I remember the discussions Zoey and I had at the side of her hospital bed leading up to our journey to Clovercreek, all centered around the same questions: should we go? Was it a trap? Was it a good idea? Was it even worth it, whatever it was? A million angles, a million pros and cons, a million discussions about blood money and right and wrong and devil’s advocates to all of them, all backed by the quiet beeps of hospital monitoring equipment and the steady drips of an IV tube.
We didn’t make a verbal decision until that day, when we went to visit that witch one last time. But we’d made our decision long before anyway, because in the end, it was simple:
If there was something there, how could we not?
“Do you think we’re ready?” I asked.
Zoey didn’t answer. She stared at the large ‘ROAD CLOSED’ construction sign illuminated in our headlights, blocking the pathway beyond. Anderson had assured us that, should we slip past this barrier, we would make our way into the town of Clovercreek, a town that, for reasons we didn’t know, was quarantined by the scariest, most powerful organization that we’d ever encountered to keep something potentially dangerous locked inside.
And we were planning on going in.
“I think we’re stocked,” I said. “We’ve got the baseball bat, the fire extinguisher, the spellbook...” I pulled out a small spiral notebook. After the ‘Hungry’ episode, we’d started writing down what we knew about magic and how to defend against it. So far it contained my notes on ‘Hecate school’ spells, my ‘Pure as Snow’ spell, and Jones’ instructions about lifting curses.
“That’s just it,” Zoey replied, voice quiet.
I frowned. “What’s just it?”
“Those are all things we’ve used against other things before, but this…” she shook her head. “Archangel isn’t worried about things like Red Eyes or Jones or the Hotel California, but whatever this is, it’s scared them enough to close off the entire town.”
I didn’t respond.
“Are you sure the suitcase didn’t have any information about what’s happening in there?” she asked.
I looked down at the brown leather object leaning against my leg. The suitcase had appeared propped up against the driver door of our RV one night after turning the vehicle towards Indiana, and we’d taken it inside after seeing the very large winged ‘A’ branded into the leather. Inside, it contained two lab coats, a pair of badges with our faces on it, and a stack of papers, explaining that we were junior researchers with the CDC interviewing townsfolk to see if any of them had developed any physiological symptoms from the horrible hazmat spill that had occurred and quarantined the residents inside their town. Failure to maintain this cover, the document warned, would warrant swift and immediate removal from premises of Clovercreek.
“Nothing besides that cover story,” I replied.
The silence hung for another moment.
“You know we don’t have to go,” I said. I didn’t continue the statement, because we both knew the implications that followed. Without Anderson’s promised hundred grand, money he would only give us if we entered Clovercreek and filmed what we found there, everything would be over. We’d have to pack up Creepy America, go back home, and find a way to continue with our lives where we’d left them.
“Yes we do,” Zoey whispered.
I sighed. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“We have to be extra careful in there,” Zoey continued. “We can’t split up. For any reason. Anything weird we find, we have to assume it’s deadly.”
“No interacting with anything we don’t fully understand,” I agreed. “We let each other know about any weird feeling, sensations, or thoughts we have, no matter how minor.”
Zoey reached out her hand and I squeezed it. I held it for a moment, basking in the simple gesture of comfort. Then, I got out of the RV, moved the ‘ROAD CLOSED’ sign over to the side of the road, got back behind the wheel, and started the engine.
“Here we go,” I muttered.
The town was completely dark when we got there. Not that there was much of a town. It was a similar fare to most little villages we’d seen on the road: a singular Main Street, containing four or five businesses and a smattering of maybe a dozen houses scattered around behind those businesses; less a town and more an inhabited road. Given that we’d arrived close to one in the morning, there were no signs of life anywhere. The houses were dark. The businesses were closed and empty. The only things that moved were the gentle rustling of a cold night breeze through the trees and the long grasses that surrounded the area, the whole place painted with the deep purples and black of full night.
We parked the RV off to the side of the road and got out, exploring what little there was to explore on Main Street. The biggest building there was a chain hardware store; other than that, there was a small local grocery store, an antique thrift store, a restaurant and bar, and one building that just sat empty, a ‘For Lease’ sign hovering in its window. Each refused to reveal its interior in the dim light, preferring instead to just sit in the gloom, existing as blocky shapes barely distinguishable from the general void around us.
We tried a couple of experiments I had come up with in order to figure out exactly what brand of ‘strange’ had beset this place. We moved about to separate areas, always just within sight of each other, and ran our phone’s stopwatches, starting and stopping them at the same time. We also found a stick, placed it down on the ground at different points, and measured its length with the tape measure each time. No luck. Our phones showed the exact same time passed and the stick was two feet, six inches every single time we measured it; if there were any discrepancies in space or time, we couldn’t find them.
Zoey’s ‘spooky sense’ also refused to reveal anything, and with that, we decided to pack up for the night. We clambered back into the RV, set our alarms for six in the morning, and settled down for a few hours of sleep, resolved to observe the town again as it woke up and search for more clues.
Soon enough, the sun came up, the alarms rung, and, with the least amount of regret for our decision the night before as we could muster, we got up, readied for the day, and sat down at the front seats of the RV, watching for the hints that would reveal this town’s secret to us.
The rosy colors of dawn stretched out and down the street, brightening the town into daylight. Several lights lit in the houses. A few individuals began to walk the streets. Some went into the businesses, opening the doors, displaying open signs. A mother holding the hand of a young girl went into the grocery shop. A few minutes later, they reemerged, carrying a paper bag filled with a few items. One man went into the restaurant. Another entered a pick-up truck parked on the street, started it, and drove off.
Zoey blinked. “Holy crap. It’s… normal.”
I studied some of the faces more closely. No obvious signs of fear or distress. No indications of confusion or concern. A few threw the suspicious glance at us here or there, but that was to be expected; we were strangers parked in an RV on the side of the road, after all.
I glanced around at the buildings. Straight corners. Sturdy walls of wooden boards. Conventional decorations and signs, colors slightly faded with the progression of time. Business conducted inside with an air of causal boredom and routine.
“I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Zoey continued, “but it wasn’t this. Maybe a Chernobyl fever dream, with what Archangel did to erase it from the map, but not… normal.”
I watched as a man replaced a sign reading “ROAST BEEF, 7.99/lb.” with “FRESH CORN, 40c. PER EAR” from the grocery store window. “So… what do we do now?”
Zoey shrugged. “I guess this is the part where we ask them if there’s anything strange in town.”
I nodded. “Just like any other episode.”
“Except…” she nudged the suitcase on the floor, the one containing our disguises and cover stories provided to us by Archangel.
For a moment, we just stared at it. Then, I reached over and opened it up, passing the lab coat and the ID with Zoey’s face on it to her and taking my own set, putting the coats on over our clothes and clipping the little card to one of the pockets.
Zoey looked down and frowned at her own face on the ID, the words ‘ZOEY SPEARS’ written underneath it. “I’m still not sure if I’m comfortable with this whole ‘CDC thing.’ I mean, what the hell are we supposed to say this hazmat spill is, anyway?”
“The papers didn’t say.” I took a moment to study my own miniature face on the ID card: ‘LIAM NACHUM.’ “We could claim it’s mercury. Heavy metals like that can cause mood swings, headaches, insomnia, sensory hallucinations… all kinds of mental problems.”
“Which would be a good enough excuse as any to ask if they’ve experienced anything weird.” Zoey put her fingers to her temple and slowly began to breathe in, then out; it was a sign I recognized as her psyching herself up.
“For the record, I still don’t like this. I don’t like working with Archangel. I don’t like lying to people just to maintain some status quo.” She sighed. “Alright, I think it’s out of my system. Let’s go.”
Zoey hopped out of the van. I grabbed our tripod camera and, after a second of hesitation, a clipboard and some paper, hoping to make the illusion more ‘official.’ Then I followed.
She’d made it all the way to the doorway of the grocery store. After pausing for a moment to let me catch up, she pushed open the door and we walked inside.
“Store owners first,” she whispered to me. “With any luck, they’ll spread the word about what we’re doing here and everyone else we talk to will be a lot less suspicious.”
“Smart,” I whispered back.
Inside was a maze of shelves, boxes, stacked cans, and other foodstuffs, crowded into rows and rows of displays. At the end, a small wooden counter with an old cash register sat, guarding the doors in and out, but not too intensely; the person behind it, a middle-aged man in flannel with a deep tan worn into his skin, was staring idly at the shelves.
“Careful with that, Mr. Voltaire. Don’t want you knocking yourself out with a can of beans.” He blinked. “Oh, um… hello. Can I help you?”
Zoey nodded. “Yes. My name is Zoey…” she hesitated for a second, “Spears, and this is my colleague, Liam. We’re with the CDC.”
A look of understanding passed over his face. “Oh. The quarantine.”
“You know?” I blurted out before I could stop myself.
He gave me an odd look. “‘Course I know. You guys haven’t let any of us in or out of the town for months now. Keep claiming it’s some health crisis, won’t tell us what.”
Zoey blushed. “Sorry. We’re uh, kind of new, and they didn’t tell us much before coming here.”
“Ah. So you’re in the dark too.” His face softened and he gave us a bit of a sad smile. “Guess there’s no point in asking when it’ll be lifted, then.”
Zoey returned the smile. “Unfortunately not, Mr….?”
“Where are my manners? Thompson. Zachary Thompson.” He reached out a hand.
She grabbed the hand and shook. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Thompson. We have something we’d like to discuss with you. Is now a good time? We can come back later, if not.”
“No no, now’s fine. Morning rush has gone.” He stood and gestured back to a door off to the side, labeled ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY’, then paused and glanced back towards the shelves. “Hey Voltaire, you mind telling anyone that comes in I’ll be back in five minutes? Thanks.”
I took a look back, but I didn’t see whoever he was talking to. Must have moved out of sight, I figured.
We followed Thompson back into a wide-open warehouse space, a few pallets of
things lying here or there. After a moment, he sat down at a desk scooted into a corner of the area and motioned to two chairs set by the side. “Welcome to my office. Sorry for the lack of décor.”
“It’s fine,” Zoey replied, taking one of the chairs. “We are going to be recording this for… for our records. That’s okay with you, isn’t it?”
Thompson shrugged, and I set up the tripod, pointing the lens at his face and started the recording. I didn’t sit, I just watched the small window reporting the camera’s vision, observing his face during the questioning.
“Can you state your name and age for the record?” Zoey began.
“Uh, Zachary Thompson, age thirty four.”
He gave her a look.
“I’m sorry, but this is just procedure.” I could see the gears turning in Zoey’s head, a combination of focus and anxiety producing an on-the-fly script for this fake CDC interview. I got my clipboard out and started writing down the questions she asked, preserving it for future use.
Thompson sighed. “Grocer. I own the store.”
“How long have you been in this quarantine, now?”
He looked to the ceiling. “Oh, ‘bout four months, I guess?”
“How’s your health been?”
“Fine. ‘Cept for that head cold in January, but that’s winter for you.”
“Any changes in diet or energy levels?”
“Any unusual physical sensations?”
“Have you seen or felt anything weird lately?”
That look returned. “What kind of health survey is this?”
Zoey turned to me.
“Mercury poisoning,” I said. “Part of that spill had a large amount of mercury in it, and that can cause mood swings, hallucinations, things like that. We want to make sure nobody’s ingested any of it.”
He thought for a moment. “No, no. Nothing like that.”
“Are you sure?” Zoey pressed. “We want to know about anything, even if it seems silly or unrelated.”
Thompson shook his head. “Sorry. But everything’s been normal around here. Well, normal ‘cept you CDC folk.”
“Black suits, ties, grumpy?” Zoey asked.
He chuckled. “Friends of yours?”
Zoey forced a smile. “I wouldn’t quite say that. But we’re well acquainted.” She paused. “They… they have been treating you well, right?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Well… I guess. They’ve been letting stuff come in. But nothing out. And for a farming town, that’s bad. Some of the folks here are hurting, money-wise.” He shook his head. “Not sure what we’d be doing if Voltaire wasn’t around.”
“The man you were just talking to?” I asked.
Thompson nodded. “Our Mayor. He’s really been getting people to pull together, share what we got, keep our spirits up. Things wouldn’t be going half as smooth if he wasn’t around.”
“Good to hear.” Zoey turned to me. “I think that’s about it, right?”
I nodded. “Thank you very much, Mr. Thompson.”
“Anything to get this damn quarantine lifted faster,” he said, rising from his chair. “You all take care now.”
I packed up the camera, turned to leave, then paused and swiveled back. “Do you... know how many people are in this town?”
“At a guess?” He scratched his head. “About two hundred, maybe?”
I nodded my thanks, made my way out of the store with Zoey, and stood in the bright sunshine.
“Well,” she sighed, “one down, about one hundred and ninety nine to go.”
Interview two was with Ms. Mitchum, an old lady who ran the thrift and antique store.
“Sorry, nothing strange in these old bones,” she said, walking down aisle after aisle of musty books and old clothes with us. “Wouldn’t mind something to break up the monotony, but no such luck. Same old as same old.”
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” Zoey asked.
“Shoot. I haven’t had such well-behaved guests in years.” She chuckled at her own joke.
“How’s the quarantine treating you?”
“Oh, not too bad, not too bad.” She stopped to pat the dust off a teddy bear. “Sales are down, of course. Town full of farmers and nobody’s allowed to sell their crops because it might be contaminated or some such. But I’m living off retirement anyways. I just do this to stay sane.”
She paused, staring off into the distance. “My grandkids were supposed to visit a few weeks ago, y’know? Got turned away. Voltaire came later that day, stayed to talk, kept me company, but it just wasn’t the same.”
Zoey gave the old woman a reassuring pat on the shoulder, but said nothing.
Interview five was with a man called Nathaniel Hargraves, at his own house.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing!” he yelled at us from inside his home while we stood on his porch. “You claim to be CDC, you say that it's a hazmat spill, but I know what’s really going on!”
We both perked up. “What would that be sir?” Zoey asked.
Some of the enthusiasm deflated. “Aliens?” Zoey repeated.
Hargraves gave a big nod. “From the sky. A big light. That was the Zetan Mothership. They talk to me, you know. I can hear their voices in my head. Telepathy.”
Zoey shot me a look that I’d seen on her many, many times. Great. A crazy. We’d spent far too much time talking with these guys at the beginning of Creepy America before realizing that they were just a waste of time.
I watched as she grit her teeth and smiled. “Can we ask you a few questions?”
We tried to end that interview as soon as possible.
It took close to an hour.
“Yeah, I know what light Hargrave’s yammering about.” This was interview six, Paul Ballmer, on his farm. We were walking rows of corn. “Flashed over my fields. Nothing more than a shooting star, but every time there’s a light in the sky, can’t be a plane, or a satellite, or even just a planet. No, it has to be aliens.”
“He said something about an impact crater?” Zoey tried.
Ballmer scoffed. “He means this.” He stepped to the side and held a row of corn back. There, a shallow patch of upturned dirt, maybe all of two inches deep and a foot across, was splayed out in the center of a row.
“I hear rustling out in my field, think it’s that coyote that’s been taking my chickens, come out with my gun and see that idiot on his hands and knees, studying that patch.” He spat. “Almost shot him anyway.”
“What do you think caused it?” I asked.
“Probably a fox digging for a field mouse,” he said. “Or something like that.” He paused. “Why you CDC folk wanna to know?”
“Just trying to figure out if this is behavior is normal for Hargraves, or if this is a recent development,” Zoey explained. “We want to make sure it’s not the mercury in the hazmat spill that’s making him act strange.”
“Nope. That’s just Hargrave. Man’s nuttier than a squirrel farm.”
“I see,” Zoey said, kicking some of the dirt.
Interview twelve was with Mr. and Mrs. Walcroft at their home.
“I haven’t had any strange sensations or hallucinations,” Mr. Walcroft said. He frowned at his wife. “What about you?”
Mrs. Walcroft paused. “I thought I saw a cat outside last Sunday, but when I turned back to look, it was just a piece of laundry I had hung to dry. That doesn’t count, does it?”
Zoey gave a thin smile. “No. It sounds like both you and your husband have a clean bill of health.”
Mrs. Walcroft clapped her hands. “Oh good. This whole quarantine business has me so worried. I mean, how do we know it hasn’t gotten into our drinking water, or the pond where the kids swim in?”
“Because nice people like these two are checking for us.” Mr. Walcroft shook his head. “I keep telling her the worry will do more harm to her than any hazmat. You know what Voltaire told you: stress adds five years to the body.”
“Mayor Voltaire?” I asked.
He nodded. “Comes over every Sunday to play Pinochle. Good friend, but a mean card player. Doesn’t give an inch, that one.”
“He seems to be visiting a lot of people,” Zoey noted.
“Well he’s worried about the town,” Mrs. Walcroft replied. “With people unable to sell their crops, things are tight, and people are beginning to get tense. Things happen. Dumb arguments, petty fights, that sort of thing. He’s done a good job holding us together so far. Smoothed out a fair share of hurt feelings, got us to pitch in for the ones in more dire straits, tries to keep tabs on who’s doing well and who isn’t so hot, but…” she sighed. “There’s only so much that can be done. What we need is to start selling again, but that’s not happening until the quarantine lifts.”
Mr. Walcroft leaned over, a serious look on his face. “Do you know when that’s going to happen?”
“Not until we can locate the source of this all,” Zoey said.
“And how long will that take?” he pressed.
We looked at each other.
“Honestly,” Zoey answered, “we have no idea.”
“What the hell is going on in this town?” Zoey grumbled.
We were back in the RV. After twenty three interviews, each less illuminating than the last, we’d decided to take a break for a bit.
“It would appear to be nothing,” I replied.
“Exactly!” she exclaimed. “So why wall it off? Why send us here? This whole thing looks like a wild goose chase.”
“Maybe it is,” I muttered. “Maybe Anderson’s just toying with us for the hell of it.”
Zoey sighed. “Maybe this ‘Voltaire’ guy can clear things up for us. Sounds like he’s interacted with pretty much everyone in the town, so far.”
“Yeah.” I chewed my lip for a moment. “Hey Zoey, how many people did Thompson say was in this town?”
“About two hundred. Why?”
“Why does a town of two hundred people need a mayor?”
Zoey gave me a blank stare. “Whaddya mean?”
“Well a mayor is a bureaucratic position, elected to keep the roads repaired and the police moving and the town happy. But a town this small-” I waved a hand towards the windshield, past which Clovercreek sat lazing in the sun- “practically runs itself. Why would they need a mayor?”
Zoey shrugged. “Maybe they just wanted one. Or maybe it’s an honorary position.”
A knock at the driver’s side door made us jump. Thompson was there, peering in at us through the window.
I rolled the window down and stuck my head out. “Can I help you?”
“Yeah. I hate to be a bother, but can you move your RV? You’re kind of in the way of the stage area.”
“Stage area?” Zoey asked.
“Tomorrow’s the town’s two hundredth birthday, so we’re doing a tiny little celebration. Potluck thingy, Voltaire’s gonna make a speech, but, uh… you’re kind of parked right where we’re going to set up that up.” He pointed across the road to where a big dirt lot sat. “Crawford said you can park in his yard, if you want.”
“Sure. Thanks.” I ducked my head back in to start the engine, then paused and leaned back out. “Can you tell Voltaire that we want to talk to him? About the quarantine.”
“Sure, sure. I’ll let him know.” Thompson walked off, and I started the engine.
“Let’s hope he can clear things up for us,” I muttered.
We finished all the interviews that day with the exception of the Mayor himself. I won’t put them down, because they’re pretty much the exact same thing: no reports of bad health, no reports of strange sensations, everyone bearing the quarantine well, if a little tensely. We left with just as much confusion about the lack of anything happening as before and with that, we decided to just call it a day and retire to the RV. Since it was finally my turn for the bed, it didn’t take long for the soft, comforting grasp of the mattress to lull me off to sleep and whisk me away to blissful unconsciousness.
Tap tap tap
I groaned and opened my eyes. I wasn’t sure of what time it was, other than dark, and the fact that my body was complaining that it was way too early to be
Tap tap… tap
Adrenaline shot through me. Something was tapping at the window, trying to get my attention. The baseball bat was in the living area, where Zoey was sleeping. Was there anything nearby I could use as a weapon? I scanned the room, identifying things large and sturdy enough to swing.
Tap… tap tap.
I paused. The taps were… indecisive. Timid, almost. Whoever it was, they probably weren’t looking for a fight.
I slid the curtains back a half inch. There, in the pale light of the moon, was a boy, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old, dressed in a dirty jersey and worn tennis shoes. His caramel skin was almost inky in the night.
He shuffled a step back when he saw me, then stood his ground.
Carefully, so as not to disturb our DIY repairs to the window we’d made after Zoey’s escape, I slid the window back a few inches and whispered “Hello?”
“Hello,” he replied. He took another half step back and placed his arms near his chest, almost as if he was getting ready to defend himself. “You’re… new, to this town, right?”
“Um… yeah.” I blinked a few times. My brain was still reeling from my sleep being interrupted by that adrenaline shot and I had a hard time focusing my fuzzy thoughts.
“Do you..” He faltered, then began again with a stronger voice. “Do you see him?”
A light suddenly turned on in a nearby house. The kid gasped, hissed “abandoned barn, west side of town, midnight,” then bolted, running off into the direction of the trees.
A minute later, a silhouette appeared on someone’s front porch, holding a shotgun and scanning the area. He turned towards me and we locked gazes for a long moment before he stepped away and slid back inside his house, turning off the light as he did so.
“You didn’t get anything more specific than ‘him’?”
I shook my head. We were seated on some metal folding chairs set up in the middle of a big dirt lot, a low wooden stage erected a ways in front of us. To my left was the tripod camera, set up to record the stage area. Around us, various people, mostly ones we recognized from the interviews, bustled to and fro, setting this and that, placing and arranging potluck dishes, talking and laughing amongst themselves.
“Well, I don’t know what to make of it,” Zoey said. She bit her lip and, in a much lower voice, said “you don’t think… he was talking about Sam, maybe?”
I thought about it for a second. “I don’t think so. And with what he said about…”
A sudden high-pitched microphone screeEEE interrupted our conversation. Thompson, the man from the grocery store, stood behind the podium on the stage and gave a sheepish smile. “Sorry about that folks. But if you want to take your seats, we’ll be starting soon.”
The conversations gave way to a low wave of grumbling as people began to shuffle about, sitting down in the selection of metal chairs. I leaned over to start the recording on our camera, then sat down and waited.
“Alright.” Thompson looked over the crowd and wiped some sweat off of his forehead. “Now, I know you all are waitin’ to get started with the food and the festivities, but first, we're gonna have a word from the man who's done so much not only for this town, but everyone living in it. So please give a big hand for our Mayor, Voltaire Harryhausen.”
A round of enthusiastic applause followed as Thompson left the stage.
No one came on the stage.
The applause picked up in enthusiasm as no one continued to travel across the stage.
Zoey and I looked at each other.
“Is… is he coming?” Zoey whispered to a nearby woman.
She gave her a cross and confused stare, then turned back to the podium.
Zoey turned to me. I shrugged.
There was a round of quiet chuckling from everyone in the crowd.
Zoey and I waited.
There was silence again.
“Is this a… inside joke, or something?” Zoey asked the woman again.
She squinted at Zoey and hissed “be quiet! I’m trying to listen.”
Another round of laughter, this time more boisterous.
Followed by yet more silence.
For the next twenty minutes, the citizens of Clovercreek were entertained by absolutely nothing. They responded to the quiet with cheers and claps. They reacted to nonexistent jibes with laughs and smiles. They listened, fascinated, to the sound of a slight breeze blowing across the microphone, and when it was all said and done, they stood and gave a rousing ovation to the Mayor and his speech.
Neither of which existed.
“You heard the man,” Thompson called into the crowd. “Go enjoy yourselves.”
The crowd dispersed, moving off to the food tables and picnic benches scattered around, leaving Zoey and I alone, sitting shocked at what we’d seen and, more importantly, what we hadn’t seen.
“Well,” Zoey finally said, “I think we just figured out what’s wrong with Clovercreek.”
With a bit of daze, we packed up our large tripod camera back into the RV. Right before we did, we decided to rewind back and play the footage we had just recorded. Sure enough, there was nothing on the podium the entire time.
It wasn’t us who weren’t sane.
We paused at the RV, watching the people mingle. Some served food. Others ate, engaging in lively conversations. Children ran between the adults, laughing and playing. They all seemed exactly the same as we’d seen them earlier: happy, healthy, lucid.
Except they weren’t.
“So let me make sure I’m getting this right,” Zoey said. “Everyone in this town thinks that this Mayor Voltaire guy, happy, friendly, ‘holding this town together’ guy, exists… when he actually doesn’t.”
“That would seem to be the case,” I replied.
“Huh.” Zoey wrapped her lab coat around her tighter. “Well… that’s a new one.”
“And we’re sure everyone believes this?” I asked.
“Everyone we interviewed,” she said, then paused. “Except that kid that came and talked to you last night.”
We looked up. Thompson was walking over to us, a smile on his face. “Mrs. Spears, Mr. Nachum, meet our Mayor, Voltaire Harryhausen.”
He gestured to the empty air next to him. Both of us looked to each other, not sure what to do next.
Thompson’s smile began to waver. “What the matter? Didn’t you want to… hm?” His attention turned to the nothing next to him. He frowned. “Hargreaves? What do you… No no, I’ll send him over. I’ll, uh, I’ll be back at the potluck if you need anything.”
He gave us an awkward nod then left. The two of us stood, alone, with the empty patch of air Thompson had brought along with him.
“Is he, um…” Zoey lowered her voice to a whisper. “Is he there?”
I stared at the air, then grabbed a nearby stick and waved it through the patch.
“Liam!” Zoey exclaimed. “That’s rude.”
“I don’t think you can be rude to someone who doesn’t exist,” I replied, continuing to waggle the stick.
“What if he does and you poke out his eye out or something?”
“That’s kind of why I’m doing this: to figure out if I can.” The stick continued to be unimpeded by the empty air, so I threw it away and sighed.
“Sorry about that,” Zoey said. “Um, if you saw that. Or if you’re even there.” She sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Fuck, just when I think things can’t get any weirder.”
The sound of approaching footsteps drew our attention. A man in a blindingly reflective white jacket and pants, pale skin, and a stubbly brown beard underneath a ratty orange baseball cap was making his way towards us: Hargreaves.
“Heya Voltaire, ‘CDC’ folks,” he said, throwing air quotes around the word ‘CDC.’ “What can I help ya with?”
“You can see him?” I asked, pointing at the empty space nearby.
Hargreaves looked at me as if I was crazy, which was definitely not a look I appreciated from him. “Course I can. He’s standing right there. Why… hm?” Just like Thomspon before him, he paused, listening to the air as if it was talking to him. “Ah,” he replied, tapping his finger to his nose and smiling. “I see.”
“See what?” Zoey asked.
Hargreaves drew himself up and, in a voice filled with self-importance, said “Mayor Voltaire wishes to welcome you to Clovercreek. He understands that you probably have many questions and he wants to address them all. Since you can’t see or hear him, I’ll translate what he has to say to you.”
“He knows we can’t see or hear him?” I clarified.
Hargreaves looked irritated and leaned over towards me in a conspiratorial whisper. “Well of course you can; he’s standing right there! But we’re talking in code so that no government spies are going to be able to hear us, and he’s pretending to use me as a translator to make sure that we aren’t bugged, because I can sense those things through the fillings in my teeth. Speaking of…” He straightened up and removed his hat, grabbing a shiny lining placed inside it and crumpling it into a ball. “Ain’t gonna work if I still have the tinfoil in there.”
I blinked. There were so many layers of insanity going on here I didn’t know which one to address first.
“Voltaire says that my ‘unique’ mind… he put the air quotes on that word, just like I did… makes me perfect for this kind of conversing, and not to mind my odd behavior,” Hargreaves reported with a wink. “He suggests we sit at that picnic table over there. More comfortable.”`
Hargreaves strolled over to the picnic bench. I started to follow, but Zoey grabbed my arm.
“Hang on,” she whispered. “I just want to make sure I’m caught up here. The crazy is still crazy…”
“Definitely,” I confirmed.
“...but he can see and hear this ‘Voltaire’ guy, while we can’t.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “And it seems like everyone else can, too, and they don’t realize that other people can’t.”
“Which is why he’s using the crazy, because he’s so mixed-up nuts he doesn’t realize what’s going on. Okay.” Zoey closed her eyes. “I get it now. I think.”
“I sure hope so,” I said, “because something tells me that things are only going to get stranger from here.”
We made our way over to the picnic bench, Zoey and I seated on one side, Hargreaves and the mysterious nothing that was Voltaire on the other.
Hargreaves gave a smile and said “He says it’s just best to ask away.”
“Who the hell are you?” Zoey demanded.
“Just who I said I am,” Hargreaves said with a bad country accent. “I’m Voltaire Harryhausen, Mayor of Clovercreek.”
“Did this town have a mayor before you showed up?” I asked.
Hargreaves paused, listening. “He says that you’re a sharp one. No, there was not a mayor in Clovercreek. He simply chose a lie that would integrate the smoothest with people’s memories.”
“Which brings us right back to who, or more specifically, what the hell are you,” Zoey responded.
“He says: I’m not quite sure if your kind has a name for what I am or where I come from,” Hargreaves drawled in his awful accent. “A world far, far away from this one, separated by thousands of light years of space.”
“You’re an alien?” I clarified.
“Bingo!” Hargreaves snapped his fingers and pointed towards me, then blushed a bit. “Sorry. Just got caught up copying him.”
“Then how’d you get here?” I asked.
“He says: Big asteroid crashed into my planet. Sent a rock with a piece of me whizzing into the vast unknown, drifting for…. well, I don’t really know how long. Centuries, maybe. Then I came to Earth, almost burned up in the atmosphere, and… well, here I am.”
“You said ‘a piece of you?’” I leaned over, studying the empty air near Hargreaves. “What kind of organism are you?”
“And how come we can’t see or hear you?” Zoey added.
Hargreave began to open his mouth, then paused and turned to the space next to him, confusion on his face. “You want me to what?” He listened again, then shrugged. “If you insist.” He grimaced, dug his pinky finger into his ear, wiggled it around a bit, then drew it out. With it came a long trail of blue slime, too clear and colored to look natural, like a children’s toy of colored putty
“He says that’s him.”
Eyes wide, I reached forward to touch it, see what it was made of.
“Ah ah ah!” Hargreave stuck his pinkie back into his ear and the slime followed, moving counter to gravity in a way that suggested it had its own locomotion. “Voltiare says that if it’s bad manners to play with the organs of your kind, it’s bad manners to touch his body. Besides, he promised Archangel that the two of you would be off limits, and he doesn’t want to explain any accidents.”
I sat back. “So you already know this quarantine is actually about you.”
“He says it wasn’t hard to figure out. The day after he arrived here, he began to hear the details. Town under quarantine, hazardous material spill. Then the men in black suits arrived, physically examined the individuals. They pulled away the people who had Voltaire in them, and that’s when he knew that his arrival hadn’t been a quiet one.”
Hargreaves paused, letting the unheard narrative catch up. “They had a chat, that Anderson man and him. Voltaire told him how his kind worked and Anderson told him how Archangel worked. They made a deal. Anderson promised that they’d lift the quarantine in a couple months time and give back the citizens of Clovercreek, and by extension, Voltaire, their freedom, once Archangel got some people in that could provide a mundane explanation of Voltaire’s invisibility to the common man: two web show hosts that would present themselves as CDC officials.”
“And what did you promise in return?” Zoey asked.
“He promised that he’d limit his influence to the citizens of Clovercreek, and that he wouldn’t upset the Veneer.” He shrugged. “Whatever that is.”
“If you’re really from another planet,” I began, “how do you know about things like webshows and the CDC?”
Hargreaves pointed to his head. “‘If they know about it, I know about it.’ Again, that’s what he did and how he said it.”
Zoey went a little pale. “You’re actually in their brain?”
There wasn’t a response for a while; Hargreaves seemed to have trouble understanding what was said to him, repeating things back and asking for clarification. After a minute or so of this, he finally said, “he says that he evolved on a planet with numerous other lifeforms and that him and his kind don’t have… mitochondria. They don’t have a way to process energy. So instead, they hitch a ride inside people’s heads and harvest some of the free... ATP? molecules that float around in there. Over time, they learned to read patterns of neural energy to translate thoughts and memories into information they could use. He says it’s hard to explain to someone who’s not like him.”
“And the name ‘Voltaire’?” I asked. “There a reason why you chose the name of a historic French philosopher?”
Hargreaves paused. “He laughed at that. He admitted that he didn’t know where the name came from; he just saw it on the spine of a large brown book and liked the way it sounded, so he decided to use it when he realized that he’d need to construct a personality to interact with these people.”
“So you’re a parasite,” Zoey concluded, “and you’ve struck a deal with Anderson to live inside these people.”
The conversation stopped, and from the way Hargreaves was glancing between Zoey and the space Voltaire supposedly was, I could tell that this time, it was because Voltaire was silent.