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“So… we’re graduating tomorrow,” my friend —- said from the backseat.
“Yeah,” I answered, half surprised and half frivolous.
The headlights of my hand-me-down, 1990 Jeep Cherokee illuminated the twisting dirt road and the thick forest of pine trees to either side of it before dwindling into darkness. The sky still showed dark blue, but it wouldn’t last long. Three friends, my brother, and I had spent the afternoon and evening hiking and playing frisbee in Blue Mountain Forest. It’s what we usually did after school in the spring when the cold finally left. Today, we’d only stayed out much later than usual. We were celebrating I guess, but we hadn’t even spoken of graduation.
“Do you think it’ll be worth it?” —- asked.
Esarose chuckled from the opposite side of the back bench. “Is ‘it’ worth ‘it’?”
“I wasn’t talking to you, sophomore,” —- retorted.
“Junior,” Esarose corrected him.
“I mean when we enter the real world tomorrow,” —- continued, “will we be ready? Will we have success? Will we make a difference? Or will we just realize that twelve years of ‘education’ didn’t prepare us for anything, doomed us to being cogs in the machine of a hopelessly broken system?”
“Deep,” my brother Gene said snidely from the passenger’s seat. I heard his crooked smile in his voice.
“These sophomores keep giving me crap! What do you think, ——?”
“Well, my dad says the Left is turning America into a communist, third-world country,” my other friend —— said with a laugh. He was sandwiched in the middle on the back bench. “Maybe he’s right!”
“Keep in mind,” Esarose said. “Your dad also believes that reptile people run the government.”
“Personally,” I cut in, “I don’t care if life gets better or worse. I’m just ready for something completely different.”
“The world ends December 12, 2012,” —- offered. “That different enough for you?”
“Happy graduation!” Esarose joked. “Enjoy your three years of futile existence followed by…”
“…the complete collapse of the economy,” —- finished.
“Then, Obama will throw his hands up and yell, ‘It’s over, man!’ and pound the ‘Nuke Russia’ button,” —— said.
“But aliens will conquer the world in time to conserve its precious resources,” I followed.
“Right before the sun goes supernova earlier than anyone expected,” Gene added.
“Awesome!” Esarose exclaimed. “Let’s just quit school!”
I reached the bottom of the dirt path twisting down the mountain and stopped at the main asphalt road that led back to town. I could’ve turned right to get to the highway, but instead, I turned left, taking the scenic route. We couldn’t see much, but the conversation was good enough. The road followed the Bitterroot River hidden behind trees and bushes to our right. The sky faintly glowed yellow from the lights of the city beyond it. The steep incline of the mountainous forest bordered the other side of the road.
“No, no,” I stopped Esarose. “Maybe we’ll continue living in a post-apocalyptic future. We’ll need skills to survive.”
“Right, we’ve got a doctor,” —— said, referring to his desired career.
“I’ll develop the video games,” —- said. “We’ll need entertainment.”
“I’ll be the veterinarian!” Esarose said.
“What do we need a vet for?” I jeered.
“The reptile government official that we keep as a pet,” Gene answered as if it were obvious.
That got a good laugh out of us.
“Okay, that leaves Gene and Logan as the police officers,” —— said next.
“No, Gene’ll be the architect,” I corrected him.
Gene scoffed. “Well, that depends if dad’s still alive.”
I glanced sideways at him. He tapped his fingers to his thumbs in quick succession in his lap.
Dad told me not to worry about Gene. He’d make sure that Gene finished high school, got into a good college, and became a cop just like I would. I could take my diploma, A-average, sports trophies, and volunteer hours and follow my destined career path without looking back.
Dad was furious when I selected a college out of state, a place Gene could get into easily, even with his B-average grades. It even had an architecture program. I could have gone almost anywhere. I had full scholarships other places, but I wanted Gene to be able to follow me easily if he wanted to, if he needed to. Dad grudgingly agreed to pay part of my tuition at mom’s insistence. She didn’t see the problem with Gene and me attending the same school, but dad knew what lay beneath my decision.
I worried that the strange and dark thoughts Gene confided in me when we were kids had only gotten worse. He stopped talking about them four years ago at the peak of their intensity, and ever since, he seemed determined to prove he was fine. He could be fragile, more fragile than ever, but dad dismissed my warnings and fears as overprotectiveness and paranoia. Gene could be on a precipice, but he would deny it until he threw himself off it. The best I could do at this point was make the end goal as visible and easy to reach as I could. Maybe without dad constantly hovering over us, I could convince Gene he didn’t have to act so strong. Maybe he’d confide in me again. He had to survive the next two years by himself first though. I worried he wouldn’t make it.
Maybe I should tell Esarose everything before I left…
Lights from an approaching car highlighted the edges of the trees ahead of me, reminding me to keep my mind in the present. Shoving my thoughts aside, I returned my attention to the curving road and gripped the steering wheel.
“Oh yeah,” —- ranted while I lost myself in thought. “If Rendor’s still alive, he’ll probably make all of us police officers. I swear to God! Every time I come over to your house, he asks if I’ve considered joining the military or the police. Excuse me! You’re not my dad! Seriously, he doesn’t do that to any of you?”
“Well, maybe you should get a real job,” Esarose taunted.
The brights of a large pickup truck blinded me as they popped into view from behind the trees. I squinted and focused on the white line following the asphalt’s edge. Then, I realized the headlights were on the wrong side of the road.
I gasp through my teeth and tense for the impact, but the dark trees and blinding lights disappear before my eyes. A quiet, sunny neighborhood replaces them. Glancing around, I find myself in the passenger’s seat of Conrad’s van. The pounding in my chest relents somewhat.
I’m not Logan Cusick.
Today’s significant for him. It has me on edge, seeing his memories.
“They’re throwing the hats!” Monica shouts from the backseat, continuing her commentary on the nearby graduation ceremony. “Gene’s officially a high school graduate!”
I sigh irritably, disappointed that she hasn’t disappeared, too. Out the window next to me, I spot the two-story, dark green house I’ve been staring at for what seems like days. It hasn’t gotten any stranger. In fact, there’s still nothing strange about it. I wish Conrad would hurry up and figure that out. I don’t want to be here anymore.
“Now Teva’s taking pictures of Gene in his cap and gown,” Monica continues.
I finally twist in the seat to cast my glare at her. She smiles knowingly at me from the middle of the back bench. Her vivid green eyes mock my annoyance. She claims to be older, but she certainly acts like a twelve-year-old.
“Have you looked in the house yet?” I ask testily.
“The investigation hasn’t started yet,” she teases.
“There’s nothing to investigate. If you looked ahead of time, you’d know that.”
Really, Conrad’s investigations exist because Monica never looks ahead of time. They borderline pointless ruses. I suspect we do them only because Conrad likes the drama, Monica likes pretending she doesn’t know the answers before she finds the clues, and both of them feel sorry for me.
“Then, shut up, and listen in to Gene’s graduation,” Monica answers smartly.
I press my lips together. My irritation tips toward anger.
She continues smiling tauntingly at me and kicking her legs back and forth in the space between the seats. Her ponytail of brown hair bounces with each kick. Despite her cheery expression, her face is creepily pale.
“Rendor’s tired of pictures already,” she narrates. “Jeeze. Teva’s barely gotten one!”
“I don’t care.” I turn back to the house again.
“Yes, you do!” she sings. “Come on! Admit it!”
I ignore her.
“Ha ha! Esarose caught them before they left!”
I push the van door open and shove myself out into the quiet neighborhood. A red and green, stencil font logo plastered to the side of Conrad’s obnoxious black van reminds me why I’m supposed to be here when I slam the door. “A Call for Help: Parapsychological Services,” it reads. I turn away and storm down the sidewalk toward the main road five blocks away. Conrad can service crazy fanatics by himself today. He can’t pay me enough to listen to another word from Monica.
“Okay, okay,” Monica relents as she catches up to me almost instantly. She actually sounds apologetic. “I was just trying to cheer you up, all right?”
“Seth!” Conrad shouts from the house before I can get far. “Where are you going!?”
I growl and slow to a stop. A tubby, 30-year-old, Asian guy runs across the lawn to meet me. He wears an official A Call for Help jacket that, like his car, has at least four logos patched to it.
“What took you so long?” I demand.
Conrad adjusts the circular-lensed glasses framing his blue eyes. “It’s only been twenty minutes. Are you okay?”
“There’s nothing in that house,” I say, pointing accusingly at it. “That woman is just hearing things.”
“Hell if I know.”
“Then, get in there, and figure it out.”
He gives me a gentle shove towards the house. He’s so short in general and compared to me he can reach only as high as my midback comfortably.
“You don’t work; you don’t get paid,” he continues as he accompanies me across the lawn.
I sigh. I want the pay.
“Did you look yet?” I ask Monica.
“I’m looking,” she complains as she moseys at my side through the sunny yard. Her eyes seem unfocused as if she’s reading an invisible book in front of her face.
An image of headlights flashes before my eyes. “Are the lights off?” I ask Conrad.
“Yes,” he says, “I checked myself.”
We stop in the front entryway. Conrad closes the door behind me as I examine the house’s atmosphere. The entry leads to a white, carpeted staircase to the second story. A cylindrical, glass chandelier hangs high above us. The lights are off, but the large living area to my left, high ceilings, white carpeting and walls, and strategically placed windows let in plenty of midday sunlight. Similarly, I don’t feel any disconcerting energy. Neither despair, anger, nor fear draws me anywhere. I don’t sense anyone other than Monica, Conrad, and the client, who’s sitting on the back porch. This house doesn’t know tragedy or death.
I place my hand against the drywall next to me, giving me a stronger connection to the network of memories held in the house’s materials. I skim centuries of drab existence buried in wood, stone, and metal. Fires burn, hammers hit, axes cut, footsteps pound, predators murder prey, sunlight warms, and things grow and decay. Events so old and insignificant that they don’t mean anything anymore. I still don’t see any weird rituals or recent traumatic events.
That leaves my search to the owner’s personal items and history. An antique curio cabinet filled with trinkets and family photos stands on the black, stone floor against the wall ahead of me. I remove my hand from the wall and walk slowly from one end of the cabinet to the other. Flashes of memories and emotions from the client’s life and the lives of her family and friends pass through me as I touch the framed pictures and items on an open shelf. I glance over the images and energies but still find nothing concerning. Judging by the rest of the bland energy in the house, I doubt I’ll ever find anything.
Conrad’s excitement remains the most palpable, which doesn’t surprise me considering that he’s matched my every step. I turn to him and catch him huddled over the notepad and fancy pen in his hands, two steps behind me. He meets my eyes and straightens, realizing I don’t have any riveting insights.
“There’s nothing here,” I repeat. If anything here produces enough energy to affect the living, I’d notice it by now.
“You barely looked,” Conrad argues. “What does Monica say?”
She stands before the painted metal door with her hands on her hips. Her eyes scan the floor sightlessly as she searches her knowledge base. It’s much larger than this house’s network, but she’s never needed this long to find anything.
Her eyes focus as she senses me watching her. She directs her troubled frown to me. “Check the back porch.”
I look over my shoulder as if I can see through the walls and staircase separating us from the backyard. Mentally, I reach out to it. At first, I only sense the client, but then, I feel something else, a strange energy so faint it blends with hers.
“She’s wearing a necklace,” Monica continues.
I look back at her in disbelief. An energy so weak couldn’t cause that much distress to the living. “That’s the cause?”
“I know. Nothing about it makes sense.” She shakes her head at her flat-bottom sneakers, resuming her search. “I’m having trouble finding more about it, too.”
We’ve never come across information she doesn’t know on an investigation. It exists though, and it all relates to one of us, our unfinished business. Those answers aren’t so easy to find. I breathe in, feeding a flutter of hope in my chest.
“Well, what do you know about it?” I prod.
She meets my eyes again. “I think you’d better see it for yourself.”
She only withholds information about one subject from me. The only reason I do these investigations is in pursuit of him. Maybe today I’ll find him.
“What’s going on?” Conrad asks obliviously. Monica being a spirit, he can’t see or hear her.
“The client is wearing a necklace,” I say to him. “I need to see it.”
Conrad grins excitedly and scribbles in his notepad. “Okay, but first, tell me why we’re here.” His patronizing tone reminds me of a parent prompting a child to say, “thank you.”
He knows perfectly well why we’re here. He just wants a good story to tell people about how I know things that should be impossible for me to know. I just want my pay.
I sigh irritably. “Can we not do this right now?”
“Come on,” he coaxes. “It’ll take less than five minutes.”
“Did we come here to do a job or to fluff my reputation?”
“Both,” he persists. “Proving that you’re not a phony is as important as helping people. The more people trust us, the more opportunities we get. Now, you said the client hears things. What does she hear?”
I grunt in annoyance and frown at the stone floor, relenting. If the past two years of cases haven’t proved that insanity and keen observation don’t explain my apparent abilities, then we might as well give up now. Arguing about it with Conrad won’t get me the information I want though.
Conrad’s mind practically screams the answers at me, but what the client told him lacks details he’ll quiz me on. His enthusiasm clogging the air doesn’t help either. I manage to wrestle his thoughts far enough away to focus on the necklace on the porch. I hear a sound. It’s unmistakable.
“A loud crash,” I answer. “A car crash.”
Conrad chuckles and makes a note. “Anything else?”
“Some guy sobbing. Another screaming.” Despite my flippant tone, they sound familiar. I listen closer a moment but then dismiss the thought, deciding I’d rather not hear anymore.
“Get any names?”
I look to Monica for the answer this time. I’m terrible at detecting names. She shakes her head at me, pressing her lips together. She won’t say, which further confirms my suspicions.
“Not yet,” I say, deciding to keep my thoughts to myself.
“How about where the client hears these sounds?”
I look to Monica again. Such information wouldn’t be stored in the necklace, and reading people doesn’t work as well as reading objects for me. People’s minds constantly change. Unless they actively think about what I want to find, their random thoughts, emotions, memories, and senses usually overwhelm me first. Objects, on the other hand, ring the same note of energy, the same moments in time, over and over again, readily readable, slowly fading, drastically changing only when they absorb the next major event.
“She hears them wherever she goes,” Monica says.
Conrad hesitates as if I said something wrong when I relay her answer to him. “Has she experienced anything else?”
I concentrate on the necklace until I hear the sounds again. A short but stabbing pain I don’t expect shoots through me like electricity this time. I press a hand to the harshest ache in my lower back.
“Ahh!” I groan. “Back pain.”
Intense alien emotions envelop me just as suddenly. My eyes narrow as I notice again that this energy feels familiar. More concerning though, I wonder how it can affect me at this distance and yet produce only the faintest signature. I retreat before the disturbed emotions can blend with my own. I close my eyes and cover them with my hand to recover.
“And she feels angry or confused or sad all the time for no reason,” I say. I exhale, releasing the tension built up in me.
I hear Monica release a held breath, too. “Be careful, Seth,” she cautions belatedly.
“Do you need to take a break?” Conrad offers, his curiosity yielding to worry.
I lower my hand from my face. “No, I need to see that necklace.”
Conrad pulls a corner of his mouth into an unconvinced frown. Deciding to test my obstinacy, he returns his gaze to the notepad. “When did this start?”
“When she got that necklace, about a month ago,” Monica says.
Conrad forgets about me when I repeat her answer. He has that look of realization on his face. He gets it when I’ve revealed new information that makes sense out of everything. He smiles and writes it down, solving the mystery, continuing the legacy of Seth Rose. Then, he scratches his scalp with the back of the pen and reviews his notes, clearly pleased.
“Can I see the necklace now!?” I shout, reminding him I’m still there.
“What’s with the necklace?” he asks, enjoying himself now.
I decide against touching it again, and Monica keeps her silence under my impatient gaze.
“Monica won’t tell me,” I tell Conrad.
The smile slides off his face. He suspects what I do now. “Does this have something to do with Rio Lamar?” he asks hesitantly.
“I don’t know, Conrad!” I snap. Hearing his name makes me completely lose my temper. “Maybe you should let me do my job so I can find out!”
Conrad watches me critically. “Fine.” He steps past me towards the hallway next to the stairs but stops short. Looking up at me, he implores, “Try to be personable, please.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I mutter.
We follow the rock flooring down the short hallway to a tiled kitchen and dining area. A sliding glass door leads to the back yard. The owner, a thin woman in her thirties, sits on a swinging bench hanging from the ceiling of the covered, brick patio. She stands and turns to us as we approach.
I stop noticing details there. Her necklace, a metal, twelve-pointed star with a red ruby at its center, attracts all my attention.
What’s she doing with that? That’s my mother’s.
I mentally shake myself, realizing what I’ve thought.
I’m not Logan Cusick!
“Don’t freak out,” Monica says, seeing me freaking out. I focus on her, hoping for answers, but she only says, “I’ll tell you what I can later.” She holds her hands up like she’s soothing an animal.
“…this is my partner and psychic Seth Rose,” Conrad finishes saying something. He nudges me.
Reluctantly, I turn my attention to the woman. I might as well learn what I can from her since Monica is so infuriatingly intent on withholding information. Then, I see the giddy grin on the client’s face. Great… She’s a fangirl. She grabs one of my hands in both of hers and shakes it before I can react.
A montage of faces, voices, and emotions from her briefly overwhelm me. I hate being subjected to everything I touch. I could wear gloves to prevent it, but then, I feel like I’m blind, deaf, and suffocating. For the moment, I take comfort that this fan doesn’t have sexual fantasies about me. Those are the worst.
“I’ve been reading your blog since the early days,” she gushes while I struggle to suppress the energy rushing through me to tolerable levels. “It’s an honor to meet you. As a member of the A Call for Help Community, I just want to say from all of us, we appreciate what you do to help people find peace. Roses are our favorite flower.” She winks as if sharing an inside joke.
“I’m not named after a flower,” I answer crossly as I extract my hand from hers and shove my hands into my jacket pockets.
Conrad clears his throat, signaling me to shut up.
I roll my eyes. I don’t see the point of feigning politeness with clients like this. Their enthusiasm can’t be deterred by anything. I’ve tried. I don’t read what Conrad writes about me, but it apparently incites mindless worship.
“You told me that you have these experiences in this house,” Conrad says. “During our walkthrough, Seth said you’ve had them in other places as well. Is that true?”
“Oh, yeah,” the lady says, nodding. “Sorry, I thought I made that clear. They’re everywhere.”
Conrad nods and scribbles. “The crashing sound you described, is it consistent with a car wreck?”
The woman glances away thoughtfully and then back in surprise. “Yes… I mean I’ve never heard one, but I imagine it’d sound like that.”
Conrad smiles at me, pleased with my performance. This banal conversation hasn’t soothed my impatience though.
“What are you doing with that necklace?” I demand.
“Seth,” Conrad hisses warningly.
Monica elbows me, which feels like an icy stab through my insides. I flinch and quickly cross my arms to try to justify it. Leaving the diplomacy to Conrad, I glare at the flower bed off the edge of the brick patio.
“Sorry,” I hear Conrad continue to the woman. “Seth and his spirit guide Monica believe that necklace may be the source of your problems. Do you wear it often?”
“Yeah,” she says uncertainly. “My boyfriend gave it to me for my birthday… last month.”
That attracts my attention again. She connects the dots. Conrad’s already grinning though.
“Oh my God!” the woman exclaims in surprise. “It is from this!” She undoes the clasp behind her neck like she’s uncoiling a snake squeezing around her throat.
“May Seth examine it?”
She redoes the clasp as she hands it to Conrad. “I didn’t even realize!”
“Don’t feel bad,” Conrad consoles her. “Objects with powerful negative energy attached to them have a way of fascinating new owners.”
He holds the necklace out to me by the chain. I reach out to take it by the star centerpiece, the source of the faint and strange energy.
“Don’t touch that!” Monica snaps as if I’m a child reaching for an expensive china vase.
I freeze. This object is important to Logan, not to me, I remind myself. Redirecting my hand, I grasp the chain.
“I thought it was a strange thing for him to get me at the time,” the woman jabbers excitedly. “And he thought so, too. He said he found it at a pawn shop, and he just liked it. He thinks that’s a real ruby, but it was so cheap, it couldn’t possibly be. Then, we both forgot about how weird it was. It’s like those families who buy old houses that they see as their dream home, but they’re really haunted by a demon or something.”
“You never think that’ll happen to you until it does,” Conrad says.
I scowl but keep my mouth shut. This object means more than a decaying house or a creepy antique on a TV show. I hold it against the bright, green backyard beyond the patio to study it. The twelve-pointed star is about an inch in diameter. It’s ruby centerpiece, a quarter inch. This family heirloom doesn’t belong here, let alone with this energy. It doesn’t belong to this woman… unless she has some kind of importance.
She and Conrad watch me, waiting for some dramatic truth. I might as well ask for my pay now. If she has this, she must have some connection… right?
“Do you know someone named Rio Lamar?” I ask her.
Conrad frowns. He doesn’t like it when I collect sooner than he thinks I should.
“…Doesn’t sound familiar,” the woman says thoughtfully. “Should I?”
I don’t sense a lie. So much for that theory. With a tight grin, I say, “It doesn’t matter then.” I shorten the chain between my fingers and the metal star, drawing attention back to it. “This necklace belongs to Teva Cusick. Her two sons were in a car crash three years ago.”
“Ah, it must have absorbed the energy surrounding the incident,” Conrad cuts in academically as if he can hide the rising tension in the air. He flashes me an anxious look.
“Were they killed?” the woman asks with morbid interest.
“One was,” I say to her, lowering the necklace slightly.
“How old were they?”
“Fifteen and seventeen at the time.”
“What were their names?”
My frown harshens. “Gene and Logan.”
She scuffles her sneakers on the brick, sensing that she’s asking too many questions. “Sorry, I suppose it’s none of my business, but after a month of experiencing these feelings, I want to understand what they mean… It must have been horrible whatever happened.”
“You’d never understand,” I say coldly.
“I should be able to purify this necklace,” Conrad says loudly, “and you shouldn’t have any more problems. Give it to me, Seth.” He holds his hand out.
“She shouldn’t have this at all,” I argue. I lower the necklace to my side and flick the centerpiece into my fist.
Conrad balks. “Seth, that’s her property,” he reasons. “Give it…”
I didn’t want to think. I wanted to sleep and never wake up.
Trees, half illuminated and half shadowed in headlights, rushed by my window. I heard voices, mine among them. They sounded happy, but I didn’t feel it.
“So… we’re graduating tomorrow,” one said.
At the end of the summer, my brother would go to a mediocre college because of me. And still I’d disappoint him. Why did he always think it would be different? All I did was drag him down.
Worthless! I was worthless.
Looking down at my hands, I tapped my fingers to my thumbs. In my head, I began the process of counting from one to twelve a dozen times.
…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
The dashboard lit Logan’s face subtly in the darkness. He watched the road, but I hated counting in front of him anyway. He worried about me more than I wanted without him seeing this. If I could help it, I’d stop, but my thoughts had become intolerable. I didn’t know how else to stop them. My brother graduated tomorrow, and I couldn’t even be happy about it.
…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
“No, Gene’ll be the architect,” Logan corrected one of his friends.
I scoffed. “Well, that depends if dad’s still alive.” As long as he lived, he’d never let me do anything I wanted.
…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
What did I say? I was the only reason I couldn’t do what I wanted.
…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
It wasn’t his fault I was such a disappointment. Stupid! Stupid!
…eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve.
I didn’t want to feel like this anymore.
…eight, nine, ten, eleven…
A bright light shone into the jeep, distracting me. I heard Logan gasp and looked up just in time to see headlights hurtling toward us. They cast the world in white until it was all made of light.
My life flashed through my mind, encapsulated in a single thought.
This was all my fault.
An impact ripped my body in all directions, twisting and breaking it. Fire spread through my back and limbs. Time seemed to stop. I grasped for the light, but the restraint around my chest held me back. Then, everything faded into darkness and the fire consumed me. I heard someone scream.
But still the world refused to end.
Ice cubes dump down the back of my jacket. It feels like that at least. I realize Monica has just placed her hands against my skin. I flinch.
Conrad reappears in front of me. He searches my face as if to make sure I’m there. “Did you hear what I said?” He sounds annoyed, but he looks worried. I’ve scared him, and he’s trying not to scare the client, too.
“What did I tell you, idiot!?” Monica shouts. She removes her hands. “Drop it!”
I still clench the twelve-pointed star and chain in my fist.
“You’re right,” I blurt out. Shakily, I shove the necklace into Conrad’s outstretched hand. “Sorry.” I glance at the client but don’t process her expression. “Excuse me.”
Hastily, I stumble back through the house and out to the van. I slide to the sidewalk without opening it though, deciding I’d rather not sit in a car. Burying my face in my hands, I try to calm down. I shiver and pant as if I ran here for my life, as if I can vent the foreign emotions and memories out of me.
“Seth,” Monica says from somewhere nearby. “Gene graduated today, remember? Everything’s okay now.” She means to comfort me, but the uncertainty, the lie in her voice only hurts.
Brand Danil lets himself into the Cusick’s yard through the wood gate off the driveway. The high school colors, red and black, and “Congratulations, Graduate!” balloons decorate the yard. Eugene Cusick graduates today. Brand spots him among a handful of teenagers gathered around a laptop and speakers in a corner of the yard. Eugene’s friend Esarose Porter and a neighbor’s son appear to be having a dance off, to the other teenagers’ amusement.
Brand grabs a beer out of a tub against the fence, cracks it open, and hopes his faded dress suit and worn, black tennis shoes blend in with the well-dressed guests. He rubs his bushy, gray beard, wondering if he should have shaved that morning. Giggling children run past him. More pet Eugene’s mild mannered German Shepard, lounging in the grass. The adult guests talk in groups around the yard with beer and wine in hand. Eugene’s mother Teva flits between them, chatting as she goes. His father Rendor is out of view, which Brand finds part comforting and part disturbing.
It appears a normal graduation party, but Brand knows better. Rendor’s coworkers, Teva’s friends, Cusick relatives, and their children compose most of the guests. Eugene’s only friend in attendance, his only friend, is Esarose. Typical parents would stage these parties for such isolated children to feign normalcy, but the Cusick’s use it for a different purpose.
They use it to hide what they are, what they serve, what they’ve done.
Today holds significance for a different reason than Eugene’s graduation. It echoes the graduation that should have happened three years ago and the tragedy that replaced it. Everyone here knows it. The Cusick’s can’t avoid the subject forever. They can’t hide their guilt forever.
Aliens. Filthy aliens. Brand just has to wait for them to slip up.
Brand follows the fence and tables of food lining it toward the backyard in search of Rendor. He nearly spills his beer down his front when he finds him much sooner than he expects. Rendor stands just around the corner of the house with a glass of beer in hand. The red rose tucked in the front pocket of his black suit and his hulking 6’ 5” figure reminds Brand of a crime boss. The peaked police officer’s cap on his head says otherwise. Brand backs away a few steps to a safer distance. He sips his beer, attempting to appear nonchalant as he settles in to observe and wait.
Rendor watches the teenagers across the yard with a frown akin to disapproval or maybe disgust. Esarose and the neighbor’s kid have finished their dance off: disco vs. break dance. The neighbor has had enough, but Esarose hasn’t. As another dance track begins she encourages Eugene to join her. Eugene’s smile shifts to wide-eyed nervousness, but it doesn’t take much encouragement from Esarose for him to relent. Soon they’re doing simple disco moves together. As the other teenagers and some of the little kids join them, Esarose turns the graduation into a silly dance class.
Rendor takes a long draught of beer.
Brand spots Teva approaching and quickly ducks behind the house.
“Care to dance, Rendor?” he hears her ask lightly. “You look a mite jealous.”
“That girl’s a bad influence,” Rendor answers.
Brand carefully peers around the house again. The teens move on to “the flight attendant” at Esarose’s instruction. Exits, exits, masks, seatbelts. Exits, exits, masks, seatbelts.
“Please, they’re just playing,” Teva says, sipping from a glass of wine in her hand. “This isn’t a metaphor for life.”
The song ends after only a few phrases once everyone’s gotten the hang of it. The teenagers leave the grass dancefloor for a plastic tub of ice and canned sodas against the fence. Only Eugene, Esarose, and giggling children remain. A pop ballad begins. Esarose bows to Eugene with an overly elaborate flourish. Eugene smiles timidly, but he returns an equally ridiculous flourishing bow to her. Esarose steps forward and takes his outstretched hand. She positions his other hand at her waist and leads him in a slow, disco-flavored ballroom dance. Eugene glances between her face and his feet nervously. Esarose directs him encouragingly. They smile whenever their eyes meet.
Brand can’t help but smile, too. He likes to see Esarose happy. He only wishes she’d befriended someone more honest than a Cusick.
“Eugene says he wants to take a year off before he goes to college,” Rendor says to Teva as he continues watching. “Esarose did the same thing and look at her now. She’s working a dead-end job at a slutty restaurant with no sign of stopping.”
Brand casts Rendor a glare. The filthy alien would be the type to call naturally beautiful and charming women mindless sluts. Esarose is large-chested and on the chubby side but wears a tight-fitting red t-shirt and black shorts today anyway. A black bandana with the red letters “GPO” across it ties her shoulder-length, black hair back from her tan, Native American features. She always wears it to hide her ears, her only feature she’s self-conscious about. She doesn’t try to hide the scars marring the right side of her face with makeup, now or ever. At the moment, she’s barefoot. Her discarded flip flops lie just off the dance floor. She’s the most casually-dressed person at the party, but Rendor would only see a deadbeat whore in such beauty.
“It’s just Hooters, Rendor,” Teva argues. “She’s lucky she found anything in this town.”
“She could’ve gone somewhere else.”
“She wanted to see Gene graduate.”
“And now he’s graduated, and she’s still not leaving.”
Teva looks up at Rendor. He’s a foot taller than her. “The only reason Gene looked at colleges at all was because of her. Did you forget that, too?”
Rendor laughs humorlessly. He returns her gaze. “Eugene is not going to some crummy community college with her. He’ll have better education than that.”
“Gene can do whatever he wants,” Teva says firmly.
“He says he wants to study criminal justice. Why should he wait?”
“Does he really say that to you?”
“Yes.” Rendor returns his gaze to Eugene and Esarose and sips his beer.
Teva’s eyes linger a moment longer before she follows Rendor’s gaze and sips her wine. Eugene looks more comfortable, less self-conscious. Esarose leads him through a series of more complicated steps.
“He can never be an officer, Rendor,” Teva finally says, breaking the tense silence, “not since the accident.”
Brand frowns. Despite his skepticism of the Cusick’s, sometimes he can’t help but have sympathy for Eugene. He suffers from chronic back pain and a monstrous father. Brand wishes it weren’t too late to save him from the aliens’ influence.
“There is a place for anyone who wishes to serve his community,” Rendor persists.
“What about when he took that CAD class his sophomore year?” Teva asks. “He used to spend hours after school working on that special computer program they had there. Hasn’t he said anything about studying architecture?”
Rendor looks down at Teva again. “If he can’t swing a hammer, why would anyone trust him to build their house?”
“Architects aren’t necessarily builders,” she offers.
Rendor looks back at Eugene and nods with his chin. “Look at him, Teva.”
Eugene pirouettes under Esarose’s fingers. Then, Esarose tips him backwards and finally spins him back onto his feet. The two of them circle each other, still holding hands. They throw their opposing arms up in the air dramatically and stare at each other with overly serious expressions. Eventually, their dramatic air crumbles into laughter.
“He looks fine to me,” Rendor says. “He probably doesn’t even need all those pills.”
“There’s a reason he takes them. There’s a reason some days he only lays in bed.”
“People just like him don’t need pills at all.”
“Everyone experiences pain differently especially with back injuries.”
“Esarose broke half the bones in her body, and even she doesn’t complain as much as he does.”
“Enough, Rendor,” Teva says sharply. She sips her wine. Then, she looks at him with a gentler air. “You can’t fix him, and you can’t control when he gets better.”
Rendor’s frown remains stern, but he stays silent. He takes a gulp of beer.
“Hey, Rendor!” One of his co-workers steps up to them.
Brand jumps and ducks around the corner. He realizes how tense the conversation has left him. He chugs some of his beer and shakes out his hands one by one.
“Hello, Teva,” he hears the co-worker continue. “Mind if I join you?”
“That’s why we invited you,” Teva says, a smile in her voice.
“I just wanted to say how happy I am for you and Gene… Kid’s been through hell. He deserves this. He really does.”
Brand peers back around the house, his interest peaking again. This is it.
“He’s tough,” Rendor says, cracking a smile. “You’re part of the reason he’s still here.”
His co-worker smiles humbly and looks at the ground. “I still think about it a lot, you know. What happened to Logan still bothers me. Sometimes I…” He sighs and looks between Rendor and Teva. “I wish there was more I could have done.”
Teva looks away and sips wine to hide the bitter look on her face.
Rendor pats his friend roughly on the shoulder. “You did everything you could. We’re moving on as best we can. You don’t have to feel guilty about it.”
“If I solved only one case in my career, I would want it to be that one.”
“I know… You’d better go congratulate Eugene yourself before he gets dragged into another dance.”
Brand grits his teeth. Even today, Rendor refuses to explain the car crash that took Logan Cusick from this world. Brand knows the aliens took him. He knows the Cusicks gave him away. Their continued avoidance and lies prove it as much as a confession they’ll probably never give.
Aliens. Filthy aliens.
Rendor’s co-worker laughs. He glances back at Eugene and Esarose. Ending their dance, they present each other with more lengthy, extravagant bows. “She’s pretty good, about thirty years behind the times but not half bad.”
Rendor chuckles. “Yeah, if anything she’s enthusiastic.”
“Did those two ever start dating?”
“Afraid not. I guess if it doesn’t happen after a decade, it never will.”
“We’re still hoping,” Teva adds brightly, crossing her fingers.
“They’re good together,” the co-worker agrees. “Anyway, Teva, Rendor, I’ll catch you again before I leave if not sooner.” He nods to them and heads off towards Eugene.
Rendor gulps down the rest of his beer. His eyes meet Teva’s. They share a knowing frown.
Brand finishes off his own beer and turns away. Some of the guests are giving him suspicious looks, which means he’d better leave. On his way out the gate, he looks back at Eugene and Esarose one last time as they rejoin the other teenagers. In a silent cheer, he holds up his empty beer can.
“Congratulations, Eugene,” he says, “whatever’s left of you.”