April 20

Creation

Morgan’s hair was streaked pink and blue and blonde that morning.  It looked like cotton candy or bubble gum or birthday party streamers.  Cal had seen her the day before when her hair had been all one color –  bright red, but still one color.  He would’ve been more surprised if her hair stayed the same color for longer than a week than he was at seeing this new cacophony of color.

He could have the same conversation he’d had with her back when they’d met in college – that she was too old to be doing things like that; that she wasn’t a skater punk.  Nine years later, he’d long given up on that and gotten used to her eccentric hair.  Maybe he’d even grown to like it.

“How’s the research going?” Cal asked.  He flipped through a notebook with hand-written diagrams and symbols and scribbles of things he only barely or partially understood.

“Decent,” she said.  “I was up until three trying to make sense of Martin’s notes, but I just don’t get this neuroscience stuff.”

“What’s decent about that?”

“I don’t think we have to understand it to get Kytara to function at a basic level.”

“Martin’s research was pivotal to understanding any of this,” Cal said, gesticulating at the server cluster behind her.  “Kytara is dead in the water without him.”

“Not necessarily,” Morgan said, shuffling through another notebook that she’d seemingly pulled out of nowhere.  She stopped on a page and her face lit up.  “Ah, here it is.”  She handed the notebook to him.

“Kytara…revision…99…”   Cal looked up from the page.  “What does this say?  Martin’s handwriting looks like chickenshit.”

“Neuralware unnecessary for Kytara project.  Revision three of Kytara OS software with standard neuralware has 99.5% probability of compatibility.”

Cal froze.  “You’re kidding me.”

Morgan shrugged and pointed at the words in the notebook.  “Martin said it, not me.”

“How could standard neuralware possibly handle that much throughput?  The synapse translation algorithm would burn a hole in your head.”

“I don’t know, but Martin’s notes from the few days preceding his death show that he definitely thought he was on to something.”  Morgan grabbed a datacard off of the desk and handed it to Cal.  “Check out the one that smells like coffee.”

“All of Martin’s files smell like coffee.”

“Not on that card,” she said, making a face.

Cal took the card and held it flat against his fingers.  The data instantly transmitted to Cal’s neuralware and assigned the proper receptors to each file.  Some were named like traditional computer files, such as “March 12th research data.”  Other bits of data only had smells or colors or warmth.

“Fuck, everything on this card smells like pot,” Cal said.  “Was he doing all of his work stoned?”

Morgan shrugged.  “Probably.”

Cal continued sifting through the data until he finally found the only one that smelled like coffee.  It was lukewarm and held no identifiable data other than the standard timestamps from its inception and modification.

He opened it up and took a look at its contents.

“Whoa.”

“Found it?”

“Yeah.”

“Saw the part about data streamlining?”

Cal flipped the datacard around in his hand and held it out to Morgan.  “The entire thing was about data streamlining.”

“I mean the part that’s relevant to Kytara.”

Cal grinned.  “I know.”

“So what’d you think?”

“If we can seriously solve this with code rather than beefier hardware in our heads, we’d be 100 years ahead of anyone else on the planet.”

“They already have functioning AI in a few of the western European states,” Morgan said.

“Yeah, but have you ever tried one of those?  They are artificial, and they are intelligent, but they’re intelligent on the level of an orangutan or a dolphin.  If the Kytara project bears fruit, we’ll have an AI that’s intelligent at or beyond a human-like level.”

Cal pulled a datacard out of his pocket and bent the corner, simultaneously activating a fingerprint encryption algorithm.

“Hold this.”

“Got something on there you don’t want me to see?”

Cal grinned.  “Maybe.”

Morgan reached out and flattened her fingers on the half of the card that Cal wasn’t touching.  There was only one file she could access.  Cal had turned the rest of them into gibberish – smells and colors and letters that had no meaning whatsoever until they were decrypted.

“What is this?  An awkward proof of the Sullivan Construct Theorem?”

Cal laughed.  “Look closer.”

Morgan arched an eyebrow and further examined the data.  This file was mostly text, a few pictures, and a poorly recorded video in measly 4k resolution.  Normally, this data would’ve taken hours to sift through, but with the neuralware reading the datacard and dumping it directly into her brain, it took only a few seconds.  The only thing that really took time was analyzing the data.

“No, no way.  You wrote this?” Morgan asked.

Cal nodded.  “Martin suggested that I do some research on some data of his – the video and pictures that you just saw – and that’s what I came up with.”

Morgan stared awestruck and dumbfounded.  “You reproved the Sullivan Construct Theorem using Calloway computational standards after adding a feature shell and removing a complexity layer?”

“I did,” Cal said, flattening the corner of the card by pressing his finger against it, simultaneously decrypting the entirety of the data on the card.  “Check the rest of the data.”  Cal let go of the card.  She took it out of his hand and analyzed it for a few moments.

“That magnificent son of a bitch…” Morgan gasped.  “He had us each working on complementary halves of the same puzzle.”

“It appears that way.”

“How did he know?  And why didn’t he tell us?”

“I don’t know,” Cal said, “But if we’re right…if Martin was right…this is the beginning of a new software age.”

April 3

Chapter 1 – Narrator: ??? – Add ‘Em Up and Knock ‘Em Down

This is a rewritten version of the prologue of my first novel, “We Put the ‘Dual’ in ‘Individual.'”


 

“Bet you wish you’d been quiet earlier, don’t ya?” the man said from the front of the van.  I couldn’t tell if I sensed sadistic glee or annoyance in his voice, but either way, I didn’t like it.  It scared me how unreadable the guy was; scared me that I was at his mercy and that I still didn’t know what he wanted from me.

The van hit a bump as it took a turn, and I rolled into the wall and knocked over something that had been hanging up.  I was disoriented and slightly sore in multiple places from having taken a few similar turns, and there was enough stuff lying around back there where I simply couldn’t tell what I’d knocked down or what half of it even was.

At first, I’d wanted to cry, but the longer the ride, the more angry I became, and the more adrenaline that surged through my body.  I hated this man for kidnapping me.  I hated him for taking me away from my happy life and getting me involved in whatever misunderstanding this was.  I was only 18, I had no enemies, and as far as I knew, my family didn’t either.  What had I done to deserve this?

The van slowed down and the light faded down into shadows.

“Home sweet home,” the man said as he killed the engine.  At the very least, I was glad I wasn’t getting thrown around anymore, but at the same time, I still had no idea what was in store for me.

He got out of the van and slammed the door.  It was getting hot already, but maybe it had been hot all along and I just hadn’t noticed.

How would I get out of here?  How would I escape from this psychopath?  Was he going to torture me?  Kill me?  I had no clue.

The back doors of the van swung open with a metallic creak.

“Alright Debbie,” he grinned, “let’s get you down to the basement.”

Debbie?  Who the heck was Debbie?

With my mouth gagged, I couldn’t protest.  He grabbed me, drug me out of the van, and slung me over his shoulder in one fluid motion.  I already felt a little sick from rolling around in the back of the van, and tossing me around didn’t much help.

We were in a dark garage.  It smelled like dust and paint, and all of the windows were covered over with thin sheets of plywood.  I didn’t get to enjoy the lovely scenery for long though, as the man carried me through a doorway and into a kitchen.

“If you start making a lot of noise, the gag is going back on.”

He set me down on a chair and removed the gag from my mouth, but left my hands and feet bound.

“Thanks,” I muttered.

“You better not be too thankful yet,” he said.  “Wait for your parents to give me what I’m asking for, and then you can thank me.”

Was he suggesting that if he got some sort of ransom, he’d let me go?  Even after I’d seen his face?

But what could my parents give him anyway?  We were just a normal middle class family with a mortgage and bills to complain about.

“What do you want from my parents?” I asked, even though speaking should’ve been against my better judgment.

“What do you think I want?” he scoffed.

“Money?”

“Of course.”

“What makes you think my family has any money to give you?”

“You expect me to believe that the family of Marvin Kirkman isn’t loaded?”

“Who is Marvin Kirkman?” I asked.

The man laughed.  “Playing that card will get you nowhere.”

“Look, I don’t know who you think I am, but I am obviously not that person.  I don’t know any Marvin Kirkman, and my name isn’t Debbie.  It’s-”

“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll shut your mouth.  I won’t be hearing your lame excuses.”

“My driver’s license, you can check it.  What did you do with my purse?”

“Hell if I know where your purse is, kid,” he said.  My heart sank.  How could I prove who I was?  Or, at the very least, that I wasn’t who he thought I was.

“If you’d just-”

“Kid, just shut up.  The gag is about to go back on if you don’t quit your yapping.”  He knelt down and untied the rope around my feet.  “Now, get up and get through that door.”  He gestured with a head nod over to a slightly ajar door that clearly lead down a flight of stairs.

I kept my mouth shut and did as he told me.  My stomach did flip flops as I descended the stairs.  How could this be happening to me?

The stairs ended in a sea of green shag carpet and bad interior decorating.  There was a bright red couch over by the back wall that almost took your attention away from the magazine cutouts of Madonna taped over the peeling floral wallpaper.

“Make yourself at home,” the guy said, and pushed me toward the couch.  I was so scared that I could barely detect the sarcasm in his voice.

“Isn’t there something we can work out?” I asked.

“Yes.  Your parents give me my $2 million bucks, and then I get the hell out of here, and you never see me again.”

“My parents don’t have that much money,” I pleaded with him.  “They don’t even have enough to send me to college without me taking out loans.”

He scoffed and turned around.  “For your sake, I hope your parents are smarter than you are.”  He started up the stairs.  “If not, they’ll be minus one daughter come noon tomorrow.”

I don’t know when I started crying.  It could’ve been when he closed the door at the top of the stairs behind him, it could’ve been a few minutes after that, or I could’ve been crying since I’d first gotten dragged out of the van.  I realized that I had never known true fear until then as I sat there trying to figure out how my face and shirt had gotten so wet.

My hands were still bound, and I guess the man had a reason for that, but he’d locked me in a room with no windows or weapons, so I wasn’t sure what he was expecting me to do other than pace in circles or cry.

I didn’t have a watch on, and there was no clock to be found.  Seconds, minutes, hours – I had no idea how much time was passing.  Was it still daylight outside?  Was I gone long enough yet for my parents to realize it and start looking for me?

I walked over to the couch and sat down to try to clear my head.  There had to be a way out of this.  I pulled my legs up in front of me and wrapped my arms around them, not caring that my feet were on the sofa or that my legs were dirty with what looked like grease and dirt from having rolled around in the van.

My thoughts were a mess.  I had to clear my mind and focus.  I closed my eyes and pushed everything away – the musty smell of the room, the footprints I could hear above me, the salty taste of the tears I’d swallowed.

What could I do?

My mind drifted off in thought, and suddenly, I was staring at a boy my age.

“Hi,” he said.

Had I fallen asleep?  What was going on?

“Who are you?” I asked.

He smiled in a most charming way and said, “I’m sure you have many questions, but I only have a few answers.  Are you certain that’s the question you’d like to ask?”

I churned this over in my head.  “What is going on?  Why is this happening to me?”  I don’t know why I thought this boy had the answers to those questions, but for some reason, it made sense to me that he would.

“It is unfortunate that fate has chosen you, but it is fate that has brought you here.”

“What do you mean?  I was destined to be kidnapped?”

“You should already know that your situation is much worse than that,” he said.

“So, what, I’m going to die in some lunatic’s basement because he thinks I’m someone else?”

“It’s not that simple.  The girl that you are being mistaken for is very important.  Without her, I wouldn’t exist, and neither would my sisters.”

“And what makes you so important?” I asked.

“Don’t misunderstand,” he said.  “My life is no more valuable than yours is.  However, as you can see, I am standing here before you.  That means that I exist, and because I exist, my mother must not die before she conceives me.  Therefore, she’s important to the future.”

“It sounds like you’re saying that I have to die so that you can be born,” I said.

“I am only saying that it is fate that my mother is going to live, and the proof of that is that I exist.”

“If you aren’t born yet, then how can I see you now?”

He smiled.  “As I’m sure you’ve guessed, this isn’t exactly reality, but I can assure you that everything I’m saying is real and true.”

“How do I know this isn’t just a dream?”

“You will know soon enough.”

“I don’t like the way that sounds,” I said.

“I could sugar coat it, but that would only make it harder to accept the truth.  The fact is, you will see me again soon under a completely different set of circumstances, and when you do see me, you will know that all of what I’ve said is true.  However, I didn’t come here to tell you that.  I came to offer you…a job proposal.”

“A job proposal?  What does it even matter if I’m about to die?”

“Trust me,” he said, ignoring my question, “it is something you will enjoy, and I hope it will at least make up for these unfortunate circumstances in some small way.”

I sat there, silent, unable to comprehend anything that was going on.  What was all of this about fate?  And a job proposal?  I was going to die, so why should I even care?

“You do have a choice,” the boy said.  “My job proposal isn’t compulsory.  Once you understand the details, you can choose to accept or pass on it, but I think it will give you some feeling of purpose and closure.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I nodded.  The boy looked at me, smirked, and nodded back, as if he completely understood what I was feeling.

Then, suddenly, he was gone.

“Wake up!”

I opened my eyes and found my kidnapper staring down at me, his black leather boot in my face.  How had I ended up on the floor?  I didn’t have too much time to waste thinking about it, though.

“Your parents didn’t come through,” he said.

“Huh?”  It was all I could muster.  Was he saying that it was noon of the next day already?

“I gave them an extra hour.  Not even a word from them.  They must not care too much about you.”

“Mister, I don’t know how to get this through to you.  I’m not Debbie, my name is-“

I was interrupted by the man putting a handgun in my face.  He raised it up so fast I barely even realized what was happening.

“Enough,” he said.  “This is the end for you.”

I felt like crying, but I couldn’t.  I’d only been alive for 18 years, and now I was going to die?  The past year of my life was spent planning for college, taking the right classes, applying for scholarships – all for a future I wouldn’t have?

When I was 15, my dad got a job that forced us to move around a lot.  I rarely stayed in one place for more than a year, and because of that, I never really had a whole lot of time to meet people or make friends.  In fact, I’d only been in my current city for four months.  I had always felt like such a loser; 18 without ever having a boyfriend, but most people only barely got a chance to know me and find that out.  They told me I was sweet and beautiful and that I’d find someone one day, but I guess they hadn’t foreseen my imminent demise when they made those predictions.

“Goodbye, Debbie Kirkman.  May God have mercy on your soul,” the man said.

He pulled the trigger, and I heard the sound of the firing mechanism, but by then, I couldn’t register what had made the sound.  I slumped to the floor in a pool of my own blood, dead at only 18 years old.

Whoever Debbie Kirkman was, she’d live to see another day.

But I wouldn’t.

December 31

The Fabulous Five

James is three months younger than Kimberly, but he has a car, even though Kimberly does not. It’s an old, 5-speed Firebird, but despite its age, it still runs well.  James likes his car, even though it’s not new like a lot of the other kids’ cars.  Those kids have rich parents, and James doesn’t.  They’re not poor, but they can’t afford to buy James a new Mustang like two people in his grade have recently received.

Unfortunately though, James cannot afford to put gas into his car more than once a month.  He had a job about nine months ago, but the down economy caused the small shop he was working for to go out of business.  It’s okay though, because James can just walk to Kimberly’s house since its not too far, and that’s really the only place he regularly goes besides school, and he catches the bus to get there.

Kimberly feels bad asking James to go to the lake, because it means he’ll have to drive, but it’s the weekend, and she thinks he will probably want to go.  A lot of kids from school usually go down to the lake on Saturdays, and though Kimberly doesn’t have a car, she does have a boat.  None of the other kids have a boat, so when she brings out the boat, they can go water skiing and kneeboarding.

Well, okay, it’s not actually her boat.  It’s really her dad’s, but her dad always let her drive it, so she’s known how to use it since she was 10.  It’s a 16 foot aluminum skiff with a 40 horsepower outboard motor.

It’s docked at her grandpa’s house, because docking there is free and her dad doesn’t have a truck anymore to launch the boat.  Her grandpa is lucky enough to own property on the lake because he bought it long, long ago when it wasn’t worth a whole lot.  If he sold it now, he’d be a millionaire, but he loves living on the lake, and so does Kimberly’s grandma.

“You really want to go to the lake?  I thought you said you were never going back after that raft incident a while back,” James says.  Kimberly recalls saying those words, but she didn’t really mean them.  She had hoped he would’ve forgotten by now.

“If you will drive, then yeah.”

“Sure,” he says.  “It’s not like the lake is far or anything.”

Kimberly gleefully goes into the bathroom and changes into her bikini, then puts a shirt and shorts on over it.  It’s a new bikini that she kind of wants to show off, and she hates to cover it up, but she has to until they get to the lake.

James and Kimberly technically live on the same road, but it curves around in a big U.  Kimberly lives on one side of the U and James on the other.  Their houses face each other, but they can’t walk straight through the middle of the U because that land is developed with houses and fences and whatnot.  Instead, they have to travel along the road, which is about a 15 minute walk at a relaxing pace.  If they were to speed up to a jog like James regularly does, it only takes about seven or eight minutes, but they’re not in a hurry.

Many of the small roads around town are gravel, but this road is paved.  Kimberly can still remember when they paved it nine years ago.  James’ family had moved into their current house eight years ago, so James has no memory of their street being gravel.

James quickly changes into his swim trunks and grabs his car keys.  His parents aren’t around, so he leaves them a note.  “Going to the lake with Kimberly,” it says.  He would’ve called them, but writing a note is easier.

James doesn’t have a cell phone.  He wants one, but he can’t afford it.  The phone itself he could save up for, but the monthly charge for texting is too much.  His parents have told him that they’ll pay for the voice plan, but if he wants to text, he needs to pay for it himself.  He doesn’t see the point of having a cell phone that can’t text, so he doesn’t bother trying to save up for one.

Kimberly has a cell phone.  She just got it a couple months ago for her 17th birthday.  Her parents pay the bill for it under the guise that they feel safer being able to check up on their daughter when she’s out, but really, she’s an only child and they can afford to spoil her a little if they want, so sometimes they do.

They hop in James’ Firebird.  He presses the clutch down and starts the car.  It roars to life, and James grins because he loves the raw sound his old car makes.  He shifts into 1st and takes off, rowing through gears as he gains speed.

James actually hasn’t driven his car in a while.  He was grounded from it for a month after the incident in the Redwoods.  He recently got his privileges back, but he’d only used it since then to drive his mom to the grocery store (she gives him a few bucks for gas when he does this).  She’d have probably made him do that anyway though, grounded or not.  James doesn’t really care; he’s just glad that his punishment wasn’t so severe that it prevented him from seeing Kimberly.

Kimberly didn’t receive a punishment.  Well, she technically did, but it was just that her phone got taken away for a week.  No big deal for her.  Maybe for most 17 year olds, but she could live without it.

They turn off of the paved road onto another paved road.  It curves and twists alongside a fence in a northerly direction for a couple of miles until the lake comes into sight.  Take a right when the road forks, and the group hangout spot at the lake is right there.

At least half the kids in their grade are at the lake.  It’s a small town, so it’s a small school.  Their grade is comprised of a single class, and the class is only 25 students.

The other kids see James’ old Firebird pulling up, and a few of the girls wave.  The guys are too busy fooling around with an inflatable raft to wave.  James sees this from the car and says, “12 high school kids and an inflatable raft.  Sounds like a great idea.”  James has learned his lesson about rafts already, but his classmates apparently hadn’t.

James and Kimberly have an interesting history with their classmates.  They like most of them, but there is a group of five of them that they just plain don’t get along with.  One of them is Revo, the guy that started the rumor about Kimberly that ended in him sprawled out on the floor, courtesy of James’ fist.  They still don’t know why Revo decided to start the rumor, but questioning the motives of high school kids is often frivolous, and even high school kids know this, because sometimes even they don’t know why they do what they do.

James is a very straightforward person, though.  So is Kimberly.  Maybe that’s why they’ve always gotten along so well.  James doesn’t take any shit from anyone.  He will respect someone that calls him a dick to his face, because anyone can call him a dick behind his back.  That group of five – James doesn’t respect them.    Kimberly obviously doesn’t either.

That’s why they’re a little disappointed when they see Scotty and Heather with the others at the lake.  Scotty isn’t the one that started the rumor, but he did help spread it.  He’s dating Heather, who is a pretty girl, but lacks any hint of common sense.  James almost feels bad for Heather, because she needs someone like Scotty, who has plenty enough common sense to share, but instead of using it, often falls victim to his baser instincts.

It’s odd to see these two without the other three.  Kimberly immediately notes this by saying, “Where’s the rest of the Fabulous Five?”

Oh yeah, one other thing about their classmates:  the animosity between the “Fabulous Five” and James and Kimberly is well known, and pretty much everyone else has sided with James and Kimberly.  The five in that group aren’t exactly well-liked, but they don’t seem to care much, as is apparent by two of them showing up here like everyone else wants them around.

They don’t immediately go to Kimberly’s grandparents’ house to get the boat as they had planned.  Kimberly has certain reservations about letting Scotty and Heather go anywhere near it.  Instead, they go down to the shore with the other kids.  Some of them – a small group that James and Kimberly aren’t very close to – are hanging around drinking beer that they swiped from their parents’ fridge.  The kids think no one can tell what they’re drinking because the cans are in cozies, but it’s apparent even to Kimberly, who doesn’t have much exposure to beer cans because her parents don’t really drink beer.

“Hey Kimberly!” a girl shouts.  The girl’s name is Sarah-Beth.  A somewhat redneck name for a hardly redneck girl.  Sarah-Beth is Kimberly’s best female friend.

“Hi Sarah,” Kimberly says.  Sarah-Beth doesn’t like her full name – quite the opposite of Kimberly.

The girls hug, and the rest of them exchange greetings.  James hadn’t immediately noticed that Tim is there because Tim had been swimming in the lake with a few others.  James and Tim aren’t really friends, but James respects Tim, because Tim always smiles and tells both Kimberly and him hello when he sees them in school or around town.  James respects this quality.  Friendly people are good people, James thinks.  Not always, but most of the time.

Tim is a bit of a gentle giant.  He’s strong, but righteous.  The type of person that will curse in front of a lady, but never at one.

Like clockwork, Tim says, “Hi James.  Where’s Kimberly?”  James hadn’t noticed, but Kimberly had disappeared somewhere with Sarah-Beth.  James doesn’t pay any attention to the fact that Tim assumes that Kimberly is always around him, because it’s usually true.

Even though James greeted Scotty and Heather, he still sees them giving him the stink eye every once in a while when he looks in their direction.  He shrugs it off and decides to ignore them for now.

Kimberly and Sarah-Beth return from wherever they have been.  Kimberly has shimmied out of her shorts, but still has her shirt on.  She’s carrying her shorts in her left hand, and she opens James’ car and throws them inside.  While standing there, she takes off her shirt and throws it inside too.  James notices this, and, of course, every other male notices this.

As soon as Kimberly starts walking back toward him, James sees Heather glaring fiercely at her, as though Kimberly had walked up to Heather’s mother’s grave and spit on it.

Kimberly is an attractive girl.  James knows this.  Every guy in their class knows this.  Even Heather knows this, and James suspects that right now, Heather is jealous because she just caught Scotty checking Kimberly out as she was taking her shirt off.

This would upset many girls, but it goes far beyond that in this case and infuriates Heather.  James doesn’t say anything, but he finds it hilarious.

“Wanna go for a swim?” Kimberly asks.

“Sure,” James says.  He adds, “I like your bikini.”  He isn’t hitting on her or anything.  He just knows that it’s new, and girls like it when you compliment them on their clothes.

Kimberly smiles, but doesn’t thank him.  Instead, she grabs him by the arm and drags him into the water.  Sarah-Beth is watching them from back on the shore and is cracking up with laughter.

“You better stop laughing,” Kimberly yells out, “because you’re next, Sarah!”

Sarah-Beth giggles and says, “Those two are so cute.”  No one hears her say this though.  She has purposely said it just loud enough for only herself to hear.

The water is a comfortable temperature, which surprises James, because it rained last night, and rain always cools the lake off.  He splashes some of the water at Kimberly and Sarah-Beth, who joined them only moments ago, and is still standing there only halfway submerged in the water.

“Hey, that’s cold!  At least let me get used to the water first!” Sarah-Beth protests.

James laughs and says, “Oh come on you big baby, it’s not cold.”

The three of them swim for 30 minutes or so, though their “swimming” mostly consists of water splashing fights and cracking stupid jokes about the legendary monster that lives in the lake.  There is, of course, no monster in the lake, but it is a fun myth that some of the townspeople have been spreading around for years.

As they’re about to get out of the water, they hear shouting back on the shore.  One of the voices is definitely Tim’s, but neither James nor Kimberly nor Sarah-Beth can figure out who the other voice belongs to.  They quickly wade back to shore and run over to where the others are.

Tim is face to face with Scotty.  Scotty should be terrified, but he doesn’t look it.  Tim is a big guy.  He could be a football player.  He should be a football player.  Their school isn’t big enough to have a football team, though.  Regardless of this, Tim is the closest thing they have to a jock, and like everyone else, Tim sides with James and Kimberly, thusly putting Scotty on the bad end of Tim’s anger.

“It isn’t James’ fault that you can’t keep your eyes off of Kimberly.  This is you and Heather’s shit, not Kimberly’s and not James’.  Leave them out of this,” Tim says.  James, Kimberly, and Sarah-Beth don’t know what’s going on, but while they were swimming, Heather had pitched a hissy fit because she caught Scotty staring at Kimberly yet again.  Heather is furious at Scotty, and Scotty is furious because he is in the wrong, and he knows it.  Like most boneheads, he has to take out his anger on someone, and since James’ had once knocked out Revo, Scotty decides James should be the recipient of his anger, so Scotty goes over and kicks James’ Firebird while Tim is watching.  Tim has also seen everything that’s transpired between Scotty and Heather.

Tim takes it personally when stupid people do stupid things to other people or their property.  Tim is one of the lucky kids that got a new Mustang from his parents.  He isn’t a brat though.  He loves his car, and he takes care of it.  No one touches his car, and when he sees Scotty kick James’ old Firebird, Tim is infuriated.  It may be an old car, but Scotty has no right to kick it, even if he only leaves a small dent that is easily taken out later with a suction cup.

Scotty is raging mad.  He wants to hit Tim, but hitting Tim would be idiotic.  Not only could Tim beat him into a pulp, but two of Tim’s closest friends are there to back him up, as well as all of these other people.  Scotty may be stupid, but he’s not that stupid.

Scotty sees that James and Kimberly are standing there, dumbfounded at the whole situation.  James heard his name mentioned, and Kimberly heard hers mentioned, but they’ve been swimming this entire time.  What could they have done to be involved in this?

Scotty, ever the opportunist, walks away from Tim and up to James.  James frowns.  He doesn’t like this punk.  Scotty looks James up and down and says, “You’re not good enough to have a girl like that.”  He nods over to Kimberly.

“Kimberly is my friend,” James says.

“Right,” Scotty replies.  Everyone there knows that James and Kimberly are not dating.  Of course, when a girl and a guy hang out alone as much as Kimberly and James do, rumors start, but they were gentle rumors, and they were quickly put to rest as soon as the subjects of the rumors were asked about them.  However, James and Kimberly – especially Kimberly – like to take advantage of that situation whenever possible.

“What’s the matter?” Kimberly says.  “Don’t believe him?”  She winds her right arm around James’ left and pulls him close to her.  James rolls his eyes.

“Are you making fun of me, bitch?”

No one says a word.  There are two reasons why this is very bad.  The first is that they all know what James’ did to Revo when Revo had insulted Kimberly’s integrity.  The second is that Tim is still standing there, and Tim does not tolerate it when men call women by that slang, especially not a woman that he knows and respects.

Kimberly can tell that James wants to get violent.  She still has her arm wrapped around his, so she pulls him back and whispers, “Don’t.  Please don’t.  I don’t want you to get hurt.”

But James’ teeth are already gritted, and he’s already trying to pull himself out of Kimberly’s grasp.  She holds him tightly though.  “No, please, dont,” she pleads.

Sensing a possible fight, their classmate, Tina, had already pulled out her smartphone, opened the camera app, and tapped the record button.  Tina has Scotty on video calling Kimberly a bitch, but then she stops recording, realizing that if something did go down and there was video evidence, it might get James in trouble rather than Scotty, especially if James throws the first punch.  She picks up her phone and goes back to watching, silently hoping that Scotty gets what he deserves.

“Kimberly, let me go,” James says.

“I won’t let go,” Kimberly says.  James would never get rough with Kimberly, and she knows it, so if she holds on, he won’t try to push her off, and then he won’t be able to fight Scotty.

“What’s the matter?  Your girlfriend won’t let you fight?” Scotty says, accentuating and dragging out the word ‘girlfriend.’

However, James isn’t really the biggest of Scotty’s worries.  Or, at least, he shouldn’t be, because at that moment, Tim is walking up behind Scotty.

“Kimberly is a better person that you will ever be,” James fires off, eyes practically ablaze.  “If you have a problem with me, then take it out with me, not her.”

Scotty looks James in the eye and says, “Fine.”  There is an evil smile on Scotty’s face as the word escapes his lips, and James suddenly realizes that Scotty plans to hit him while he can’t fight back.  His mind starts racing.  Should he push Kimberly to the side so she doesn’t get hurt?  Should he just take the attack like a man and not fight back?

Scotty cocks his fist back, and James, having desultorily decided on his latter idea, braces for impact.

But another hand appears in front of James and catches the attack.  It’s a big hand – no doubt belonging to Tim.  James is in awe that Tim not only blocked the attack, but did so with a single hand.

Tim wraps his hand around Scotty’s fist.  Scotty tries to escape Tim’s grasp, but it’s futile.  Tim is a powerhouse, and Scotty is a double A battery.  With his other hand, Tim grabs Scotty’s comparatively small bicep, and using his own body as a fulcrum, Tim swings Scotty backward, stops, then heaves all of the power in his body into swinging Scotty forward.

Tim lets go, and Scotty, practically helpless at this point, flies forward, hits the ground, and rolls down the bank into the lake.

Everyone is quiet at first as Scotty gets up, completely humiliated.  Then, they all burst out with cheers, laughter, and even applause.  Scotty is suddenly painfully aware that he’s lost this fight, and he walks past them, dripping with water, dispirit and dejected.

Even James is cheering as his opponent walks past.  His anger is gone now, as Scotty has received what he had coming to him.  Tim is proud of himself, because even though he got physical, he didn’t actually cause any harm to Scotty.  At least, not to his body.  Scotty’s pride might be permanently damaged, though.

December 31

The Redwoods

If you ever need to find James, chances are that he is somewhere by the Oaks near the ditch that crosses the field by Kimberly’s house. And yes, Kimberly is probably with him. They are childhood friends, and you can say that they are best friends, but don’t assume any farther than that.

And they don’t have nicknames. So don’t call them by some cutesy, rhyming couple name like “Jim and Kim” or “J and K.” They really don’t appreciate it, and as you can imagine, they’ve heard it a million times.

Kimberly’s parents own the field through which the ditch traces its path, but the land is mostly unused. There is a small storage shed closer to their house, and Kimberly’s dad had once built a treehouse somewhere in the middle of the field on one of the few trees that aren’t in the Oaks or the Pines, but it is in disrepair nowadays. That was when Kimberly was eight, and she is 17 now. An adult, of course, just like all 17 year olds.

James is almost 17, but a birthday is a birthday, so he’s still 16. Kimberly likes to tease him as soon as her birthday arrives, because for three months, she’s technically a year older than him. They’re still at the age when growing another year older is a good, exciting thing, after all.

There’s a patch of forestry on the south edge of the field. The ditch cuts through the trees, dissecting them into what James dubbed the Pines and the Oaks. On one side of the ditch, there are mostly pine trees. On the other side, oaks. It’s strange, James thinks, but Kimberly doesn’t think it’s strange at all that the trees happen to be separated like this.

On the side of the ditch is the path they travel down almost every day (weather permitting, of course) to get to the Oaks. In the Oaks, they’ve set up a makeshift club house. The four columns at the corners are old fence posts that they found in the field, but the rest of the club house is made from fallen tree branches and whatever else they can find lying around in the forested area of the field.

James and Kimberly started building the club house when they were 14, and it has been an off and on project since then. They are older now, and it seems like less of a “cool” thing to do, but it serves as a decent form of entertainment, especially after James got the idea to dig a tunnel that will go out under one of the walls and into a pit, which he will also dig. They will then cover the top of the pit with branches, and then leaves, and then mud, until it looks like any other part of the ground.

James is excited about this idea. Kimberly isn’t.

“Let’s just put a roof on this thing and finish it,” she says.

“If I’m going to have a club house attached to my name when I turn 17, I at least want it to be the coolest club house in town,” he says.

Kimberly sighs. She figured he would say something like that. “I hope you have two shovels,” she relents.

He does back at his parents’ house, but that’s a far walk. “I’ll bring them tomorrow,” he says.

“Our progress is stalled again until we have shovels.”

“That’s fine. We can go exploring.”

The ditch exits the patch of forestry a few hundred feet past where their unfinished club house is. It travels another couple hundred feet on Kimberly’s parents’ property, and then veers sharply to the west, and right past that is where the property line is.

“I wish that old man wasn’t so mean,” James says as they exit the Oaks. He can wish, of course, but the old man that owns the adjacent property is, in fact, mean. He’s an angry, crotchety old man that’s never said a nice word to Kimberly or her parents in the 15 years they’ve been neighbors. When he goes into town to pick up his weekly loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter, he doesn’t speak a word to anyone. He just pays and leaves. Everyone in their small town knows this, which lends more validity to the claim that he isn’t a very pleasant old man.

They walk closer to the property line. There’s no fence, but there’s a stick with a bright pink plastic flag on it demarcating the boundary. Kimberly won’t even go near the stick. She’s not afraid of the old man, but her dad told her to stay away from the old man’s property, and she’s a good girl (or so she tells herself), so she listens. Most of the time, anyway.

James respects that Kimberly listens to her parents, but as for himself, well, he wants to explore the patch of forestry on the old man’s property. He’s always been able to see it from the Oaks and the Pines, but he’s never been able to go there. For that reason, he calls it the Redwoods. Obviously, they aren’t actually redwood trees, but James is fascinated by the real redwood forests out west and has always wanted to visit, but it’s too far away.

Sometimes, James gets bad ideas. On occasions, he keeps those ideas to himself. Most of the time though, he shares his bad ideas with Kimberly. The last time he had a bad idea, he and Kimberly had nearly drowned trying to float a homemade raft out onto the lake a few miles down the road. That’s a different story, though, and despite any previous shortcomings associated with his ideas, he can usually somehow still manage to convince Kimberly to go along with them. She is his best friend, after all. His partner in crime.

Today, James gets a bad idea.

“Let’s come back out here at midnight and go explore the Redwoods,” he says.

Kimberly ponders his suggestion for a second, trying to decide which reason to settle on in the very long list of why they shouldn’t do any such thing. “What if the old man catches us?” She would’ve tried to appeal to James’ sense of understanding by saying that her parents would be mad if they found out she left the house after her curfew at 10, but they are out of town that night on a business trip for her dad’s job, and James knows this.

“He’s an old man. He probably goes to bed at like eight o’clock.”

As usual, she knows she’ll have to give in. “Meet at my house at 11:30 then?”

“Perfect.”

Kimberly still thinks it’s a bad idea, but she’s waiting patiently for James at 11:30, just like she said she would be. He shows up five minutes late with two shovels and a flashlight in his hand.

“Gonna drop these off at the clubhouse on the way there,” he says, lifting the shovels. “Hope you have a flashlight. I could only find one.”

She nods, pulling one out of her pocket. It’s a small flashlight, but she flicks it on, and it throws a surprisingly powerful beam of light. James still laughs though.

“Don’t you have anything bigger?” he asks.

“Just this and a lantern. I don’t know where my dad keeps the other flashlights.”

“Hey, that might be handy. Bring the lantern,” James says. He doesn’t ask very nicely, but Kimberly goes to get the lantern. James doesn’t always speak with the nicest words, but she knows that’s just how he is when he gets excited. Her father even told her once that the only reason he lets her go out so much is because he feels better knowing that James is with her. He says that he can tell that James is very protective of her, almost like an older brother that sometimes playfully picks on his younger sibling, but if anyone else touches that sibling, he’d beat that person to a pulp.

Kimberly agrees with that assessment, but she’d never tell her father why – that James cold clocked some guy at school because that guy spread a rumor that Kimberly slept with him. Of course Kimberly didn’t sleep with that guy. She barely even knows him.  High school kids are just mean sometimes.

James and Kimberly trudge along the trail by the ditch. It’s dark out, but the moon is three-quarters full, so they don’t need to use their flashlights yet. They’re each holding a shovel, using them as makeshift walking sticks. It takes about 15 minutes of walking at that pace to reach the Oaks.

It’s really creepy there at night, Kimberly decides. She pulls her flashlight out of her pocket and holds it with the power button resting under her thumb. She doesn’t turn it on, but she feels better knowing that it can be on within an instant if she needs it. She doesn’t tell James that she’s a little scared, though.

“The Oaks are so different at night,” he observes. “We should camp out here one night and build a fire.”

Kimberly thinks that’s the worst idea she’s heard all day; even worse than the idea that James came up with that led to her being exactly where she is right now. She doesn’t argue though. “Yeah, maybe so.”  She just hopes he’ll forget about it.

They reach the club house and drop off the shovels. James realizes that he needs to find a good, sturdy branch to replace the shovel as his walking stick, so he borrows one from the pile they’ve gathered to use for club house building supplies. Kimberly is glad to have her hand free though, because now she can hold the lantern in one hand and the flashlight in the other.

The sounds of the Oaks at night are only slightly different than during the day. Dexter is hooting somewhere, but that crazy owl does that sometimes at two in the afternoon, even though owls are supposed to be nocturnal. They don’t bother Dexter when they see him during the day, and in exchange, Dexter doesn’t bother them. He just stares with his big, mysterious owl eyes, and occasionally, Kimberly and James stare back. Kimberly noticed the feather pattern around Dexter’s eyes that make it look like he’s wearing glasses, and that’s how Dexter got his name. James thinks it’s a name fitting of a smart kid that wears glasses, but it works for an owl pretty well too.

Before they exit the Oaks, they decide to turn their lights off. If, by chance, the old man is awake, it would be easy to spot the lights in the open field. They’d wait and turn the lights back on when they get to the Redwoods.

They exit the Oaks and, for the first time, pass the pink-flagged stick and continue toward the trees off in the distance. James really likes to explore, so he’s visibly excited. Kimberly really likes to explore too, but she really likes it to be daytime while she’s at it. However, she feels a little excited. She’s a good girl, after all, and right now, she’s breaking the rules.

They see the old man’s house far off in the distance, and James says, “Definitely a good idea to leave the lights off for now.” Kimberly nods.

The Redwoods are farther away than they thought, but the trek is worth it. It takes about 10 minutes to walk there, but the walk is made longer because they have to pay attention to where they are walking. To get to the Oaks, there is a safe, reliable trail. To get to the Redwoods, there is no trail, and there could be ruts to trip over and sprain your ankle, or heck, even a hole to fall in. James leads the way, because he is a man, and that’s what men are supposed to do. Even 16 year old men.

Once they reach the edge of the Redwoods, the old man’s house clearly out of view behind the trees, they flick on their lights. Kimberly holds up her lantern and causes the trees to cast hundreds of shadows in every which way. She immediately regrets this, and turns the lantern off. Way too creepy.

James laughs at her. “The shadows aren’t going to hurt you.” She knows this, but she feels better with just her little flashlight casting its straight beam of light only in front of her.

“There’s not as many trees here as I thought there’d be,” Kimberly says without a hint of disappointment. James agrees silently with a nod, but Kimberly doesn’t see it because her gaze is affixed on the tree trunk in front of her.

“What is this?” she asks. She doesn’t mean to question what the object is, though. It’s obviously a worn, old shirt hanging over a branch. Her question, rather, contains a hint of wonder as to what the shirt is doing there, and James knows this, because they’ve never seen the old man – or anyone else for that matter – venture out to the Redwoods.

“I wonder who brought this out here,” James says. It’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, since obviously neither of the two of them know, but as they turn to walk farther into the trees, they’re met face-to-face with a hardened-looking, middle-aged man that wears the fiercest look that either James or Kimberly has ever seen.

This man may be older than they are, and he may appear mean, but both James and Kimberly know that this man is not the old man that owns the property. This man is someone else, and strangely, they both wish that it is the old man instead.

“Uh…hello, sir,” James says. It comes out meek, though, and Kimberly grabs at his shirt sleeve, tugging gently, as if to say “don’t tell him hello, let’s just run!”

The man doesn’t return James’ greeting, though. The man isn’t concerned with cordialities; rather, he is more concerned with the fact that someone – no, two someones – have seen his face. His face is on the evening news, and his face is plastered in newspapers, because he is a wanted man. James and Kimberly don’t know this, but he knows it, and now he knows that he can’t let these kids escape.

The man reaches out to grab James, but James is quick, and he nimbly dodges the hand. Kimberly doesn’t need to yank at his sleeve anymore, because now they’re both on the same page. They want out of there – now.

They both turn and run as fast as their legs will carry them. What the man wants with them, they don’t know, but it can’t be anything good, and that is all the motivation they need.

They break free of the Redwoods and head straight for the Oaks. They were careful walking toward the Redwoods, but now they aren’t even looking down as they run. The Oaks are the goal; that group of trees is the only thing they need to see.

“Get back here you little shitheads!” the man yells from behind them.

Kimberly wonders how close the man is, but doesn’t dare turn her head to see. She is actually pretty impressed with herself, given the circumstances. James is a faster runner than her, but she is matching him stride for stride. Or maybe he is matching her so that she won’t get left behind.

“I’m going to beat your asses into the dirt when I catch you!”

James knows with absolute certainty now that this is a bad dude, and he quickly hatches a plan in his head. There are two shovels back at the club house. Great for digging holes, also great for smacking the shit out of a low-life scumbag that wants to do harm to him and his best friend. They’re already outrunning him by a bit, which he chalks up to the fact that they’re young and healthy, and the man chasing them appears as though he’s seen better days.

James turns to Kimberly and whispers, “The shovels, we need to get the shovels.” He hopes she’ll understand his intentions, but at the very least, she’ll understand where he’s going to lead her.

They enter the Oaks about 10 seconds ahead of the man. It’s a pretty decent lead, but James has seen a lot of movies. James knows that a lead like that means nothing if Kimberly trips or if he suddenly gets a cramp. He knows they have to take care of this guy. Make it where he can’t chase them anymore.

The club house is right there. James has never been so happy to see it, but as he slides to a halt, he comes to a horrible realization: the shovels are gone. Vanished. Disappeared.

No, it’s impossible. He looks again, but they’re obviously not where he left them. Kimberly looks confused, but James doesn’t have the time to explain. He goes to grab her wrist and shouts, “Run!” But as he reaches out, he stumbles, misses, and falls forward. It’s like straight out of a movie. He can’t believe he fell, but he knows he doesn’t have time for disbelief, so he goes to get up, but his lead on the man is lost. James is now planted on the ground directly beneath the man that he’s been running from. The look on the man’s face is of exhaustion, but it’s laced with sinisterness. James can almost feel the evil aura coming from this man, and he is terrified of it.

“Get out of here, Kimberly!” he screams. It’s futile, though. He knows she won’t leave him there.

Kimberly is crying, but she doesn’t realize it. She’s still holding the flashlight, but her lantern has fallen out of her hand and is lying on the ground. If only they hadn’t gone to the Redwoods. If only she would’ve said no to one of James’ bad ideas for once. She feels like she’s going to throw up, but that’s one of the last things she wants to do at a time like this.

“Neither of you are getting out of here alive,” the man says. James and Kimberly both know that the man intends on making those words come true.

Kimberly, through her tears, sees something behind the man, but it’s too dark for her to make out what it is. “What’s that?” she says.

“Right, like I would fall for the oldest trick in the book,” the man says.

Hoo! Hoo!

Kimberly and James recognize the sound immediately. The man is startled though, and turns to look, but instead of being faced with Dexter, there is an old, gray-haired man standing there gripping two shovels together with both of his hands. He’s already mid-swing, and by the time the man has turned around, there is no time to dodge. The old man’s attack connects with the side of the younger man’s head, and he is instantly knocked out cold. He falls to the ground next to James, and not skipping a beat, James jumps up and runs over to Kimberly.

“You…you’re my neighbor,” Kimberly says, bewildered at the old man who is now standing there, holding the two shovels and looking like a prospector.

The old man doesn’t acknowledge Kimberly’s remark though, and instead opts for the more important route of conversation. “You kids okay?”

James looks at Kimberly, who then looks back at him and nods. “We’re fine,” James says. “Thank you.”

“Good. You kids shouldn’t be out this late, you know.”

“We’re sorry,” Kimberly says.

“You also shouldn’t have been on my property,” he says. “But don’t say you’re sorry. I know you are.”

James and Kimberly don’t know what to say, so they remain silent.

“I’ll stay here and watch over this fella. You kids go call the cops.”

“But what if he wakes up?” James says.

“I’ll be fine. Now go. Skedaddle.”

The kids nod and run back to Kimberly’s house. James dials 911 and the cops take no more than 10 minutes to arrive. Three of them show up, but in two separate cars. It’s a small town, after all, so they usually don’t have a whole lot going on.

James leads two policemen out to the Oaks while Kimberly stays back at the house with an officer. She’s scared, and the cop understands and wants to comfort her, so he stays behind.

The man is still out cold when they arrive, but the old man is nowhere to be found. The shovels are lying on the ground though, so James points to them and says, “That’s what the old man knocked this guy out with.” The police handcuff the man and drag him and the shovels back to their patrol car.

James is worried about the old man, though. Where had he gone?

“Don’t worry, kid. We’ll stop by his house to make sure he’s okay,” the biggest of the three cops says. Both cars take off, and Kimberly rushes over and holds James, crying in his embrace. James is scared too. He knows he won’t sleep tonight, and he isn’t looking forward to telling his parents or Kimberly’s parents what happened. Word will get around if they don’t, and they are in big trouble either way.

They sit there silently for 15 minutes, when suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. James looks through the peephole, and it’s the cop that had stayed behind with Kimberly. He opens the door.

“Yeah, uh…” the cop says. “You kids said that old man saved you, right?”

James nods. “Yeah, I’d be dead if it wasn’t for him.”

“Kid, I don’t quite know how to say this, but that old man…he’s been dead for at least a week. We found his body in the lounge chair in his living room.”