loose just enough from one to take a wild swing at the other who still held me. He dodged my punch and held on tight, and before I could recock my arm for another go the other fellow jumped on my back, driving me to my knees.

Looking up as I struggled, I was stunned to see Mr. Brown stride up to my policeman friend and with one mighty swing, knock him flat backwards and out of the fight. I still twisted and squirmed against my attackers, who nonetheless managed to reattach themselves to my arms and drag me to my feet. Standing there, the last thing I remember seeing was Mr. Brown’s face, wearing a curious look as if measuring me, followed by a sudden explosion of pain from my jaw and then darkness.

As I opened my eyes, the first thought I had was that this was turning out to be a truly rotten November. My eyes came into focus, and I found myself laying on the sofa in our front parlor. I had no idea about how I’d gotten there, and as I lay there wondering Mom walked in with a cold, wet cloth which she pressed (ow!!! lightly!!!) against my jaw. She looked down at me with concern in her eyes, and over her shoulder I could see Ms. Halliday as well.

It turned out that my little misadventure had happened less than an hour before. Ms. Halliday came home from one of her evening outtings and found me lying in a heap on the front porch. Stuffed into the front of my coat was a single sheet of paper with the words “no more� scribbled across it.

My jaw wasn’t broken, I could tell that much after wriggling my face around a little bit. I would definitely feel that punch for a few days though, and I was already sure that the bruise would be a lovely match for the one still fading on my forehead.

Mom held up the paper that I’d been wearing, and said that she’d called the police since this was obviously a threat. As soon as she said that, I jumped up and dashed outside. Ms. Halliday and Mom followed me, calling wildly, but I paid no attention to them as I sped back up the street to where the assault had taken place. The last I’d seen, Officer Ossie had been knocked out cold next to his cruiser, the recipient of a punch from the same fist that had sent me into la-la land.

Approaching the place, I could see that the Officer Ossie was gone, as was the patrol car. Apparently he’d recovered enough to drive away, hopefully back to the station to raise the alarm. As I stood there, Mom and Ms. Halliday caught up to me and, breathless, asked me just what in the world I’d been thinking. I explained that this is where I’d been attacked, and that a policeman had pulled up and then he’d been brutally subdued as well. Now I wanted to hurry back to the house because I could positively identify the men who not only assaulted me, but also an on duty policeman.

Mom looked shocked, and then held up her hand which still grasped the paper with “no more� written on it. She asked me if I was crazy or just stupid, and hadn’t I already had enough of this? Whoever did this was obviously violent and had no compunction about using force to make their point. As far as Mom was concerned, as of now this had never happened and there was nothing more to be said. The matter was closed and we weren’t involved any longer.

I wanted to argue, but Mom seldom put her foot down like this. I might be able to convince her to change her mind, but not by challenging her while standing in the street. My best bet was to wait until everyone had calmed down, and then try to quietly reason with her.

Now that Mom was sure that I was physically all right, when we got back to the house she sat me down to a reheated dinner and, when the cops finally showed up, answered the door herself and apologized for the uneccessary response. I could hear her talking to them for a few minutes, apparently the police already knew that something had happened and were trying to persuade Mom to cooperate. She was having none of it though. Finally, she said goodnight to the police and closed the door, coming back into the kitchen and starting to make tea.

I always enjoyed watching Mom make tea. There was something comforting about the process, almost ceremonial in the steps that she always did in her own particular order. I knew that Mom used the comfortable routine of making tea as a way to collect her thoughts and to calm down. I could see that she was going over something in her mind, so I sat quietly and waited.

When the tea was ready, Mom brought two cups to the table. Handing one to me, she sat down and asked me which group was responsible for tonight. I was surprised that she even knew that there was more than one faction, and realized that I’d underestimated my Mom. She never talked about local gossip, but because of her many lovers, she was certain to hear plenty. Prominent men probably told her important and private information, at least in part to try to impress her with their importance and probably also to boost their own egos. The fact that Mom never, ever repeated the pillow talk would make these men even more comfortable about sharing secrets, knowing that Mom held her confidences closely. Thinking about it, Mom undoubtedly knew more about the inner workings of our town than most.

I told Mom that tonight’s beating was courtesy of ZAPT. She nodded, took a contemplative sip from her cup, and asked if Autumn was involved with the group. I told her honestly that I didn’t think so, but that there were several members of that group staying as guests at the Crisp household. Mom nodded again, and then told me that I was no longer allowed to visit Autumn at her house. For the present, it was ok if she wanted to visit here, but under no circumstances was I to go near her street. I couldn’t think of a single point to argue.

Posted by Ted at 12:14 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 30, 2006

NaNoWri... Mo chapters fo you

It's time for Chapters 7 and 8 (in the extended entry).

Enjoy and leave feedback, especially your suggestions for a title. On the first of February I'll pick some of the best and we'll have a contest to name the story.

And for those playing catch up:

Chapters 1 and 2.
Chapters 3 and 4.
Chapters 5 and 6.

Chapter 7.

Every day after school, Autumn and I would go to her house to feed the animals. The only change in that routine was on Tuesday when we weren’t allowed on the property. A police truck covered with antennas was parked out front, and occasionally someone in a lab coat would appear from the front door of the house, enter the van, and eventually return to the house, often carrying some obscure piece of equipment. The patrolman out front (who we saw most every day) wouldn’t say specifically what was happening, but did let out that everything was going downstairs into the cellar where Granddad had been kept.

After taking care of the animals, Autumn would visit her mother in jail. I walked her to the station, but they had both made it clear that I was in the way during the visits themselves. Usually I headed home to do chores or otherwise occupy myself until dinner. I had never had many friends, and since this had all happened even the guys in the gang avoided me. The story had gotten out around town, spread like wildfire and without guilt because it involved our two families, both outsiders within the local social structure. The fact that it was us and the Crisp’s only made perfect sense to the townsfolk who just knew that we’d all come to no good end.

Even Autumn had withdrawn again. I could understand that, I think, because of the stress she was going through, and as bad as it was for me and my mom, it was a hundred times worse for her and Mrs. Crisp. Still, the increasing distance between us hurt, though I tried to be patient.

One Saturday, while running an errand for Mom, I rounded a corner downtown and came up behind a fair sized crowd of people. I stood at the back, trying to see what the commotion was, and then someone up front held up a ZAPT poster. I gathered that this one, and a few others, had been nailed up during the night in various places, and the townsfolk were rather unhappy about this disruption in their quiet lives. I was beginning to think that I should slip quietly away when I spied someone sneaking down the alleyway, as if making their escape from some clandestine observation of the crowd. I recognized the figure as Mr. Brown, and I froze in wonder at seeing him again after all this time. He quickly turned the corner at the back of the alley and disappeared from my line of sight.

Just then, I was spotted by someone at the front of the crowd, and because I was connected (no matter how tenuously) to the zombie situation and now the appearance of ZAPT literature, there was a general hue and cry to detain me so as to determine how much I knew of the present circumstances. Before anyone could grab a firm hold, I reversed course and escaped down the street, rapidly outdistancing the few who thought to give halfhearted chase.

I slowed down when I turned onto my street, and saw a police car pulled up in front of our house. Officer Ossie was leaning against the hood of his car, and told me that my mom had said I’d be back shortly so he decided to wait. He had news about the ongoing investigation. The young punk in jail that night had been a drifter who’d been escorted to the county line the following Monday and told not to come back. Mr. Brown had apparently left town after checking out from our boarding house, at which I blurted out my news that I’d just seen Mr. Brown downtown.

After asking me to repeat that, and making sure that I was sure of what I saw, Officer Ossie asked me several questions about the surrounding circumstances. At my telling of the crowd and the ZAPT flyer, the policeman reached inside his car and pulled out the twin of the one I’d seen earlier. I confirmed that it was the same one, and he told me that several of these had been posted recently. The authorities were more confused than concerned about their appearance, because our town was far from fertile ground for recruiting if that was their intention.

Other than that, he couldn’t tell me much. He didn’t know how much longer Mrs. Crisp would be held, but it didn’t seem like they were inclined to extend her detention. The last of the recently injured parties, my classmate William, was also cleared when his injuries were determined to be unrelated in any way to the vandalism at the research facility. Before driving away, Officer Ossie promised to look into the reappearance of Mr. Brown and thanked me for bringing it to his attention.

After dinner, Autumn asked me to go for a walk with her. After the events of that afternoon, I steered us away from the town center and explained to her why, warning her to be careful and aware of her surroundings. I also told her that I’d seen Mr. Brown, which I thought might surprise her, but there was no reaction. Instead, she asked me what I knew about Ms. Halliday.

Somewhat taken aback by the question, I admitted that I didn’t know her very well but that I did like her a lot. Autumn went on to explain that she’d become suspicious of Ms. Halliday. Coming out of the police station after a difficult exchange with her mother one afternoon, Autumn had begun to aimlessly walk while she tried to get her thoughts in order. At one point, she was surprised to see Ms. Halliday coming out of a certain business, one which Autumn would not think someone like Ms. Halliday would ever visit. When I asked which business, Autumn wouldn’t tell me, because she didn’t want the police to direct attention to the owners, who were friends of Mrs. Crisp. While it was true that I wouldn’t think twice about passing the information on to Officer Ossie, I’d be doing so in the spirit of trying to help, and all Autumn would have to do is ask me not to repeat it and the secret would be safe with me. Still, it hurt to learn that Autumn didn’t trust me.

Ms. Halliday hadn’t seen Autumn, and as she hurried down the street in the opposite direction, Autumn had casually followed, mildly curious about where she was going. After several blocks, Ms. Halliday had stopped for a coffee from a sidewalk pushcart. Autumn had been startled to see Ms. Halliday greet another customer as if they were old friends, and they walked down the street arm in arm, sipping coffee and talking animatedly. Her old friend was none other than Mr. Brown.

After that, Autumn had taken to watching Ms. Halliday more closely. In the mornings, she had taken note of the kinds of newspaper stories that Ms. Halliday paid the most attention to, and that they were almost always about animals in one way or another. I countered that in our area that shouldn’t be surprising because of the surrounding farms, not to mention the research lab, animals were not only common, but vital to local livelihoods. It was inevitable that the newspaper would be full of animal news. I think I remembered reading once that we had more veterinarians than human doctors.

But her connection to Mr. Brown, well, that was another matter. She had made a point of showing her dislike for the man while he was staying with us, and now, to meet with and act like best buds was odd indeed.

Autumn and I decided that we should follow Mrs. Halliday. The police didn’t seem to be in any rush to solve Granddad’s kidnapping, and in fact went out of their way to call it a vandalism, as if stealing two zombies wasn’t really a crime. We figured that it left matters up to us.

As if she knew our plans, Ms. Halliday stayed close around our house for the next few days. She claimed to not be feeling well, and took only tea and toast at mealtimes, otherwise sitting quietly in the front room and reading in front of the fire.

School was entering that odd stretch before the holidays when classes started to wind down, when teachers gave up hope of actually teaching kids whose main preoccupation was counting down the days until the Christmas break started. The days were crisp and nippy and the temperatures at night were actually cold for the first time since last winter. When we walked together to school in the mornings, our breath came out in silvery plumes, as if we’d metamorphosed overnight into mythical fire-breathing creatures.

Autumn and I continued to visit her animals every day to feed and water them, after which I walked with her to the jail. I still wasn’t welcome as her and her mom visited, so mostly I walked around the neighborhoods. I noticed a few more ZAPT flyers around town, as many torn down and tossed into the gutter as still remained nailed to poles. People seemed to have calmed down about them, and the most common reaction to them that I saw was an automatic ripping down and discarding. I don’t recall ever seeing anyone actually reading one.

On Saturday, Autumn and I exchanged glances over lunch as Ms. Halliday swept into the dining room and announced that she’d been cooped up too long inside. We hurried through the rest of our food, made excuses and then hustled outside ahead of Ms. Halliday so that we could watch out for which direction she headed. When she emerged from the house, we casually watched her until she turned the corner at the head of our street.

We tore down the sidewalk to the corner, for Ms. Halliday was headed for downtown. It would be easy to lose her in the bustle of the day, so we stayed as close as we dared and followed her as she walked.

She stopped several times at various shops and stores, coming out twice with small packages that she carried along as she strolled. She never noticed us, but it seemed to me that she was merely out to take the fresh air after her convalesce.

We were almost caught out when from behind us a booming voice sounded, calling Ms. Halliday’s name. Without hesitation, Autumn grabbed my arm and we stepped through the nearest doorway, finding ourselves in a confectioner’s shop. With a smile and nod to the shopkeeper, we moved to the back of the store (pretending to look at the penny candy) and watched as Mr. Brown hurried by the front window, apparently the source of the hail and now heading toward a waiting Ms. Halliday.

A minute later Autumn and I emerged, each with a peppermint stick, and turned away from our previous direction, as Mr. Brown and Ms. Halliday were standing not a block away, in animated conversation. We tried to act casual as we strolled towards the corner, and as we turned there I could hear Ms. Halliday’s laugh carry on the breeze.

Still wanting to keep up our surveillance, Autumn and I hurried to the next block and turned up it, paralleling our former route. At the next corner, we carefully peered around an edge of the building and saw that our two subjects had moved on.

We found them continuing on the way that Ms. Halliday had been originally following. They walked for several blocks together, and then with a tip of his hat, Mr. Brown split off and headed down a side street. According to our plan, Autumn would stay with Ms. Halliday while I followed Mr. Brown, so we agreed to exchange information after dinner and – with a sweet kiss for luck, parted ways.

It was an interesting trip. Mr. Brown never stayed for long in any one place. He would meet up with someone on a street corner, talk for a few minutes, and then be on his way. Occasionally he would disappear into a small shop or business, and once he came back out with a parcel in his arms. At his next stop, he opened the parcel and handed a stack of papers to the woman he was meeting with. She accepted the papers, and then immediately moved off down an alley. Repeating this act several more times, Mr. Brown quickly depleted his supply of papers, and he finally crumpled up the parcel packaging and tossed it into a dumpster as he walked by.

Thinking that it could be a clue worth retrieving, I waited impatiently until he turned a corner, and then climbed into the trash bin. Grabbing the packaging, I quickly scrambled back out, and after flattening it enough to read the label, folded it up and stashed it under the back of my jacket.

I rushed to the corner to resume tailing Mr. Brown, but when I got there he was already gone. I’d lost him.

After dinner that evening, Autumn and I compared notes. She hadn’t had any better luck than I, managing to follow Ms. Halliday on a long walk into the countryside outside of town where she lost sight of her as she crossed a field. Autumn said it was very peculiar how she disappeared, and her only explanation was that Ms. Halliday had hiked into a copse of trees. Ms. Halliday had returned to the house in time for dinner, which caused us to have to wait to speak together until we were both near to bursting with curiosity about what news the other had.

When I showed Autumn the parcel paper I’d salvaged from the dumpster, she studied it carefully and pronounced herself impressed with my sleuthing skills. Although I had no proof, I believed that the parcel had contained more ZAPT fliers to be distributed around town. Believing that, I thought we should tell all of this to Officer Ossie in the morning, but Autumn rightly pointed out that as of this moment, our evidence consisted of a torn parcel package and witnessing that Mr. Brown and Ms. Halliday each took a walk about the town and talked to some people. I had to agree with her assessment.

Autumn left early on Sunday morning to visit with Mrs. Crisp in jail. She came back with lifted spirits, because Mrs. Crisp had reliable word that she would be released sometime during the upcoming week.

That afternoon, when Ms. Halliday left the house we were waiting once more, and began to tail her. This time, there was no wandering stroll, she walked as if she had a destination in mind and made her way directly towards it. Autumn and I weren’t surprised when Mr. Brown made an appearance, and this time he and Ms. Halliday strode arm-in-arm towards the park. They walked along the path by the lake, deep in conversation, and after a half hour or so they once again split up. Autumn gave me a quick kiss and headed after Ms. Halliday.

Mr. Brown’s destination turned out to be a long low warehouse in one of the old industrial blocks. As he entered, I heard a snatch of music, and after a short while I took a chance and walked past the door. A small sign over the green-painted door identified the place as the “Happy Frog Social Club� while another, smaller sign near the doorknob only said “ribbit�.

Finding an alleyway across the street with a reasonably good view of the door, I settled in to wait for Mr. Brown. I figured I could give him an hour, maybe an hour and a half, before I’d have to head for home myself.

Boredom was beginning to set in when the door at the Happy Frog opened up and three people emerged. There were two men and a woman, all in various stages of intoxication. One of the men was talking loudly with anger in his voice, while the other man tried to calm him down. The woman leaned against the wall and listened to the other two for a few moments before finally standing straight (with some difficulty), grabbing the angry man by the collar, and kissing him. This amused the other man to no end, and I could hear his hearty laughter clearly from my vantage point.

I could hear, that is, until my heart almost stopped in my chest when a heavy hand clamped onto my shoulder from behind.

I felt myself being spun around, shaken roughly, and then pushed into the wall across the alleyway. I twisted in my captor’s grip, and came face to face with Mr. Brown himself. He looked me up and down with a sneer on his face and asked me why I had been following him. I wasn’t prepared with a convincing alibi, so I made up something incoherent about finding some belongings of his at the boarding house after he left and wanting to get in touch with him to return his property.

Mr. Brown shook me again, his grip on my shoulder like a vice, and told me that I was a pitiful liar, which spoke good of my character, but didn’t help much in the situation that I found myself in. He whistled loudly, once, and the three people from across the street appeared almost instantly at the mouth of the alley. Mr. Brown thrust me forward so as to give them a good look at me (and me them!) and told them that if they were to ever see me again in this neighborhood, that they were to hold me until Mr. Brown could be summoned. Looking straight into my eyes, his breath hot on my face, Mr. Brown let me know that if I were caught sneaking about again, that I would find myself the recipient of a long, slow, thorough and thoroughly painful beating.

With those words, he threw me down to the ground, and without a backward glance headed back across the street with his companions. Their laughter mocked me, and I couldn’t think of anything else to do but pick myself up, brush the worst of the dirt from my clothes, and head for home.

Autumn was waiting for me when I got home, and she was pretty shaken up when I told her what had happened during my encounter with Mr. Brown. After making sure I was all right, she asked what I thought we should do about him, but I really didn’t have an answer. Her day following Ms. Halliday ended like the previous one, where Ms. Halliday seemingly disappeared in the middle of a clear field. Autumn had thought about going closer to investigate, but decided that we two should go together instead, just in case there was a problem.

Our visit to the disappearing field (as I thought of it) was put off indefinitely because on Monday morning Mrs. Crisp was released from jail. The police were forced to admit that they didn’t have any supporting evidence for the original charges, nor were the investigations turning up any promising leads. As happy as Autumn was at this turn of events, it still wasn’t all peaches and cream, because Granddad was still missing. Well, that and the fact that somebody tried to kill me.

Chapter 8.

As usual, our police department decided that the attempted murder looked like an accident, although from my point of view it was pretty obviously not. I was quickly losing faith in their ability to accomplish anything at all besides keeping the peace by denying that anything ever happened.

We had been sitting in class, listening to the teacher, Mr. Button explain an upcoming assignment when someone slipped a note under the classroom door. Frowning at this interruption of his routine, Mr. Button picked up the note and went back to talking. Waving his hands in front of him to make a point as he spoke, he seemed startled to find himself holding the page, as if he’d forgotten that he’d picked it up. Knowing Mr. Button, that’s probably exactly what happened.

With a brief “excuse me�, he scanned the paper and, looking up, called on me to come up. Handing the note over without explanation, Mr. Button went back to his lecture. Looking it over, I saw that I was to immediately report to woodshop, presumably to meet with the shop teacher, Mr. Franks. Since it was nearing the end of the period, I grabbed my books and, assuring Mr. Button that I was clear on the assignment, headed for the shop building.

When I got there, there was nobody in the classroom part of the shop because there was no shop class that period. I called out for Mr. Franks, but didn’t get an answering reply. Thinking he might be in the back, I went through the shop full of tools, and then past the shelves where the projects in progress were kept. Still not seeing the teacher, I went into the room where the lumber was stored.

As soon as I entered, a two-by-four came tilting towards me out of the gloom and cracked me right smack in the middle of the forehead. I tumbled backwards out of the doorway, landing on my back as the entire shelf of heavy lumber crashed down right where I’d been standing just a second before.

I lay there, seeing stars and feeling very disoriented, trying to figure out what had just happened. I heard the door open and a few minutes later Mr. Franks found us laying there, and by us I mean me and the large ugly bump growing on my noggin.

Before long I was surrounded by people. The school nurse was looking me over and recommending that a doctor be called. The Principal was in conversation with Mr. Franks, in turn demanding to know what I had been doing there and how in the world all of that wood had come crashing down. Listening to them, I began to realize that I’d had a very close call. When the Principal asked me directly about why I was wandering about the shop classroom, I explained that I’d been given permission by Mr. Button because of the note that had been delivered to his classroom. The principal asked to see the note, and I couldn’t find it. It had been in my hand, and I must have dropped it when I fell. Mr. Franks and the principal looked all over for the missing note, but there was no trace of it. The only reason that they believed me at all was because Mr. Button corroborated my story, namely, that a note requesting my presence in the shop classroom had been delivered and so he had sent me.

The missing note could have been lying under the stacks of lumber, but it wasn’t. I asked Mr. Franks about it after they’d gotten everything cleaned up and put away. The police ignored the missing note and also ignored the fact that I’d been purposely sent to the shop class for no discernable reason. Their conclusion was that I had been very lucky that I hadn’t been crushed when the rack of lumber accidentally collapsed just as I was walking under it. How coincidental of me.

I was given the rest of the week off, mostly because I’d frighten people with the monstrous bruise on my forehead. I was still getting the occasional dizzy spells, but the doctor said that that was normal and that I shouldn’t worry about them. They should go away on their own in a week or so. I couldn’t read much because of the splitting headache that was my constant companion, but I could think.

I really had no idea who would have wanted to kill me except for Mr. Brown and ZAPT. That didn’t entirely make sense though, because Mr. Brown had me at his mercy in a completely unobserved place, and nobody knew my whereabouts at the time. If he’d have wanted to kill me, he certainly had had his chance. Then again, maybe he didn’t want to be too closely connected to my death, and instead ordered someone else to take care of it without telling him. That might provide him an alibi with the police.

One thing the attempt did was make me more aware of my surroundings. I was determined not to be caught unawares again. The first time that happened, I’d been baldly threatened, and the second time I’d only escaped through dumb luck. I was mad now, and promised myself that somehow and someday I’d get even.

But that had all happened on Wednesday, and on the Monday before Mrs. Crisp had been released. Autumn had packed her things that afternoon after school and I helped take her bags back to her house. It was almost odd seeing their house without the uniformed officer on the sidewalk out front and without all of the flagging tape draped around everything. Mrs. Crisp greeted me nicely and thanked me for taking care of Autumn and made sure that I’d tell my Mom thank you as well. Mrs. Crisp didn’t invite me in, so I left, figuring that she and Autumn had a lot of together time to catch up on.

On Tuesday at school Autumn told me that her and her mom were headed out to the research facility to talk to the doctors about Granddad and the kidnapping investigation. Once again, I wasn’t invited and Autumn said she’d see me Wednesday morning at school.

Early Wednesday – forevermore known as “the day the tree fell on me� – Autumn told me that the doctors couldn’t provide any new information about the kidnapping, not even of the vandalism of the research center. They were as frustrated with the police as we were, because not only wasn’t there any progress to report, but there seemed to be little actual effort being made.

I was surprised and more than a little hurt when Autumn didn’t stop by to see me on Thursday, but I did get a surprise visit from Officer Ossie. To say I was less than enthusiastic about his visit would be an understatement. He seemed to understand my low opinion of our law enforcement, and filled me in on the ongoing investigations. There wasn’t much to tell, and after giving me the standard “nothing really to report�, he hesitated, and then seeming to make up his mind, started again.

First, Officer Ossie asked me to please keep the rest of the information confidential. He was going to tell me something only because the department believed that the information would become public knowledge very shortly, so having a slight jump on Joe Citizen wouldn’t hurt matters. Apparently, unpleasant things were about to hit the fan.

Yesterday afternoon, while all of my personal excitement was going on, Mrs. Crisp had noticed a new flyer posted on a utility pole on her street. Being curious, she took a closer look and discovered that the flyer had been hung up with a large spike, and the spike held not only the flyer, but was driven through the palm of a dismembered hand. It was, presumably, the hand of a zombie.

Posted by Ted at 11:35 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 23, 2006

NaNoWriMo revisited, revisited, revisited

Chapters 5 and 6 are posted in the extended entry. Rachael pointed out that these chapters seem to be getting shorter as we go along. Not too much further along we're going to get to a stretch where I really don't like where the chapters break. I may rearrange some before we get there, I'm not sure yet.

Chapters 1 and 2 are here.
Chapters 3 and 4 are here.

And we still be contestin'!

Suggest a title in the comments.

On the first of February, I'll pick a few of the best suggestions and we'll have a contest. The person who suggests the winning title will win a prize, and not just some California-style self-esteem-building touchy-feely crap either. I'm talking about a real hold-it-in-your-hand American icon of conspicuous commercialism.

The comments and email have been great. Thanks muchly!

Chapter 5.

We were halfway home before Autumn started to sniff, and in seconds I was holding her as she sobbed into my shoulder. I steered her towards a bench (we were passing the school) and sat her down and held her as until she cried herself out.

Sniffling and wiping her eyes, she let me know what was going on. Someone had broken into the research laboratory where Granddad and another zombie were staying and had kidnapped them. There had been quite a bit of damage done to the facility and equipment, and a lot of lab animals had been released. According to the doctor (the older gentleman), it seemed like random destruction, and nobody was sure yet what the whole point had been. No one had claimed responsibility. What had gotten Mrs. Crisp into trouble was the attitude of the local police, who were certainly concerned about finding the vandals, but really didn’t much care what happened to a zombie. Mrs. Crisp would see a judge on Monday morning, and Autumn would go to the police station that afternoon and bail her out. It wouldn’t be the first time Autumn had had to free her mom. We sat there in the dark and talked until the chill forced us to our feet and back towards my house.

Once home, we went into the kitchen for some hot chocolate. I was surprised to see Mr. Brown sitting there at the table, still in his heavy coat and with a cup of coffee held awkwardly in one bandaged hand. He looked surprised to see me too, and I thought I saw a flash of recognition when I introduced Autumn. It was gone instantly (if ever there), and with a gruff goodnight he clumped up the stairs towards his room. I had filled Autumn in on Mr. Brown and Ms. Halliday, and she giggled a little bit at how accurately I had described Mr. Brown.

Mom heard our voices and came in to see what was happening. I gave her the briefest and vaguest of explanations, and Mom sent me up to change the linens in my room. I was going to be sleeping on the couch in the front parlor while Autumn stayed in my room. When we had gotten her settled in, I said goodnight and Mom was kind enough to turn her back and pretend to be occupied straightening a picture while we kissed goodnight. I whispered to Autumn to be sure to lock the door behind me. In the hall I thanked Mom for being so understanding and after a motherly peck and hug goodnight, headed back down the stairs for sleep.

On Sunday morning, I accompanied Autumn to the police station to see Mrs. Crisp. Autumn didn’t really want me to come, but I had insisted that I would be going along, since as her boyfriend I should be there to lend support. She smiled at that and asked if I went to visit all of my girlfriend’s parents in jail. I started to explain that I’d never had a real girlfriend before, but she shushed me with a quick kiss and called me silly.

What can you say about jail? It was drab and dreary, and in our small town not terribly crowded. Mrs. Crisp had one cell to herself, while the other two cells contained a half-dozen drunks and punks. There were some raunchy comments made, especially by one young leering clod with rag-wrapped hands, until the jailer tapped smartly on the bars with his nightstick as a warning.

Mrs. Crisp was sitting quietly on the cot, and brightened considerably when she saw Autumn. There wasn’t much to be said because the jailer was standing right there, so they held hands through the bars as Autumn promised to be back tomorrow. We had also brought a small parcel for Mrs. Crisp containing a flask of herbal tea, a sweater and some books and writing materials (it had been thoroughly searched by the jailer beforehand). All too soon it was time to go and with a few tears, Autumn said goodbye to her mom and we left the building.

On the way back from the police station, we stopped by Autumn’s house. There was a patrolman on the sidewalk out front, but he wouldn’t let her onto the property. Autumn tried to convince him to let her at least feed the pigeons and rabbits out back, but the best he would do is promise to let his supervisor know what she wanted. He told us to stop by later that afternoon to find out if the supervisor had approved. As we walked down the street, we saw several curtains flutter along the way as nosy neighbors didn’t want to be caught out snooping.

Being a boyfriend is hard work! You want everything to be all fun and laughter while you’re together, which is almost impossible when your girlfriend’s mom is sitting in jail. So mostly, we spent the day walking, holding hands and not talking much. We would occasionally see one or two of the guys as we walked, but they avoided us, which I was secretly grateful for.

We stopped by my house for a warming bowl of soup, but Autumn couldn’t sit still and before long we were back out walking. We checked back at her house, but the patrolman had no news from his supervisor. Then, Autumn got the notion to go out and see the research lab where Granddad had been taken from. It was a fair walk outside of town, but she was insistent despite the distance, and so we started out.

About halfway there, a police car passed us and pulled over to the shoulder of the road. As we trudged up alongside, the driver asked where we were headed. It was the younger cop from the night before, the one we had made identify himself before cooperating. He turned out to be an ok guy and gave us a ride to the lab since he was headed there too. He explained that we weren’t allowed inside the fence, but that he would tell the staff inside that we were waiting and maybe someone would come out and talk to us. I thought that was kind of him, and I appreciated the ride.

Approaching the facility, Officer Ossie (no, really!) pointed out how it looked like the main gate had been crashed open by a car or truck. The chain link fence was bent and twisted back, and more yellow police tape was strung about in various places. He dropped us off out front with a warning about not venturing inside, and told us that he’d be there for about an hour if we wanted a ride back into town. True to his word, about ten minutes later the older doctor who had accompanied the police from the night before came outside and talked to us. He couldn’t or wouldn’t say much of anything definite, but he tried to reassure Autumn that because the same people who vandalized the labs were the ones who took Granddad (and the other zombie), there was a very good chance that finding them would lead to the safe return of Granddad. The police were confident about solving the crime quickly because of the number of clues left behind. All in all it was a very amateurish job.

Autumn and I had time to kill, so we walked the perimeter of the fence, noticing the many broken windows. It looked as if someone inside had thrown whatever furniture was handy inside through the windows, for there were puddles of shattered glass strewn about stools and small tables.

Back around front, we caught a ride back into town and asked to be dropped off at Autumn’s house. The patrolman there escorted us back behind to the animal cages where Autumn set out food and fresh water. We thanked him and headed to my house again. After dinner we sat in the parlor and I realized that it had been a long time since I’d done that much walking in a day. Autumn and I fell asleep leaning together on the couch, and I guess Mom took care of us because when I woke up for school the next morning, I was alone and bundled up under a blanket.

Chapter 6.

I spent a miserable day at school, giving vague answers to prying questions from the guys. It was actually shocking as to how accurate many of the rumors were, so mostly I gave noncommittal grunts and tried to imply that the questions were too stupid to justify with an answer. I was only mildly intrigued when I heard that William the bully was out for a few days with some unspecified “injury�. According to the rumor mill (and we know how accurate that always is), William had some sort of dustup with a sharp whatever, which had resulted in some nasty cuts and lots of stitches on his hands and arms. I couldn’t concentrate on the lurid details, and the only thing that kept me going was knowing that I’d be seeing Autumn that afternoon. First stop was the police station, and then to her house with Mrs. Crisp.

After school, I waited in our usual spot, but when Autumn didn’t appear after 10 minutes I became concerned. One of the guys told me that Autumn had been called to the principal’s office after lunch and that she hadn’t come back to class. I went into the office, looking for answers, and found out that Autumn had been picked up by the police and taken to the station.

I ran all the way there, but when I got inside the desk sergeant made me sit on a long bench against the wall while he filled out paperwork and ignored me. It turned into a grudge match; I would loudly clear my throat to remind him that I was still waiting, and he would give me a dirty look and oh-so-slowly and deliberately pick up another piece of paper from his “in� basket. Just when I thought I was going to scream from pent-up frustration, he got up and went into the back.

He reappeared almost instantly and signaled for me to accompany him. We went into the back, past the doorway to the cells (where I had expected to turn into) and he led me to a small room. Inside, through a window – obviously one-way glass – I could see a table around which were Autumn, two cops, and a man I didn’t recognize, talking. Whatever had been happening, it was obvious that she had been crying. I could feel my anger rising.

Through the window, I saw the desk sergeant stick his head into the other room, and one of the cops walked out. The door opened and the same officer joined me. He told me that Mrs. Crisp had been charged with conspiracy for the destruction of the research facility and that they were trying to determine how much her daughter knew. I’d already been cleared, but he asked several general questions, most of which I knew nothing about. I was trying to figure out why Mrs. Crisp would kidnap her own father, it just didn’t make sense. The cop told me that I could go home, but instead I sat on the bench in the front lobby and waited for Autumn to come out.

I must have dozed off, because it was dark out when Autumn shook me awake. I stood up and tried to stretch the kinks out of my body from sleeping slumped over on the hard bench. When I felt reasonably human again, we started out for my house. Most of the time, Autumn strolled but tonight she steamrolled along the sidewalks as if daring anything to get in her way. She told me that they suspected her mom of being part of the group that trashed the lab, because long ago Mrs. Crisp had belonged to “Zombies Are People Too�, better known by it’s acronym, ZAPT. Something about the vandalism at the lab led the authorities to believe it had been a ZAPT operation, even though nobody had heard from the group for years. Now the police weren’t about to let Mrs. Crisp out of jail, at least not until they were convinced that she had no connection to the crime.

I brought up the question again of why she would kidnap her own father, but Autumn didn’t have an answer to that. It just made no sense to me.

The next few days were stressful. We visited Autumn’s house after school to feed the animals, but other than that and homework, there wasn’t much we could do. I kept turning the problem over in my mind, but seemed to be spinning my wheels, because every time I’d think of something that might explain things, I could immediately think of something else that could and would be used as a counter-argument. Coming home from school on Tuesday, I was surprised to see the “Room for Rent� sign out in the yard. Mom told me that Mr. Brown had settled up that morning and taken his meager possesions with him.

We continued to see Officer Ossie every day or two, as he would pull over to talk on the street as we walked. Autumn figured that he’d been instructed to keep tabs on us, and although I thought that it was a little paranoid on her part I could see where that would make sense for the authorities to do. Mostly, he just asked how Autumn was holding up – he seemed sincere – and doled out trivial information about how the investigation was going. On this day, he mentioned how they would be able to positively identify at least some of the vandals (“kidnappers,� Autumn automatically corrected), by checking blood samples, because quite a bit had been left around the labs from people cutting themselves on glass during the destruction.

That clicked in my mind, and I told him about how Mr. Brown had had a bandaged hand the night of the kidnapping. Autumn corroborated my story, but didn’t remember the rude young sot that had been in the adjoining cell the following day when we’d gone to visit Mrs. Crisp. Autumn had been concentrating on her mom, but I thought the jailer that day might remember the young man with the bandaged hands. Autumn also mentioned the rumors about William at our school, who had supposedly needed a substantial number of stitches on his hands and arms. Putting it all together like that, it seemed like there had been an unusually high number of similar injuries happening at one interval in our circle of acquaintences.

Officer Ossie noted everything, but also warned us that investigations were usually dead end after dead end. Any of these could be a real lead, but the odds were vastly against it.

I had tried asking Autumn about ZAPT, but that was one of the subjects she refused to talk about, other than that yes, her mom had been a member a long time ago. Since I couldn’t get further information from her, I decided to do a little research on my own. During a free period one day, I went into the school library and asked Mrs. Pennywill, the librarian what she knew about ZAPT. In her typical infuriating fashion, she grandly gestured at the expanse of reference materials surrounding us and suggested that I use my brain for more than keeping my skull from collapsing in on itself.

Grumbling to myself, I started digging into a few history books, which led me to other avenues of research I hadn’t considered, and before long I had a pretty good picture of ZAPT and similar groups of the day. As they tended to do, the groups all fancied themselves a great brotherhood while not really having all that much in common. Usually they splintered into ever-smaller groups in disagreement over trivial details until each sub-sub-group consisted of a strong alpha personality surrounded by a relatively few devotees and hangers-on.

ZAPT had managed to maintain enough cohesion to actually follow through with it’s grand vision. They had purchased a parcel of land in a remote area to set up a zombie “sanctuary� where the zombies could roam free and live out their… uh, lives – I guess – without interference from the government or narrow-minded people.

Conveniently ignored was the fact that zombies couldn’t actually survive without help. Most weren’t smart enough to deal with variations in the weather. They tended to eat whatever was catchable, and since they weren’t very coordinated that mostly amounted to plants. When several died after eating poisonous flora, and a few starved to death, the ZAPT cadre finally realized that they would have to be more involved as benevolent caretakers, and daily feedings were begun. Food costs money, and it’s difficult to hunt enough to feed one’s self, let alone dozens of ravenous zombies. As the care of their charges became increasingly burdensome, more and more members drifted away to tilt at other utopian windmills. The remaining people could no longer properly care for their charges. Things ended badly when two members were caught red-handed rustling a few cattle from a nearby ranch. The group disbanded and dispersed (those not jailed anyway), and the zombies were taken under the protective wing of the government, not that they knew what to do with them either. ZAPT seemed to disappear as an organized entity.

I now had a lot more background facts to mull, but even more questions were raised in my mind.

Posted by Ted at 08:37 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

January 17, 2006

NaNoWriMo revisited, revisited

Chapters 3 and 4 are posted in the extended entry.

Follow this link for Chapters 1 and 2, and don't forget the contest:

Suggest a title in the comments.

On the first of February, I'll pick a few of the best suggestions and we'll have a contest. The person who suggests the winning title will win a prize, and not just some California-style self-esteem-building touchy-feely crap either. I'm talking about a real hold-it-in-your-hand American icon of conspicuous commercialism.

Thanks to those who've provided feedback, good and bad. Every bit of criticism is helpful.

Chapter 3.

It seemed like Saturday would never get here. Even though I saw Autumn every day at school, and had dinner with her and Mrs. Crisp every evening, our movie date was the first thought I had in the morning, and the thing I fell asleep thinking about at night.

I considered flowers again, since they had worked so well the first time, but after picking through my meager hoard of coins I realized that I had barely enough for tickets and popcorn, so I dropped that idea.

I spent a lot of time wondering if she would kiss me again. I spent almost as much time wondering if I could work up the nerve to kiss her.

Friday was a special day for Granddad, for it was time for his quarterly checkup. The government medical people who did this would pick him up just before full dark. They came in a truck marked with the name of a popular local restaurant that did business with Mrs. Crisp, which meant that the neighbors were used to seeing it, and in this way tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. The doctors would run their tests and Granddad would be back Sunday evening.

We spent more than an hour getting Granddad cleaned up, and then another managing to put him into his travel suit. The travel suit was designed to immobilize him without damaging him. If zombies actually hurt, nobody had ever proven it. He was crabby and difficult, because he wasn’t allowed to eat beforehand. It was hard going, but we managed to get him packaged up for his trip. When the medical team arrived, Mrs. Crisp introduced me and they carted Granddad out to the truck in a fake stack of boxes labeled “parsley�, “basil�, and “rosemary�.

Saturday dawned cold and calm. Mom finally lured me out of my warm bed with a bowl of oatmeal and honey. She wanted me to rake the last of the leaves from the yard today, and that was fine with me, because Autumn would be busy all day giving Granddad’s space a good scrubbing. Once we were both done with our chores, the evening was ours.

As I ate, I sat across from our two current boarders. Mr. Brown was a disreputable sort, even as our boarders went. He kept late hours and came and went at odd times. I was pretty sure that he was behind on his rent, although Mom would go to great lengths to avoid turning anyone out into the street. He ignored me while reading our newspaper and sipping coffee. On the few occasions that he tried to interrogate, I mean, engage me in conversation, he seemed obsessively curious about the local people and doings. I thought he might be a thief, and if we’d actually owned anything worth stealing, I would’ve kept a closer eye on him.

On the other hand, I thought the world of Ms. Halliday. She was bright and cheerful and loud and outgoing, and made it plain that she wanted nothing to do with Mr. Brown, which proved to me her good taste. All I really knew about her was that she had the most amazing British accent and could tell equally amazing stories at the drop of a hat. Some of her tales were a little bawdy, and she’d always give me an exaggerated wink when she launched into one of those. This morning, she too was absorbed by the news, although she flashed a brilliant smile at me when I got up from the table.

Outside, I tackled the fallen leftovers from summer. Working steadily, I filled up the firepit with the first big pile of leaves and then stood there warming my hands as they burned. From the street, I could hear some little kids playing and jumping rope, their voices carrying through the cold:

“Georgie fought an oil war,
Billy got his hummer,
Georgie boy went back for more,
Hillie was a bummer,
Ricey dicey ‘gainst the wall,
Jimbo went and killed us all.�

I had to smile, because those kids had no idea just how succinctly they had summarized history before all hell broke loose.

Bird flu wasn’t anything new or unexpected. The world was busy patting itself on the back for containing it, not recognizing that it wasn’t beaten, it was merely simmering. It had also quietly become far more widespread than anyone realized. And then, as if by some secret signal, it reared up in a dozen different forms and proceeded to humble the Human race.

Even then, it might have been possible to contain the devastation to localized tragedies. Possible, except that when our government tried to limit travel, huge protests arose and politicians, seeing nothing beyond a chance to score political points, forced through laws that gutted our ability to self-quarantine. When it became apparent that the local transmission vector was limited to a relatively few species of birds (and one type of bat, which nobody can explain even to this day), the animal rights people joined forces with conservationists to fight all attempts to kill the birds to prevent more spread of the flu. Lawsuits were filed, organized protests mounted to save the “innocent� animals, and many people were thrown into jail for ignoring the environ-mentals and killing a few (or a few hundred or a few thousand) flu-carriers on their own.

As our history teacher put it, the activists were “full of themselves� for having taken on and defeated the world’s governments. What they didn’t foresee was that people, having grown tired of watching their loved ones die, would decide that not only was killing birds necessary, but that killing a few activists along the way probably wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

It was a very bad time to be an environmentalist.

As more and more people succumbed to the flu, more and more survivors started hunting down activists. The activists responded by holding ever more massive protests, right up until the climax of the violence. In Amsterdam, thousands of conservationist demonstrators had gathered to protest the Dutch government’s policies towards migrating seabirds. Without realizing that anything was going on, their escape routes were sealed off and then they were set upon by hundreds of anti-demonstrators. It was a bloody massacre. The police were held at bay when it was revealed that many of the killers were suffering from flu symptoms. While the authorities were trying to decide what to do, most of the surviving anti-demonstrators huddled together and mass-immolated while the world watched via satellite.

The entire world paused for a shocked moment and took a collective deep breath. Most of the protesters faded away, putting away their signs and causes and quietly getting back to their lives. The governments tried again to deal with the pandemic, although by now humanity was so weakened that at best they could only soften the impact, not shield the population.

Many countries ceased to exist. Many regions reverted to anarchy and chaos. What remained after the pandemic ran its course was left with a living standard of about a century before. Those were the fortunate survivors. We’ve clawed our way partway back since, but the most lasting impact might be that people are rarely openly political anymore. Secret votes became just that, and one just didn’t ask another person what their opinion was on certain issues.

There are a lot less people in the world now, but more animals, so maybe the environ-mental-cases got the last laugh after all.

I burnt another pile of leaves and wondered if sometimes I didn’t think too much.

Chapter 4.

At dinner, it was just me and Mom, which wasn’t unusual. Mr. Brown often missed meals, and Ms. Halliday frequently had “social obligations to attend to�, as she put it. I knew Mom had entertaining to do that evening, so I wolfed down my food, cleaned up quickly and put on my best clothes (my best weren’t all that good, but it’s all relative) for my movie date with Autumn.

Walking to her house, I regretted not buying Autumn flowers again, for no other reason than that holding them would have given me something to do with my hands. I was a bundle of nerves and my mind was going a mile-a-minute, imagining snatches of conversation that we might have. Let me tell you, in my mind I was the original suave devil, cocksure about my ability to sweep any lady off her feet. You might have even seen it in my eyes, if you looked deep enough, past the panic. It helped if you could ignore my nervous sweaty brow too.

I paused at her corner of her street and took a deep calming breath. I did the same at her front gate, and again while standing on her porch, before ringing the bell. As I waited for the door to open, I was halfway through another when, suddenly and unbidden, a mental image of me hyperventilating and keeling over popped into my head.

Mrs. Crisp opened the door and stared oddly at me as I gasped and goggled about like a fish out of water. In seconds I was back under control and able to assure her that I was all right. She watched me carefully as I came in and sat down, pulling out my handkerchief to mop my brow. Noting my nervousness, Mrs. Crisp tried to calm me by remarking on how nice I looked. She also told me that Autumn would be down in a minute. I sat and tried not to tap my feet or wring my hands or be obvious about it.

I sprang to my feet when Autumn came down the stairs, and almost fell backwards again into the chair. She was beautiful, dressed in pale pastels that were ever so different from her normal darks and earth colors. Around her shoulders she wore a shawl the color of storm clouds just before a summertime downpour and in her hair she had pinned a single small spray of purple anemones (the ones I’d given her must have long since died, so she’d gone out to get these). I suppose that we were both wildly overdressed for a mere movie date, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

As I stood there, gawking like an idiot, I was barely aware of a knock at the door or of Mrs. Crisp moving to answer it. What finally shook me out of my dumbstruck was the furrowing of Autumn’s brow as she looked past me at the doorway. I turned and saw the police at the door.

My mind was still three steps behind events when one, then two policemen came into the room, followed by another, older man who didn’t look like a cop. I took a step back and found Autumn standing beside me, holding onto my arm and looking very worried. The older man began speaking quietly to Mrs. Crisp while one policeman listened, and the younger of the two cops came towards us.

He flipped open a notebook, licked the end of a pencil stub (yech!) and asked who we were. I had automatically started to speak when Autumn squeezed my arm. Mouth still open, I looked at her and wondered what was going on. Autumn surprised me by asking the officer for his identification; full name, badge number, and supervisor’s name and badge number. You could tell that this annoyed the cop, but rules are rules and Autumn was well within her rights to ask for that information before going any further. It dawned on me that this sort of police visit might be a semi-regular occurrence in the Crisp household, and that Autumn knew how to handle the situation.

Rolling his eyes, the officer began reciting his name and badge number, but never finished as Mrs. Crisp collapsed back into a chair. Autumn immediately raced to her side and knelt down by her mother, asking what was going on.

The officer in front of me licked his pencil again and asked my name. I reminded him that he hadn’t finished identifying himself, and while it was satisfying to see his exasperation, I wondered if I wasn’t setting myself up for grief at a future date.

Once properly identified, the officer asked his questions. I gave my name and address and identified myself as Autumn’s boyfriend. I had arrived just a few minutes before to pick up Autumn for a date. I knew her from school, we shared some classes. Across the room, Mrs. Crisp was back on her feet, her voice rising as she was in heated argument with the other policeman. I heard him utter “only a zombie� and Mrs. Crisp, enraged, launched herself at him. I don’t think she actually hurt him, but it sure looked like she was trying to. The end result was Mrs. Crisp being handcuffed and led out to the police car parked at the curb, while Autumn peppered the older man with questions, only some of which I understood. I stood around, being mostly ignored and not knowing what else to do.

Autumn ran out of questions, and the older man asked if she had some place to stay. Autumn wanted to stay at her own house, but the policemen said that there was no way that it was possible. Finally, I could make a contribution to the situation, and suggested that she could stay at our place with my Mom and I. I indicated that the younger officer already had my contact information, and everyone seemed to agree that it was an acceptable idea.

Autumn went upstairs to pack some things, and when she returned I took her bag and we went outside. The officer allowed Autumn a moment with her mother, still cuffed and sitting in the back seat of the squad car. They talked quietly for a bit, then with a kiss goodbye Autumn rejoined me on the sidewalk, took my hand, and started walking slowly and distractedly towards my house. Behind us, the younger officer started stringing yellow “crime scene� tape across the front porch.

Posted by Ted at 11:57 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

January 10, 2006

NaNoWriMo revisited

You know what they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

In November I was going great guns on my National Novel Writing Month work, until I hit a speedbump and lost several thousand words worth of work. You can see by the meter on the right sidebar that I'd almost "officially" reached 60%, and what I lost had put me over that milestone.

In December I announced that I was going to finish the story, yet I never wrote another word.

So once again, in an effort to kick-start myself, I'm going to start posting what I already have, and it seems to me to be the perfect opportunity to have a contest too.

The first two chapters are posted in the extended entry. Read them, and then suggest a title in the comments. I have a "working" title in my mind, but I really don't like it much, so I'm open to any and all suggestions. If you're shy, then send me an email with your title, that works too.

On the first of February, I'll pick a few of the best suggestions and we'll have a contest. The person who suggests the winning title will win a prize, and not just some California-style self-esteem-building touchy-feely crap either. I'm talking about a real hold-it-in-your-hand American icon of conspicuous commercialism.

So read. Be a critic. Be an editor. Come up with a title. Comment. Feedback.

Inspire me, dammit.

Chapter 1.

I swear, you'd think I had just pulled a booger out of my nose, inspected it carefully and then eaten it. The reaction ranged from pretend retching to goggle-eyed incredulity. I think two things saved me from an outright beating right then; first of all I was peripherally one of the gang. Secondly, I'm pretty sure that at least a couple of the guys pitied me. Of course they'd never come right out and say anything of the sort, or honor would demand satisfaction and then they'd have to kick my ass after I started the fight.

No, it doesn't make much sense to me either.

What I had done, to everyone's amazement, was something not terribly amazing when looking back at it. I merely said that Autumn was a rather pretty girl.

She was tall and thin and dark, and not overly much of any of those things except for the dark, because her hair was that black so deep it almost seemed blue. Her moods, when she bothered to display any at all, were often just as dark. Yesterday though, she smiled at me as I helped her to her feet after some younger kids played the same tired game on her. They surrounded her, dancing and chanting "Autumn! Autumn! Autumn!" until suddenly one darted in and tripped her. Then the pack ran off, shouting "FALL!" and laughing idiotically.

One smile, and I was smitten. I knew perfectly well that there would be consequences, because even though we'd all grown up together at the same school, Autumn was still an outsider. She didn't have a father, which was no big deal. I didn't have one myself. It was her mother who was the problem. Mrs. Crisp was an environ-mental-case, an anachronism in a time that had no stomach for it.

As long as she didn't become too big a nuisance, most folks just gave Mrs. Crisp a wide berth. She would show up in the town square, wearing a sandwich board that protested her latest pet injustice, which always seemed trivial to ordinary folks just trying to make it through difficult times. These days it was considered vulgar in the extreme to be so openly political. So mostly, people ignored her. By transference, they ignored Autumn as well.

And now, several of my peers were staring at me as if I'd... well, we've covered that bit, haven't we?

Feeling reckless, I further ventured that Autumn was probably just like us, and that we’d never given her a proper chance. That argument had holes in it a mile wide. We all knew Autumn – as much as you can know someone based on years of observation – and she wasn’t the problem. To most of us she was a zero. A null. It was Mrs. Crisp who was the problem. Mrs. Crisp was a problem I would have to tackle if I wanted to see Autumn outside of school.

That idea itself made me stop and think. In all our years together at school (I’ll quit saying that, from here on out you can just assume), I couldn’t think of anyone that had ever actually visited the Crisp house. However, since Autumn didn’t play sports or participate in any clubs, I was going to have to do just that.

My musings were interrupted by the disgusted snorts of several of my pals, who decided to leave me to my brain damage while they wandered off down the street, looking for something to do.

In truth, I was intrigued by Autumn. She quietly made her way through the school years, seemingly untouched by the whirlwind of life around her. She wasn’t indifferent, for you could tell that she took keen note of things, or at least I thought so from my covert observations. Maybe it was the fact that she was the only kid in school even more peripheral and isolated than I.

That evening, I brought up my (potential) pending visit to Autumn’s house at the evening meal. Mom immediately recognized the implications and inquired as to whether I’d be staying there for dinner. That question wasn’t as strange to me as it might seem, because I know Mom. Like I said before, my dad died when I was little, and Mom has raised me as best she could on her own. We take in boarders when we can, but mostly, Mom’s best consisted of sex for “favors�. She was always discreet (an open secret in our small town), but there was always food on the table and usually heat in the winter. Being discrete is a far cry from respectable though, and we were pretty much ostracized by the “decent� people of the town, and even by a few of Mom’s “boyfriends� (other than when they visited). I had no illusions about it, because even if we were as rich as Rockefellers, Mom would still be the town pump. She loved men that much. The chance that I would be away for an evening meant that she could entertain someone for an extended time and earn more than the standard “favor�.

Mom wasn’t fazed in the least when I told her that the girl was Autumn Crisp. She knew who Mrs. Crisp was and how she behaved, but in Mom’s world everyone was a friend until you caused pain or trouble for her or me. Then you were forever removed from the friend category and placed in the enemy category. Once there, you might eventually regain a grudging trust, but you would never again be regarded as a friend.

So throughout dinner, and while doing dishes afterwards (I dried), Mom suggested ways to “be sweet� – her words – to Autumn. I’d never shown interest in a girl before, or more correctly, I’d never let on that I was interested in a girl, so my delighted Mom quickly got caught up in planning and details.

Mom sent me to the flower shop with instructions to buy something nice for Autumn. Not knowing what “nice� meant under the circumstances, I explained to the shopkeeper that I needed a flower to give to a girl before asking to walk with her. He smiled kindly and suggested either roses or a small bouquet of anemones. I knew what roses were, but he had to show me the others. They were both beautiful, but I thought that roses might be overdoing it, so I decided on the purple anemones (which were cheaper too). As he was wrapping it up the shopkeeper asked me who the lucky girl was. When I replied “Autumn Crisp�, he gave me an odd look which stayed on his face until I left the store.

The following morning I put the flowers into a brown paper bag, hoping to escape notice from the guys. At school, I found Autumn in her usual before-school spot. There were too many people around to give her the flowers, so I held the bag in my sweaty fist and asked her if I could walk her home. She stared at me as if I were some particularly odd bug (and I was getting tired of people giving me those looks), before saying no. Not being easily discouraged (nervous, yes. Discouraged, no), I tried again after second period while walking between classes, with the same result. After lunch I finally found my chance to give her the flowers relatively unobserved, and presented them to her. That did the trick, although she said I could walk her as far as her street and no farther. I was gifted with another of her rare smiles, which made it all worth it.

It didn’t take long for the word to get around, and there was an interesting range of reactions among my peers. The less mature were content to make rude noises and crude remarks, while a couple made me swear to take careful notice of the inside of the Crisp house so as to give a full report. One even insisted that I swipe something to prove that I’d actually gone in. William, the school bully and self-proclaimed Romeo, wondered aloud whether I’d gotten wind of Autumn’s “reputation�, with a knowing smile. This was pure speculation on his part, because the only reputation that Autumn had was that her Mom was a crank. When I said that I liked Autumn because of her smile, William cheerfully cuffed me upside the head and called me a liar.

I had expected Autumn to put the flowers into her locker, but I heard that she carried them with her for the rest of the day.

It was universally judged as the best gossip day our school had enjoyed since last spring, when the oldest Tipton brother lost part of his finger in woodshop. He had made one minor slip at the table saw, but by the time the story made the rounds he’d fallen headfirst into the planer and the shop walls were sprayed with blood and moist bits of Tipton. Such is the rumor mill at school.

So I met Autumn after school to walk her home, me with my books and her with books and flowers, and we both felt the myriad eyes watching in wonder. As we walked, we talked about inconsequential things like the weather, because we weren’t sure what we might have in common. I tried the normal subjects like school news and sports, but she was remarkably clueless in those areas. I half expected her to begin talking politics or ecology, but to my relief she never even hinted at those. Each exploratory foray into conversation inevitably fell back to about how nice the weather had been lately, and we began to compare the shapes we each saw in the fluffy clouds overhead. At her corner, she said goodbye, smiled at me again, and then walked down the street towards her house without looking back, still holding those flowers.

Chapter 2.

That walk was repeated with little variation over the next week. We discovered that our tastes in music were similar and we began to explore our differences with a little more courage, comparing likes and dislikes on various subjects. Autumn began to smile more often, and we grew comfortable in each other’s company. But still, at the corner she said goodbye and I watched her walk the last bit alone.

And then one day, Mrs. Crisp spotted me at the corner as Autumn said goodbye. She yoo-hoo’d from their front yard and waved us both over. Autumn didn’t seem particularly put out by her Mom’s changing of our established routine, but she wasn’t thrilled with it either. I wondered if she wasn’t a little embarrassed by her Mom. Heaven knows every teenager feels that way about their parents at least once in a while.

For the very first time, I walked with Autumn down her street and onto her property. Mrs. Crisp was in the front yard, spray paint can in hand, putting the finishing touches on yet another sandwich board. Rail thin, with her silver hair pulled tightly back and tied with a bright yellow bandana, she smiled widely and shook my hand. As we talked about school and classes and homework, I noticed that the house had several times been repaired with pieces of painted plywood, the recycled scraps of previous signs. This gave the house a patchwork look, almost storybook-like, set in the midst of their yard which was just this side of being overgrown with wildflowers and herbs. I’m sure the neighbors would consider it ramshackle, but I didn’t think the word quite properly applied.

Mrs. Crisp sent Autumn in for drinks, and I found myself modeling the sandwich board while Mrs. Crisp stood back to check the readability of the lettering. When Autumn returned, she carried three bottles of homemade root beer, each bottle different than the others. Cool from cellar storage, that was the best root beer I’ve ever tasted in my life.

When I left that afternoon, I had been invited back “any time�, and I found that I liked Mrs. Crisp. She herself brought up her activism at one point, noting with a wry smile that she was a throwback to another world. She understood perfectly well what the townsfolk thought of her, but she was ok with that because to her the doing was the important thing, even if the end result wasn’t what one wished for. She was kind and thoughtful and funny and completely off her rocker in the conventional sense, but sweet nonetheless.

They lived a relatively normal life otherwise. I was surprised to learn that Mrs. Crisp was renowned for her spices and fresh herbs to chefs and restaurants in the area, which brought in some money. They raised pigeons and rabbits in the backyard, and sold herbal remedies and tinctures to make a little extra money.

Our afternoon walks had become commonplace, and eventually Autumn and I fell off of the school radar as the gossipmongers found other, more lucrative targets. We hadn’t yet so much as held hands, and in fact I wasn’t sure exactly what our relationship was. We seemed (to me) to be more than friends, but she wasn’t really my girlfriend either. I usually walked her all the way to her door, and often Mrs. Crisp would invite me in for a root beer or tea. At intervals, Autumn would refuse my company without explanation, instead hurrying home alone. On the following day things would be back to normal, and any questions I asked were pointedly ignored.

It was almost November when the school decided I should take a few days off. William the bully had said some things about my Mom. Technically, everything he said was accurate, but still, it was my Mom. He won the fight, but not as easily as everyone had expected, and both he and I were suspended for three days.

The last thing I expected when I answered the doorbell was to see Autumn standing there. My face broke into a delighted smile, which instantly became a pained grimace since I was nursing a split lip. As I stood there, I forgot everything else as Autumn reached out and gently traced the swelling on my face. It was the first time that she had ever touched me.

The moment passed, and Autumn quietly asked me if I could help her with something at her house. I quickly agreed, let Mom know where I was going and yes, I would be staying for dinner (I looked at Autumn with a raised eyebrow when Mom asked that, and you could sense the decision being made in her mind as if it were a physical thing). Grabbing my jacket, we started the walk to her house.

She was strangely quiet, even for her, and she got more and more nervous as we neared her place. I started to get the willies myself, for no reason other than picking up her mood. When we got to her front door, she opened it and led the way inside. There, at the kitchen table drinking tea, sat Mrs. Crisp with her arm in a sling.

I sat down and Mrs. Crisp started out by explaining that she’d sprained her wrist while taking care of a chore. The task still needed to be done, but it required two people - two people with two good arms – and since I was a good friend she felt that I could be trusted to help. Autumn just sat there quietly, seemingly lost in her own thoughts and with a worried look on her face.

Autumn started when Mrs. Crisp told her to take me to see what needed to be done. Without a word she gathered me up with her eyes and led me to a door off of the kitchen. She opened the door and we went downstairs into the basement, where I found the last thing I’d ever thought to see.

There was a zombie chained to the wall in their basement.

Once I got over my astonishment, I started to ask questions, but Autumn waved them aside and we headed back upstairs. Sitting down again, Mrs. Crisp began filling me in with the details between my many questions. The zombie was Mrs. Crisp’s father, Autumn’s granddad, and I should call him Granddad as well, since he didn’t respond to any other name. No, keeping a zombie isn’t illegal, it’s just not common. They keep him for two reasons; first, because he’s part of a medical study and they come check on his health once a month, and take him for a weekend checkup once a quarter. The second reason is because he’s Mrs. Crisp’s dad… well, he used to be. Yes, they have to feed him, why do you think they raise pigeons and rabbits? No, he’s not terribly dangerous, any more so than a two hundred pound mindless baby who is always hungry.

After about a half hour, Mrs. Crisp said we could finish talking over dinner, but that right now, Granddad needed to be restrained so that his area could be cleaned up. They had been in the process earlier when Mrs. Crisp slipped and fell, injuring her wrist. That’s where I came in. They showed me what to do and how to do it, and once I got over the revulsion of touching Granddad (even with gloves and a heavy canvas butcher’s apron), it was actually pretty simple.

Dinner was strange. Not the food itself, because I couldn’t begin to tell you what was put in front of me, let alone what it tasted like. I was still turning recent events over and over in my mind.

He wasn’t really a zombie, you know. Not in the classic horror movie kind of way. We had all learned about the great avian flu pandemic two generations past, and how it scythed its way through populations, killing millions. At least as bad was the mutation that destroyed a person’s ability to think, turning them into mindless and mobile flu-spreading automatons. We’d seen the films, where whole cities were virtually depopulated by these monsters who shuffled around, sneezing and drooling, until the flu eventually killed them, or until the living people started killing and burning them in self-defense.

The government saved some for research purposes, and a surprisingly high number were kept alive by families who couldn’t bear to put mom or dad or sis down. Mostly by luck and improvised quarantines, people managed to save their former loved ones. Some zombies recovered from the flu, but none ever regained the slightest bit of brain power. The best were about as bright as a slightly retarded dog. But that was all history that they taught us from books in school, whereas this, this was reality. By now, Granddad was a rarity, being old as humans go, and a virtual Methuselah among zombies.

I agreed to stop by every day after school, staying until evening for dinner and to help Autumn with Granddad, at least until Mrs. Crisp’s wrist was better. I could just imagine how happy that would make my Mom too. I also promised not to tell anyone, for although Granddad wasn’t a secret, he also wasn’t common knowledge, and people tend to react stupidly when faced with the unknown and unusual.

Mrs. Crisp gave me a one-armed hug as I got ready to go, and at the door Autumn stepped close and gently kissed my lips on the side away from the hurt. I asked her if she’d like to go to the movies on Saturday and she smiled and said yes.

Walking home through the chilly November evening, I reflected upon the day. I’d gotten my very first real kiss from my very first real girlfriend. And my girlfriend (girlfriend… wow!) just happened to have her zombie grandfather chained up in the basement.

Posted by Ted at 12:03 PM | Comments (6) | TrackBack
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