This is the first draft of a science fiction novel I've penned named "Hollis Whittaker." There are succeeding drafts underway, with both storyline, chapter order and grammatical changes, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to contact me about them. I'd love to hear what you think, even if it's critical.
Wednesday, November 29, 2017
“Jesus!” Kirby murmured, knocking Hollis off balance as he bolted past him into the Relics and More shopfront. Hollis slowly backed up until he was next to Kirby at the main display case.
“Aw Jesus,” said Kirby. “Aw crap. She’s dead Hollis. Someone shot her.”
Hollis didn’t reply. He was focused on the door to the back office. They had just talked to Mrs. Mori. They were in the office with her yesterday. Now there was blood all over the floor and she was shot. That was definitely a bullet hole in her forehead. Hollis began to wonder if he was smelling blood. Would the odor carry this far away from the body?
For a few seconds the only sound came from the tinny speaker system and Elvis Presley belting out Bossanova Baby, the song’s bouncy keyboard in the foreground.
“We need to call the police,” Hollis said, unable to avert his gaze from the door.
“Are you mental?” Kirby replied. “They’re gonna say we did it! We gotta get outta here!” Kirby started for the front door, but hesitated when Hollis wouldn’t budge. “Come on, man! Let’s go!”
Hollis turned calmly toward his friend. “We can’t. We need to call the cops.”
“Didn’t you hear me? They’ll pin it on us. That’s how this always goes down.”
“We don’t have a gun,” Hollis replied. “Do your parents have a gun?”
“Well neither do mine. They’re not going to say two kids without a gun shot her. Kids always find bodies. This was like a robbery or something.”
Kirby eased up a bit and stepped back toward Hollis. “Okay, then you call them.”
Hollis scanned the counter behind the display case. There was a phone next to the cash register. He edged along the case staying as far from the office door as he could and lifted the receiver, hitting 911.
“Um yeah . . . Someone shot a lady here,” he said.
Kirby’s attention bounced between the office door and Hollis.
“No . . . I think she’s dead . . . Yeah . . . We’re at the antique store.”
Kirby took a step toward the office and peeked around the corner at Fern’s body.
“She wants to know,” Hollis said to Kirby, who drew his attention back to the matter at hand. “She wants to know what antique store. What’s the name?”
Kirby looked stumped, raising his palms to the ceiling.
“Well go look.” Hollis pointed to the front door and Kirby darted outside, returning a couple seconds later.
“Relics and More,” said Kirby.
“It’s Relics and More,” Hollis explained. “Yeah . . . yeah, okay.” Hollis hung up the phone. “She said there’s a unit on the way.”
“Oh man Hollis, what if this has something to do with us?”
“Why would it have anything to do with us? It was a robbery. I told you.”
“Think about it. We were in here yesterday asking about your necklace and today she’s dead.”
“So what does that mean?”
“Maybe it’s worth something.” Kirby peeked into the office again holding steady on the periphery and tapping his fingers on the doorjamb before tiptoeing inside.
“What are you doing?” Hollis shouted. He slinked to the doorway and looked in at his friend who was making his way deeper into the room. “Get out of there! What are you doing?”
Kirby stepped through Fern’s bent legs, avoiding the pool of blood underneath her upper body and climbed onto the chair in front of the computer.
“Kirby . . . Kirby! Cut it out! Get out of there!”
“I’m just looking, man. I’m just making sure.” Kirby woke the computer and opened up the browser, clicking on the bookmark Fern had used the day before. Within a few seconds, the message board on which she had posted her query appeared. “This is it, Ant-eeks.” He scanned the page, scrolling down every few seconds.
“Kirby, this is serious,” said Hollis. “This isn’t like detention, this is like police and jail.”
“It’s not here,” Kirby said.
“It’s not here, I’m telling you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean the post she put on here yesterday about your necklace, it’s not here anymore.”
“What, like it was deleted?”
“That’s what I said.”
Hollis inched closer, sticking close to the wall, taking a short awkward hop to avoid the puddle. He stepped over Fern’s motionless arm, her sweater having acted somewhat like a sponge with the blood. On the far side of the body, Hollis leaned in and studied the webpage.
Kirby scrolled up. “See the dates? November 24th. That was last week. They’re in order. Look.” He scrolled up some more. “See, here’s yesterday. There’s only two and neither one is ours. And see, here’s today. Someone posted one this morning. Ours is missing.”
• • • • •
Hollis could see a strip of yellow police tape through the shop’s glass door and bits of it were visible in between items in the display window, flapping in the wind. The police had cordoned off the sidewalk out front and just past the tape cars crept by, their drivers rubbernecking to catch a glimpse of what was going down.
Inside Relics and More, a detective in a white shirt and tie was interviewing Kirby near a display of typewriters, writing notes on a small pad. Hollis had already given the man a statement and made sure to mention the missing post on the message board.
An African-American with a clean shaven head and face, Detective Pacquet seemed amiable, especially considering the circumstances, and he didn’t give the impression that the boys were suspects, contrary to what Kirby had figured.
Hollis was seated motionless on an old rocking chair, a female police officer crouched by his side in an attempt to offer him comfort. In reality she only made him more nervous. There was another patrolman guarding the office and the background music had been turned off, so the only noise in the store was the low conversations of police officers and Detective Pacquet talking to Kirby. Pacquet turned toward the entrance when the bell on the front door jangled.
Two more men in ties entered each carrying canvas satchels, politely greeted the officer near the entrance and made a beeline for Pacquet. The detective laid a hand on Kirby’s shoulder, said a few more words to him and rose to greet the new men, motioning to the back office.
As the three men marched toward the crime scene, the bell on the front door rang again. It was Lonnie Whittaker looking as distressed as Hollis had ever seen her. She hurried to her son, crouched down and held him in a long embrace, reaching out for Kirby to join them. She wrapped her arm around Kirby as well and the three of them fell silent with only an occasional sniffle coming from Lonnie.
Her eyes had puffed up and turned pink and moist by the time she finally released the boys. “What happened?” she asked.
“Me and Kirby wanted to see if Mrs. Mori found out anything about my medallion and she was out back . . .” He pointed to the back office door and let out a single uncontrollable sob, before pausing a moment to catch his breath. “Kirby found her. She was just lying there and she was shot in the head. There was a whole bunch of blood underneath her.”
Lonnie grabbed both boys again, pulling their heads in and smothering them in her jacket.
“My mom’s on her way,” Kirby said as Lonnie released them.
“Your mom works an hour and a half away,” Lonnie replied. “You’re coming home with us until she gets here.”
• • • • •
Graham Whittaker barreled through the door of his house down the hall into the kitchen where Lonnie was sitting with the boys. There were three half-glasses of milk, a table full of crumbs and an empty container of Chips Ahoy cookies. He clenched his fists a few times, anxious and breathing heavily. “How’s everyone doing?”
“They’re fine,” Lonnie answered.
“They’re fine, they’re fine,” he muttered to himself, grabbing the seat next to Hollis.
“The police said they have a trauma specialist who’d be in touch,” said Lonnie.
“Trauma specialist? Good, that’s good.” He laid his hand over Hollis’, enveloping it, then looked at Kirby. “How you doing, champ?”
Kirby had been staring into space, but was brought back by Graham’s question. “Good,” he said, before taking a swig of milk.
Graham turned his attention to his wife again. “Did the cops say anything about it? Was it a robbery or something?”
“They didn’t say. The one in charge, the detective, said there was a business owner a couple years ago that was killed. It was a bar with three grand in cash. He told me he didn’t know about this one, but it was possible there was something in the store that was valuable.”
“That was Green Velvet. I remember that. It was where Ponchos is now.”
“Oh yeah,” Lonnie replied with sudden recognition. “I always wanted to try it. That’s why it closed?”
Graham nodded as the doorbell chimed. “I’ll get it,” he said. “Probably Kirby’s mom.”
Lonnie took a sip from her glass and shot a bemused look toward Graham’s back. “She couldn’t have gotten here that quick.”
When Graham returned down the hallway, he was followed by a man and woman in dark suits. The man, solemn with thick brown hair and a bony face, entered a few paces into the kitchen and grasped his hands together in front of himself. His gaze was clearly on Hollis.
The woman, whose face was framed by a dark Jennifer Aniston haircut, was a foot or so shorter than her counterpart. She seemed like she’d be more comfortable wearing a scowl, but had temporarily covered it up with a smile.
“I think the boys have some visitors,” Graham said.
With full attention from the room, the woman stepped toward the table, her jowls becoming more apparent. “My name is Agent Grey,” she said, motioning to her partner behind her, “and this is Agent Breiner.” The man didn’t react. “We’re looking into the Fern Mori investigation,” she said, “and we wanted to talk to the boys if we could.”
“By all means,” Lonnie replied. “Is it all right if we stay? They’ve been through a lot.”
Agent Grey glanced back at her partner and her smile became a little more strained. “Of course. That will be fine.” She placed her hand on a free chair. “May I?” Lonnie and Graham nodded and Grey sat at the head of the table. “We understand one of you brought an object in for Mrs. Mori to examine, is that right?”
“It’s mine,” said Hollis.
“Would you mind if we take a look at it?”
Hollis grabbed the back of his necklace and pulled the medallion from under his shirt, handing it across the table to Agent Grey. She studied both sides of the artifact while her partner pulled a phone from an inside jacket pocket and began swiping. “It looks right,” Agent Grey said as she offered the object to her partner.
Agent Breiner stepped toward the table and snatched it out of her hands with a dead look on his face. He scanned the medallion front and back and checked his phone again. “That’s it,” he said, placing both the phone and medallion inside his jacket pocket and taking up sentry behind her.
“We’re going to need to take it for evidence,” Agent Grey said. “I hope you understand.”
“Do I get it back?” Hollis asked.
Agent Grey either didn’t hear him or chose to ignore the question. “Can you tell us where you found it?”
The boy began to worry that he wouldn’t be getting his good luck charm back, but had been raised to respect adults and didn’t want to make a stink about it. He looked at his mother, who didn’t seem at all put out that Agent Grey had taken his medallion. She nodded for him to answer.
“Out in the woods out back,” he said.
“In the woods,” she repeated.
“Yeah, out by a stream or something.”
Lonnie leaned back in her chair, jaw dropped. “Is that the reason Mrs. Mori was shot? Was someone looking for that medallion?”
Once again, Agent Grey didn’t answer. She rose from the table. “The government appreciates your sacrifice.” She glanced back at Agent Breiner and took up a stance next to him. Breiner produced a handgun that had been holstered inside his jacket and with a stony focus, aimed the gun at Hollis as an involuntary gasp escaped Lonnie’s lips.
The crack of the gunshot amplified to deafening levels inside the compact kitchen.
All eyes, including the agents’, turned toward the kitchen entrance where an imposing Native American woman stood, long sable tresses, rifle in hand focused on Agent Breiner. The woman, slight and regal, flaunted a confident serenity as she stared down the man with the pistol.
As the smell of gunpowder dissolved into the air, bits of ceiling fell on the table, a new hole blasted into it by the woman. Breiner still had his gun pointed at Hollis, but his attention was on the new arrival.
“Lower your weapon,” she said in a slow, deliberate manner.
Breiner didn’t budge or speak.
The woman waited a moment, then moved the barrel of her rifle two inches to the right and blew a hole in the wall behind the agents, the sharp crack from the shot once again creating a deafening sound in the kitchen. The Whittakers and Kirby jolted at the noise, but neither agent flinched.
Agent Grey cocked her head to the side and met eyes with her partner and a couple seconds later, Breiner lowered his gun to his side.
“Lay it on the floor,” the stranger said.
The man complied.
The woman looked at Agent Gray. “Open your jacket so I can see your weapon, remove it with two fingers and lay it on the ground.”
Agent Grey paused, but eventually did as she was instructed.
“Now one at a time, kick the weapons towards me,” the woman said.
Agent Grey kicked her pistol over and then Breiner’s. “We’re U.S. Agents,” Grey said. “You’re committing a federal crime right now.”
The Native American crouched down while keeping her rifle aimed at the agents with one arm, picking up both pistols in her other hand. “Last I checked, murdering a child was a federal crime too.” She rose again to her feet.
“We had no intention of shooting anyone,” Agent Grey replied.
The Native American squinted at Agent Grey and she pointed the rifle’s barrel at her chest, but neither Grey nor Breiner showed any emotion. Instead, Grey returned the expression.
The stranger shot her eyes toward Hollis. “Come here,” she said.
The boy froze, unsure of anything that was going on. “You,” the woman said. “Come here.”
Hollis glanced at his mother, then rose to his feet, his parents looking very much like they were close to snapping. He moved toward the woman and from the other side of the table, Kirby accompanied his best friend as if he could somehow protect him. The woman put the arm holding the pistols around Hollis as both boys turned to face the room.
“Where’s the níłchʼi?” the woman asked.
“Where’s the níłchʼi, the medallion? Who has it? She squeezed Hollis tighter to her body. “Do you have it or did you give it to them?”
Hollis raised his arm and pointed at Agent Breiner. “He has it.”
“Kick it over here,” she said, gazing into the cold stare of the male agent, who didn’t move. “Now!” Her voice had grown louder and impatient. Breiner gritted his teeth and stuck out his lower jaw before opening his jacket pocket slowly and exposing the inside pockets. He reached into the pocket and removed the medallion holding it up for the woman to see. Breiner laid it on the floor and shoved it toward her with his leather Oxfords.
“Take it,” the woman said to Hollis.
As the boy picked up his lucky charm, the sound of a chair scraping the floor broke the tense silence and Graham lunged at Breiner, slamming the agent with a meaty fist to his face. The agent stumbled backward against the wall, his legs buckling, and he fell on his haunches. No sooner had he hit the ground than Graham was on top of him, knee on his chest, pummeling the man’s face with his hands. Breiner raised his arms in defense and began striking back.
Hollis had never seen his father act violently before and he failed to notice the armed woman holding onto him when she cried, “Let’s go.” Agent Breiner flipped Graham onto his back, gaining the upper hand as the woman tugged at Hollis’ arm and stated more forcefully, “Let’s go!”
In a desperate bid to help her husband, Lonnie leapt out of her seat and ran around the table, plowing into Agent Breiner and knocking him against the wall. Agent Grey reached down and yanked Lonnie off of her partner, but Lonnie writhed free and fell on Breiner again. As she did, Grey tackled Lonnie and turned the brawl into a jumble of struggling limbs.
The Native American pulled at Hollis, but he refused to budge. Breiner, who was again on top of Graham, reached toward his lower leg, retrieved a gun from an ankle holster and aimed it at Hollis. A split second before he could pull the trigger, Graham struck Breiner’s arm and the bullet shot into the doorjamb next to Hollis.
Lonnie, buried underneath Agent Grey, and unable to even look in his direction, yelled to her son, “Run!”
“Now!” the Native American shouted at the boy, dragging him by the arm out of the room and into the hallway. Kirby stayed on their tail as the woman hauled Hollis out the front door and down the driveway. As the storm door pulled itself shut, the sound of chaos inside the kitchen was muffled out. The woman was now pulling Hollis by the shirt, with two sidearms dangling from her extra fingers rubbing against the boy’s arms. Hollis was more interested in what was happening inside his home.
They reached the side of an old powder blue Ford Aerostar minivan and the woman heaved open the back door, practically tossing Hollis onto the benchseat. As she reached for the handle to slide the door closed, Kirby snuck in under her arm, jumping onto the seat with Hollis. The woman stared at Kirby in disbelief, but only for a second before slamming the door shut and hopping into the driver’s seat. The ignition churned the engine over several times to no avail and a loud crash coming from the house drew everyone’s attention. It was Agent Breiner, blood coming from several spots on his face. He had nearly broken the storm door off its hinges as he barreled down the front steps, firearm in his grasp.
The engine on the Aerostar finally sprang to life and the woman threw the shifter into gear, gunning the gas pedal and causing rubber to squeal not due to the vehicle’s power, but because of the poor condition of the tires. The minivan slowly accelerated, but Agent Breiner had momentum and for a moment closed the gap. As the van finally started to pull away, Breiner raised his weapon and pulled off two rounds hitting the rear quarter panel. Inside the cabin, the bullets didn’t sound like much more than denting a milk jug.
“Are you both okay?” the woman asked, craning her neck to take in both of the boys. “Did he hit you?”
The fifth graders were silent as the woman shot her gaze in between the road and her passengers. “Hollis!” she shouted, catching his attention. “Are you okay? Is your friend okay?”
“Yeah,” he replied without checking on Kirby.
The tires squealed as the minivan took a corner faster than it was designed to, cutting off a box truck. The truck’s horn blared for several seconds, and after putting some distance between the minivan and the truck, the woman let off the accelerator keeping a steady pace down the curvy road.
The woman’s breath was labored. The rifle rested in between the front passenger seats, barrel pointing forward, the pistols haphazardly tossed on the passenger seat. Hollis instinctually buckled his belt and Kirby, absorbing the scene, did as well.
“I’m sorry about that, I’m sorry,” the woman said, the tension in her voice dissipating. “You’re both okay.” She was more confirming their condition than stating the fact, but neither of the boys responded.
About a mile after cutting off the box truck, the woman turned right onto a side street lined on both sides by maple trees and firs.
“What in the heck just happened?” Kirby asked, unsure if there would even be an answer.
The woman let out a huge puff of relief. “Those two in the suits back there, they’re not good people.”
“No shit, Sherlock,” Kirby replied. “Are you?”
The woman regarded the boys through the rear view mirror and her eyes displayed the hint of a smile. “Let’s just say I’m a better person than either of them.”
“Prove it,” said Kirby. “Let us out.”
The smile quickly retracted. “Do you get what just happened back there? That man would have killed Hollis, no questions asked. And if he can find him, he’ll try it again.”
“What about my parents?” asked Hollis. “Did he shoot them?”
The woman was silent for a second. “Probably not,” she said.
“Probably not?” Kirby replied incredulously.
“His parents weren’t their targets,” she said. “He was. And since they didn’t get the níłchʼi, they’ll probably want to leave as few ripples in the pond as possible.”
“But you don’t know,” Hollis said. His eyes turned red and then came the sniffles and before long he was sobbing. Kirby looked his troubled friend, unable to assure him of anything. The woman fell silent.
After five minutes of nothing but the sound of the wheels on the blacktop, Hollis had quieted himself. He stared out the window at the passing countryside. “I want to go home,” he said.
There wasn’t an immediate response, but the woman finally said, “You can’t go back there. Not now anyway . . . I’m telling you, the farther away from those people you stay, the better chance you’ll have.”
“I need to know if my parents are all right.”
“I know you do, sweetie. We’ll find out. We just can’t go back there right now.”
“This is kidnapping, you know,” Kirby offered. “You can’t hold someone against their will.”
“Look, you can go,” she said to Kirby. “You’re not in the kind of danger he’s in. And if you both really decide that you don’t want to be with me, then I’ll drop you off somewhere safe with some money, but please, please, please trust me on this, he cannot go back home. They’ll be waiting for him there. And they will kill him.”
“Why do they want to kill me?” Hollis asked.
“Because you found the níłchʼi. Or it found you . . . whatever. I don’t know. They want it and right now, it’s yours.”
“They can have it,” said Hollis. “What’s the big deal?”
“It doesn’t work like that,” she said.
“So how does it work?”
The woman seemed disappointed in her answer even before she gave it. “All I know is you can’t just give it to them.”
“Well, what am I supposed to do?”
“The plan was to bring you to see my grandfather.”
“And he’ll know what to do?” asked Kirby.
“Probably better than anyone on earth. Listen, I’m not a kidnapper,” the woman said, catching Kirby’s eye in the mirror. “I’m going to drop you off.” She looked at Hollis. “I’m hoping you’ll agree to come with me.”
Hollis muttered in a low enough voice that it was barely audible over the sound of the minivan, “I don’t want to.”
The woman stayed silent for another mile or so, fidgeting with the heating controls on the dashboard. “Hollis,” she finally said, “they are going to kill you. They will. You don’t understand how important you are, not just to your parents, but to everyone.”
Kirby pushed his friend on the shoulder. “I’ll go.”
“No,” the woman replied. “Uh uh, you can’t go. I’m dropping you off.”
“Will you go if I do?” Kirby asked Hollis.
Hollis shrugged. “I guess.”
“No way guys,” the woman said more forcefully than before. “I’m not kidding. This isn’t a joy ride. One of you is safe to go back home and that’s where he should be. Hollis is the only one in trouble.”
“I don’t want to go without Kirby,” Hollis said.
The woman let out an elongated, exasperated moan, knocking her head against the steering wheel several times. “No, no, no! This is not happening. Guys, come on. I’m trying to help here, but you have to meet me halfway.”
Hollis spoke a little louder. “I’ll go if Kirby does and if we can find out about my parents. Otherwise, I’m not going.”
“This is just perfect,” she said. “Everybody else I know just gets to go to work, come home and watch TV, but not me . . .” She trailed off speaking to herself in an irritated tone.
Silence had spread throughout the minivan as the heater blew lukewarm air and a musty, burning odor out of the vents. Hollis stared out the side window at the passing trees and meadows, replaying the tumultuous afternoon in his head. He saw his father wrestling with the physically superior agent and losing, his mother jumping into the fray in an attempt to help and being attacked by the female agent. His stomach had never felt like this before. This was nausea. It was on a whole other level from anything he’d ever experienced, but there it was, brought on by the thought of his parents lying on the kitchen floor as dead as Mrs. Mori.
It didn’t seem real. And it was his fault.
He held onto the hopes that this strange woman was right, that the agents wouldn’t have shot his parents because they only wanted to kill him . . . only wanted to kill him. This was crazy.
And for no rhyme or reason Hollis recalled the time his parents had brought him to see Santa at the North Mills Mall. He was eight years old and couldn’t bring himself to tell them that he didn’t believe in the jolly old elf any more. For one thing, he figured they’d stop buying him presents if he let on. Hollis had stood in line for ten minutes as the sweaty man in thick red cotton picked kids up off the floor, sat them on his knee and ho-ho-ho’d into their faces. When it was his turn, he mustered up some unconvincing enthusiasm, but he was more embarrassed than anything else. Santa was a fairytale for kids and he was old enough to know better. Santa’s suit, as he recollected, was redolent of B.O., his white beard splotchy and attached by wires to his ears, and the oversized buckle on his plastic belt seemed cheap. Hollis had considered confiding in the man that he didn’t believe anymore to save them both the humiliation, but in the end he decided that the man might spill the beans on him and then the gravy train would end. And so he played along.
What really stuck with him was the expression on his parents’ faces. They both seemed more content than he had ever remembered and at the time he couldn’t understand why the charade made them so happy. As his mind returned to this afternoon though, the thought of losing them created such a hole in his stomach that he understood. Hollis had never appreciated how much his parents meant to him, but now he got it. They meant more to him than anything else, period. And he knew that they felt the same about him.
“Do you have a phone?” he asked the woman.
“Yeah,” she replied hesitantly, in a tone that indicated she was about to disapprove of his request.
“Can I see it?”
“What do you want it for?”
“I want to call my parents. See if they’re okay.” His parents had made him memorize their cell numbers just in case and he’d always considered it ridiculous because phones kept numbers so you didn’t have to memorize them. Except he didn’t have a phone with either of their numbers on it and they had been right.
“Hollis . . .” She paused, clearly lacking a good response to his request.
He waited for a few seconds, but she wasn’t forthcoming. “What?” he said, pushing for a reply.
“If we use my phone to call your parents, those people in the suits will be able to track my phone. Right now they don’t know who I am and that’s an advantage.”
“We can borrow someone else’s. We’ll tell them it’s an emergency.”
“They’ll still be able to figure out what direction we’re traveling. Any clue we give them is dangerous for you. We have to assume at this point that your parents’ phones aren’t secure.”
“I can email them,” he said.
“It’s the same, little guy. They have ways of tracking these things. We’re going to have to find some other way. Maybe we can check out the news. If anything happened to your parents it’d make the news.”
The boy returned to staring out the window and Kirby, who had been quietly observing the discussion, did the same as the minivan returned to silence.
Hollis thought back to the antique store. A vague recollection of the song that had been playing over the speakers ran through his veins. The peppy tune seemed a lot less happy than it was supposed to be, and a lot more foreboding.
Just this morning he had been a young star on the rise, a scientific genius who knew things that even the adults didn’t. He was on the cover of a magazine and on the front page of the newspaper. TV stations were supposed to be interviewing him tonight. Even the other kids at school were treating him differently, with more reverence.
He jerked his head toward Kirby, who was staring into oblivion, then looked down at his jeans and began digging through the left pocket. His hand clasped onto a crumpled scrap of paper at the bottom, which he withdrew and straightened out. Smiling, he held the paper up toward his friend and shook it. Kirby turned and gave him a bewildered look.
“Alexus’ email,” Hollis said. “We can email her and have her check on my parents.”
With a silent look, Kirby acknowledged the brilliance of Hollis’ idea.
“Hey,” Hollis said to the woman in a more assertive tone. “Mrs. . . .?”
The woman glanced back at her young passenger. “Cha’Risa,” she said.
“Just Cha’Risa. That’s my first name.”
Hollis wasn’t used to calling adults by their first name, but this wasn’t a time for convention. “Cha’Risa, I have a friend’s email. Can we email her and see if she’d check on my parents.”
Cha’Risa grew silent for another few seconds. “You know what? That will probably work. We’ll see if we can find a library.”
“Can’t we use your phone?”
She emptied her lungs through pursed lips. “Okay, yeah, that’ll be fine. But let me find a good place to pull over. I want to help you write it.”
Within a couple miles, she pulled the minivan onto a service road straddling a farm property. It ran by a split rail fence that stretched as far as they could see and was separated from the main road by a row of maple trees, lined up straight as if the owners had planted them to increase their privacy.
Cha’Risa pulled the vehicle next to the trees and parked. Reaching into the side pocket of a dirty, black spring jacket, she retrieved a phone and swiped through several screens, finally handing the phone to Hollis. “Here,” she said, “that’s set up on my email. Don’t send anything until I check it.”
Hollis took the phone and stared at the blank screen. He met eyes briefly with Kirby wondering whether or not they should throw the door open and run. They had a phone now and could call the police or just run to the farmhouse in the distance. Cha’Risa had a rifle. Would it be dangerous to flee? It might cause her to panic. He tried to process what had happened in the past 45 minutes. This woman had saved him from being killed and she seemed like she was trying to help. If she was a kidnapper, she wouldn’t have given him her phone. The woman wasn’t paying attention any more. She was just staring out the windshield. If she were worried about the boys running, she would be paying attention.
Hollis eyeballed Kirby again, who was obviously trying to make the same decision, his eyes wide open, mouth agape. The friends stared at each other for a few seconds before Hollis made a final verdict. He was going to trust Cha’Risa.
Throwing the scrap of paper on his lap, he typed in Alexus’ email address into the phone and began laying out their request. After a few minutes, he checked on his friend again, who was already focused. “Okay,” said Hollis.
“You’re all done?” she asked.
“What do you have? Read it to me.”
This was another good sign, Hollis figured. If she didn’t trust him, she’d want to read the email herself.
“Hi Alexus, this is Hollis Whittaker. A bunch of stuff happened. You can’t tell anyone about this. Can you check on my parents? Make up an excuse and go over and let me know what’s up. Can you tell them I am ok? Me and Kirby are going to visit this lady’s grandfather, but it’s dangerous for anyone to know where we are. This can’t wait till tomorrow so can you do it ASAP and email me back? We live at 56 Sherwood Avenue.”
Cha’Risa appeared concerned. “I don’t think she should let them know about you. And you shouldn’t mention my grandfather. Just see if she’ll pop in and report back.”
“How come?” Hollis asked.
“Well, if she tells them you emailed, they’ll tell the police and then there’s a good chance those people will be able to track down my email and figure out who I am. And if they find out about my grandfather, they’ll know where we’re going. It’s just not safe.”
“So what should I say?”
“Tell her you might get hurt if she tells anyone and just see if she’ll go over your house for a visit. She can tell your parents she’s a friend from school and you were going to hang out.”
“Hollis started typing again and when he was finished, he read back what he’d written. “Hi Alexus, this is Hollis Whittaker. I’m in a lot of trouble and if you tell anybody about this I might get hurt. Can you go to my house and see if my parents are ok? Just tell them we were going to hang out and email me back and tell me if they’re ok. I need to know ASAP.”
Cha’Risa took in a long deep breath and let it out. “Okay,” she said.
“Wait,” Kirby interrupted. “So that’s it? We can’t even tell our parents we’re ok?”
“Not yet,” she replied. “Let’s just make sure Hollis’ parents are alright first. Ok?”
Kirby gave her a look of resignation, turning his attention to the trees outside his window. Hollis hit send, then handed the phone back to Cha’Risa.
“So who are you?” Hollis asked.
“I told you, my name is Cha’Risa.”
“Yeah, but how do you know what’s going on?”
“I don’t really know much. My grandfather told me I had to come find you. The níłchʼi—that medallion you have—is an old relic. I’ve never been one to believe all of the old superstitions. I don’t see any spirits or shit, but my grandfather’s the most important person in the world to me and if he asked me to go snipe hunting, I’d do it. And the old son of a gun wanted me to find you.”
Hollis wasn’t used to adults swearing, at least not in conversation with a kid, but he had more important matters at hand. “How does he know me? Did he read about me in The Astronomical Journal?”
“Astronomical Journal? I doubt that. Honestly, I thought I was on a wild goose chase. I thought I was going to drive out to the east and turn around and tell him I couldn’t find you, but I read about you in the paper and, Jesus . . . I don’t know how he knew about you. I know he’d say the níłchʼi is why you got a dose of the smarts.”
Hollis retrieved the medallion from his front pocket where he’d stuffed it during the incident at his house. “You mean I knew about science and stuff because of this thing this thing?”
“That’s not me saying it,” Cha’Risa responded. “But that’s what he thinks.”
Cha’Risa’s phone made a chirping sound. “That’s a new one,” she said, pulling it out of her jacket pocket.
Kirby leaned toward his friend holding out his hand and Hollis placed the níłchʼi into it. “So what,” asked Kirby, “those government spooks want this thing to make them smarter?”
Cha’Risa, focused on her phone, didn’t answer. “Shit, Shit! Oh my god, shit! Oh my god.” She faced forward and fell silent.
“What?” Kirby asked, handing the níłchʼi back to Hollis.
Cha’Risa stayed hushed, the tension in the minivan growing. Hollis wondered if Alexus had gotten back to them. Maybe it was already on the news that his parents were dead. “What is it?” he asked. “Was that Alexus?”
Cha’Risa covered her mouth with her hand and muffled through it. “That was an Amber alert. They think I kidnapped you.”
Cha’Risa hit the gas quicker than her brain had time to respond. The tires spit out gravel, leaving a cloud of dust behind the van, a van too old to be featured in preowned ads and a decade shy of being collectable as an antique. She pushed the engine to its limit, revving the RPMs to an anemic whine, a hundred and fifty yards, two hundred. Then she slammed on the brakes, pulling into the tree line again. The cloud of dust caught up, enveloping the van in a silvery fog, illuminated by the light of a half moon shining through it.
“So what do we do now?” Kirby asked.
“First of all, we get a grip,” Cha’Risa replied. “We don’t panic. Gunning this thing without any direction isn’t going to do any good. We need a plan.”
“So what’s the plan?” Hollis asked.
Cha’Risa clutched the steering wheel with both fists, the plastic creaking as her skin tightened around it. She rolled her ebony locks back against the headrest, her arms extended fully in front of her. “We need to ditch the van,” and she began discussions with herself. “Of course then we need to find a way to travel. They’re looking for a native American woman with two white kids. That’s pretty much us. There can’t be a lot of groups matching that description. Not in Virginia . . . Not anywhere. So what, a bus? No way. Their pictures are all over the place.”
“We could hitchhike,” Kirby suggested.
“Oh yeah, that’s a great idea,” she replied in a tone that even the kids could pick up on as sarcastic. “The entire countryside’s looking for us and we’re out flashing our faces to everyone driving by.”
“How ‘bout a train?” he replied.
She had calmed down, perhaps realizing that she was dealing with children. “No, that’s the same thing as a bus . . . What’s your name?”
“It’s the same thing, Kirby. Everyone is looking for us. The only way we get out of this thing is on the road. We need another vehicle.”
“So what, you want to trade this in?”
“No. No trading in. No hitchhiking, no buses, no trains, no planes.” She pulled her phone from her jacket pocket and began swiping through it.
“What are you doing now?”
“I’m looking for a car.”
“Are you going to steal one?”
Cha’Risa exhaled long and hard. “No, I’m not going to steal one. What do you think, they have a list of cars to steal on the internet?”
“Well, I don’t know. What are you doing?”
“I’m on Craigslist, alright? Now give me a minute.”
Kirby’s mouth puckered in and out as he made swishing sounds between his cheeks. He glanced at Hollis across the bench in the dimly lit van. The boys’ eyes had adjusted to the shadows to the point where Cha’Risa’s phone made them squint when they looked directly at it. “Your mom and dad are okay,” Kirby said.
Hollis, lost in another world, turned his head toward his friend and nodded.
“Her grandfather will know what to do.”
Hollis didn’t reply. He focused out the windshield at the ghostly trees lit up by the van’s headlights. Hundreds of insects fluttered about like volcano ash in the flood of light, the dust from Cha’Risa’s fight or flight impulse settling. In front of the van, the service road faded away to an inky abyss, the trees on one side and fence rail on the other, providing the only point of reference in an ethereal chasm.
The farmhouse had diminished behind them to a few points of yellow light, brighter than the stars blanketing the sky, but not by much. Without the fruits of human ingenuity, the world would be black. The thought of a world without electricity suggested itself to Hollis. What did people do back then? You can’t even read at night without a light.
Hollis had changed even in the few months he and his family had been living in their new home. Back then he didn’t see the darkness for anything other than bedtime. Now he realized that the blackness represented everywhere humans hadn’t conquered. It’s where the rest of the world lived, the mosquitoes and deer, frogs, monkeys and mackerel, the kangaroos, moths, lobsters and eagles. They all followed the natural rhythm of the earth’s rotation. And he understood that the other side of the earth was facing the sun right now, evaporating water and feeding plants, allowing the cycle to continue. He’d known it for years, but never fully appreciated it. He considered the massive amount of light being blasted off the sun that wasn’t directed at this little planet, shooting past it and traveling forever down its own service road.
And it made him feel insignificant.
The dirt could swallow up the van and everyone in it right now and nothing would change. Oh sure, family members and friends would weep, but the light would continue to blaze off the sun into infinity. The bugs would still flutter around the light sources at night. In fact, he thought, not much would change if the whole planet disappeared. From a distance, there’d be one more speck of light visible on our sun, one less bug blocking the solar lamp. And our sun was a grain of sand on the seashore.
A pleasant woman’s voice on Cha’Risa’s phone directed her to head west for two miles. Cha’Risa pulled the shifter into drive and the van crawled forward, much more cautiously this time. Hollis watched the farmhouse disappear out the rear side window. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“First we’re leaving this van where hopefully no one will see it for a long time and then we’re going for a hike.”
“A hike? When are we going to sleep?”
“I have a tent. We can camp out in the woods.”
That sounded acceptable to Hollis.
Twenty minutes later, after having only passed the occasional car traveling in the opposite direction, Cha’Risa pulled the van onto a one-lane dirt road, surrounded on both sides by columns of towering hemlocks. The phone told her to take a U-turn, but she shut off the GPS app and drove a few hundred yards into the woods, throwing the van into park.
There was enough ambient light for Hollis to make out the general surroundings, a meandering overgrown road, with a center line of ten-inch grass, heading up a gentle slope, but the trees on each side blocked all light within the forest and past the first row, he couldn’t see a thing.
Cha’Risa stepped onto the gravel, the dome light temporarily blinding Hollis and Kirby, as a pulsing door chime spread through the cabin. The boys watched Cha’Risa trudging through thigh-high grass and into the woods as a cold wind crept in around them through the open door.
Kirby’s eyes didn’t stray from the woods. “This is definitely where the creepy music starts and she comes back with an ax.”
“What do you think she’s doing?” Hollis asked.
“I think she’s getting an ax.”
“You think she brought us to this secluded spot in the woods where she already ditched an ax?”
“Haven’t you ever seen any movies?”
“I think she couldn’t take your smell anymore and scrammed.”
Kirby snickered and Hollis followed suit. “I think she went to take a crap,” Kirby said, causing Hollis to break out in a full belly laugh. “I think the rusty shocks on this baby sent a message right up through her butt. It was like morse code. Dee dee duh duh dee. Evacuate bowels. Evacuate bowels.” Kirby’s voice had become computer-like and Hollis released his seat belt and doubled over, trying to catch a breath. “And she’s in there looking at all these trees and there’s like no leaves to wipe her butt with. There’s like only needles. She’s gonna come back out here with her pants around her knees and ask if she can borrow your shirt.” Hollis fell on the van’s floor, touching Kirby’s shoe in an attempt to have him stop.
“What’s so funny?” Cha’Risa’s voice came from the open door. It startled the fifth graders enough to stop the flow of laughter instantaneously. It was one thing to tell crude jokes around other kids, but adults never appreciated the humor, especially if it was at their expense.
“Nothing,” Kirby replied instinctually. “What were you doing?”
Hollis gaped up at her from his position on the floor of the minivan.
“Watch and learn,” she said. She dropped herself onto the driver’s seat and shut the door, shifting the van into drive and pulling hard left into the overgrown grass. She inched the vehicle forward and in through the line of trees, the sound of organics and broken sticks under the tires. There wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver, but she cut the wheel left and right moving the van deeper into the woods, where the hemlock needles had formed a prickly bed as wide as the forest over decades. The branches and twigs scraped along the sides of the van as it crept on. With three hemlocks directly in front and one on either side, Cha’Risa stopped the van and threw it into park, cutting the engine and turning off the lights.
It was hard to discern anything more than a few feet away. With a forest’s canopy above them, there was no longer a moon to illuminate the terrain. The tone of crickets bled through everywhere. No light; all sound.
“Come on,” she said, “help me cover the tracks.” She dropped the van key on the passenger seat and threw open the driver’s door, heading for the road. Hollis and Kirby unlatched their seat belts and plodded back to the tree line twenty yards away, hands extended to feel for trees and sticks that might smack them in the face. At the edge of the woods, with the moon and the stars once again holding dominion, Cha’Risa was fluffing up the tall grass with her foot, masking the tire tracks as best she could. As she leaned forward, her silky hair, black as a crow, draped over her shoulders, flowing with her movement. The boys mimicked her motions to a lesser effect, and when she was satisfied, the trio returned to the minivan. Cha’Risa lifted the minivan’s rear door and yanked out a duffel bag and a backpack, tossing them onto the ground and quietly closing the door.
“Bug out packs,” she explained. “Help me gather some sticks and branches. I want to cover the van so people can’t see it from the road.”
Camouflage was easy to come by in the thick of the woods, especially as eyes grew more accustomed to the shadows. When they were finished, there was nothing shiny to attract anyone’s attention on the dirt road, even in the daylight.
Even with the exercise over the last twenty minutes, the boys were shivering in the cold December air. Their sweatshirts could only keep them so warm. Cha’Risa unzipped the duffel bag and rummaged around, pulling out a blanket and handing it to them. “You’ll have to share it. It’s all I got.”
Kirby accepted it and spread it across his and Hollis’ shoulders and the boys huddled close. As they warmed up, Cha’Risa retrieved the guns from the minivan, placing the pistol in the duffel bag and slinging the rifle around her shoulder. “Still got the níłchʼi?” she asked.
Hollis pushed his hand into his front pocket and nodded.
“Okay then,” she said. “Let’s hit it.” She beat a slow path in the opposite direction of the road and the boys followed, moving as one underneath the cover of the blanket, their footsteps interrupting the nocturnal sounds of the forest.
Cha’Risa led Hollis and Kirby through the woods for over two hours, down into ravines and back up long inclines, keeping a close eye on a compass she stored in her jacket pocket. At a few points, the terrain was too difficult for the boys to stay together, so without any planning, they began taking turns with the blanket, only sharing it on easier ground.
The woods weren’t the same as the ones in back of Hollis’ house. For one thing, he hadn’t spent much time in them when it was dark. But these just seemed bigger. He always had the feeling in his sanctuary that if he walked far enough in any direction he’d come upon another neighborhood. Not so in this forest. The trees stretched on and on. He didn’t know what time it was, but he figured it was hours past his bedtime.
Hollis already suffered from a lack of stamina due to his heart problem and his weight, but the exertion of hiking for hours when he was supposed to be asleep was taking its toll. He was physically and emotionally drained. The steam from his lungs melted into the cold humidity of the countryside, an unneeded reminder of the frigid temperature. “How much longer are we going to be walking?” he shouted, struggling to keep his breath.
Cha’Risa had opened up a little distance, but she was close enough to hear him. She doubled back toward the boys. “You two must be tired, huh?”
“Okay, we’ll stop the next good spot we hit, alright?”
The boys nodded again, and Cha’Risa took her spot at the front of the pack. Hollis was surprised when she hadn’t stopped within five minutes. He was used to his parents, who would never push him to overexert himself. Every few minutes, he would mutter an aggravated “come on” to himself as the evening ticked away, his breath harder and harder to control. Kirby seemed a little more immune and h kept silent.
A half hour after Hollis had complained, Cha’Risa dropped her bags and laid down the rifle. Hollis and Kirby slogged up next to her, the blanket wrapped around them both.
“This should be good,” she said.
“Looks good to me,” Kirby replied, taking a seat on a fallen tree robbed of all its identity by age and rot. Hollis and Cha’Risa sat on either side of him.
“There’s grass,” she said. “That’s good for sleeping, but there’s enough of a canopy that we won’t be spotted from the air.”
“Yippee,” Hollis said with more than a hint of sarcasm.
“Unless they have thermal,” she added. “But there’s not much we can do about that, is there?” She moved over to her bags and started removing items and tossing them on the ground, a tent, collapsable poles and a bag of parts.
“Is that a tent?” Kirby asked.
“Yes,” she answered as she unpacked the tent from its sheath.
“Awesome, I thought we were barebacking it. This won’t be so bad.”
Cha’Risa reached into her backpack and pulled out two more pouches and tossed them at Hollis’ and Kirby’s feet. “Those are heating packs. Just open them up and they’ll heat up in a few minutes.”
The boys ripped them open with abandon.
“They won’t make you sweat or anything, but they should help,” she said.
“Can we check on my parents again?” Hollis asked.
“Yeah, of course,” she replied, pulling her phone from her jacket pocket and swiping a finger across it. There’s no reception, Hollis. I’m sorry. It’s going to have to wait until morning.” She turned the phone off and returned it to her pocket before spreading the tent out along the ground. “Can one of you help me with this?”
Kirby rousted from his perch and pocketed the handheld warmer he’d been given, sidling up next to Cha’Risa. Hollis wrapped the blanket fully around himself, leaving only his face exposed. As he watched the pair assembling the tent, he contemplated the longest day of his life and was still baffled by how he’d arrived here.
“So who are you?” he asked.
The Potomac Research Facility was small compared to most military bases, but it was a secure compound and it had the basic amenities anyone working there would need—specifically a mess hall—which served the two hundred soldiers stationed on the grounds and the dozens of civilians who flowed in and out during regular work hours.
Like all of the buildings at the PRF, the single-floor mess hall was a permanent structure, an unimaginative rectangle comprised of mustard yellow brick, black mortar and no ornamentation. The smell of organics as you walked by the windows, animal, vegetable or other, gave away the structure for what it was, but once inside, the overwhelming and ubiquitous stench of industrial cleaner won out. It was hardly conducive to keeping an appetite, but there was a general consensus that the food had the same effect. Any agreeable flavor in the fare routinely absconded by the time it reached the tepid serving dishes, despite the claims of Corporal Oscar Paczkowski, the head cook, who maintained that he had poured extra effort into the offerings on any particular day.
Without fail, he’d make time to chew the fat with Eleanor as he slopped the day’s gruel onto her tray. “I made the pork chops with an extra dose of love today,” he’d say, before raising a hand to the side of his mouth and whispering, “. . . And a shovel full of garlic.” He was one of the service men she truly enjoyed chatting with on the base.
Unless it was a stew day, you were guaranteed a root vegetable soup, a lump of meat of indiscernible animal origin, vegetables sides, and two slices of bread and butter. It might not win any culinary awards, but it was free, and due to the base’s seclusion, it was the only real option for lunch.
Eleanor laid her stainless steel tray onto the rack and inched along the cafeteria line, waiting for the soldiers in front of her to fill up on double rations as they made perfunctory wisecracks about the suitability of said morsels for human consumption. A trio of cooks accepted trays, filled them up and returned them with absentminded grins, more important thoughts flooding their cerebrums. They’d heard all the comments before and what could they do? This is the food they’d been dealt.
Corporal Paczkowski stood at the end of the cooks in the same frame of mind as the other two. Move the boys through and make way for the next bunch. Eleanor knew he’d come to life when he saw her and occasionally that made up for the food. She glanced around the crowded room and caught Stella sitting alone, picking at her lunch, a sneer tattooed on her face. They were each other’s guaranteed date at noon, though sometimes other secretaries would join them, Joanne Miller or Marjorie Reynolds.
The chow line moved up and Eleanor handed her tray to the first man, who lopped down a spoon of mashed potatoes without losing eye contact. He passed the tray to the next man with an elbow to the arm and the next man looked up, let out a soft whistle and flung on slices of bread and butter. The extra attention wasn’t overly unusual given that women were the exception rather than the rule at the PRF, but undoubtedly Eleanor’s new look stepped it up a notch. The disruption to the normal routine attracted Corporal Paczkowski’s attention, who caught sight of Eleanor and laid out a broad smile, straightening up from his fixed position hunched over the stew. There were times he figured slowing down the assembly line was warranted.
Some faces never age, even with wrinkles, and even in his early 50s, Corporal Paczkowski looked like the kid who always managed to get caught whenever there was a group prank, with a chubby face that screamed guilt and jowls nearly as old as he was. His stature made it clear he was no longer a child and a buzz cut helped to mask his graying hair, but you could still see him being placed on the teacher’s watch list, even after 30 years in the military.
“Oh my dear,” he said in his heavy Jersey accent, lowering his ladle back into the dish of stew . “Let me get a look at you.” He held both hands up as if he were going to embrace her despite the fact that the cafeteria station separated the two.
She smiled, happy at last with one man’s recognition, and turned her head for a profile view.
“Absolutely stunning,” he said. “I didn’t know you could be improved upon and once again, you’ve proven me wrong. Do me a favor and don’t tell my wife.” He accepted her tray from his still gawking assistant and dispensed a serving of stew. “It’s because of this very moment that I’m glad I took extra care this morning preparing today’s meal. It’s because today I knew you would be visiting my little establishment. Do you know what I added to this for an extra dose of succulence?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Eleanor answered.
He leaned in and lowered his voice, as if confiding in her a family secret. “Fresh thyme.” He closed his eyes and sniffed the steam coming off the stew.
“I can’t wait,” she said accepting the tray. It would no doubt be as bland as every other meal he’d prepared through the years, but complaining would only cause a good man to feel deflated. “Thank you Oscar.”
“My dear Eleanor, if you were the only patron I served I could die a happy chef. Now go and tempt me no longer. Go and make the world a happier place.”
She waved a thank you to the corporal, grabbed a glass of water and made a beeline for Stella, who was talking to herself at one of the green granite Formica tables built for two. “I just adore him,” Eleanor said, as she perched herself in the chair opposite Stella.
“I just wish he was a better cook.” Stella sifted through the stew with her fork, separating the peas to one side of the tray. “Why do they have to put peas in everything?”
Eleanor shrugged. “Color?”
“They’re the same color as the rest of it! I bet if you asked, he’d take the peas out. He likes you.”
“I’m not going to ask him to take the peas out.”
“Why not? They could serve them on the side.”
“Do you really want me to ask if he’ll take the peas out?”
Stella filled up half a fork’s worth of stew and slipped it into her mouth. “I guess not.”
Eleanor took a bite and grimaced, forcing a smile out of her companion.
“Maybe you could persuade him to take a home economics course, just some basics for cooking, that’s all I ask,” Stella said.
“Oh my.” Eleanor washed the stew down with a large gulp of water. She glanced at Oscar, who was once again hunched over the grub and in his own world. “He’s such a nice man. I wish he would find another calling.”
“Speaking of nice men, how’s the Colonel?”
Eleanor dropped her fork and put up her hands up in defense, her lower jaw sticking out, bearing her teeth. “I need to get away from that man. He makes my skin crawl.”
“He must have had a field day with your new look.”
“My god, Stella, I was this close,” she said pinching two fingers together, “this close to pummeling him over the head with the typewriter.”
“You should do it next time.”
“I don’t think you understand. I’m getting worried I won’t be able to stop myself next time. He’s just so horrible. I don’t even think a slap would suffice. That man needs a lesson in humility.”
“Let me know before you snap. I want to see it. Do you know, he once said I’d be a doll except for my nose, then he asked me why Italians had big noses.”
“What did you say?”
“What am I supposed to say? He’s the C.O. I said ‘I don’t know.’”
Eleanor tightened her jaw again and clenched her fists. “Ugh! That’s the worst thing about it. I considered a formal complaint one time.”
Stella chuckled and picked at her food. “Good luck with that one.”
“I know. That’s what I figured. He’s in charge of a top secret installation. What am I? A secretary.”
“Your word against his.”
“It’s not even that. They’d sweep it under the rug for a G.I. I’d be worried they’d come after me for making an accusation against their golden boy.”
“I heard General Groves loves him.”
“He’s the one who put him in charge here. I bet Clay doesn’t grab the general’s ass.”
Stella let a snort out of her nose. “No, but he probably kisses it enough.”
It helped Eleanor to release some of the pent-up tension from the morning. Just discussing the situation with another woman, a peer, brought her blood pressure back down to a simmer. But lunch was only a temporary respite. Eventually she and Stella would bus their trays and head back to their respective offices.
“So what are you going to do?” Stella asked.
“What am I going to do? I’m going to do what I always do. I’m going to walk back into the office and keep quiet as long as I can so he doesn’t realize I’ve returned. Then I’ll try to stay out of arm’s reach and look busy so maybe he won’t talk to me. And tomorrow I’ll do it all again.”
“I’m sorry Eleanor.”
“I spend all morning on a new hairstyle. I don’t know what I was thinking. Who am I trying to impress? I should have known he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands to himself. Why don’t I think of these things?”
“There’s nothing wrong with a new hairstyle. You should be able to do something nice for yourself and not have to worry about a male chauvinist ruining it for you. You’re too good to work for that man, Eleanor.”
Eleanor picked up her fork with a barren stare and stabbed the mashed potatoes, twirling them around and trying a bite.
“Did you hear me Eleanor? I said you’re too good to work for that man.”
Eleanor swallowed the potatoes and offered a halfhearted response: “I don’t want to be doing this in fifteen years.” It was a reply that took some of the wind out of Stella’s sails. For a minute they fell silent, each nibbling at their lunches.
“I don’t want to grow old,” Eleanor continued. “The two of us grumbling over lunch every day about how horrible everything is. I don’t want to settle down with some fellah I meet here, and do the laundry and the dishes, spend the day cooking. I don’t know. I always thought when I was a kid that life would be what you make of it. I didn’t know all I had to look forward to was a choice between a boss who’ll fire me when my ass starts to droop or a husband who’ll want his dinner on the table at 6 and a clean starched shirt in the morning.” She took a sip of water. “What do you want?”
Stella took a bite of bread. “I wouldn’t argue with something involving a daiquiri and a swimming pool.”
“I want to be remembered,” Eleanor said. “Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony. Marie Curie.”
“You do realize you work on a military base?” Stella asked. “You couldn’t have picked a field less likely to move you up the ladder. Do you think Clay is going to open a door for you?”
“I wouldn’t even want him opening a door for me. He’d expect to be paid, if you know what I mean. Let me say, there are things I want, but there are things I’ll never do.”
“Oh no,” Stella said under her breath, in a tone that had Eleanor concerned.
“What is it?”
“Clay just walked in.”
Eleanor turned her head toward the entrance and caught eyes with the colonel. She groaned without moving her lips just low enough that Stella could hear it. Colonel Clay slid his cap under his arm and marched for their table, service men stepping aside for him. He towered over the table, looking down at the women.
“I thought I’d find you here,” he said. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Stella Romano, sir.”
“Stella, is that right?” he replied.
“Yes sir,” Stella said. “We’ve met.”
“You would think that would stick in my mind,” he said, winking at her.
Stella smiled uncomfortably, but he didn’t notice.
“Well you two little gossiping beauties will have to finish up some other time.” He nodded at Eleanor. “I need you to return to your desk.”
“Yes sir,” Eleanor replied.
Clay lifted his nose into the air and inhaled deeply. “Mmm! Don’t you two smell lovely.” Then he spun around and beat a slow retreat.