FICTION

johnwstiles.com

You 06.16.06

They must all get the same training. "I have some very bad news." Last time I heard that my brother had hung himself with dental floss after recording a farewell to his daughter to the tune of "Visions of Johanna." This time it was her. She went to Oaxaca with her brother. The New Yorker article about ferns by the mind doctor had intrigued her. Her brother found a home there and so they went. His back went out and they almost cancelled. Went out means that the largest nerve in the body got bumped by the leathery material that makes up disks. Imagine plugging an electrical cord into your lower back for a second. Just a second mind you. It's more excruciating than anything Quenton can imagine. Death, if it could be willed, would be an easy choice.

In her first year she went home to check on a boy whose father had murdered his mother earlier in the day and she wanted to make sure he was being loved. She'd have brought him home if not. Now she lay on a cobblestone plaza dead from an angry swing of a stick. A Mexican cop cracked her skull by accident. He was just swinging and she was covering a boy. She was a teacher see. She wanted the children to have a choice. When she heard the teachers were on strike she went to help. Strike to her meant the weak needed help. So she went.

Now she is gone and I am lost.

Skydiving 06.17.00

"Absolutely, Tom. You call me in the morning at 6 and we'll go skydiving."

It was after midnight and Tom was, as usual, drunk. He had this fear of heights and determined the best way to overcome it would be to jump out of an airplane. I had agreed to go with him. Tom never did anything alone. Except get arrested. He would pass out soon and probably wouldn't remember calling. The phone rang at 6. Tom stayed up all night drinking. I picked him up and we headed for the little airstrip south of town. Tom drank two tallboys on the way down. I don't drink if I'm going to be outside in the afternoon.

Once, years ago, Beasey and Bob and I were putting a tin roof on stables in August for Beasey's dad. Beasey and I were seventeen, Bob eighteen. Back then the legal age was eighteen. When the body count reached fourteen thousand, though, the state raised it back to twenty-one. August in this part of the world is unbearably hot. Stepping into an August afternoon from the cool of a building (I live in the most air-conditioned city in the world) feels like a steaming wet wool blanket has been thrown into your face. The breath leaves your body with a groan. That's just the first minute outside.

To be on a tin roof in August in Houston is akin to the most evil torture you can imagine. Affixing a tin roof to wooden beams requires a skill I did not then nor am I ever likely to possess. The tin is to be nailed to the wooden beams underneath. But a simple nail through the tin will allow water to seep in around the edges of the nail hole. The solution, created by some Nazi work camp commandant, is to affix a small quantity of lead to the top of the nail. As the nail is hammered into place, the lead spreads out and seals the hole. Clever, no? The problems with this arrangement, notwithstanding my limited physical capabilities, are twofold. One, the nail is only an inch and a half long. Two, in order to penetrate the tin, the initial hammer blow must be sure, strong, and solid. So, here I am on a tin roof in August, holding a nail between my thumb and index finger and trying to hit it square and hard. If I am successful, my thumb and index finger stop the downward penetration of the nail. If I am unsuccessful, I either don't hit it hard enough and the nail simply bounces off the surface, or contact is made with my fingers instead of the nail head. The only outcome of this process that doesn't injure my fingers or hand is the one where the nail bounces off the tin. To affix the roof, then, the fingers are sacrificed. At day's end I am holding the nail with my only two uninjured digits, the little and ring fingers of my right hand. I am right handed so the hammer blows with my left hand are weak and inaccurate.

I swear two things on that hot August day. One, I will never again perform manual labor, and two, I will never again drink beer if I'm going to be outside in the afternoon. The morning had been horrible for us and we sent Bob in after two six packs of beer. We drank the beer and climbed back up on the roof. The tin was nearly 200 degrees. We were drunk. By three we were unconscious, having climbed or fallen from the roof. We were awakened at four by the sound of the foreman banging a hammer into a sheet of mangled tin. In the upper portion of the right triptych of Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, a giant scissors blade is shown protruding from between two human ears. I think we have a shared experience, Mr. Bosch and I. Nowadays I don't drink if I'm going to be out in the heat.

We arrive at the airfield by nine and begin our training. This will be a static line jump meaning the chute will be pulled automatically by the line attached to the interior of the plane. All we have to do is jump. There is a catch to the jump, though. If you aren't lined up right when the chute opens things can go wrong. More about that later. From nine to ten we are lectured about safety. From ten to noon we jump off a four-foot platform into a sandbox. The object is to collapse and roll on impact. Landing any other way can cause broken ankles, legs, blown out knees, dislocated hips, etc. etc. There are only four of us so there's plenty of time for repetition. In fact between ten and noon I jumped into the sandbox more than sixty times. After lunch we jump into the sandbox for two more hours. It is some kind of sadistic ritual. Tom is oblivious. I'm dying. From three to four we practice the position we are to maintain in the two seconds after we jump and before the chute opens. I'm too exhausted to pay much attention. Error.

Finally, it's time to go up. The four of us and the instructor climb into the back of the plane and sit on the floor. Once we're at the right altitude the first guy goes. The instructor watches him out the door and shakes his head. The kind of shake you see the doctor give to the wife of the marshal gunned down in the middle of the street. The second guy goes. Same shake. Tom goes. This time the instructor says, "ooh" like the announcer at the figure skating championships when the skater goes down hard. The instructor thinks he's real funny. Now it's my turn.

I have a choice. I can refuse and ride back down with the plane. The humiliation would be worse than death, I figure, so I go.

I decide to look down in the two seconds I have before the line pulls my chute open. In looking down, I leave the arched back, head back, and arms out position we practiced. My body turns sideways in the air. The chute opens. Had I been in the correct position my head would be jerked forward as the chute opens. The human head, for some reason, can be jerked forward without much risk of damage. Not so sideways jerk. Most of the muscles in my neck are pulled as my head pops to my left shoulder. When my head and shoulder collide, the left lens is knocked from my glasses.

The chute opens and I am alive, for the moment. The instructor sails by me in free fall. I can hear him call out "find the arrow." The arrow is a ten-foot wooden arrow on the ground on a pivot that two guys manually point in the direction you should be pointing.

There are two types of descent and they occur simultaneously. You are descending vertically, of course. The chute we use looks nothing like the nifty colored kite-like chutes the experienced jumpers use. Our chute is a huge World War II nylon cloud that completely blocks the sky above. In the back of the canopy are two slits opened and closed by means of toggles. Pull the left toggle, close the left slit (where the air was escaping before you toggled it shut) and you turn to the left, right toggle, right turn. Simple but critical maneuver. Here's why. The second descent is horizontal. Add your vertical descent, a controlled seven to ten miles per hour, to your horizontal descent, whatever speed the wind is blowing you, and your combined speeds will create the force your legs must absorb when you hit the ground. By pulling the toggles and changing your direction, into the wind, the direction of the arrow, your horizontal descent is arrested. If not, on a day like this one, you can hit the ground at fifteen to twenty miles per hour. Fast enough to put a femur in the chest cavity. None of this, though, is the least bit relevant to me at the moment.

I am looking down at fuzzy object that I believe to be the pitched roof of the hangar. If I land on it, the chute will collapse and I'll slide uncontrolled off the roof and onto the tarmac. I'm thinking I'll break my legs but probably not be killed. Finding the arrow is the least of my troubles. I'm toggling left and toggling right for all I'm worth to try to create some of that horizontal movement we were warned about.

Finally, I begin to drift away from the hangar. Whew. Oh yeah, the arrow. Well, I can see what appears to be a large plank on the ground but I'm damned if I can see the point on it. If it's an arrow they need to make the point more pronounced. I lost a lens from my glasses, remember? I don't know that at the time, though. I assume everything looks fuzzy because that's the way it is for jumpers. As I pass over the runway it occurs to me I need to stop my horizontal movement. I reverse the toggles, turn gracefully in mid air to face the wind, and land ever so gently, on my feet, standing up. I made it. Alive.

Tom, by the way, is still terrified of heights.

Becca's Adventure Chapter 1 06.03.00

Becca loved to wander and spent most every day wandering around her city. The streets were smooth like pearl and she never had to wear the shoes she hated. Walking barefoot on the smooth streets made her very happy. Since all the streets either radiated out from the center of her city or surrounded it in big slowly curving arcs, she could never get lost. Becca's father and mother never worried about her as she wandered about. Everyone looked after each other in the City and hardly anyone ever got hurt. Most everyone knew Becca and sometimes she had to stare down at the street as she walked because she got so tired of waving hello to everyone she met. Although Becca knew almost everyone that lived in her City, she only had two really close friends, Aaron and Melissa.

Aaron and Melissa lived near the edge of the City at the end of Darywinkle Path, near Final Circle. Final Circle was the last of the ring streets that encircled the City. Outside Final Circle was the edge. The edge was the end of the City and, as far as Becca knew, the end of the world. The edge was smooth like the roads but went almost straight up. The edge curved ever so slightly inward toward her house but after a while the edge seemed to turn into the top and the top was higher than anyone could ever go.

Aaron and Melissa lived in a soft house. Hard houses, like the Engineer's and Becca's houses, were larger than soft houses. Between Tenth and Final Circle, the houses were almost all soft houses. Becca wanted to live in a soft house, they looked friendlier than hard houses. Hard houses were taller than soft houses, they could have as many as three floors. Most were within Thenth Circle, had one floor, some had two, and a very few had three floors. The Engineer's house had three floors, it was the biggest house in the City, bigger even than Becca's house. Becca's house was the grandest of them all, though. The outside walls and the inside walls were just like the streets, smooth and hard. The color of Becca's house changed depending on where you were when you looked at it. It could look white or blue or anything in between, blue-white or white-blue, colors all mixed and moving around each other. Like all hard houses, windows were everywhere. Becca's mom almost always left the windows open and the curtains pinned back. She loved to see out and didn't mind a bit if everyone saw in. Soft houses usually had only one window and door. The front of a soft house opened wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, like a stretched out triangle. The top part was a window that could be opened when the door was closed. The door folded out and snapped open, which is how most people left their doors, open. At night even.

Melissa's mom and dad were Readers. They read all day long. Reading was their job. Some read all day long. Most Readers read to themselves and filed reports on their reading. Some read to others for entertainment and education. Reading was very important in the City. Sometimes they wouldn't move for hours, except to adjust the word speed on their v-book. When they did move, they usually just changed places. Although there were six places to sit in their main room, Bill and Pat hardly ever sat anywhere except the big couch. They sat on either end, like curved bookends, with their feet pointing at each other, almost touching in the middle. When they got sleepy they'd scooch out and put their legs on either side of each other, pause the v-books and nod off. They never dozed more than a few minutes. That's when they'd change places. Sometimes Becca, Aaron and Melissa would watch them until they dozed off and then they'd sneak over to the couch and try to read the v-books. Usually they couldn't understand what they read but that didn't stop them from trying. Aaron, he was the oldest, almost twelve, and Melissa, she was ten like Becca, were good children and almost never got in trouble with their mom and dad. So Becca was very surprised the day she came to see Aaron and Melissa and their mom said they were in trouble and couldn't come out to play. She told their mom she was sorry and asked if she could come by later.

No, she said, they can't play for the rest of the week.

Wow, Becca thought, they must have done something really awful.

Becca didn't know it then, she couldn't have, but the night before, Aaron and Melissa had broken one of their parent's v-books. V-books were almost indestructible unless they were unplugged from the net. When unplugged, their memory became softer then Aaron and Melissa's house. If anything jarred the v-book while it was unplugged, it could lose its memory. Then, when you plugged it back in, it wouldn't be able to reconnect to Information building in the Public Center. The Public Center was at the center of the City, nearly five miles across, and filled with buildings and parks. V-books were supposed to connect to only one place, the Public Center. Becca heard her parents talking about another place where v-books could connect one night after they thought she had gone to sleep. The way they whispered about it frightened Becca so she pulled her pillow up around her ears, squeezed her eyes shut and hummed her favorite tune to block it out. By morning she forgot all about it.

Becca waited a whole week to see her friends, Aaron and Melissa. She found them outside in the tiny yard, laying on their favorite blanket.

Becca said she missed them terribly. Melissa said the same, but Aaron said nothing.

"Is something the matter, Aaron," Becca asked?

"Let's go down to Final Circle," Aaron suggested.

The three of them got up, folded the blanket, stuffed it in Aaron's pack, waved goodbye to Aaron and Melissa's mom, Pat, and started off for Final Circle.

"Be back by dinner," Pat called after them.

All three raised their arms and waved back to let her know they heard her. They turned right at the first opportunity, Beeker Street, and were headed for Final Circle when Aaron stopped, looked about, and said to Becca, "You won't believe what happened last week!"

Aaron was so excited he could barely keep his words straight. The story he told excited and frightened Becca.

Aaron and Melissa had managed to sneak a peek at a v-book their mother was reading. The story was about a princess. Aaron wanted to read more and convinced Melissa they could, if they waited until their parents went to bed. They had never before tried such a thing, but the story about the princess had so intrigued Aaron he was willing to risk big trouble to read more. That night, over a week ago now, Aaron sneaked into the reading room, unplugged his mother's v-book and carried it into his room. Melissa was waiting in the dark for her brother. Aaron didn't see her when he crept back into his room. He stumbled into her and fell sideways onto the floor. He protected the v-book from being smashed but it took a pretty good jolt when Aaron hit the floor. Aaron heard the crackling sound it makes when you turn it off. He tried to turn it on but it wouldn't work. After several tries, Aaron and Melissa crept back into the reading room and plugged the v-book back in. Images began flying across the screen faster than they could make them out. Aaron tapped the screen and the images stopped. Across the top of the screen was the Engineers symbol, a triangle, a compass, and a single eye. Melissa's heart skipped a beat as she felt the eye staring right at her! Words began to appear from underneath the Engineer's symbol. Words that scared Melissa and shook Aaron's world. These words told of a place outside the City! Aaron and Melissa read of how the City came to be. They read about The Accident, the Chosen, and the Ships. The City was underwater! The screen went blank. Try as they might Aaron and Melissa could get nothing more out of the v-book. They knew they should have never touched it in the first place, but to have read something directly from the Engineer's, well, that was more trouble than either of them had ever been in before. They decided to tell their parents nothing of what they'd read. Aaron confessed to unplugging the v-book. Melissa confessed to being tripped over. That's how they ended up homebound for a whole week.

When they finished their tale, Becca remembered the whispered conversation between her parents that had scared her so. Just before she covered her ears with the pillow, her father was asking her mother about "the way up." Her mother said something about a bubble. That's when Becca covered her ears. She had forgotten all about it until now.

When she told Aaron and Melissa about it, Aaron said, "we have to find it, I want to see the land above!"

Melissa started to cry. "I know where the bubble is," she said.

"But I don't want to go anywhere!"

Chapter 2 06.24.00

Deep inside the Engineer's house, in a room full of screens and dials and buttons and levers, a small red light was flashing. It had been flashing for two days when Engineer Franklin flipped the switch that turned it off.

He had been away for a whole week. His replacement had apparently never made it in to monitor the screens, turn the dials, push the buttons and pull the levers. Engineer Franklin was beside himself with fear and anger. If the Chief Engineer ever found out, well, it was too unpleasant to even think about.

But what had happened to Engineer Intern Allison? Why had she not shown up, or called? Why had he decided to leave early, before he was certain his replacement would show up?

These were the questions Engineer Franklin couldn't answer. He could, though, look into the security breach. That little red light was an indication that someone had accessed the Engineer's historical records. It had been years since the last violation. And that had been handled quickly and quietly. Quickly was out of the question, but maybe this violation could be handled quietly. Engineer Franklin's long fingers tapped out a message on the screen, "summary report, violation historical records integrity." The screen answered back, "Random access established 22:14 hours, May 11. Access terminated 22:24 hours, May 11. No secure records accessed." Well, at least nothing really bad happened. "Print summary report," Engineer Franklin typed. He carefully folded the report and slipped it into his pants pocket. He was beginning to think twice about filing a report. Filing the report would mean big trouble. The consequences could be dire. "I'll find out what happened to Intern Allison first," he decided.

At that very moment, Engineer Intern Allison was watching three children, one of whom had begun to cry. She had been watching the house on Darywinkle for two days, ever since the monitoring system reported a first class security breach.

Engineer Intern Allison had reported for work. She had been at her post for five days when the security alarm went off. She jumped out of her sling-bed and switched on the breach monitor. Someone had managed to access the most secure area of the Engineer's historical records and was seeing things the Engineer's had kept secret for more than seven hundred years! Allison had heard the myths, of course, everyone had. The myth of an ancient world above the City. A world filled with thousands of different types of life. A world of danger and mystery. A secret world. Until now. What Allison and Aaron and Melissa were reading that night was the story of how the City came to be.

After The Accident, the Engineers were called upon to build a safe place to live. Although Aaron and Melissa knew nothing of The Accident, Allison suspected The Accident must have had something to do with The Negative Science. Engineers studied The Negative Science so they could avoid it. It was one of the last courses given to Engineers before graduation to Internship. Allison, like most of her classmates, found The Negative Science interesting but frightening. The Negative Science instructor, Dr. Edleen, was over a hundred years old and very good at making her students appreciate the borders around The Negative Science. Engineer Intern Allison hadn't thought about The Negative Science since her final exam. Not until the night she and Aaron and Melissa read about The Accident. No details about The Accident appeared on the v-screen that night. Most of what they read was about the selection of people for The City. The government had to move quickly to select nearly five thousand people to move to The City. The selection was based on education and age and location. If you lived near the Coast, were under thirty-five, and had a college degree, you were eligible. Once selected, everyone was relocated to a huge domed structure that was sealed from the outside. The dome was where the chosen people lived while The City was built. It took three years and more than five hundred people to build The City. When it came time to move to The City, everyone that knew about it, along with the nearly five thousand from the dome, boarded five huge ships that sank to the bottom of the sea. The City was underwater! Once at the bottom, the ships were destroyed, forever sealing the five thousand in The City. That's when the screen went blank at Aaron and Melissa's house. Allison's screen went blank at the same time. She quickly tapped out the queries allowing her to determine where the breach had occurred. Then she fixed the system to report only that a random connection had been established and no secure records had been accessed. That was the report Engineer Franklin would see five days from now.

Allison wanted to know more but she didn't know how to access the historical records. Only the Chief Engineer and one other person knew how to do that. Her only hope would be to find out how the security violation had occurred and then try to repeat it. So, she went to the house where the breach had occurred and watched and waited. No one came or went for two days. The children were laying out front on a blanket when the Queen's little girl, Becca showed up! Allison followed the three children as they walked toward Final Circle. She could see one of them crying but she couldn't hear what they were saying.

"Why are you crying," Becca asked. "No one's going anywhere they don't want to go." Becca always knew the right thing to say. That's because she always said what she believed and never pretended. And since she was a good and kind person, the things she believed were good things. That no one should be made to go anywhere they don't want to go was a simple fact for Becca, but it was just what Melissa needed to hear. She stopped crying.

Aaron said, "where is the bubble, Melissa?"

"Right there," Melissa answered.

"Where," Becca said, "I don't see it."

Melissa pointed at the fountain.

The water from this fountain sprayed out in all directions. From a distance, it looked like a big fuzzy ball of water. Up close, where the three children were slowly stepping, the outline of a clear sphere could be seen under the haze of the spray. The sphere was the size of Becca's bedroom, almost twenty feet in diameter. Aaron started to climb into the fountain. Becca stopped him. "I think someone is watching us," she whispered.

Allison's heart started to race as Aaron and Melissa began to look around. "They must have spotted me," she thought.

"Well, I'm not getting anywhere like this," she thought, stepped out of her van and began walking toward the children. Allison was tall and her long strides brought her up to the children before they had time to think. "I know who you all are and I know what you two saw."

It was a risk, but Allison had decided it was the children who had inadvertently accessed the Engineer's records. From her car, she had researched Aaron and Melissa's parents and they were not likely candidates. Their v-screens were on from morning till evening every day, just like clockwork. They were diligent readers and had never done or reported anything unusual. Once or twice a week, though, starting about a year ago, their v-screens had been on late at night and usually only for a half-hour at a time. From this information, Allison had deduced that it must be the children. She was right of course, but, had she been wrong, the children would have looked at her like she was crazy. Like most of Allison's risks, this one was well thought out and worth taking.

The expression on Aaron's face would have been enough to confirm her suspicion, but when Melissa started crying, she knew she had guessed right.

Becca was the first to speak, "who are you and what do you want?"

"I am Engineer Intern Allison and I want to keep you kids from getting in trouble."

This was more than partially true, but not all of the truth. Allison wanted to know more and she might need these kids to help her. Allison's curiosity was aroused, though, and she would see it through.

"How can you do that," Aaron asked.

"Well, I already covered up your violation, and I want to know what you saw at the fountain."

Before Aaron could answer, Melissa spoke up, "looking at the bubble that take you to the top."

Now it was Allison's eyes that widened. Becca made mean eyes at Melissa and Aaron tried to cover up.

"Melissa is so crazy," he said.

Too late.

Chapter 3 07.01.00

Allison went right to work formulating the plan. Allison always had a plan. As long as she could remember, she had a plan. It was her way of being in control of things.

Allison was so young when she came to live with her Uncle Bleven that she had no memory of her real mother and father. The day she turned eighteen and became Engineer Intern Allison, her Uncle Bleven had a long talk with her.

"Allison," he started, "it's time for you to be told why you came to live with me. Your mother and father were well known and respected in The City. They were two of our most popular public readers. Every evening they would read to large crowds near The Inner Circle across from the Engineer's house. Their readings were wonderful. Then, one day, their readings started to change. Slowly at first, so no one noticed for a long time. Characters and things began to creep into their stories that no one had ever heard of before. Scary people and scary things. People stayed and listened at first, because your mom and dad were such wonderful readers, but the things were more than most people could stand. The crowds that gathered to hear them read shrank away to almost nothing. Weeks went by and suddenly the crowds started to grow again. But this time, the people who came to listen were from the rows."

"The rows," Allison asked, "what are the rows?"

"They're gone, now. The Engineers rebuilt them after your parents went away."

"Uncle Bleven, what do you mean, went away? You told me my parents were killed in an accident."

"I'm getting to that Allison, but you must let me tell you the story in my own way."

Allison sat back and put her left hand over her mouth to remind her to let Uncle Bleven talk without interruption. Her right hand was busy twirling strands of her bright red hair around her middle finger. Allison's hands were always busy doing something.

"The rows were a group of soft houses that were connected by the people who lived in them. The people in the rows were different from the rest of us. They were not pleasant people. They shouted when they talked and stomped when they walked. When they began connecting their houses they caught the attention of The Engineers. After what happened with your parents, the Engineers tore down their houses and dispersed them throughout the city. None of the people who lived in The Rows are allowed to read or be read to. They aren't allowed to talk with each other. They are all workers now."

Allison couldn't stand it any longer. "How can such a thing be? Why have I never heard about this? Does everyone but me know about such things?"

"Almost no one knows. The Engineers, of course, and a few others. What happened was kept as quiet as possible. After all, it's been almost twenty years."

"Well, what did happen, Uncle?"

"I'm getting to it child, I'm getting to it. Like I said, the crowds that came to hear your mom and dad read had changed. And your parents readings were growing longer and stranger by the day. The only people who came to hear their readings any more were the row people. One night, very late, something terrible happened. Your parents disappeared."

"Disappeared? What do you mean disappeared?"

"No one really knows for sure, Allison. There was a great ruckus from the square where your parents were reading. There was a fire and a lot of smoke and some smashed benches. The next morning, your parents were gone. The row people couldn't, or wouldn't, tell anyone what happened. The Engineers cleaned up the square before the day started and by days end, the row people were relocated. You've been with me ever since."

"So my parents are still alive?"

"No one knows for certain but they have not been seen since that night."

Allison's world, the controlled and safe world of Uncle Bleven's hard house, the world where her parents were almost imaginary figures from her past, was changing. And changing quickly. Next week would be her first real assignment, she was to substitute for Engineer Franklin at the data access control center. But for now, she needed to understand what happened to her parents.

"Uncle Bleven, how could my parents just disappear?"

"Allison, we don't know. You know everything we do, now."

"What do you mean, 'we,' who's we?"

"We, us, you know."

"No, I don't know, I don't know anything anymore."

Allison was near tears and it had been years since she'd cried over anything. Crying was for people not in control, and Allison was always in control, or so she thought.

"Who do you mean when you say 'we'?"

Something in Allison's eyes made Uncle Bleven want to tell her the truth, that the other person in the 'we' was the Chief Engineer himself. Uncle Bleven and The Chief Engineer were closer than anyone knew. But he knew he could never let Allison know the truth.

"I mean everyone that was involved in cleaning up the mess that night."

"Who was involved? I want to talk to them. Maybe they know something about my parents."

"Allison, what happened that night had never happened before and nothing like it has happened since. Everyone involved has been questioned by The Engineers. Everyone has been watched from that day till this one. Whatever happened that night ended that night. The row people changed. They became like the rest of us. No one ever found the v-books your parents were reading from. Some even believe they made up the stories they read. It was like everything that had anything to do with your parents and those stories and that night just vanished from The City forever. You weren't even a year old when it happened."

"But why tell me about it now?"

"Because, we don't know what happened. And in that knowing there is danger. You are their child. You must be on guard."

"On guard, against what?"

Allison was getting that fluttery feeling in her stomach. She hated that feeling.

"That's just it, child, we don't know. Something happened to your parents. Something that changed them, changed the stories they read. Maybe that's what took them from us, we just don't know."

The fluttery feeling was in full bloom now. Allison felt like she might be sick. Her eyes were heavy and her throat was narrowing. This was all too much. It was the words her Uncle Bleven used, "took them from us." She was beginning to believe Uncle Bleven knew more than he was letting on. Allison knew she wasn't thinking straight, though. Her world was changing and changing faster than she could keep up. She had to get a handle on things.

"What do you know about the stories? And the things you said started to creep into their stories?"

Almost nothing. The row people don't, or won't, remember anything about the stories. What we do know, we know from the few who hung around for a little while after the stories started to change. They left when the stories became too frightening. The characters were characters no one had ever heard of before. They wore hoods over their heads and their faces were always in shadow. The things were alive, but not like us. They were small and slippery and moved incredibly fast. They could see, but had no eyes, hear, but had no ears. That's all anyone could remember."

"Uncle Bleven, I have to lie down. I think I'm going to be sick."

"Of course, Allison, my dear. I'm sorry I upset you, but you had to know. We mustn't speak of these things again, to anyone. Do you understand?"

"Of course," Allison mumbled, but she only half heard her Uncle. She was seeing small, slippery, low things around her feet and she was feeling dizzy.

Uncle Bleven caught her as she fainted and carried her to her bed.

Back in his own room, he spoke into his private v-book, "It is done," he said. The Chief Engineer nodded and the v-book went blank.

Chapter 4 07.16.00

"Melissa, was it the clearing?"

The "clearing" was how Melissa described the way she found things that were missing. She would close her eyes and picture the thing she wanted to find. If she were looking for a lost toy, she would see all her toys in front of her at first. As she focused on the one she wanted, the others would begin to drift away. When all but the one she wanted had been cleared away, the one left would begin to grow larger. As it grew, details around it would begin to appear. Soon enough would become visible that Melissa could identify exactly where the item was.

Aaron had kept Melissa's secret for years. Not even Becca knew of Melissa's "gift". They were afraid if the Engineers found out they might take Melissa away to learn more about "the clearing."

"Yes," Melissa said.

"Do you think Allison's plan can work?"

"I don't know, I don't think I trust Allison," Melissa said.

"Do you think Becca trusts her?"

"Ask her yourself, she's on her way over here."

"Melissa, how did you..."

"Something's happening to me Aaron." Melissa's eyes had begun to fill.

"I'm scared."

"Don't be scared, Melissa."

Melissa tried to smile but Aaron knew better. Aaron and Melissa were as close as any brother and sister had ever been. They were almost inseparable.

"Tell me what's happening, Mel."

Aaron hadn't used her nickname in a while.

"I don't know what's happening to me. I used to see the things I wanted to see but lately things are just popping up. Sometimes what I don't know what I'm seeing and it scares me."

"Like what?"

"Last night, I saw an old man who was really tall and had big bony hands."

"Who was it Mel?"

"I don't know, but he was an Engineer and Allison was there and she was crying."

At that moment, Becca walked in.

"What's wrong you guys?"

Becca always knew when something was wrong.

"We've been talking about Allison, trying to decide what to do," Aaron said.

"What do mean? I thought we all decided."

"You decided, Becca, we didn't," Melissa said.

"Aaron, what about you," Becca asked. Aaron looked at Melissa and said, "We should tell her."

"Tell me what? What is with you guys today? Melissa?"

"Becca, we've kept a secret from you and it's time to tell you," Melissa said.

When they had explained everything to her, including the latest scary vision of the old man and Allison, Becca simply said, "You should have told me before."

"You're not mad?"

"No, Melissa, I'm not mad."

Aaron spoke next, "Becca, what makes you so sure Allison's plan will work?"

"I'm not sure of anything, Aaron, but it makes perfect sense. Plus, no matter what, I want to know what's up there."

"Me too," Melissa said. Aaron looked at Melissa, "Well, sister, make up your mind."

"It's made up, if Becca and you go, I go."

"Allright, then, we go see Allison next Monday, just like we planned."

Next Monday was upon them before they knew it. Aaron and Melissa arrived at the meeting place well ahead of Becca and Allison. The meeting place was a table in the Public Park. Aaron and Melissa sat on one side of the table, Becca and Allison on the other. Allison began, "Two weeks from tonight I will be on duty again in Historical Records. At exactly midnight I'll report a major security breach. All Engineer monitoring stations will be directed to survey the Public Access v-books. That will keep them distracted for at least three hours. I will have hidden the fake bubble and an automatic air pump under the benches beside the fountain before reporting for my shift. Becca, you'll watch so see no one disturbs the fake bubble until Aaron and Melissa arrive. Aaron, you and Melissa will inflate the fake bubble while Becca turns off the water to the real one. Once we have the real bubble safe in my Uncle Blevyn's garden house, we'll figure out how it works. Any questions?"

"How do we get the real bubble out of the park and all the way to your Uncle's house," Aaron asked.

"My van," Allison answered.

"But we can't drive," Aaron said.

"I'll teach you," Allison said.

Teaching Aaron to drive was easier than anyone had thought. Aaron was a natural. The big night approached quickly. Dinner at Aaron and Melissa's house was a hurried affair. As soon as they were done they left for Becca's to spend the night. Becca was, at that moment, telling her parents good-bye. They thought Becca was spending the night at Aaron and Melissa's. They had spent the night at each others house dozens of times and neither parent ever called so they had nothing to worry about.

Allison was already at work and preparing her false security breach. She would manually trip the alarms and send an urgent alert out to all monitoring stations in less than four hours.

Becca was taking up her observation post position as Aaron and Melissa prepared to inflate the fake bubble.

Becca gave the signal at 12:01 AM. Sixty seconds before, Allison had tripped the alarms and every monitoring station in The City was tuning their monitoring equipment into all open v-books. The plan worked perfectly. By three AM the bubble was secure in Uncle Blevyn's garden house, Uncle Blevyn was at Security Control and Allison was writing her report on the biggest false alarm The City had seen in years. Becca, Aaron and Melissa spent the rest of the night in Allison's van talking about their upcoming adventure.



 

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