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A Little Earthquake

Below you will find a serialized novelette: A Little Earthquake. The story runs just over 12,000 words across seven chapters. The first chapter is below. Subsequent chapters will be attached on an approximate four-to-five-week schedule. My target dates are: 5/24/17, 6/16/17, 7/24/17, 8/28/17, 9/29/17, 11/3/17, and 12/12/17. Travel plans may alter the schedule but, hopefully, not by more than a day or two. If you like the story as it unfolds and prefer not to wait for the following chapters, send me an email by clicking on the CONTACT button above, enter your name and email, and request the full novelette. I will email the full story to you as a Word document or a PDF. Let me know your preference.

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   A LITTLE EARTHQUAKE       

by

 Carl H. Mitchell


                                                                                       Chapter 1

 

The bright yellow school bus jounced down the mountain road. Bill Chambers, the young driver, kept a firm grip on the steering wheel. He could feel each bump transmitted straight to his hands.

The first tremor went unnoticed, obscured by the constant shakes and rattles of the bus.

Unaware, Bill continued guiding the school bus down past mustard-colored walls of rock, picking his way along the rutted, rock-strewn road that slashed in hairpin turns down that section of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west of Sonora. This morning he had clipped to the windshield visor a wallet card presented to him by the school superintendent. It proclaimed in flourished script that the driver, Bill Chambers, possessed a safety and promptness record unmarred and unmatched in five years—no mean achievement for a man of twenty-three. Damned essential skills on the mountain route, especially with a bus filled with students.

Bill sported a broad, beaming face, a ten-year-old’s cowlick, and a soft, knowing smile worthy of an ancient mystic. Given to drag racing on weekends, he lavished the same attention and careful scrutiny upon the bus as he invested in his cars. That investment had helped him win twelve trophies and earn a perfect safety record—so far.

It was 8:27 a.m. when the first tremor passed—and with it, its warning.

Bill glanced at the overhead mirror. The children, thirty-seven in all, first- through twelfth-graders, engaged in the animated cackle of a hundred conversations. Some, mostly little girls in starched orange-and-yellow prints, whispered secrets, while others alternately laughed and giggled. The older girls recounted last Friday’s dance in the gym, rehashing in great detail which girls got which boys to dance with them, and for how long. The boys, for the most part, talked earnestly of football, of horses, of camping—never of girls. Here and there, a tin lunch pail clunked against the chrome edge of a seat or fell clattering to the floor. A full day, the last before summer vacation, awaited them. They were eager. Noisy and eager.

Not really conscious of the tune he was quietly whistling, Bill trailed his gaze along each twist in the road, across each quirk in the grade—his instincts, experience, and reactions blending subconsciously. Only once did he let his attention wander, and then for little more than a second as a helicopter from the State Road Department rose up into view about two hundred yards ahead. The Sonora Weekly had had a front-page article trumpeting the beginning of a three-week filming run prior to the start of land surveying for the County Road Reconstruction Project. The mountain road being their toughest challenge, they were giving it a thorough going over, capturing gradients, road widths, and future tunnel sites, all in glorious, living color.

The second tremor, at 8:29, wrenched the front wheels sideways, slamming the bus almost to the craggy wall, which ended up less than two inches from Bill’s side window. He instantly coaxed the brakes and adjusted the steering. The laughter and giggling choked into abrupt silence.

One thought came immediately to Bill’s mind, and with it, beads of sweat to his forehead. “Keep your seats, kids!” he hollered. “And stay away from the windows.” His mind rippled through the possibilities. No, the windows would be safe, for now. Besides, he’d need lookouts.

For a moment everyone was quiet. Then a deluge began.

“What?”

“Why?”

“How?”

“I don’t know, kids,” Bill answered. “I don’t really know.” He turned around to face the children. “You older kids, both boys and girls, sit next to the windows on my side. Keep a sharp watch on the ridge above. I’m gonna move ahead slowly.”

Only open-mouthed hesitation greeted him.

“Now!” he demanded. “Do it!”

A quick scramble followed, and seats were exchanged.

Downshifting, he eased out the clutch and cursed himself for stopping. Damn foolish thing to do. Could be costly. From across the aisle, he heard little Jennifer Pryor trying not to cry.

“I’m scared,” she sobbed.

Can’t blame her, he thought. Five feet beyond her window, and it’s two thousand feet to the bottom.

Jenny was six and had bright red hair. Tomorrow was her birthday. He hoped she’d be around to celebrate reaching seven.

He tickled the accelerator—harder, then softer, then harder again. He wasn’t sure whether normal speed was called for, or no speed at all. Every instinct cried out, “Tromp down! Get out!” He and the kids were up against a quake. How big—how small—he didn’t know. If they hung around, they could be shoved right over the side. Too fast, and they could slam into a crumbling wall—or into emptiness. He felt like a man caught between two ugly sisters—damned if you do, the same if you don’t. He decided: normal speed.

“Up there!” Sharon Jackson, the blond, graduating cheerleader was first to notice.

“The mountain’s cracking open!” Brian Kilmer, sophomore, first flute, followed.

“It’s coming down!” cried Lenny Peters, spelling champ of the third grade.

Bill flinched as he saw a million tons of ridge wall heave upward. For an instant, the mass of rock hung suspended as if its yellows and browns and grays had been captured in a Sunday supplement photo. Then, with a shudder felt throughout the bus, the face of death began to slide down to meet them.

Bill’s foot was already to the floor. They were in Ryan’s Chute, a vertical bowl of granite with the lip—and escape—not more than a hundred feet away. What seemed like a thousand screams filled the air, none more shrill than the cry in his own mind. Let us make it, God. You don’t need these kids—not now.

He glanced at Jenny. She was twisted sideways in her seat, looking at him, tears welling up in her eyes. Her lips were stiff, straining not to quiver, and she clutched two books tightly in her tiny arms. For an instant he wanted to hold her and tell her it would be okay. But only for an instant. He’d tell her later—if there was a later.

Beyond Jenny’s shoulder, framed in her window, he caught a glimpse of the helicopter, its tail pitched upward about twenty degrees. His one wasted thought was how desperately he wished he could change places with the pilot.

The ground beneath the bus shuddered. He could feel the spasmodic fishtailing of the rear end through the wheel. Keep us on the track, God, he pleaded. Keep us on the track. He bit his lip, hard. Blood trickled. The soles of his feet felt as if pressed against hot coals. Cramps racked through his back, hunching his shoulders. Keep us on the track was all he could ask.

They had less than forty feet to go.

A sudden, sickening silence overtook the bus. The back of his neck prickled. He could feel each young soul behind him twist in agonized, grotesque body English. Thousands of egg-sized rocks, the advance guard, pelted the roof as he fought the wheel to the left. Only twenty feet to go.

The whole frame shivered under the next load. Glass shattered and the roof began to buckle. He yanked the wheel all the way to the left.

Little Jenny Pryor still held back her tears as the rear wheels began to slip.

Thirty-seven gasps and moans reached Bill’s ears as the right rear wheels found the road’s edge and the bus began to tilt.

Through the steering wheel, he could feel the front tires scratch against the roadway as they were dragged toward the edge.

The scratching stopped as the front tires tilted up off the road.

  

Chapter 2

 

The bright red kite dipped left and swerved overhead. The blue imprint of a biplane was pressed tight against the cross-sticks as the kite peaked, weightless for a moment in the buffeting currents of air, then swooped down to the right in a perfect strafing run.

The intensity of the image caught Ed Pryor in mid stride. Emerging from the bathroom, he touched the opposite wall for balance. Where had it come from? Why? He shook involuntarily. Kites had no business in a man’s hallway at nine in the morning.

The image faded. Ed gave his head a good shake, as if trying to whip seawater from his thick white hair. Satisfied the kite would not return, he decided it was just a symptom of getting old. He opened the closet door, pitched his towel into the hamper, and continued to the kitchen.

Two breakfast plates and silverware were already on the table, but not in the usual neat arrangement atop their respective placemats, more like they had just been plopped down. Ed turned and saw Maggie on the phone listening, a puzzled expression creasing her face. He glanced out the window and saw Jennifer sitting lotus-style in front of the tin shed, her right arm making periodic sweeps through the air, her red hair glistening in the morning sun. The shed was thirty feet from the house, so he couldn’t quite make out what game she was playing. She seemed engrossed.

Ed’s stomach gave a sharp growl. He opened the refrigerator and retrieved four eggs. As he reached behind Maggie for the frying pan, she started giving directions detailing how to get from Sonora to their house on the mountain road.

Ed stopped her in midsentence and covered the phone. “Who are we inviting up here?”

“A woman reporter from one of the Los Angeles papers. She was very nice. Asked if she could interview the three of us about the bus incident.”

Ed thought for a moment and decided he didn’t like surprises. “Tell her no.”

“You tell her,” Maggie said, handing him the phone and taking the pan. “I’ve already invited her up.”

Ed spoke into the phone. “Sorry, Miss. We’re not giving interviews today.” He hung up immediately, cutting off any counterargument.

Maggie rolled her eyes as if hearing an old, boring story for the millionth time. “You’re the real thing, Mr. Hermit. If you had your way, we’d never have company.”

“Busybodies aren’t company,” Ed said, handing her the eggs. “The bus thing was four days ago. Los Angeles must be having one hell of a slow news day.”

“She said there’s been a renewed interest since a film clip of the accident was shown on TV last night.”

“What film clip?”

Maggie cracked the eggs into the pan, mixing them thoroughly. “Seems the State Road Department had a helicopter in the area, filming for the new road. They filmed the bus during the earthquake.”

“So?”

“So if you’d had the antenna fixed, we’d already know.”

“I’m beginning to like it around here without that damn idiot box.” He took over the pan from Maggie and continued scrambling the eggs. “So what about the bus?”

“She said the bus should have crashed, that it had fallen over the cliff and had—somehow—been swept back to safety. She said what happened was extraordinary. No one can explain it. She said some are even calling it a miracle.”

“I think your reporter has been hitting the bottle extra heavy today,” Ed said, looking at his wristwatch. “And it’s not anywhere near noon. Yes, the bus got pelted with a lot of falling rocks dislodged by the earthquake. Yes, one window was smashed in. Yes, two older kids got a small cut or two. But the bus got out of the way in one piece.” He looked out the window. “Jennifer hasn’t acted as if they were swept over the edge. The only reaction she’s had is to sleep like a log for the better part of three days. I know this is the first day she’s really been up and about, but she hasn’t said anything about the bus falling.” He turned off the gas and slipped the eggs evenly onto two plates. “And from what I hear, none of the other children have said anything, either.”

“What about Bill Chambers?” Maggie asked. “He’s locked himself in his room and refuses to come out. His parents are at their wit’s end. They’ve even talked to Father Mulvaney.” She shook a dash each of salt and pepper over her eggs.

Ed covered his eggs with a layer of ketchup. “Bill Chambers was the driver. It was his job to bring them all down safely. He’s exhausted, wrung out, physically and emotionally. That responsibility would take everything out of any man, let alone a young man of—what—twenty-three, twenty-four? He’s just a hero who hasn’t adjusted yet. The bus got banged up one hell of a lot. Nothing extraordinary in that.”

“Then why has Brian Kilmer stopped by twice to ask how Jenny’s doing? I hear he’s asked after several of the children.”

“He was one of the oldest on the bus. Probably playing the older brother.”

Indicating with an arched eyebrow that she thought little of Ed’s hypotheses, Maggie reached to turn off the heat under the coffee. “Did you ever think maybe Jenny’s been too calm about the bus, too casual?”

They never did get to eat the eggs.

The phone rang again. Maggie, the closest, answered. She listened intently, her brow furrowed.

“What is it?”

“A radio producer says he’s planning interviews with the families of all the children on the bus. He says we’ll be one of the first. He’s set up and ready to start an on-the-air interview with the whole family.”

Ed grabbed the phone from her. “No,” he said repeatedly as the voice on the other end turned from sugarcoated to pushy to arrogant to surly, and finally, to abusive. Throughout the whole conversation, Ed himself was anything but polite.

More calls followed. Two magazines wanted pictures of their house, of themselves, and most importantly, of their granddaughter. One self-knighted inventor claimed he could prove the whole thing with the bus was done with trick photography. A few calls later, a religious zealot proclaimed the bus was a harbinger, signaling the coming of the Final Days. Another, a mumbler with a twang, said he’d just been dropped off by an “extraterrestrial craft” that had caught the bus in its tractor beam.

Finally, Ed insisted they leave the phone off the hook. Standing by the sink and shaking his head, he looked across at Maggie. “Seems everybody has been drinking from the same bottle as your reporter friend.”

Maggie shrugged. Glancing through the window, she said, “Please get Jenny and bring her in. I don’t want her outside today.”

“Why? She’s okay.” Watching as Maggie’s hands wrung and re-wrung the faded green washcloth, Ed knew better than to argue. 

 

Chapter 3

 

As soon as Ed stepped outside, Jennifer jumped up from where she was playing and dashed to his side. She grabbed his nearest hand and started pulling him toward the shed.

“Hey, speed demon, slow down!” Ed protested, his tone mock serious. “Grandma wants us in the house.”

Jennifer reached back, grabbed the other hand, and tugged all the harder. “I want to show you something.”

Her excitement seemed unstoppable, and Ed gave in to her urgings.

Giving her skirt a quick fluff, Jennifer sat on the brick walk and grabbed a small red ball.

A group of jacks spread across several bricks caught Ed’s eye.

“Watch what I can do!” Jenny’s voice peaked two octaves above her normal range. She bounced the ball, and as it shot off the bricks, the jacks rose unaided about a foot into the air. Her eager little hand grabbed them all, plus the returning ball, in one pass. She giggled, replaced the jacks, and bounced the ball again. The jacks once more floated upward, where all but one were captured. The single jack maintained its position in midair while the others were replaced back at ground zero. Jenny bounced the ball again, the jacks rose, and now a second jack remained to defy gravity with the first.

Ed felt dizzy. He wanted to sink to the ground and hold tight with both hands. This couldn’t be happening! Far down in a remote corner of his mind, an ancient foreboding, a childhood nightmare, broke free of its bonds—bonds he had forgotten he had spent a lifetime strengthening, all the while pretending there was nothing really to guard against. He clamped his eyes shut, fearing that pretending time was over. Relentlessly, a misty, clouded vision played out across his closed eyelids.

He was back in the third grade, and his best friend had a strange power: he could move lunch bags, pocket knives, schoolbooks, even squirrels and other small animals, just by thinking it done. He saw others become aware, saw them make fun, heard them jeer, watched them plot. Then, as he watched, his best friend was captured by the others, taken to the far end of the playground behind the oak tree, and beaten. The first beating was a tentative experiment, more pushes and shoves than closed fists, but when no mysterious force repelled the bullies, they made it a daily occurrence.

From the first, he was afraid to help his friend. Though he saw the other boy’s eyes pleading with him from beneath the piles of swinging fists and thrashing feet, he could not—did not—help. He turned and walked away.

It became worse. One day after school, he watched as his friend was locked inside a neighborhood “haunted” mansion, a deserted two-story house with bars across the windows. His friend screamed. He saw himself leave with the others, trudging as they marched, afraid to lift one hand, one finger, to help his friend. Ed’s ancient memories witnessed again his return several hours later only to feel his friend’s eyes pleading with him from the locked room on the second floor.

The vision began to waver. The last he saw was himself somehow breaking down the door to the room, then turning and running away. Ed never learned what happened to his friend. Ed’s parents moved a week later, and riding north in the back of a dusty old Ford, he left behind his forlorn friend with the strange power.

The vision faded.

Shaking his head, Ed sat beside Jennifer on the bricks. From somewhere he managed to stretch a thin layer of calm over his words. “Whatcha doing?” he asked. “I thought you were supposed to catch more each time.”

“It’s harder this way,” Jennifer said as she made another pass at the jacks, catching five and leaving five. “I have to hold each one real still or I mess up.”

Ed grunted. “I can see that it’s really hard that way.” He decided to find out what else the jacks could be made to do. “Can you change their height? Can you lower them halfway?”

No sooner had Jennifer said she could than the jacks dropped and held about six inches above the bricks. On impulse, Ed stuck his hand beneath the jacks and began slowly to raise it. Just as he would have touched them, the jacks began to drift upward, matching the speed of his hand.

Jennifer giggled and clapped her hands.

“Think you’re pretty tricky, eh?” Ed demanded, managing a heavy dripping of mock sternness in his tone. “Making sport of an old man, are you?”

Jenny nodded, her eyes wide, expectant.

Ed shuddered involuntarily. He felt anew a young third-grader’s eyes burning up at him. He’d been a coward then, a helpless coward. Would this time be any different? He didn’t want to find out. “Where did you learn all this?” he finally asked. “When was the first time you found you could move things by thinking it?”

“When the bus went over the edge,” Jenny replied, “and I pushed it back.”

Two full heartbeats passed after Jenny’s answer before Ed fully absorbed the words he had heard. Throughout those two heartbeats, he had been trying to tighten his suddenly slack jaw.

His mind reeled. His surroundings—the toolshed, the rail fence beyond, the scrub trees and bushes continuing up the mountain—suddenly seemed small and distant, as if he were looking at them through the wrong end of a pair of binoculars. He kept repeating one thought: No one else must know about this. Then he remembered the reporter and all the phone calls.

“Is something wrong, Grandpa?”

“Jenny,” he began slowly, not knowing where to start or where to end. Whatever happened, he must never feel Jenny’s eyes helplessly staring down at him from some room in a haunted house. “I want you to do something for me. Don’t do any more of these ‘tricks’ for a few days.” He chose “a few days” because he didn’t think that “forever” would sit well with her. He’d take it a week at a time. “Don’t even tell anybody about them.”

“Why, Grandpa?”

“No whys, Jenny. Just do as I ask.”

Jenny paused for several moments, her expression showing the youthful wisdom of knowing what adults can be like when, for no apparent reason, they get upset. “We can tell Grandma, can’t we?”

“Not now. Let me tell her later.” Ed stood up and lowered a hand.

Slowly, as if not quite sure, Jenny gathered up the jacks and the ball, placed her hand in his, and pulled herself up.

Ed gave her a wink which she did not return. “Remember,” he said, “no tricks for a week.”

“You said just a few days.” Jenny tried to bargain as they walked toward the house. Finally, getting nowhere, she nodded. After a few more steps, she stopped with a suddenness that jerked Ed to a halt. “Are you upset, Grandpa?”

Ed lied and shook his head no.

 

Chapter 4

 

Maggie was waiting for Ed and Jenny. Although the sunlight turned the porch screens almost opaque, Ed could make out another form standing next to her. Probably some damn reporter. The hair on the back of his neck prickled.

He opened the screen door, looked up, and encountered the stern face of a young captain of the Marine Corps. Ed’s step faltered, almost costing him his balance and tipping him backward. He glanced over at Maggie. Her eyes were wide with uncertainty and concern.

The captain introduced himself. “I’ve been ordered to request that the three of you accompany me to Sonora’s Lutheran church.” The young man smiled at Jenny, standing on the bottom step just behind Ed. “We must leave now. I’ll bring you back after.”

“After what?” Ed asked, noting the contrary juxtaposition of the words “ordered” and “request.”

“We’re meeting with the children from the bus and their families. I’m not at liberty to say any more except that we want to help quiet things down.”

Ed decided the wisest course of action lay in not drawing attention to Jenny, so he complied without protest. They all piled into the back of the waiting military limousine. Ed sat on the right, with Jenny in the middle. He held her hand.

Sonora proper was a town of just over seven thousand. The Lutheran church sat at the end of Main Street. As they were stopped two blocks from the church at a traffic light, one of seven in Sonora, Ed’s gaze wandered out the window to a group of three people putting up a large multicolored circus poster on the side of John Foster’s General Store. The oldest of the three, a man with a full white beard and wearing a ringmaster’s uniform without the top hat, glanced toward the limousine, catching Ed’s attention.

The man’s eyes had a haunted look. How Ed could sense that—the circus man was a good twenty-five feet away—he didn’t know. Their eyes locked for several moments, moments while Ed’s throat turned desert dry. The man’s eyes had the same haunted look he remembered in the eyes of an abandoned third-grader. The two others with the man looked up suddenly and stared directly at Ed.

The light changed. Ed craned his neck to follow them as the limousine pulled away. The three returned his gaze until he could no longer see them.

A movie screen had been set up in the church just beyond the first pew. Ed took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. He had no doubt as to the feature presentation. In the center aisle, about thirty feet back from the screen, was a projector loaded with what looked like a reel of sixteen-millimeter film. He guessed that some people just didn’t believe in video cameras. Ed counted roughly 150 people in the church. As best he could tell, every child who’d been on the bus was present. About a third of the parents appeared curious, the rest anxious, very nervous, and avoiding eye contact with anyone but their own family. Ed guessed the second group knew something he didn’t. He, Jennifer, and Maggie were sitting one, two, three just to the left of the projector.

Brian Kilmer had the aisle seat directly across from them. “Hi, Jenny!” he called in a loud whisper, which cut through the drone of the dozen nearest conversations.

Jenny flashed a smile and whispered back.

Ed caught a momentary look of concern flash across Brian’s face.

An official-looking man in a pinstriped suit stood up just in front of the screen. “I have a film to show you,” he announced. Capturing the attention of half the audience, he waved the remaining few conversations into silence and introduced himself as the chairman of the government’s Paranormal Investigation Team. “I saw the film I have to show you myself only two days ago. I was so stunned by what I saw that I immediately ran it a second time. This is one of only two copies. Our investigation team decided to quietly interview each family separately and when finished, compare each element of each story, but the public release of the film removed that option, which is why you have all been called here. The film was shot on the day of the earthquake.” His eyes swept the twin bank of pews. “Some of you have probably seen the ten-second clip from this film—the clip that got away from us—shown last night on TV. If so, you’ve seen part of the story. When you see the complete film, I think you’ll be glad you’re sitting down.”

Ed felt his stomach constrict. He knew what the film would show. Why make such a production? One thought kept pounding in his head. How would Jenny react? His mind flashed back for an instant to two haunted eyes staring down at him from a locked room.

The pin-striper continued. “It’s a film of the school bus trying to outrun an avalanche. Someone get the lights, please.”

The room again filled with the murmur of conversations. Their tone ranged from excited and electric to concerned and sullen.

Ed reached over and nudged Maggie. He motioned toward Jenny. “I don’t think she should see this,” he said. “I’ll take her outside.”

Maggie frowned quizzically. “Why?”

“She’s too young.”

“She was on the bus, Ed.”

“That’s what I mean. She’s too young to have to relive—”

“It’s okay, Grandpa,” Jennifer said, a smile on her upturned face. “I can stay.”

He started to protest. It was Jennifer’s hand slipping into his that immobilized him.

The film clip showed everything.

After the leader strip, the first shot picked up the bus just as it was approaching the first vertical lip of rock beginning the three-hundred-foot inward arc directly below Juniper Ridge that was known as Ryan’s Chute. It was a “long shot” showing the bus the size of a postage stamp on the screen.

The bus rounded the ridge as first the helicopter, then the camera zoomed in. The focus was perfect: each face pressed against the bus windows, recognizable. Several inside the bus waved.

A few inside the meeting room waved back. “Look, it’s me!” one exclaimed.

“Hey, Ma, there I am,” said another.

A quick reverse zoom reduced the bus to near its original size. The helicopter lagged behind to picture the bus reaching the halfway point in the chute. The screen seemed to lurch into the next scene: a bobbing view of the pilot’s back and the instrument panel, followed by a quick sweep back to the bus. The view now was from slightly below but still in front of the bus. There was obvious confusion. The bus had stopped, and the camera bounced from side to side as the copter rose and banked to a stationary position. The fuzzy focus snapped into crisp adjustment. For an instant everything was still: the camera, the bus, the mustard-colored face of the chute . . . the viewers in the church.

The bus lunged forward, came almost to a stop, and lunged again before accelerating smoothly. For two seconds, the bus gained steady motion. Then the bus and the mountain were gripped in a macabre convulsion. Sections of road and fluted walls of rock churned as if all part of a diseased stomach straining to void itself. As quickly as it began, the convulsions stopped, and the bus was released to continue its now strained acceleration.

Ed listened to the gasping around him in the room and felt Jennifer’s hand tighten about his as the picture zoomed back to a shot of the entire right half of the ridge, the bus at the bottom, two-thirds of the way across. The mountain was sliding down upon itself! It looked staged, like a scene from a Japanese Godzilla movie on TV. Rock, millions of tons of it, descended down the chute. Ed felt Jenny’s hand grip harder, like a vise. He looked for the bus. It was less than twice its own length from safety and being pounded by rock that exploded from the wall immediately above.

The first fishtailing of the bus caught Ed square in his stomach. He felt the sickening lightness one must feel in a falling elevator. His mouth flushed sour. When he glanced down and saw Jenny’s wide, terror-filled eyes and her slack, trembling jaw, he knew their world would soon change forever.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Brian watching them both.

The timing of what happened next was quick: one, two, three. One, the rear of the bus swung out over the edge. Two, the bus tipped, then fell over and down. Three, Jenny moaned, and the screen was swept into the air, held motionless for a second, then sent crashing into the side wall, narrowly missing a window. The image of the stricken bus leaped ten feet to the back wall where, blurred and drained of color, the bus was flung upward, back onto the road, and against the rock wall just beyond Ryan’s Chute.

At first no one reacted to the screen being swept away, their attention riveted to the bus just then turning the corner of the chute. Then a few people started to talk, to ask questions.

The man in pinstripes waved them silent. “Watch,” he commanded.

Although the main avalanche was now behind the bus, more than enough rocks and boulders were falling beyond Ryan’s Chute to pound the bus back into space. The rocks and boulders, however, never touched the bus. As if hitting an invisible slanting roof, the smaller avalanche bounced and slid out and away from the bus. The sudden change in direction was awesome. A newspaper the next day would describe it as the hand of God protecting the innocent.

For two minutes, the smaller avalanche avoided the bus.

For one more minute, the bus remained still before starting up to again pick its way down the mountain road.

The film ran out, the projector sending a bright square of light onto the back wall of the deadly quiet church.

Five seconds passed. Ten. Finally someone switched on the lights.

Holding Jenny, sobbing, to his shoulder, Ed turned as out of the corner of his eye, he caught a quick movement from across the aisle.

Brian Kilmer was standing. He glanced down for an instant at Jenny, then raised his eyes to the man in pinstripes. “It’s me you want,” Brian said, his eyes cold, defiant. “I moved the screen, and I moved the bus.” 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 5

 

Ed and Maggie put Jennifer to bed and stayed with her until she stopped crying. They waited another half hour, then tiptoed downstairs. Ed led the way to the kitchen, where he poured two steaming coffees. He set them both down and told Maggie about Jenny and the jacks. He also told her about Jenny squeezing his hand just before the screen was brushed aside and what that squeeze indicated. From the way Maggie had kept looking at Jenny while they waited for the church meeting to break up, he was certain she had suspected. “Brian Kilmer knows about Jenny, too,” he concluded. “That’s why he stood up, to shift attention away from her.”

“Maybe he has the power, too,” Maggie offered.

Ed shook his head. “Something like this happens only once in a lifetime. And it’s not contagious.” He suppressed a grimace. He prayed Maggie would not ask him how he could know for sure.

She just shrugged. “What do we do now? Hide? Run? What?”

“We watch Brian, watch what they do to him. Whatever happens to him will happen to us and to Jenny if we’re not careful.”

Maggie nodded acceptance.

“We’ve been invaded,” Ed added, his voice cold. “Invaded and captured. Today was Day 1 of the Occupation. Tomorrow, Day 2.”

                                                                                   ~~~

Day 1 of the Occupation. That phrase stuck in Maggie’s mind, and as she observed each following day’s events (everything was gift-wrapped on TV), she transcribed the highlights into her diary under the appropriate heading.

 

Day 2 of the Occupation

Ed got up early, drove to town, and bought a TV for the kitchen. He got it connected and working by ten in the morning.

Telekinesis! The word is everywhere. So is the name of Brian Kilmer. Seems no TV news show can mention one without the other, each anchor accompanied by charts, numbers, and computer animation: how high and far movie screen thrown, then how high and far bus thrown. Brian’s personal history repeated on every channel. General consensus: boy and parents all average. Conclusion: no genetic source of power; his telekinesis sprang from nowhere.

Afternoon news spent detailing how the government people moved Brian into town library. One of the TV networks tries to interview Brian’s parents, but backs off when greeted at the front door by Brian’s dad pointing a shotgun. Jenny riveted to set at this point. Ed, too. My first thought is to send Jenny away, but decide it would do more harm than letting her watch. CBS rooftop video glimpses six men through library window. Brian, in chair, being grilled as if on top ten wanted list. Library blinds quickly drawn. Apparently government men watch TV like the rest of us.

Jenny asks why men took Brian and if they’re going to hurt him. Ed and I tell her he’s being tested, and that, no, they won’t hurt him. We put Jenny to bed. Later find her crying. She says it was her fault Brian taken, that the men looked angry, and that they should take her instead. Ed and I stay with her through the night. Ed didn’t say much all day. I’ve never seen him so quiet. A chatterbox he’s not, but I don’t think he said ten words to me or to Jenny all day.

 

Day 3

Brian Kilmer christened Darling of the Airwaves on a morning news show, one of four devoted to him.

One show recounts mini-history on telekinesis and related powers: clairvoyance, telepathy, precognition, healing. More animated vignettes, this time of Nostradamus, Salem witches, wizards on flying carpets. Actual footage of the Israeli (didn’t quite catch his name) who claims he can bend spoons. Whole segment spooky.

Jenny asks Ed what happened to Salem witches, why they show a drawing of them being burned. Ed tries to answer but fails, changes the subject.

Another channel shows man with a dark beard and excited eyes trumpeting on and on about how man has reached a wondrous fork in the evolutionary road. “Study Brian,” he says. “Learn everything so we can all join him on the new path.” Thankfully avoided phrase “along the Yellow Brick Road.”

Short item on Jud Palmer’s collie found bitten on neck and mutilated. Newsworthy only because Palmer’s son, Ralphie, on bus.

At noon, NBC cameraman catches contingent from National Security Agency sneaking in back way to library. Several minutes later, same group taped rushing Brian from library into waiting limousine. Brian’s parents, so badgered by reporters for two days that they’re in a perpetual state of anguish, are asked if government had permission to move Brian. “Sure as hell didn’t,” father says, shaking fist at camera. Mother, tears rolling forth, asks what’s happened to government by the people, etc. Media howls like hounds on the scent. Brian returned at three in the afternoon and taken to the school gym. Reason given: temporary move until new quarters were made ready. Media pressure claimed not to be a factor.

An ABC news anchor reports that the limo brought Brian to the regional airport. When the vehicle was surrounded by reporters and cameramen even before a single car door was opened, the limousine turned and sped away. Obviously back to Sonora.

 

Day 4

Brian Kilmer brought onto front steps of gym for press conference. Says nothing of value except that he is being given a lot of tests and is receiving excellent treatment. When he is asked what kind of tests are being administered, the two tallest suits with badges whisk Brian inside after only five minutes.

Jenny wants to know why they won’t let Brian go home.

ABC tries to interview bus driver, Bill Chambers. Parents report their son has refused to leave his room since day of the earthquake. I feel sorry for the young man.

Pentagon comes to town. Ed’s “Occupation” now official. Six generals and three admirals disappear into school gym. Evening news brings latest in computer animation: Telekinesis—the New Weapon? No Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse in this one; just one cartoon general sitting on a bench with cartoon lightning bolts shooting out from a thought bubble over his head. Jenny refuses to be distracted by my suggestion of a card game as cartoon enemy bombs are blown up far short of their target, as computer-modeled tanks suddenly catch fire for no apparent reason, and as a cartoon force field pulses into shape, protecting a whole city. When the “cartoon” ends, Jenny asks if people can really use their minds as weapons. Ed immediately says no. One look in his eyes and I know he doesn’t believe his denial. His eyes also hold some pain I don’t recognize. When I ask, he says it’s nothing and goes back to the news shows.

 

Day 5

A most frightening day. The details are painful, but I must write them down.

Brian Kilmer is finally pushed off front page by little Ralphie Palmer. Incident is turning point in attitude of press and TV. Evening news carries whole thing, in glorious, bloody TV color.

Jed Palmer and his eight-year-old son, Ralphie, have just come out of Foster’s General Store when they’re accosted by a sidewalk TV news team.

The young man with the mike has a worn, harried look, as if he’s missed all the big stories for the past four days and has only five minutes to make the deadline for the six o’clock news and save his job.

“Pardon me, sir,” the reporter says, thrusting a microphone under Jed’s chin. “You’re Jed Palmer, aren’t you?” When it becomes obvious that a cold glare and Jed Palmer’s retreating back are to be his only replies, the reporter seeks a new target: Jed’s son. He bends himself, the microphone, and his frantic eyes down to Ralphie’s level.

The boy shrinks back.

The reporter moves closer. “You were on the bus . . . Ralphie, isn’t it?”

The boy wraps his arms about himself and pulls his head down upon his shoulders as if trying to become invisible. He shies back from the microphone.

The reporter closes the gap. Suddenly, as if alive, his microphone jumps from his hand and begins to pummel his face.

Jed has turned back and, openmouthed, stands rooted to the spot.

“What the hell!” the reporter shouts, flailing his hands outward to protect himself. Attempting to regain control of the microphone, which is now drawing blood, he stumbles closer to Ralphie.

Ralphie starts to thrash his head from side to side. He moans.

The reporter is lifted six feet into the air, then slammed down onto the sidewalk. He falls almost to his knees as he is again lifted the same six feet and again slammed back to the pavement. This time the reporter’s knees make first contact. Two sharp cracking sounds are heard as the knees shatter. The camera watches the reporter moan for a few moments before falling, unconscious.

Within seconds, Ralphie is surrounded by men in dark suits. The camera records poor Jed Palmer, head still spinning, signing papers the news anchor says will allow the government to keep Ralphie until they decide he can be released to his father.

Jenny spends almost the whole afternoon in Ed’s lap. He strokes her hair every two or three minutes, it seems. Each time he whispers something to Jenny, his lips barely moving so I can’t make out one word.

Jenny very quiet throughout the rest of the day. Whatever Ed whispered, I don’t think she believed him.

 

Day 6

The media stages a crucifixion.

Reporter with broken knees portrayed as a battle-scarred hero, rather than a pain in the ass who picked on a little kid.

The man with the dark beard and excited eyes returns, warning people that mankind is confronted with a fearful, evil fork in its evolution. A favored few, he claims, are embarked upon a new path, one of domination. Domination of us, “the majority,” stuck on the other path: the normal path.

Stations replay the Ralphie Palmer incident. The “attack” as described by one newscaster is categorized as brutal. Others take softer tack, but do not disagree.

One show mentions that Ralphie is extremely shy, nervous of others, easily frightened, and under a doctor’s care. None mention that Ralphie himself wants to be a doctor.

Others twist, turn, and invent facts to point where Ralphie characterized as being “special.” The words mouthed by each reporter on each broadcast are careful repetitions: “Special . . . special . . . special.” But the look in each eye, the tone in each voice shouts “Disturbed! Disturbed! Disturbed!” What’s left is the impression that in Sonora there is a deranged little boy who can cripple reporters and move buses. One TV analyst puts forth an eloquent plea that “we all understand the position the government has been placed in.” Not one asks for understanding of little Ralphie.

At noon, one channel features a psychologist who wonders if little Ralphie might not have tortured and killed his own dog.

I decide at that point that Jenny should no longer watch TV and shoo her off Ed’s lap. He says nothing, just keeps looking at the news, transfixed.

An hour later, I find Jenny in her room, hugging her favorite doll, rocking back and forth and saying, “Nothing will hurt you. Nothing will hurt you.” From the movement of her lips, I suddenly recognize what Ed has been whispering to her for two days. She doesn’t play, just sits quietly in her room for hours. She doesn’t eat at dinner. At bedtime she turns over to go to sleep without hugging either of us.

 

Day 7

Nails are being driven into Sonora’s coffin from left and right. The strange happenings and even stranger powers to be found in this town are no longer curiosities. Most in the media label them “concerns.” A few label them “threats.” Threats to civil order, to our trust of one another, to our survival as Homo sapiens, and (courtesy of one southern senator) to the American Way.

Each day brings more reporters, more cameras, more curiosity seekers, more just plain nuts. The Northern Oregon UFO Study Group is camping in the hills awaiting contact with somebody or something. Downwind from them, a group of shaved-head “crazies” dressed in forest-green togas is busy making calculations to pinpoint the final day and the final moment, after which we all get sucked up into the creation of a new and more perfect universe.

Two elderly ladies of Republican persuasion drive their Duesenberg into town and pass out handbills announcing that all these strange happenings have been caused by the Democrats, who are, as everyone knows, in league with the devil.

Within a half hour, the TV shows two elderly Democratic ladies driving their Bentley almost to the exact same spot to hold up signs proclaiming Republicans are not in league with the devil. They are the devil.

A TV crew came to our house this afternoon. Watching it again now, I think Ed, like Brian’s dad, should have taken his shotgun out to meet them.

The camera shows a well-dressed young reporter who turns from the house to face the lens. “This is the house of Ed and Maggie Pryor,” he says as Ed throws open the front door. “Hello, Mr. Pryor,” he calls out as Ed steams across the lawn. Reacting to Ed’s aggressive march, the reporter backs off onto the county road.

Ed doesn’t stop. Grabs reporter by tie and pulls him toward news van.

Reporter spills out questions as if hoping they will slow Ed down. “Sir, has the government contacted you regarding your granddaughter? Have you agreed to have her taken to the gym? Is it true her mother and father died two years ago in an automobile accident? Did they have any special powers?”

That’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back and what remains of Ed’s self-control. The reporter manages to duck as Ed tries to punch him. Six men pull Ed back from the reporter and hold him still on the edge of our lawn.

When all this happened, I went upstairs and found Jenny watching from her room. I told her Grandpa would always protect us. Jenny said nothing. Her eyes, though, asked, “How?”

I had no good answer.

 

Day 8

Crackling of excitement on the morning news.

“This morning it was discovered that Brian Kilmer has escaped from the school gymnasium in Sonora. Ralphie Palmer is also missing.”

Generals, scientists, and, by proxy, the newscasters reassure everyone viewing that there is no danger and that the government will regain custody of the two shortly. “Regain custody” must be the new term for “hunt down and capture.”

I let Jenny watch TV again, hoping she’ll be glad that Brian and Ralphie are free. She says nothing, just sits and watches, no longer in Ed’s lap.

Put Jenny to bed at eight-thirty. Try unsuccessfully for a hug. Barely able to get one from Ed.

 

Day 9

Check Jennifer at four-fifteen a.m. Bed empty. Ed and I search house and yard. She’s nowhere to be found.

Ed repeats over and over, “Oh, God . . . Oh, God . . .”

 

Chapter 6

 

There was a crowd of about forty people outside the sheriff’s office as Ed and Maggie pulled into the supermarket lot across the street and parked. Inside, they learned that two more children, Sharon Jackson and Lenny Peters, had disappeared. They added Jennifer to the list.

The mayor took Ed aside. “Go home, Ed,” he advised. “There’s an ugly mood in town. There’s more talk of ‘capturing’ Brian and Ralphie than of finding them. A few want Brian and Ralphie put in prison. Most want all the children on the bus checked for mind power. There’s even a small group who want to force the children and their families to leave Sonora. What Ralphie did has made the children monsters in the minds of a hell of a lot of people.”

“Those people have no minds.” Ed tried not to snarl the words and not to stamp his foot. “We’re staying.”

The mayor shrugged.

At eight-thirty another report came in: a sixth child was missing. At nine-fifteen, another. Seven children! All had been on the bus.

Ed felt sudden chills race up and down his body. Where were all these children going?

By ten-thirty, what turned out to be the last report came in: a total of three girls and six boys were missing. Missing or had run away. Ed could see that the crowd outside had tripled, with two of the more convincing of their number deputized to keep order and to transmit frequent reassurances. Parents of the missing were allowed inside where a thirty-cup coffee urn was set to brewing.

Noon found the search in full swing. Three hundred men and women plus two helicopters requested from the state police were combing out in all directions from the center of town. Ed stood near and watched the young officer busy at the whiteboard writing team names with headcounts and to which search location they were assigned. Another two hundred people, outfitted in their own climbing paraphernalia, were just then embarking for the mountain road where the Road Department chopper was already scanning grid after preordained grid. They all hoped the children were not up in the mountains. Rock slides were the first concern, with freezing nighttime temperatures the second. The parents were asked to help out: run messages, double-check maps, mark progress, and keep the coffee urn full. Ed stayed next to the whiteboard. The sheriff’s office was christened “Search One.”

The kites came again at two-fifteen. Ed was pouring himself a coffee when a blue kite with a yellow lightning bolt swept his small part of the sheriff’s office into another dimension. The kite climbed in a tight spiral, then dived. The view backed away, and he was facing a cliff framed by four gnarled trees. It came to him at that instant: the kids were on Juniper Ridge. Or what was left of it. How he knew was beyond him, but he could almost picture them —all ten of them—sitting around, watching, wondering . . . despairing.

For a moment he thought of asking the sheriff to check out the ridge, but he’d already suggested two other likely locations and had been given a polite but firm, “That section is in one of our patterns, Ed. We’ll get to them in order and in their time.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Ed walked out the door and across the street. As he pulled out of the supermarket lot and waited for the traffic light, he caught a glimpse of Maggie looking out at him from behind the sheriff’s plate-glass window. For an instant he fully expected her to come running out, waving her arms at him to stop. Instead, she just stood there, a strange, almost pleading look in her eyes. He nodded, then pulled away.

Forty minutes later, he passed below Juniper Ridge. He shot a quick glance upward and felt even more certain the children were up there. Another five minutes brought him to his house. He jerked the station wagon to a halt half on his driveway, half on his lawn. Jumping out, he started running around to the back porch. As he cleared the back, he found it hard to breathe and slowed to a measured walk. He joked to himself that his having a heart attack sure as hell wouldn’t save the children.

He pulled on his old hiking boots, changed into a flannel shirt, and put on his down jacket. Starting for the porch, he stopped and retraced his steps upstairs, where he rummaged through his bottom dresser drawer until he found his compass.

Standing by the toolshed, he checked his watch. Just after three o’clock. Not quite five hours of good daylight remained. A twenty-year-old could make it to the ridge in half the time. Hopefully he could make it before dark. He unlocked the shed and got his dry cell light.

By five o’clock, his right hand was scratched and bleeding from his leaning forward on the rocks and scrub as he traversed first left, then right, climbing one incline after another.

By six, his hand, since wrapped in a handkerchief, was the least of his worries. He was feeling a definite tightness in his chest.

At seven, he stopped. He sat on a boulder and mopped his forehead with the bloodied handkerchief. He puzzled to himself as to why he should still be perspiring when the temperature had to be down to at least forty. He’d have to take it slower from now on. His stomach felt as if he’d just wolfed downed six large pizzas soaked in Tabasco sauce. He checked his progress and was impressed. Another hour would bring him to the ridge. He’d made excellent time.

He pushed himself erect again at seven-thirty. Ignoring the pain in his shoulders and upper arms, he moved ahead.

At seven-forty, his heart rebelled.

He sank to his knees. A spiked fist was compressing his heart. The pain gripped him completely. Never had he felt so possessed. He tried to rise. The fist in his chest jerked tighter, spinning him to the ground.

So much for the ridge, he told himself between the pains. Another pain flipped him onto his right side. He drew his knees to his chest and tried to breathe ever so slowly. He closed his eyes.

Wasn’t this the time, he wondered, when one’s life was supposed to scroll by? He couldn’t see himself at all: none of the things he’d achieved, none of the adventures, none of . . . All he could focus upon were the faces of the two remaining women in his life: Maggie, his passion of a lifetime; and Jennifer, the little red-headed apple of his eye.

He saw the kites again, flitting in and out of an encroaching luminescent mist. One kite flew near. Below it was the tearful countenance of a third-grade boy watching his only friend turn his back. Ed felt a single tear run down his cheek. He knew it was only a dying man’s vision, but he could no longer desert the boy in the locked room. With all his remaining energy, he forced his younger self to turn back, then to reach out. The boy in the room smiled and stepped to his prodigal friend’s side.

With the smile came the sudden revelation of exactly what he had deserted so long ago. Ed cried for both boys: the one forever locked in a tower room, and the one who ran away. His tears were unrestrained and complete. The pain and the mist seemed to melt away. They would return, he reminded himself. He continued to cry, and to wait for the next pain.

Instead, he felt a cool hand on his forehead. “Relax, Ed. You’re not dying. You’re too much of a crusty ol’ buzzard for that.”

Ed opened his eyes. The third-grader’s face looked down at him. Ed blinked and the face changed. It was the man he’d seen hanging the circus poster, the one with the white beard and the haunted eyes. His two helpers were by his side.

“I’ve been looking for you, Ed,” the man said. “I’ve been looking for a long time. A lifetime.”

A feeling of total peace flowed over Ed. “Ever since the third grade?” he asked.

The man nodded. “Come,” he said softly, taking Ed’s hand. “I’ll help you up. My name’s John.”

Ed tried to match the name to the third-grader of long ago and failed. He shook his head. There was so much he had forced himself to forget.

Starting upward again, slowly, the man turned to Ed. “We didn’t know you were climbing up here until just ten minutes ago.”

“We?”

“Myself, my friends, and the children.”

They came to a clearing just after eight. A group of people huddled around a small campfire. Ed counted the ten schoolbus children plus a dozen adults, all strangers to Ed. Were they part of that circus John brought to town?

Ed shook his head. “How come the choppers haven’t zeroed in on the fire?”

“We have ways to make sure the campfire can’t be seen.”

Jenny ran to Ed’s side. He scooped her up in his arms, and they gave each other a big hug. He sat on the flat top of a boulder.

Brian Kilmer was the first to speak. “We were just deciding how and when to leave Sonora.”

Ed could see that John was taken aback by the boy’s directness. “Well, actually we were discussing the merits of not going back to town—”

Brian stood. “We all want to go with John,” he interrupted, unable to control his impatience. “His whole circus is made up of people like us.”

Ed looked from Brian to John. “Like us?”

John cleared his throat. “People with powers, Ed. People that others in the community fear. People who can do strange things and who eventually are destroyed for their efforts.” John arched an eyebrow at Ed. “You know what I’m talking about. You remember.”

Ed looked down at his feet, his answer barely above a whisper. “I’ve tried not to.”

John nodded sadly, apparently acknowledging Ed’s burden.

Brian paced back and forth in front of the fire. “We all can do things we couldn’t before.”

Ed looked at the young man. “I guess all of you had a hand in moving the bus.”

Brian nodded. “Yes, it took all of us together to push the bus back. Ralphie was the first, Jennifer, the last. But without Jenny we wouldn’t have made it. She has more power than all the rest of us together. Some of us have other powers. I can sense emotions. That’s how I knew you were coming and that you were in trouble. I can also confuse a person’s mind so that they immediately forget what they’re seeing and hearing. I used that to get Ralphie and myself out of the gym. Ever since the bus, I could sense how each of us felt that we were alone, felt the world closing in. Two of us showed some other children what we could do and were called freaks. Another, Sharon, showed her parents and was locked in her room.

“Ralphie, who has wanted to be a doctor ever since he can remember and who can now see inside living creatures and change them, found his dog bitten on the throat by a wild animal and tried to save him. When his mind slipped inside the collie, the dog reacted as if it were being attacked again. In his haste to withdraw, Ralphie twisted the poor creature’s insides. Now Ralphie can’t sleep without seeing his collie writhing on the floor. Ralphie nearly went crazy. He’s afraid his mind will accidentally slip inside somebody he loves and hurt them.”

“When we ourselves weren’t afraid, others were,” Sharon said from fireside.

Brian nodded. “Like on the bus,” he said. “All of us saw the fear in Bill Chamber’s eyes. He was in the front seat. He knew we should have continued falling. He knew the second blast of rocks should have buried us. He knew we all should have died. When everything was over and quiet, his mind fell numb, unable to resume control. I told Sharon and Lenny to ‘help’ Bill get the bus moving again. Every time they withdrew, he went limp. They had to prod his mind every inch of the way until we got down. He finally took over just a block from the school, where he immediately stopped the bus, opened the door, and ran to his home. His mind saw only demons, not children. Most of us felt his reaction. Except Jenny, I think. She was exhausted, too tired to feel anything.

“The other children on the bus, the ones without any powers, were plain frightened out of their wits. They knew nothing, and we told them nothing. I guess we didn’t tell them because even then we knew we were different and that there could be trouble.

“After a few ill-fated experiments, we all kept to ourselves. Some tried to deny we had changed, but failed. Their feelings were so sharp, so painful, so confused . . . I could feel everything, even from blocks away. Jenny was the only bright spot. She reveled in her new powers. But then the TV people came.”

Ed glanced at Jenny. “And I told her to stop doing any tricks.”

Brian lowered his eyes. “When they brought Ralphie in and started testing him, I knew we had to get away. All of us. The only question was how far. I was allowed to watch television, and it was obvious we’d be hounded to the ends of the earth. All I could figure was that first we had to get out. ‘How far’ would have to come later.”

“Then you rounded up the others?” Ed motioned to Brian to sit beside him.

“They had to know they weren’t alone. I figured we’d hike to the cabin at Cross Creek, but John found us before we’d gone half a mile.”

John picked up the tale. “We’d been ‘watching’ each of the children. We, too, wanted to get them away from Sonora, but before we could figure a way, Brian did it for us. I told Brian who we were, what we were, and how we wanted to help. We came here, started a fire, and the children voted.”

“To join your circus,” Ed offered, concluding the obvious.

John nodded. “I’ve spent my life trying to help people with the gift, to protect them from anyone who would do them harm. I’d read stories in newspapers, or hear gossip about some man or woman with unusual powers. I’d seek the person out and show them how, together, we could escape. Soon we were ten, then fifteen.

“That was all we could help for several years. The main problem was that my financial resources were limited and I couldn’t keep traveling if I hoped to keep a job to pay our keep. Then, almost in unison, we hit upon the idea of a circus. Hell, with our powers we could do the best magic tricks, the best tumbling, the best high-wire walking in the world. It was also the best way to hide and a perfect excuse to travel and not stay in any one place. Most important, it was a supportive environment. In almost all cases, we’ve also brought in a gifted one’s family. It’s worked.

“This time was more difficult because of all the publicity. How could we add to our circus right under every nose in the country? Brian found the way. Of course, we’ll have to wait for a bit before we tell the children’s parents. When we do, they’ll see it’s the only thing to do. They always do.” He crossed to Ed and put a hand on each of his shoulders. “It’s the best approach. I know you remember the third grade, the strange tricks, the beatings, and the haunted house. I know you don’t want that to happen again to Jenny or to any of these kids.”

Ed felt a welling up of shame. “I’m so very sorry,” he said to John.

“Sorry for what?” John asked as if the past were forgotten.

“Sorry for not helping you in the third grade. Sorry for letting you be locked up in that old house.”

John pulled his hands from Ed’s shoulders. He shook his head as if trying to clear some mental fog. He squinted at Ed, and tried twice to speak as Ed slowly got to his feet. “You’re sorry for not helping me?”

Ed nodded, hoping through his shame that John could forgive him.

John sighed. It was a slow, tired sigh, the sigh of one looking at a heavy burden in a new light. “Ed, you were the one forced into the haunted house. You were the one who received beatings every day. You were the one who scared all the others with your tricks. I abandoned you, Ed, not the other way around.” He looked sadly into Ed’s eyes. “All these years, you thought—”

Ed felt his surroundings lurch, then spin. He slumped back down onto the boulder. “My God,” was all he could say. Those about him spoke. He knew because he could see their lips moving, but their voices came as if from a great distance, barely audible. The last veil to his memory fell away. He was the third-grader locked in the tower. He was the frightened schoolboy picked on and beaten by classmates. He had possessed the special abilities of which John had spoken. He had blocked out everything, had turned his back on his own identity. Survival makes the mind do strange things. He shook his head slowly. He apparently had some of these strange powers, but at no time in the past sixty years had they surfaced. At no time—

The kites! Of course. He’d never had visions before. Something had brought them. What? Why?

He looked at Brian and at the other children seated around him. The light from the fire revealed their every expression. The look in their eyes, even Jenny’s, was one of feeling lost, but as Brian said, not alone. Not feeling alone, however, was not enough. They must be stronger than they’d ever been if they were to survive all that the press and TV would throw at them. What kind of monsters would they be made out to be when the world found there were ten children who could move buses? How long would the kids survive? How long before they were all locked up? And in which haunted house? And later, in which asylum?

Ed looked back up at John. His answer was to hide, to join his circus and hide from the TV, the police, the government, the classmates. Ed realized that was exactly what he himself had done, only he had gone one step further and had hidden from himself.

He looked carefully at each of John’s circus people. Each in turn looked as unsure and lost as did the children. “No,” he said simply. Hiding would no longer work. Too many knew. Too many government agents and reporters would not give up the chase. Too many circus people looked too unhappy. They had thrown away their past and with it, part of their selves. The price was too high.

Ed suddenly realized he had been evading life, not engaging it. To be worthwhile at all, life had to be engaged head on.

There was no question. They had to fight back. And they had only one weapon at their disposal: television.

He had to think. How could the children and their powers be shown as benign?

The kites! Again, the kites. Ed smiled. The kites had never been a part of his actual past. Only their vision had intruded. He had been puzzled at the time, but now he could confirm that history always has the answer, even history that hasn’t happened yet. Apparently he could see the future.

And he was going to make damned certain the future he preferred came to pass.

He gave a quick shove at the boulder and stood. He picked up Jenny and gave her a one-armed hug. Little Ralphie moved to his side and held his other hand. Ed looked down at him and suddenly grinned. The boy would make a fine doctor someday, if the AMA could ever figure him out.

Although not a word had escaped Ed’s lips since that single no, all eyes were on him, waiting, hoping.

Ed knew their only chance for survival was to stick together, to present a united front, and to get the media to work for them for a change. Somehow they must get people everywhere to relate to them as children, not monsters.

Leaning forward, he gave everyone a center-stage, four-second conspiratorial wink. “Tomorrow we’re going to have a press conference,” he told them. “And here’s what we’re going to do . . .”

It took a little more than fifteen minutes to outline his plan. Getting 100 percent agreement took over an hour.

They broke camp at daybreak.

Holding securely on to Jennifer’s hand, Ed let Brian and John lead them all down the mountain.

At noon they reached Ed’s house. John gave him a good-luck handshake and went ahead with his people. Ed called Maggie at the sheriff’s office and, swearing her to secrecy, gave her a list of things to pick up at Foster’s General Store. Waving the children outside, he squeezed them all into the station wagon and took off for town.

He felt confident that a certain third-grader from long ago would approve of his plan.

 

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The target date for adding chapter 7 is 12/8/17.