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.
“He finds that term offensive,” Hargreaves finally said, “and he’d appreciate it if you didn’t use it in the future. He prefers to think of his existence as symbiotic; he takes a little, and he gives a little back to his hosts in return.”
“And what would that be?” Zoey demanded.
Hargreaves turned his attention away from us and fixed it solely on the invisible Voltaire. “Yes. I understand. Don’t worry, my lips are sealed.” Then he cleared his throat. “Do you see Thompson over there?”
He pointed a finger, and I followed it over to where the big man was serving slices of pie and laughing. “Yeah?”
“He’s a veteran. Army Rangers. He was sent on a mission labeled strictly classified, and came out injured, discharged, and with PTSD. Only he had an oath not to repeat anything he saw, which made it impossible to seek psychological help once he was back.” He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Last November, he tried to commit suicide. Shotgun in the mouth method. Made sure there was no one around to interrupt him, or stop him. If he hadn’t contracted Voltaire by this point, no one else would have been able to get to him in time, talk him down from the very real edge.” Hargreaves smiled. “He’s been doing his best to repair the mental scars ever since.”
“One could argue that’s just self-preservation,” I pointed out.
“Mrs. Walcroft,” Hargreaves continued, shifting his finger to the smiling woman with the big hat, “was convinced her husband was cheating on her. There were so many long hours at the office, and the commute to the city was getting longer and longer, it was hard not to get suspicious. She believed, with every fiber of her being, that he no longer loved her and was considering divorcing him.”
A man slid up next to Mrs. Walcroft, wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and kissed her on the lips. “Mr. Walcroft there, for his part, was worried about his position at work. He’d been demoted recently, you see, and there were more than a few hints from his boss about potentially getting fired. He’d assume that the sudden coldness from his wife was her disappointment in him as a provider, as the man in the house, and had resolved to work his way back up to prove his worth with those long hours. Both tearing themselves apart, but as soon as Voltaire saw what was happening, convinced them to just talk to each other, work things out…”
Arm in arm, the couple walked down the hill and Hargreaves turned his attention to us. “He wants you to know that he really does care about the people here. Five months ago, everyone here was at each other’s throats. This town was a cauldron of toxicity, everyone bitter and angry and doing their best to take it out on each other. In fact, if I can interject personally,” Hargreaves raised his hand to his chest, “that part isn't code. He’s actually talking about the way things were. A year ago, you couldn’t have gotten Ballmer and Crawford within eight feet of each other without them trying to kill the other, but now… they built that stage over there. Together.”
He sighed and smiled. “Voltaire says that Anderson told him that you two would be immediately suspicious about him. That you’d think he was some kind of monster, or demon. That’s why he wanted to have this conversation, early and out in the open. He’s different. He’s here to protect Clovercreek, and everyone in it. He knows them all on an intimate level, feels their pains, their sadnesses, their joys, and he wants to help.”
Neither Zoey or I replied. A soft breeze blew through, rustling a few leaves still on the branches.
“Well, if that’s all you need me for,” Hargreaves nodded to the patch of air and stood up.
“Wait,” I interjected.
“I want to know…” I swallowed. “Is he finished? Has he spread to all the citizens of Clovercreek yet?”
Hargreaves turned to the empty space, then nodded.
“He says he has one more person to take under his wing,” he replied. “Then, he’s done.”
Five minutes later my phone rang. Without looking at the number, I answered.
“I’m happy you came to see reason,” the voice of Anderson said. “The hundred thousand has already been transferred to your account, by the way. A sign of good faith that you will use this footage for your next episode.”
I motioned to Zoey. Both of us ducked to the side of the RV, separating us from the larger crowd as I turned speaker phone on.
“Anderson,” I said. Zoey nodded to me.
“Of course,” the voice on the phone continued. “I keep my promises, Foster. And I make sure that these kinds of arrangements are always profitable to all involved, something you’d do well to remember if we ever need use of your services again.”
“I want to know what happens next,” I demanded. “What happens after we publish this episode?”
There was a slight pause on the other end of the line. “Well, life happens. Seeing as how our conversations with entity G-267, the thing claiming to be ‘Voltaire’, have ended civilly enough, we’ve decided to allow him and his… assistants, to interact with the wider world. Once your episode is published, the quarantine will be lifted, people and goods will once again be allowed to flow into and out of Clovercreek, and things will go back to being the way they were here.”
“But why did you need us? Why is our episode so important to lifting this quarantine?”
“Plausible deniability,” Anderson admitted. “The people of Clovercreek are going to continue to believe that they see and hear Voltaire, and if anyone visiting this town comes to realize that he doesn’t actually exist, we’ll need an explanation for their odd behaviors. Once your footage is out in the wild, we can make it look like this all is an elaborate prank cooked up by you and the townspeople here.”
I didn’t reply. The air turned quiet.
“Well,” Anderson began, “once again, thank you for your assistance. Your money is deposited, so feel free to leave once you’re ready.”
And with that, he hung up.
I sighed and leaned against the RV. “Well, that’s that. We found out what was wrong with Clovercreek. We got enough money to continue Creepy America. All in all, mission successful.”
“There’s still one thing left to do,” Zoey whispered.
I followed her gaze to a large empty barn, little more than a skeletal wood frame leaning against itself.
The place the kid from last night had asked us to meet him at.
I opened the door to the RV and climbed inside. Zoey followed and shut it behind me. We both sat at the booth, away from the windows and the eyes of the townspeople.
Away from Voltaire’s eyes.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked.
Zoey looked at me, stunned. “What?”
I hesitated. “This Voltaire thing… it doesn’t seem that threatening. I mean, all it’s really doing is making itself visible to people. We could just go, let the problem sort itself out.”
Zoey gave me a look that bordered somewhere between outrage and suspicion. “Where is this coming from?”
The image of the silhouette with a shotgun, standing on his porch, came back to me. “I’m pretty sure that Voltaire wouldn’t be too happy with us trying to smuggle that kid out. Things could get violent.”
“So what, we’re just supposed to let him bully us into getting what he wants?”
“I’m just not sure it’s a necessary risk.”
“Necessary risk.” Zoey shook her head. “You sound like them.”
Archangel. The comment stung.
Zoey must’ve seen how her words affected me, because her tone softened. “I understand that it’ll be dangerous but… we can’t just leave him here. He’s scared of Voltaire. That should be reason enough.” She looked to the side, where the sounds of the town’s celebrations could still be heard. “And if that… thing is actually riding around in their heads like he says he is, I don’t think we can trust their word on how threatening he is or isn’t.”
“You do realize that it’s just the two of us versus the entire town, plus whatever Archangel themselves have put in place to enforce the quarantine?” I asked. “And Clovercreek is going to be unified. Unnaturally so. They have something in their heads that has the ability to talk to all of them instantaneously, direct and coordinate them with the efficiency of a modern military.”
I sighed. “I suppose that means we’ve come to our decision.”
“Yes,” Zoey repeated. Far from defiant or angry, she looked just as tired and scared as I felt. “Yes we have.”
Midnight once again brought its layers of shadows and darkness to the town. The scenes we had seen earlier that day, with the townsfolk chatting and laughing in the bright, sunshiny air were banished, replaced with a curtain of gloom that transformed the welcome businesses back into looming shapes solid but barely visible against the general dark of the night. Now it felt the same as it had been that first day: remote, alien, dangerous.
Slowly, ducking behind buildings and making sure that no one was watching, or following, Zoey and I made our way over to the abandoned barn. In the dim light, it looked even more menacing, an angular skeleton lying in the middle of a dead field. After a brief pause to circle the building and make as sure as we could be that there were no traps or ambushes waiting for us, we slipped inside.
“Hello?” Zoey whispered uncertainly.
There was a scramble of motion to our left. I tensed as a figure emerged from the darkness with stuttering steps and only relaxed once it got close enough to reveal itself as the nameless boy who had tapped on the window while I was sleeping.
“You… you showed up.” More awake for this meeting, I was able to identify more details this time around than last: how deep the layer of dirt on his skin was, the rips and tears in clothing that was far too old, the deep rings of sleeplessness set around his eyes.
Zoey smiled. “Yes, we did. What’s your name?”
He shifted back and squinted at us, eyes flickering from Zoey to me then back again. “You’re not with Voltaire, right? They haven’t… converted you, have they?”
Zoey held her hands up. “No, we’re us. I swear.”
“Put your finger in your ear.”
I frowned. “What?”
“Put your finger in your ear and pull it back out,” he repeated. His breathing was beginning to get panicky. “Prove to me that you’re still you.”
Slowly, Zoey reached over and stuck her little finger in her ear, then pulled it back out. I did the same. Both fingers came out clean and slime-free.
“You’re not converted.” The kid clutched his chest and gave a long sigh. “Oh thank fuck, you’re not converted. You can help me.”
“What’s your name?” Zoey asked in a soft voice.
“Jamal,” he said.
Zoey nodded. “Hello Jamal. I’m Zoey. This is Liam.”
“You’re going to get me out of here, right?” he interrupted. “Out of Clovercreek?”
“Yes we are,” she assured him.
“I’m not even supposed to be here.” He moaned and collapsed onto the dirt, head buried in his hands. “I was going to visit my Aunt in Chicago. By Greyhound. I’ve done this trip a million times. But something broke in the engine and the bus driver pulled over to this town to call for help and the next thing I know this weird cult had just grabbed everyone and there were guys in hazmat suits and I just didn’t know…” His voice began to break into sobs.
Zoey sat down next to him and put an arm around him. After a few minutes, the sobs stopped and he looked up. “What is happening?”
“There’s a being from outer space that landed here,” I told him. “An alien parasite. It gets into people’s heads, makes them able to see and hear them. Possibly brain-washes them into liking the entity. The people outside, the ones you saw in the hazmat suits, are part of a shadow organization that keeps things like this secret.”
“So that’s why they won’t let me go,” Jamal muttered.
Zoey shifted to look him in the eyes. “You talked to them?”
“Yeah.” He sniffled. “After a day of dodging those cult freaks or whatever the hell they are, I snuck out at night. Managed to get the attention of one of the guards. I told him what happened and he told me to wait there. He walked a bit away and pulled out a walkie-talkie. Must’ve thought I was out of earshot, because he told them that ‘got someone to give over to Voltaire.’” He shuddered. “I didn’t know what he was talking about, but it didn’t sound good, so I ran.”
“Good instincts,” I said. “That’s what the entity here calls itself.”
“I thought he was a cult leader and that blue slime was, I don’t know, a drug or some kind but…” he gave a bitter laugh. “Aliens, huh? With the way everyone’s acting, I actually believe you.”
“How long have you been here?” Zoey asked.
“Two weeks,” Jamal replied. He looked up and squinted his eyebrows. “How come Voltaire didn’t convert you two? How’d you get in here, anyway?”
“That’s a very long story, and one we don’t have time for.” I checked the time on my phone. “C’mon, we got to get going. We don’t have much time to escape.”
His look of confusion deepened. “Why?”
Behind us, a sudden flash of orange light and heat arose in a giant flash and a loud WHOOSH, spiraling a column of flame that shattered the peaceful night and replaced it with the raw, primal force of fire.
“Because of that,” I said.
“I still don’t like this part of the plan,” Zoey told me. “And are you sure this is even going to work?”
A half hour before, both of us had been standing in one of the nearby fields, nestled in between stumps of dead corn plants. Underneath our feet was the contraption we had just set up: up above, on an ancient piece of wooden fencing, a large gas can hovered, back edge barely resting on the lateral slat of wood and threatening to topple over from gravity’s ever-present threat. What kept it from doing it were two old and frayed pieces of rope tied to the gas can’s handle, threaded behind it and down taunt so it could steady the can’s precarious position. Then the ropes were stretched a few inches off the ground over a pit of leaves, paper, twigs and small sticks, and finally tied to a metal stake hammered into the ground.
“No reason it shouldn’t,” I replied. “We light the fire and it chews through the rope. Once the ropes have been completely burned through, the gas can will fall onto the fire and fwoosh! One big fireball.”
“It’s a little convoluted,” she noted.
I sighed. “Well, this is what we got, so it’s what we have to use. You sure this fire pit you constructed will stay lit for at least an hour or so?”
Zoey nodded. “Are you sure we have to set fire to someone’s fields, Liam? I mean, I’d really prefer not to become an arsonist if I don’t have to.”
“We need a distraction,” I told her. “Voltaire already knows about this kid. He’s going to be looking for him. But a big fire is something he can’t ignore, especially considering most of the buildings in this town are made out of wood. They should be able to put out the fire before it does any damage, but that’ll mean people in the fields, which means less people out looking for that kid.”
“And less eyes Voltaire has around the town,” Zoey added. She pulled out a box of matches and handed it to me. “Let’s do it, then.”
Zoey stayed back in the barn with Jamal while I peeked my head out to look at the situation.
The town was in utter chaos. People were rushing back and forth. Some were dragging hoses. Some were grabbing buckets. Others weren’t that far yet, pulling on coats over pajamas or just leaning over their front porches, watching the scene unfold. The fire was spreading quickly, engulfing more and more of the dead left-behind plants and racing across the ground. Everything you’d expect…
Except the noise.
It took me a minute to place what was wrong with the scene, but I finally found it: nobody was talking. There were no quick and panicked explanations, shouts of ‘what's happening?!,’ bellowing commands given to people rushing about or screams of fright. Yes, the people were scared, they were confused, they were baffled and panicked; you could see that from their faces. But they simply weren’t communicating with each other. They were just rushing off to do whatever they seemed to think best to do, giving the whole scene the eerie feeling of a silent movie.
“Dammit,” I swore. I snuck back to Zoey and Jamal. “They’re focused on the distraction, but Voltaire seems to be organizing them quickly. I don’t think this is going to hold their attention as long as we thought it would.”
“Then we better move fast.” Zoey glanced over to the boy. “Jamal, stick with Liam. I’m going to go first. When I motion you two over, catch up to me.”
Wide-eyed, Jamal nodded. Zoey darted out of the barn, to a near-by building and hid herself behind its corner, barely visible to the two of us. We moved over and waited by the entrance to the barn, shrinking back every time someone sprinted past.
After a moment, Zoey waved to us and we rushed, crouched over low, to the building corner. Then Zoey did the same to the next building, leaving us behind to wait.
We did this leapfrogging method for four more buildings. Each time, Jamal and I would hang back, watching as much of the scene as we dared without exposing ourselves as we waited for an eternity to pass before Zoey gave us her ‘all clear’ wave and rushed us on. Every time someone ran past us, or paused for more than a split second, we’d duck back behind the building, holding our breaths and praying that they hadn’t seen us or heard the thunderous thumping of our hearts in our chests.
Beyond, the drama continued to play out, so much faster than I wanted it to. Under the invisible command of Voltaire, the residents of Clovercreek silently split themselves into three groups. One formed a long line from a well to the field, passing buckets of water along into the inferno. Another congregated around a pick-up truck with a large plastic water container on it; once someone had hooked a hose up to it, the group drove away and into the field, spraying down crops that hadn’t yet caught aflame. The third were rushing back and forth from the house nearest the flames into the rest of the town, carrying hoses and connectors over. It seemed that they couldn’t quite reach the main mass of flames from the houses’ hose line to the main section of the inferno and were trying to construct a large enough hose line that would.
One group to immediately cut down on the fire. One to keep it from spreading. One preparing to combat its full strength. Voltaire had divided his people up into the perfect force to extinguish the threat quickly and at a speed that was, quite literally, not humanly possible.
This distraction was going to be over much, much sooner than I wanted it to.
Zoey’s head whipped around. A few feet away, Mr. Walcroft had not only seen her, but was now making her way towards her.
“We can’t let anyone figure out what we’re doing.”
This had been several hours before, back in the RV, still seated in the little booth.
“Well obviously,” Zoey said with an eye roll. “I kinda figured we wouldn’t want someone raising the alarm.”
“It’s worse than that,” I insisted. “Remember how Hargreaves knew all those private incidents between the townsfolk?”
Zoey paused, then comprehension dawned on her face. “You’re saying Voltaire can tell people about what we’re doing.”
“Exactly. If one person finds out, the whole town will know. Instantly. Worse, Voltaire could coordinate an ambush on us before we even know he’s figured it out. If anyone sees us with the boy, it’s all over.”
“And let me guess,” Zoey said with a sigh, “it’ll be my job to come up with a lie that fools not only the regular people, but the strange alien brain bug as well.”
“People and weird,” I agreed. “Though it’d be far more ideal if we just weren’t spotted at all.”
“Yeah, but if we do go with your fireball idea, they’ll be people all over the place. Somebody’s bound to run into one of us.” She rubbed her chin for a moment, then her eyes lit up.
“Idea?” I asked.
She smiled. “It does occur to me that we’re not the only ones with secrets in this town...”
“Mr. Walcroft,” Zoey said, stepping out from behind the building and walking towards the man.
“There’s a fire that started in Ballmer’s fields. Giant inferno that just went up all at once. You know what caused it?” He craned his neck past her, towards where we were hiding.
Zoey slammed her hand into the side of the wall, causing Walcroft to jump. “I’d been meaning to ask you about that, Voltaire,” she said, leaning against the wall and putting one hand on her hip. “Archangel found some of your blue gunk in that field, wiggling its merry way away. They asked me if you were planning on squirming your way out of your deal.”
Walcroft’s face broke into confusion. “What are you talking about? Voltaire isn’t even…” he jumped, then spun around at nothing. “Voltaire! Where did you come from?”
“Mind answering my question?” Zoey prompted.
A few moments of silence passed. Walcroft squinted at the patch of nothing and took a step back. “No I won’t tell her. What does any of that mean, anyway?”
In the flickering light of the remaining fire, I saw Zoey spin her finger around in a circle: our predetermined signal for ‘go on without me.’ That meant that I’d have to run to get Jamal back to the RV and talk our way out past anyone who caught us.
I grimaced and looked over to where it sat. It was only two buildings away.
“Alright Jamal,” I whispered. “You see that RV over there?”
He followed where my finger was pointed, then nodded.
“That’s where we need to get to,” I said. “Same situation as before, but I’m going first and you’re waiting on my signal to catch up to me this time.”
Jamal gave another frantic nod. I peered back around the building.
“I…” Walcroft was shaking his head. “I don’t understand why you need me here.”
“I need an answer, Voltaire,” Zoey insisted.
Walcroft turned away, as if he was listening to another conversation, and I used the moment to dash over to the building. Once I caught my breath, I leaned back out once again.
“Fine.” He huffed and turned back to Zoey. “He insists that the agents have to be wrong. There’s no piece of him unaccounted for and he’d never go back on your deal. They must have found something else and been mistaken.”
“Mistaken enough to initiate a controlled burn on that field?” Zoey shot back.
“You mean the CDC started that fire?” Walcroft turned back to the dying orange light.
I motioned to Jamal and he sprinted back over towards me.
I hopped to the next building.
Jamal hopped back to me.
Next building. Clear.
We were close now. One more run, the longest yet, all the way across main street, and we’d be in the RV and out of everyone’s sight.
“You fucking sure?”
I scrambled backwards. Three men had just appeared in the middle of the road stepping out of the shadows on the other side. All three had rifles.
“Sure as sure,” the middle one, Thompson, I realized, said. “It’s a gas can. Someone started that on purpose.”
He threw a twisted melted thing into the center of the dirt.
“Dammit,” the left one, someone I wasn’t quite sure I knew, cursed. “It’s that fucking Jamal kid. Has to be.”
“Been a little troublemaker from the start,” the last one, Crawford, maybe, agreed. “Why we need to catch him and make him do that little sit down with the Mayor.”
The left one spit. “Like that’ll solve anything.”
“Voltaire’s turned a bad egg before.”
I rummaged around with my hands in the dark. After a moment, I brushed up against something smooth and cold and heavy: a bottle. An empty beer bottle.
I gripped it, feeling it’s weight, wound back, aimed, and threw.
It landed far to the men’s left, in a pocket of darkness, with a triumphant SMASH.
“The hell was that?” left one said.
“Prob’ly the kid.” All three jogged away, rifles still held, towards the sound.
“C’mon,” I hissed. Together, we bolted across the street, as fast as our legs could carry us. I opened the door, shoved Jamal in, then slammed it shut behind us and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“C’mon Zoey,” I muttered, flashing the RV’s headlights. “C’mon c’mon c’mon.”
“This part will be the hardest.”
“Getting out of there?” Zoey leaned back in the booth.
I nodded and curled my hands around the coffee mug. This was my fourth cup emptied through the duration of this planning session. “I have no idea what position we’re going to be in. It all depends on how quickly they get that fire put out, if anyone sees us, and what we end up having to do to get to the RV.”
“So give me a worst-case scenario, and let’s plan for that,” Zoey said.
“Well, first off we could be separated.”
“First one to the RV flashes the lights to let the other know they’re there?” she suggested.
I nodded. “Yeah. That’s a good idea. But even so, it would slow us down…”
A figure appeared in the road. Zoey. I breathed a sigh of relief as she threw the door open and flung herself in the seat next to me.
“We gotta go now,” she wheezed.
“Are…” Before I could finish, a blinding light filled the windshield.
“Secondly,” I said, standing up to refill the coffee maker, “they could get that fire under control before we have time to move.”
“Even so, that doesn’t sound that bad,” Zoey replied. “I mean, we just tell them it’s time for us to go and vamos. They have no reason to suspect otherwise.”
“Yeah, but that’s assuming that the third worst thing doesn’t happen.”
“Which would be?”
Squinting, my eyes barely managed to make out Hargreaves, still wearing that bizarre reflective suit, holding something over his head. A small, battered thing, with strings woven through, off white…
“Oh crap.” I glanced back at Jamal, standing in the RV like a deer in headlights. One foot had a shoe, the other… a single sock.
“Get them,” Hargreaves shouted, holding the shoe out in front of him like a talisman, “before they get away with the boy!”
“They find out we have the kid.”
I slammed the RV into drive and stamped the accelerator, spinning us out into the road. The pickup truck Hargreaves was standing in shot forward to meet us and the two vehicles slammed into each other’s side, colliding with an ear-splitting SCREEEEEECH. Due to the RV’s sheer mass and the fact that it had slammed into the truck as it was turning, the momentum spun the pickup into donuts as we rolled forward.
Behind me, BASHes and CRASHes filled the RV. Drawers flung open, spilling contents everywhere. Things slid off of counters and tables and rolled about on the floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jamal struggling to maintain his balance.
“Under the table!” I shouted.
Jamal dropped to his hands and knees and crawled under the RV’s booth area. Zoey fought with her seat belt, clicking it into place just before I swerved, hard, to avoid a figure in the road holding a stick of some kind. A blast of light and noise followed and my driver’s door dented inward; not a stick, a shotgun.
“Liam,” Zoey gasped, “the border…”
“Can’t worry about that now,” I shot back.
A deep reeeevvvv sounded behind me and the piercing brights of the pickup once again blazed across my mirrors. The RV lurched forward and bounced on its suspension as the pickup accelerated, bashed our rear end, then accelerated and did it again.
“Can’t be far now,” I muttered. “Can’t be far, come on, come on…”
And with that, the explosion of a hundred searchlights illuminated the area.
“So our worse case scenario is us racing to get to the border of Clovercreek before Voltaire and his friends can stop us?”
“Yep.” I poured a cup of the freshly-brewed coffee, took a long sip, and savored the taste. “And if that happens, Voltaire will be the least of our worries.”
Zoey frowned. “Wait, what? Why?”
“Because even though we haven’t seen them, Archangel will have guards at the border. Guards there to keep the people of Clovercreek from getting out.”
“And if we drift out of that place like Bonnie and Clyde, they’re gonna want to know what we did to piss them off,” Zoey finished.
“Exactly.” I sat back down at the booth.
For a moment, neither of us said anything.
“Well,” Zoey began, breaking the silence, “we can expect Archangel to react loud and bossily. That might be enough to scare off anyone following us before they get to tell their side of the story.”
“Voltaire already knows about Archangel,” I pointed out. “It won’t surprise him.”
“But it will surprise the regular people,” Zoey said. “We might be able to just get the human to override the space bug on this one.”
I thought it over. “I suppose so. But that still doesn’t solve our Archangel problem.”
“If we can get our pursuer to leave before they reveal what we did, we might be able to talk our way out of it. ‘It was a misunderstanding’ type deal.”
“And what do we do with our stowaway?”
“Hide him under something, like a blanket, I suppose.” Zoey sighed. “After that, I think all we can do is hope and pray.”
“Blanket,” Zoey hissed. I unclicked my seatbelt and stumbled back into the RV, tripping over all the miscellaneous crap that had fallen.
Jamal poked his head out. “What…?”
“Shh! Stay hidden!” I hissed.
Without hesitation, he ducked back in as I grabbed the giant comforter from the bed, dragged it back, and stuffed it under the RV table.
“Get under this,” I hissed. “Don’t make a sound.”
“ENTITY G-267,” a voice outside boomed through speakers of a too-loud variety, “RETURN TO YOUR DESIGNATED QUARANTINE AREA IMMEDIATELY.”
“What the hell…” Thompson opened the door to the truck and squinted into the light. The loud shick click-clack of multiple firearms chorused somewhere behind the blinding wall of brightness.
“STEP BACK INTO YOUR VEHICLE PLEASE, SIR.”
“What’s going on here?” Thompson shouted back.
“STEP BACK INTO THE VEHICLE!”
“You’re not CDC!”
“No, we’re not,” Zoey said.
Thompson looked over. Zoey had opened her passenger door and stepped out, separated from Thompson by the space of his truck.
No one had demanded she step back into the vehicle.
“In case you didn’t notice, you’re kind of over your head here.” She gave him a sad smile. “Do the smart thing and just go home.”
“But…” He spun his head around to focus on something that wasn’t there.
“STEP BACK INTO THE VEHICLE OR WE WILL BE FORCED TO SHOOT.”
“Would you cool your jets for one fucking second?” Zoey snapped. “He’s not a threat.”
“YOU ARE NOT AUTHORIZED TO MAKE THAT CALL.”
“He’s a civilian in a beat-up pick up truck! How threatening can that be?”
There was a pause, then a subtle tide of clack-clicks as weapons were lowered.
“Thank you.” She turned back to Thompson. “Voltaire with you?”
“Umm…” He eyed the empty patch again.
“Thompson, this is not a fight you want to get into. Go home. Get some sleep. You deserve it. In the morning, you can let all this be behind you. Get back to your life.”
He didn’t say anything. He just looked back and forth, from Zoey to the space at his right. Finally he declared, “ain’t worth it. I’m going home, Voltaire. You can deal with this if you want to, but I don’t.”
Then he stepped back into his truck, closed the door, and drove back.
Soon as he did, the floodlights kicked off and two soldiers appeared only a few feet away from Zoey. I say soldiers and not agents because, well… they were soldiers. Each was in full combat gear, all black, with body armor and pockets and all the other bells and whistles. Each had an automatic rifle slung over their back.
“What was that incident about?” one of them asked.
Zoey sighed. “Honestly? Popularity contest.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”
“We made the mistake of asking who was closest to Voltaire.” Zoey rolled her eyes. “Next thing you know, everyone’s trying to show each other up, get declared the favorite… think that guy thought that breaking the quarantine would do it. Tried to twist our arm into helping.”
“We’re gonna have to search your vehicle, ma’am.”
“Of course you are,” Zoey groaned. “Go ahead. Be my guest.”
Both soldiers stepped in. I moved out of the way as they stomped their way through, little snaps and cracks crying out from under their combat boots.
“This place is a mess,” the other one said.
“Yeah, well, that’s what happens when you try to have a high-speed chase in an RV,” Zoey replied, stepping in behind the soldiers.
The men continued to pick their way through with agonizing slowness, examining every object, opening every door and cupboard, surveying every wall. I watched as they inched their way from the front to the back to back to the front.
On his way back, the first soldier stopped at the booth.
My heartbeat volume increased another step up.
I saw him poke at the large white blanket with a boot toe.
He swung his foot back and delivered a fierce kick straight into the blanket.
There was a dull THUMP, then… nothing more.
“Alright, clear,” he said into a radio mic pinned to his vest. Then he turned to the two of us. “A popularity contest? Really?”
“Yep,” Zoey said.
“Huh.” He chuckled. “Just when you think this shit can’t get any weirder, right?” He grinned.
I’m not sure I appreciated the comradery that I saw there.
“You guys go on and get out of here,” he told us as him and his partner stepped from the RV. “Have a nice night.”
“You too,” Zoey said as she shut the door. I started the RV rolling.
“We out of sight yet?” Zoey whispered.
“Jamal?” She flew out of her chair, climbing under the table. “Jamal, are you…?”
A sudden fit of coughing and heaving sounded from the back. Zoey threw it off to reveal Jamal writhing on the floor. “Damn it, that hurt. I’m okay…” he insisted as Zoey moved in to check on him. “Just… fuck.”
I leaned my head back into the chair. “Holy crap. We did it. We actually did it.”
Zoey just closed her eyes and smiled. “Yes we did.”
“One ticket to Chicago,” Zoey said, handing the paper to Jamal. “Should be all set now.”
We were standing in a large tiled room lit by fluorescent lights: the Greyhound station in Indianapolis. Around us, people rushed by, oblivious to our little trio in their hustle to get to wherever they were going.
“I can’t thank you guys enough,” Jamal said. He looked leagues better than when we had found him. A shower at a truck stop had washed away the dirt from his skin. New clothes and new shoes helped as well.
But most importantly, he didn’t have that sleepless, always scared look.
“Seriously, I would have been dead or, I don’t know, whatever the hell that thing did to those guys,” he continued.
“Or stuck in that shitty town for the rest of your life,” Zoey pointed out.
He nodded. “You saved my life.”
I cleared my throat. “Um, Jamal, the people who set up that quarantine… they don’t want this kind of stuff to come to light. I wouldn’t… talk, about what happened to you. Might bring some unwanted attention.”
He laughed. “Believe me, I’m more than happy to never speak about that shithole ever again.”
I nodded. “You have a cover story for those two weeks?”
He shrugged. “What’s to tell? Shitty bus broke down in the middle of nowhere, they put us in a crappy motel for two weeks while they got someone over to get it working, couldn’t call because nowheresville didn’t have any cell reception. Sorry to worry you, but nothing to report.”
“Good.” Zoey passed him a folded piece of paper. “This is our phone number and our email. Anything strange happens, you let us know.”
“10:15 FOR CHICAGO, NOW BOARDING,” the PA system declared.
“That’s me.” Jamal grabbed the bag by his feet, then stopped and turned back.
“Bye. And… thank you.”
“Be safe out there,” Zoey said as he turned and ran towards the line of people in front of the doors.
I stepped next to Zoey. “You know what we have to do now, right?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Last step of the plan.”
Five minutes later, we were sitting in the darkness of the RV, at the booth, staring at my phone as it called the number 1-008-555-2917. After five rings, the phone gave up.
Immediately afterwards, it began to ring again: an incoming call from 1-008-555-2917.
I answered it, then tapped the speakerphone on. “Anderson.”
“Foster,” it replied. “Is there a problem with the money transferred to you and Miss Hammersham’s account?”
“There is not,” I said.
“Then may I ask why you’ve called?”
“We rescued someone. From Clovercreek,” I answered. “We’re letting you know that you can’t go after him.”
There was a very long pause.
“I’m sorry,” Anderson’s voice said, “did you say, ‘rescued’?”
“Yes I did. If I’m being completely honest, I’m surprised your spies haven’t told you yet.”
“I can’t watch you 24 hours, Foster. You’re simply not important enough.” He paused again. “You do realize that this was something you were very much not allowed to do, correct?”
“But we did it anyway,” I replied. “So you and the rest of Archangel have to leave him alone.”
He chuckled. “Oh, is that so?”
I leaned closer to the phone. “See, me and Zoey have thought it over. And considering that our friend has already gotten a headstart back home, it’d take a bit of a ruckus to go around interviewing people and tracking him back down. And if people find out that he’d recently been in Clovercreek, well, that whole ‘plausible deniability’ you set up would look a lot less plausible, wouldn’t it?”
There was no reply.
“We filmed our rescue of him. Kind of exciting stuff. Car chases and whatnot. Now, if you leave this kid alone, let him live his life, people can go about thinking that this was just something we put into the episode to make it more exciting. But if word starts circulating that this rescued kid is now being hunted by some mysterious men in black… well, it doesn’t take a genius to start connecting dots, now does it?”
Silence fumed from the speakers.
“You do realize,” Anderson said at last, “that I should just take that money back for pulling a stunt like this, right?”
“You could,” I admitted. “Are you?”
Again, no response.
“Listen,” Zoey said, “we did what you asked us to do. And we’re pretty sure that you’re going to want us to do this kind of thing again. It’s easy, it’s inexpensive, and it’s a risk-free way to set up your little smoke screens. But you have to realize that we’re not one of your thugs. We’re not necessarily going to play by your rules. If we see someone in danger, or in over their head, we’re going to help them, regardless of whether or not you want us too. You got it?”
“Consider the lesson learned, Miss Hammersham,” Anderson said. “Be careful with your future lessons, though; I suspect that you would enjoy my teaching methods much less.”
And with that, the line went dead.
I picked my phone back up and put it in my pocket. “That went better than I thought it would.”
“Yeah.” She grabbed my hand and squeezed. “Holy crap. We did it, didn’t we? We actually did it?”
“Oh, that feels good.” She sighed and leaned back in the booth. “It’s been so long since we had a win. I needed that.”
“You needed to be chased around by rednecks with space bugs?” I asked.
She scowled, but her eyes still sparkled. “You know what I meant.”
The image of Jamal, happy, hurrying off to the bus, came to my mind. “Yeah I do.”
“After all those people, Dale from the rest stop and Timothy’s Mondays and Sims… we can still help people. It’s possible.”
“You do realize it’s going to get harder from here?” I warned. “The more we dance this kind of line, the less they’ll like it. The more they’ll try to trip us up.”
“Let them,” she said. “We did this once, we can do it again.”
I smiled. “Guess we’ll see, won’t we?”
She returned the smile. “Yes, we will.”