viernes, 2 de febrero de 2018

THE ROMM 4


 

CHAPTER FOUR: CASES

1.
Christine held her hand out the window as she drove. Her fingers didn’t quite brush the pine needles on the trees along the side of the road, but it was close. She had all the windows down, enjoying the autumn breeze blowing through the car and the pleasant, rich smells of the forest around her. When she’d lived here, she’d driven this route two or more times each day. It had been a commute no different than any other. Now that she rarely made this trip, she noticed its beauty.
She drove up the driveway and stopped in front of the second cabin. The one Frank had lived in.
Frank. She hadn’t figured out what to tell him about why these people were living in his former home and why he couldn’t have it back. She hadn’t had to; he’d been so shell-shocked from the things he had learned about Rook Mountain in the past week that he hadn’t been asking too many questions. But the time was coming when she would have to make a decision: trust him and tell him everything, or don’t and tell him nothing. She wanted to trust him, but after nine years in that prison and an unexpected release, she’d be a fool to take anything he said at face value.
She parked the car and pulled out her roller bag filled with medical supplies. Gus Hansen stood on the porch, leaning against the railing, making no effort to hide the way his eyes were glued to her.
As she reached the steps, Gus said, “Doc, Candace is going to be glad to see you. She's worried sick about that boy.”
Christine sighed. Gus was a proud man, too proud to say thank you straight out and too proud to admit his concern for his own son.
“Hi, Gus. How long has he had the fever?”
Gus looked away. “Oh, a day or so, I guess.”
Christine knew he was also too proud to call a doctor unless he was really scared. “Maybe it’s been a little longer than that?” she asked.
Gus nodded. “Yeah, maybe a little. Maybe three days, I guess.”
Christine frowned. “Okay. Can I take a look?”
Gus led her into the house. She’d been in here a dozen times since the Hansens had taken up residence, but it never failed to catch her off guard. She always expected it to look the way it had when Frank lived here. When she had spent three nights a week here, drinking, playing games, and acting like a fool with the guys, and whatever girlfriends Will and Frank had at that moment. Those had been good times. She had felt so alive. She had felt like she and her three boys could take on the world. Nowadays she could barely get through the day.
Frank would have had an aneurysm to see the old place like this. The Hansens may not have had the nicest clothing, but there sure was a lot of it. It lay around the house in piles Christine swore hadn’t been touched since the last time she’d been out here eight months ago. Frank had plenty of faults in those days, but he sure kept a damn neat house. His work with tiny and delicate parts for locks necessitated a certain level of orderliness, but Frank had taken it to the next level. The place had been spotless. That was probably why they had hung out in this cabin so much –no matter how badly they treated it in the night, it always seemed to be ready for the white glove test by the time she saw it the next day.
Gus led her to the back bedroom where little Hal lay on the bed covered to the neck with a thin sheet. His hair was matted to his head with sweat and his complexion was pale and drawn.
His mother sat in a chair across the room from him. “Oh, thank God,” she said.
Christine shuffled her way to the bed. “Hello, Hal.”
The boy gave her a weak smile. “Hi, Doctor Christine.”
“Hi,” she said. “I understand you aren’t feeling well.”
He shook his head. “My throat feels bad. And I keep having the weirdest dreams.”
“Can I sit down?” she asked.
He nodded, and she sat on the bed next to him. She spent five minutes examining him—taking his temperature and blood pressure, listening to his heart and lungs, and looking in his throat and ears.
She turned to his parents. “I don’t suppose you would let me take him to my office?”
Gus and Candace exchanged a glance. Candace said, “By your office, you mean the clinic. And no. Gus and I agree that he needs to stay here with his family. Just tell us what’s wrong with him.”
Christine took a deep breath and tried to summon the courage to avoid the same old debate she’d had with the Hansens a dozen times. They didn’t trust anyone in town and they wouldn’t come to the clinic even for their son’s benefit. For once, Christine forced herself to steer clear of that line of conversation. She pulled a rapid strep test kit out of her bag.
Ten minutes and one throat swab later, she had a diagnosis.
“Hal has strep.”
Candace sighed with relief. Gus smiled. “Shit, is that all it is? Give him some of that pink stuff and let’s call it a day.”
“Strep is nothing to smile about,” Christine said. “Especially not these days. In the Before, it was a little simpler, but now we have to be careful. There is less we can do if things escalate. Having a fever this high for so long isn’t good, especially for someone Hal’s age. You need to call me sooner next time.”
“Okay,” Gus said. “Sermon delivered. Can you help him or not?”
Christine pressed her lips together, hoping to mask her scowl of frustration. She unzipped her roller bag and sorted through the contents until she found what she was looking for. She pulled out the translucent red bottle and held it out to Gus.
“Here,” she said. “One pill twice daily.”
Gus grabbed the bottle, but Christine didn’t release it. She looked him in the eyes. “Have him keep taking it until the bottle is empty. Don’t stop when the fever goes away. You hear me?”
Gus nodded and gave her a grin that displayed a wide expanse of yellow teeth. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Good.” She released the bottle. “I’m going to need to spend a little time out in the shed before I go.”
Gus nodded. “I figured you would. You never miss the opportunity when you’re out here.”
Christine squeezed Hal’s hand. “You take your medicine and you’ll feel better tomorrow, okay?”
“Yes, doctor,” the boy said.
She nodded farewell to Candace and walked out. Gus followed her.
“How’s Ty?” Christine asked.
“He’s okay.” They had reached the porch. “Did we do the right thing last week? When Frank came calling?”
Christine thought for a moment. She didn’t even know what the right thing was herself. How was she supposed to tell Gus? She said, “I told you not to let anyone on the property except for me and Will. Yeah, you did good.”
She started to walk away, and Gus called after her. “What if Frank comes out here again? Do I let him on the property or do the normal rules apply?”
Christine paused but didn’t turn. “No one but me and Will.”
Gus whistled through his teeth. “You’re a tough woman.”
Christine smiled, glad her back was turned so he couldn’t see it. There weren’t many people that Gus considered tough. “I am,” she said. “And you’d better remember that.”
She heard the screen door bang shut behind her as Gus went back in the cabin. She started toward the driveway but veered off onto a dirt path leading away from the road. Thirty yards down the path stood an old shed. Christine pulled out her keys and unlocked the padlock. The door let out a high pitched squeal as she slid it open. She stepped inside and flipped on the light. She slid the door shut behind her.
The shed was filled with the usual items. Tools, shovels, the chainsaw she had used to play that prank on Frank so many years ago. There were a few half-empty paint cans and a couple bags of fertilizer. Frank’s old guitar case sat in the corner. And in the back of the shed there was an old freezer.
Christine put her hand on the lid of the freezer and felt it humming. She breathed a sigh of relief. Sometimes she woke up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, sure that the freezer had broken down. Still, no matter how much she worried and obsessed about it, she didn’t allow herself to come out here more than twice a year. There was always the chance, however small, that someone would wonder why she was coming out here so often when everyone else in town was staying away. And maybe that person would mention it to a friend in passing, and maybe the wrong person would overhear.
She couldn’t risk that. She had given up far too much. She simply didn’t come out unless the Hansens needed her for something.
Christine reached back into her roller bag, unzipped an inner compartment, and pulled out a single key. Though the key looked mundane, she didn’t keep this one on her key chain. She put the key into the lock, turned the key halfway, pressed the hidden button on the lock, and turned the key the other direction. The lock popped open.
The lock was one of Frank’s creations of course. Another reason to keep him away from here. Even with the key, only Christine, Will, and Frank knew how to open this particular lock. And Jake, she reminded herself. If indeed he was still alive.
Christine took the chain off her neck and lowered it into the freezer. Another key dangled from the chain—the key she had found on Jessie Cooper.
She quickly surveyed the contents of the freezer to make sure it was all there. There was the large pocket knife, the kind that folded. There was a mirror. There was the lighter, wrapped in cloth and sealed in a Ziploc bag. A three-foot long cane lay wedged in diagonally across the bottom of the freezer. The cane was a rich mahogany. The knife, the cane, the mirror, and the lighter all featured the same broken clock symbol as the key.
The final item in the freezer was the severed head. It was a light shade of blue, and tiny icicles grew from the eye sockets.
A knife, a lighter, a cane, a key, a mirror, and a head. Would they be enough when the time came? Would they be any help at all? Christine had no idea, and not knowing weighed on her heart. There was no way to know, not until it was too late to make a difference. When the time came, they would work and save her, or they wouldn’t and she would die.

2.
“Uncle Frank? Uncle Frank?”
Frank looked up and saw the cereal bowl on the table in front of him. It had happened again. He had been drifting. He blinked hard to clear his mind of the cobwebs.
“Uncle Frank!”
Trevor stood near the table. The boy was dressed in only blue jeans, and he held two shirts, one in each hand.
“Yeah, man, what’s up?” Frank asked.
“What do you think? The red shirt or the blue?”
Frank stared blankly at both shirts for a moment. “They, uh, they both look great to me.”
Will chuckled from across the table. “Your uncle has been a little out of the fashion scene for a few years, Trev.”
“I’m only looking for, like, a second opinion,” Trevor said.
“The blue,” Frank said. “Definitely the blue.”
Trevor grinned. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.” With that, he ran back toward his room.
“Trevor loves you, dude,” Will said. “He hardly talks to me anymore. You gotta tell me your secret. I guess he missed you.”
Was that even possible? Frank wondered. The kid had been three years old when Frank went away. “I missed him too.”
Christine walked into the kitchen and began making herself a bowl of oatmeal. “So what’s on the docket for today, Frank?”
Frank shoveled a spoonful of cereal into his mouth to give himself a moment. That was an excellent question. What was on the docket? He had been out a full week, but—aside from talking to Sally Badwater on his second day of freedom—he hadn’t accomplished much. The last few days he had seldom left the house. He was still shaken by the things Will and Sean had shown him at the edge of town.
But it was more than that. The whole town seemed to have gone crazy. Crazy/naked Zed was a hero? Will was in charge of some certification program? And now Trevor was going to go to some weird school where they trained kids to pass a test to leave town?
He had known finding Jake would be challenging, but he had no idea where to go from here. After talking to Sally, he had hit a dead end. Jake said he wanted Frank to bring him the Cassandra lock, but the Cassandra lock didn’t exist. Frank had never finished it.
Finally, he swallowed his cereal and said, “I’m thinking I might get out a bit today. Maybe go for a hike.”
“On the mountain?” Will asked.
Frank nodded.
“Good for you,” Christine said. “It’ll do you good.” She took a seat across from Frank and dug into her oatmeal. “Make sure you drop by City Hall first. You need a permit. Not a big deal to get one, but you don’t want to be caught without it.”
Frank felt a little guilty looking at Christine. She had let him into her home and asked only the most basic of questions. She wasn’t pushing him to talk about anything before he was ready, and for that he was grateful. Yet, he still hadn’t told her that he was here to find Jake. He had told her he was here as part of a temporary release program. He would be out for a month, and if he could prove he was ready he might get to stay out longer. It wasn’t a lie exactly, but it certainly wasn’t the full truth. She had taken his story at face value.
Trevor came back into the kitchen wearing the blue shirt. “Ready to go, Mom?”
“In a minute,” Christine said.
Will squinted at Trevor. “Did you use gel in your hair?”
Trevor blushed. “So?”
Will shrugged, trying to hide the grin on his face. “I’ve never seen you use anything in your hair.”
Trevor’s shade of red deepened.
Christine gave Will a stern look, but she was grinning too.
“I understand,” Will said. “New school. New girls. Wait, do they have girls at this school?”
Trevor smiled. “They definitely have girls.”
The morning routine always baffled Frank. The whole thing seemed hectic but well-orchestrated. The three of them flowed in and out of the kitchen, the bathroom, and bedrooms in a blur of constant motion. The schedule never seemed quite the same, but there was never any discussion about whose turn it was in the single bathroom. They never got in each others’ ways. Frank, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to get in sync with them. He was always standing in the wrong place, blocking someone’s access to the bananas or the lunchboxes.
The exit happened the same way. This morning Frank barely had to time shout, “Good luck on your first day,” to Trevor before they were gone.
Frank enjoyed the silence for a moment. Of all the things he loved about freedom, silence had to be near the top of the list. Prison was a loud place. He had almost forgotten what it was like to sit in silence with your own thoughts. He sat for a long time, staring into his empty cereal bowl. Almost drifting.
Then he heard a knock at the door. He considered not answering. It was his choice, after all, to answer or not. Such options were the luxury of free men. He pushed himself to his feet, drifted to the door, and opened it to find Becky Raymond standing there. She was staring at the door knob; the one Frank had made for Jake and Christine so many years ago.
She looked up at him and smiled. “Hi, Frank. You didn’t forget about our weekly meeting, did you?”
“No, of course not,” he lied. “You want to come in?”
She glanced down at the doorknob again and then shook her head. “Walk with me. I have an errand to run.”
“I’d rather not. Can we talk here?”
“Come on,” she said as if she hadn’t heard him. She spun on her heel and marched toward the sidewalk.
Frank took a deep breath and forced himself to unclench his fists. He stepped outside and followed her down the sidewalk.
“Let’s talk,” she said. “How is the search for your brother going?”
Frank looked at her. “I haven’t found him yet, Becky.”
She arched her eyebrows. “It’s Becky now, is it? What happened to Ms. Raymond? You were much more polite at the prison.”
“When you appear in my home and bully me into going for a walk, you are Becky.”
“Well this isn’t your home, is it? Your home is Northern Tennessee Correctional Complex. At least until I say it isn’t. So I’ll ask you again: how is the search for your brother going?”
The woman made him uncomfortable, but he had to keep a grip on his emotions. She was right. She held all the cards here.
“I’ll be honest. I haven’t opened up too many leads yet.”
Becky frowned. “You said you knew places where he hung out. That you knew the land. That you knew where he’d go.”
Frank nodded. “Yeah, that’s all true. It’s taking me some time to acclimate to… how things are.”
“That’s understandable.” Her gaze softened. “Let’s take a step back from the facts. What’s your gut feeling? Based on what you know about Rook Mountain and what you know about Jake, do you think he’s in town?”
Frank scratched his chin. It felt strange, talking to her about Jake. Working with the people who were trying to track Jake down. He told himself he wouldn’t turn over any information that would hurt Jake. If he found Jake he would warn him—maybe they could even escape Rook Mountain together.
Speculating couldn’t hurt, though.
“The way I see it, there are two possibilities,” Frank said. “Either he’s in town and he’s been in town the whole time, or he found a way to survive outside of town without those crazy bird things eating him.”
“And which of those options seems more likely to you?”
“I’d say he’s in town. If he really knew a way to get past those things on the outside, it seems like he would have taken his family and gone somewhere else.” Frank shrugged. “Either way, he is close enough that he can at least slip into town to pass a cryptic message to Sally Badwater.”
The woman smiled. “Let me ask you something, Frank. Was Jake close to his son?”
“Yeah, of course. After the kid was born, it was all he wanted to talk about. It bordered on annoying.”
“That’s what I thought.” She leaned toward him. “Can you imagine any scenario where Jake has access to Rook Mountain and doesn’t at least keep tabs on his son?”
Frank thought about that for a moment. Becky was right. Frank couldn’t imagine a scenario where Jake wouldn’t be in touch with Trevor.
When he was about to answer, Becky said, “This is my errand. It’s an interesting case. Follow me.” She turned up the sidewalk leading to the next house. Frank glanced up at it, a ranch-style home not much different than any of the dozen or so other houses they had passed on their walk. Frank stayed two steps behind Becky.
When she reached the door, Becky knocked, waited about two seconds, and then opened the door and walked inside.
“Hello!” she said.
Frank followed her in. The man sitting on the couch sprang to his feet. He was short and slightly overweight, but his most distinctive characteristic was the scar on his left cheek. It was shaped like the number eight.
“Hello, Ms. Raymond,” the man said. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
Becky smiled at the man. “That’s sort of the point of surprise inspections, Phillip. Anything I should know before I look around?”
“No, ma’am. Everything in this house is in keeping with the Regulations.”
“Good,” Becky said. She wandered out of the room as she spoke. “Frank here just got out of prison. He’s learning about the Regulations. Why don’t you tell him about your crime while I look around?”
The man cleared his throat and looked at Frank. “I’m a Regulation breaker.” He pointed to his cheek. “Regulation 8.”
Becky called from the other room. “He doesn’t know what that is, Philip. Explain.”
“I uh, there was this family. They broke a Regulation, and their punishment was no rations for two weeks. I shared mine with them.”
“Rations?” Frank asked. “You mean food?” Philip looked at Frank like he was trying to determine whether or not Frank was an idiot, then he nodded and looked away. “Yeah. I aided Regulation breakers. Not my finest hour. I’m paying my debt to society, though. Part of that means surprise inspections from time to time.”
“Really? From the city manager?”
Philip shrugged. “No, this is a first. Usually it’s a couple of cops.”
Becky returned to the room. “Well Philip, I don’t see any evidence of Regulation breaking.” He smiled and nodded. “Thank you, ma’am. It’s an honor to have you handle this personally.”
Becky smiled back at him. “You’re proof that the system works. Hey, why don’t you tell Frank about your scar?”
He looked at Frank. “It’s part of the punishment for Regulation 8 breakers. So people know not to trust me."
“And tell him who gave it to you.”
Philip took a deep breath. His smile wavered for only a moment. “It was my wife. She found out about my crimes, and she drugged me and took care of it. She’s a good woman.”
“She sure is,” the city manager said.
Back out on the street, Frank asked, “So what was the point of that little show?”
Becky Raymond shrugged. “I’m continuing your education. I want you to know the score. Family is important, but Rook Mountain comes first.”
“I’m not sure I agree with that.”
“It doesn’t matter what you believe. It’s what the town believes. All I’m saying is to stay vigilant. You are out there grilling Sally Badwater and visiting your old haunts, and at the same time you are living with the town doctor and the head of the Certification program.”
Frank took a deep breath and tried to stay calm. He spoke softly, but he still heard the anger in his own voice. “Listen to me. I agreed to look for Jake, and I am doing that. I will find him. You leave them the hell out of it.”
“Of course,” Becky said. “I want you to know that we are watching. Always. Zed has eyes everywhere. You are never out of his sight, not in Rook Mountain.”
Frank nodded. “I’ll find Jake, but I’m not bringing Christine and Trevor into this thing.”
The woman smiled. “Frank. They live in Rook Mountain. They’re already in this thing.” They stopped in front of the Osmond’s house. “There’s something else. Something I didn’t tell you before.”
Frank waited for her to continue.
“Since Regulation Day, odd items have been appearing in Rook Mountain. They look like everyday objects. A mirror, a lighter, things like that. But they are extremely dangerous. We believe that Jake was interested in these items. Obsessed with them, really. We know he had at least one of them. He may have hidden it before he went away. If you find any of these objects in your search for Jake, you let me know right away. Understand?”
“If they look like everyday objects, how am I supposed to find them?”
“They have a symbol carved into them. It’s a broken clock.”
Frank froze. He struggled to keep any reaction off his face. He had seen that symbol once. He’d seen it on the worst day of his life.
“You find something with that symbol, you bring it to me.” Becky Raymond turned away from him and toward the street. “You’ve had your week to acclimate. Next week I expect to hear some results. If not, well, I’m sure CO Rodgers is keeping a bunk empty for you.”
Becky Raymond gave him a curt nod and turned back up the sidewalk.
Frank stood on the threshold of his former sister-in-law’s home, taking long slow breaths, trying to figure out his next move. He didn’t notice Will standing in the front yard, watching Becky Raymond walk away.

3.
Trevor followed the signs pointing toward the auditorium and tried not to make eye contact with the other students.
Everyone had been polite so far, but when they looked at him he saw it in their eyes. They were all wondering how the son of a terrorist had gotten into the Beyond Academy.
At his old school, it had been much more overt. Kids would make comments, ask Trevor if his dad had taught him how to make pipe bombs, ask when Trevor was going to blow up the school. It bothered him, of course, but most of the time he had been able to laugh it off. As Mom always reminded him, these kids didn’t know his dad. Yes, Dad had gone crazy for a little while there at the end, but that didn’t define him as a person. Trevor remembered other things about his dad. He remembered Dad reading him stories, and wrestling with him on the floor, and taking him for hikes in the mountains.
But today, even though no one was saying anything, it was different. It was probably just the stress of starting a new school, but Trevor had a terrible feeling that someone would realize the error and expel him at any moment.
He wished Carl had been accepted. Then at least he would have someone to walk with in the halls.
“Trevor!” a female voice called.
He looked around, bewildered for a moment, then saw a woman in a blue dress. She wore glasses and her black hair fell in loose curls around her shoulders. She was hot, but she was also clearly a teacher.
“Trevor, hi.” The woman walked over to him. “You probably don’t remember me. I’m Wendy Caulfield. Your uncle Frank and I used to babysit you when you were little.”
Her statement was so unexpected that Trevor had no idea how to respond. “Hi, Ms. Caulfield.”
She smiled. “I teach History and Civics. You’ll have me for fourth period this semester.”
He nodded dumbly.
“Anyway, I just wanted to say hello.” She turned to go, then stopped and nodded toward the auditorium. “Trevor, remember, however weird this place seems, and whatever you hear in there, this is still a school. We're here to help you learn. And you can talk to us –to me—if you need anything. Okay?”
Trevor nodded again. “Okay. Thanks.”
She turned the other direction, and Trevor stepped into the auditorium.
To call it an auditorium was a bit of an overstatement in Trevor’s opinion. Like the rest of the school, the room was clean and state-of-the-art. Every surface said quality. But it was more of a classroom with stadium seating than it was an auditorium. The school only had forty students. Trevor guessed this room could hold maybe seventy-five total. He eyed the back rows, looking for a block of empty seats where he could squeeze in without having to sit next to anyone. Fancy genius academy or not, this was still high school. Who you sat with mattered, and Trevor wanted to get the lay of the land before pigeon-holing himself into any particular clique. He found a likely spot in the second row from the back and hustled toward it.
He had barely sat down before the lights flicked once, and a voice over the PA system asked them to rise for the national anthem. Trevor rose with the rest and turned toward the American flag on the left side of the stage. Pre-recorded music filled the room at a surprisingly loud volume. As the first verse began everyone's voice rose to match the level of the music. Trevor looked around as he sang and saw most of his fellow students for the first time. What he saw didn’t remind him of the first day of school. They weren’t slouching or giggling, and there were no annoyed frowns. Every pupil stood ramrod straight and sang loudly, their eyes glued to the flag. There was a quality about them that it took Trevor a few moments to identify. Then it came to him. The students weren’t just glad to be starting the school year, they were proud to be here. It was pride he saw on the faces of his fellow students.
The “Star-Spangled Banner” built to its crescendo. The pre-recorded music cut off a moment too soon, jarring Trevor out of his thoughts. Everyone sank back into their seats. Trevor did the same, his eyes on the still-empty stage.
The voice on the PA returned. “To open the 2022-2023 school year, please welcome back guest speaker and friend of the Rook Mountain Beyond Academy, Zed!”
The students erupted with applause, and a tall bald man jogged up the steps to the stage. He wore a green, long-sleeved t-shirt and khaki pants. He stood there with an easy smile on his face waiting for the applause to die down.
Trevor had heard a lot about Zed, of course, but he had only seen him up close once before. Trevor knew Zed had saved the town. They told that story every year on the anniversary of Regulation Day. He knew Zed lived in the big house downtown. He also knew that his father had gone crazy and tried to blow up Zed, killing three innocent people in the process.
Zed was a legend in a town that had far too few of them. Everyone talked about him with respect and admiration. Everyone seemed to love him. In a lot of ways, he was the complete opposite of Trevor’s father.
When the applause stopped, Zed held out his hands, palms up. He was wearing one of those headset microphones, and his deep voice filled the room when he spoke. “Thank you. You know, it’s really an honor to be asked back again to open the school year. Sometimes I feel like a broken record. I’ve said the same thing every year for the past four years, and I’m about to say it again. Some of you returning students might be sick of hearing it—”
“No way, Zed!” called a male voice from the crowd. The kids all laughed.
Zed pointed toward the student. “Thanks for humoring an old man, son. Some of you may be sick of hearing it, but what I have to say was true last year and it is still true today. Here it goes. This year is going to be the most important year of your lives.”
Zed paused, his eyes moving back and forth across the faces in the crowd. The laughter was gone now, and the room was filled with a reverent silence. “I believe that with all my heart. Think about it for a moment. This year is going to be the most important year of your lives.” He paused again, this time looking down at his own feet as he gave the students a moment.
He looked up and spoke again. “Let me ask you something. How many of you have traveled outside the United States? In the Before, I mean.”
A few hands rose.
Zed nodded. “How many of you have traveled outside Tennessee?”
This time, over half the hands in the crowd went up, including Trevor’s. He didn’t remember it well, but he knew his family had taken a vacation to Florida when he was three.
“How many of your parents talk about their travels? About what life was like outside Rook Mountain in the Before?”
Every hand went up. Zed nodded. “Thanks. You can put your hands down. For those of you attending the Beyond Academy for the first time this year, today is an important day. Today is the day that you stop listening to your parents’ stories about the world outside. Because I’m going to tell you something important: your parents’ stories don’t mean shit.”
He held up his hands as if calming the crowd, though not one student had voiced an objection. “Don’t get me wrong! Those stories have their place. Just like stories of George Washington or stories of the Roman Empire. But I know every one of your parents at least a little, and I can say with confidence that they do not understand the world outside of Rook Mountain. Not anymore. Very shortly, you will. The days of your parents are over. Your day has begun.”
He looked out over the crowd again. “A person can survive somewhere between three and six weeks without food. We have some food stored in town, but how long do you think Rook Mountain would survive without our brave Resource Specialists?” He let the question hang in the air, then continued. “But it’s not about survival. It’s about what you want the future to be. I know that many of you will choose to become Resource Specialists when you leave this school, but some of you will pursue different paths. That’s perfectly fine. As long as you work hard to get whatever it is you want out of life, this school has done its job.
“I don’t work for the school. I am just a guy who cares deeply about Rook Mountain. Your parents have obviously done things right since you’ve all made it this far. But in the coming days and weeks and months you will see things that your parents will have no way to understand. Sometime during the next couple years, you will be allowed to go on a trip outside of town with some Resource Specialists. Depending on the expedition you are assigned to, you might see Elizabethton, or Kingsport, or Johnson City. You might even go somewhere farther if your Resource Specialist needs to fulfill a more exotic request.”
He held up a finger for emphasis. “When you go, you will see how the world on the outside really is, and then you will start to understand why Rook Mountain is so special and why we must do everything possible to protect it.”
Trevor couldn’t help but imagine the places he would go as the man talked.
“The things you see will change you,” Zed continued. “And you might need someone to talk to. Someone who understands. I want to tell you—and I mean this from the bottom of my heart—that from this moment on, I consider each person in this room family. Anytime you need to talk, day or night, you call me. Even if it’s something silly, something you don’t think is worth bothering me for, you call me. And, I promise, I will do everything I can to help you. You might need a listening ear, a place to stay, or even protection from your own parents. Doesn’t matter. I will help you.
“Like I said, I love Rook Mountain, and I believe you are her future and her brightest hope. It doesn’t matter what you were before today, what your dreams are, or—” he looked at Trevor, “—what your parents might have done. You are the future, and the future starts today.”
Zed smiled and put his hands on his hips. “Ready to get started?”

4.
Frank walked in the door a few minutes before six o’clock. He had spent most of the day wandering the town. He’d walked past his childhood home and his elementary school. He’d gone by Sean’s house and knocked on the door, but there had been no answer. He’d even walked past Wendy’s place, though he knew she would be at school. People had to work for a living.
The hours of walking had left his feet sore but his head clear. Becky Raymond had been wrong to suggest he should be suspicious of Christine and Will, but she did have a point. It was odd the way they weren’t asking him any questions, and the way they steered clear of certain topics. The way they hadn’t told him anything about the Regulations, and the way Will had only shown him those things on the outside of town after Sean had called him and asked.
Frank had come to a conclusion on his long walk through town: either Christine and Will were hiding something, or they didn’t trust him and thought he was hiding something. Possibly both.
Of course, if they thought that he was hiding something, they were correct. He hadn’t told them why he had been released from prison. He’d had to sort through his own feelings first. But now was the time. He had to have an honest talk with them tonight. Everybody needed to put their cards on the table. Enough with the secrets already.
The front door was locked, but that was no problem. The door knob was still the same one he had given Jake and Christine as a housewarming present so many years ago. Frank twisted it a quarter turn, pulled, twisted it a full turn the other direction, gave it a push at just the right angle, and the lock popped open.
Will and Christine were sitting at the dining room table.
“Hey,” Frank said. “You all have a good day?”
Will and Christine exchanged a glance.
“It was fine,” Christine said. “Frank, could you sit down for a minute? We need to talk.”
“Yeah, of course.” This was it, Frank knew. The chance for everyone to come clean.
Frank sat down. He felt a little like a child with mommy and daddy sitting at the ends of the table.
“Where’s Trevor?” Frank asked. “I wanted to ask him about his first day.”
“He’s at Carl’s,” Will said. His hands were squeezed into tight fists. “What was Becky Raymond doing at our house this morning?”
Frank shifted in his seat a little. The question caught him off guard. He wanted to discuss that, but he had hoped to be the one to get the ball rolling. “How’d you know about that?”
“I forgot my coffee this morning. I came back to get it and I saw her leaving. The two of you were chatting like old buddies.” Will’s ears were bright red. Will was a calm man, able to hide his emotions better than most, but Frank had played enough poker with him over the years that he could see what was wriggling beneath his cool exterior. Will was furious.
“Will,” Christine said, “let him explain.” She spoke in an uncharacteristic staccato. Her eyes were troubled.
“Okay,” Frank said. “She was here to check on my progress.”
“Your progress on what?” Will asked.
“Finding Jake.”
“Excuse me?” Will raised up out of his chair and leaned forward, palms on the table.
Frank met Will’s eyes. He felt himself getting a little heated too. There was no reason he should be under attack.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner,” Frank said. “I was trying to get my bearings before we had this discussion.”
“Time’s up,” Christine said. “Talk to us.”
Frank nodded. He took a deep breath. “Becky Raymond came to see me in prison last week. She offered me a deal. If I agreed to help find Jake, I would be released.”
Will shook his head. “I don’t understand. Why would they think you could help?”
“Jake made an appearance last week. He talked to Sally Badwater.”
“That’s impossible.” Christine’s voice quivered as she spoke. “Sally Badwater’s making it up. She’s batshit crazy, and she’s telling stories.”
“No,” Frank said. “Jake told her something. Something only he would know. I believe her.” Frank didn’t want to explain the Cassandra lock. Not now, anyway.
Will stood up straight and pointed a shaky finger at Frank. “There is no way Jake’s in town. You think he’d go see Sally Badwater and not visit Christine and Trevor?”
Frank shrugged. “I only know what I know. It seems crazy to me, too. Maybe he’s trying to protect you guys.”
Christine rubbed her eyes with the back of her hands. “Okay, say it is true. Why did Becky Raymond come to you?”
“Jake told Sally that he needed to see me. So they let me out. Becky said I had one month to find him. And I had to agree to weekly meetings to discuss my progress. That was what you saw today.”
“This is incredible,” Christine said.
Will took a step back from the table. His balled up fists were at his side. “You know what’s incredible to me? After we took you in, no questions asked, you didn’t think to mention that Jake, Christine’s ex-husband, Trevor’s father—” he gritted his teeth, but Frank saw the tears in his eyes, “—my best friend. You didn’t mention that he was out there. They’re hunting him right now and he might need our help.”
“Will,” Christine said. “You’re wrong.”
“Thank you,” Frank said. “If we could all take a minute—”
“You’re wrong to say that they’re hunting Jake.” She nodded toward Frank. “Frank is the one hunting Jake.”
“Whoa, Christine, please. Let me explain.”
“Explain what?” Her eyes were filled with fury. “You agreed to track down Jake in exchange for your freedom! Explain to me what kind of a person does that.”
“It’s not like that. I’m trying to find Jake, yeah, but I’m gonna warn him. I wouldn’t turn him in.”
“Then why the secrecy?” Will asked.
“It’s not like you've been super forthcoming, either. Listen, maybe we need to work together. We can find Jake. Isn’t that what you want? Becky Raymond mentioned these objects. They have a broken clock symbol on them. She said Jake was obsessed with them. Have you seen anything like that?”
Will’s lips pressed together into a tight line. He said, “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Frank knew Will was lying. He knew it as sure as he knew his own name. “Okay. How about the cabins? Did you clear them out before the Hansens moved in? Maybe we can look around out there. If Jake had to hide something, that’s where he’d stash it.”
“We moved everything out,” Christine said. “There’s nothing there.”
“What about my guitar case? The one with my locks in it.”
“We put all your stuff in a storage unit. We can go down there tomorrow if you want.”
Frank shook his head. “Gus Hansen said he had the guitar case. If you missed that, there might be other things out there too. Some of Jake’s things maybe. I should go take a look.”
There was a long moment of silence. “Damn it,” Will said. “I know you are fresh out of prison and don’t know any better, but there are things going on in this town that even your buddy Sean doesn’t know about. Bringing the city manager here could have really screwed us. I love you like a brother, and Christine does too. But if you put my family in danger—”
“What?” Frank asked. His voice was loud, almost a shout. He felt himself slipping, starting to lose control of his emotions. “What will you do, Will?”
Christine spoke softly. “You’re not the only killer in this house, Frank.”
Frank stopped, mid-breath. “What are you saying?”
“Will and I have done things, terrible things, to protect this family and to make sure Trevor has a future. We’ve sacrificed so much. We’ve hurt people, and we will do it again if we have to.”
Frank looked back and forth between Christine and Will, two of his closest friends in the world. All he saw in their eyes was ice. He believed Christine.
He pushed back his chair. “I’m sorry if I put you in danger. That is the last thing in the world I’d ever want to do. Maybe I should clear out of here for a while.”
Christine and Will were silent.
Frank paused, hoping they would say something. Maybe ask him not to leave. At least say goodbye. But they didn’t. Frank walked out the front door and headed into the darkening streets of Rook Mountain.






 

IN THE BEFORE (PART 4)


“Frank,” Brett said. “You ever feel like maybe you need a change of scenery?”
Frank shrugged. “You want to get out of Rook Mountain?”
Brett strummed a lazy D7 chord. “I don’t know. I guess. I’ve lived in these mountains all my life. I still think they’re pretty, but there’s something stifling about them too, you know? The trees are so thick it’s like they want to squeeze you. Not like the Rockies. Those mountains give a man a little room to think. Or the ocean. I could really spread out near the ocean.”
“You’ve got some weird ideas, dude.”
The two men were playing guitar on Frank’s porch, strumming old country tunes and 90’s grunge songs. Brett did a mean Billy Corgan imitation on “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” It was the odd night when Will wasn’t around. He had some PTA function or something, so the three amigos were dos tonight. On nights like these, they often pulled out the guitars and jammed. Will was learning to play, but his limited chord vocabulary held them back a bit. Sometimes Todd came by with his perpetually out of tune ukulele. But on the nights when it was just Frank and Brett, they could get lost in the music and really jam.
They made an odd pairing. Brett was always talking as if he couldn’t stand the silence. He’d talk about anything, from the sad state of popular music to his grandfather’s rare coin collection. He was the type of guy who would start calling friends to chat anytime he had a drive longer than ten minutes. It didn’t even matter who—he would keep working his way through his contacts list until someone answered. Frank, on the other hand, cherished the silence.
It was understandable, Frank supposed. Brett was used to a houseful of kids and a wife who talked his ear off. His recent divorce had left him lonely. At first, he had a hard time understanding Frank’s quiet nature, but he came to accept it over time.
Frank was about to launch into “Interstate Love Song” when Brett said, “You know what I saw today?”
Frank reached for his beer. “I really don’t.”
“I was walking down by Gravel Park and I saw this little crowd gathered around. There were maybe ten people. I figured it might have been some kind of class or something, so I wandered over to see what was up. And guess what I saw?”
“I still have no idea.”
Brett leaned his guitar against the porch railing to free up his hands. He was a big hand talker. “Okay, so all the people are sitting on the ground in a semicircle around this rock. And guess who’s sitting on the rock like he’s Buddha or something? That Zed guy.”
Frank snorted out a laugh. “Naked Zed?”
“Yeah. I mean, he was wearing clothes but that’s the guy. I didn’t recognize some of the people, but I did know a few of them. There was Nate Grayson. And that girl Will took to that Strange Brood concert in Asheville—”
“Mary Gunderson.”
“Yeah. And Becky from the gas station on the corner of Dennis Cove Road.”
“Becky Raymond.”
“Yeah. So I stood back a little ways and watched. I wasn’t close enough to hear what he was saying, so I was kind of watching their body language. And, man, they were hanging on his every word. He was going on and on like he was giving a sermon or something. And they were eating it up. It was like Jesus with the ‘Blessed are the meek’ stuff.”
“The Beatitudes.”
“What?”
“The ‘Blessed are the meek’ stuff. That’s from the Beatitudes. It’s part of the Sermon on the Mount.”
“Anyway, I’m standing there watching, and all of a sudden Zed looks right at me and nods toward me. And all his little groupies turn their heads. Then one of the guys, this dude I’ve never seen before, stands up and walks over.”
“No way.”
“So I stand there, trying to figure out if this guy is going to get aggressive, trying to decide what to do if he does. Fight or flight and all that. But then I see he's smiling. He walks up and says, ‘Brett, Zed would like you to join us.’ Keep in mind, I’ve never met this dude.”
Frank laughed. “What did you say?”
“I didn’t know what to say! I just kind of shook my head and walked away. I’m telling you, Frank, this Zed guy is up to no good. We’ve got a real David Koresh situation building here. You met him. Can you imagine sitting there listening to him talk for twenty minutes? Voluntarily?”
Frank shook his head. “I could barely stand him for five minutes.”
“Weak minds, I guess.” Brett took a drink of his beer. “So how’s the workshop fund coming?”
Frank sighed. “It’s coming. I got a big payment in yesterday. I’m still eighteen months away from being able to get a real shop set up, though. That’s if I’m lucky.”
Brett smiled. “Man, when you start mass producing your locks, I’m going to be bugging you for a job.”
“I didn’t realize you were a qualified locksmith.”
Brett shrugged. “I’ll do whatever. Sweep floors. Help with the books. As long as I make enough to tell my current boss to suck it. I don’t need much. Just enough for rent on one of these cabins, a little food money—”
“Child support,” Frank said.
“Yeah.” Brett frowned. “That too. How much are your locks going for these days?”
“Anywhere from fifty bucks for the standard models up to a few hundred for the custom jobs. But it’s not like the money’s going to be rolling in the minute I get the shop set up. I’ll still be a one man operation. I’ll be able to work a little faster, that’s all. I’ll build it up slowly. Maybe bring on another locksmith in a few years so I can concentrate on designs.”
Brett wagged a finger at him. “What you need is an investor. You get some capital behind you, I’ll bet you could have your locks in every magic shop and hobby store in the country in a couple years.”
Frank smiled. “Maybe I should join Zed’s cult. Get them to fund me.”
Brett let out a full-bellied laugh which quickly devolved into a coughing fit. “Not the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” He stood up. “I gotta take a piss. Mind?”
“Yeah, sure,” Frank said. It was a little odd that Brett asked. He wasn’t usually averse to walking into Frank’s house without asking permission.
It wasn’t until almost eleven the next morning that Frank noticed the guitar case was gone.
It was only by chance that Frank had discovered it at all. He had wanted to look at it this morning. Tinker with some of the locks he kept in there. He looked under the bed, but the case wasn’t there. He ran over to the cabin next door, the one he used as his workshop, but it wasn’t there, either. His guitar case and all the locks inside of it were gone. His life’s work. Thirty original lock designs, including ten prototypes not yet for sale. Including the unfinished Cassandra lock.
After some initial panic, a surprising sense of calm settled over him. There had only been one person in his cabin since he had last seen the guitar case. That person had always shown an uncommon interest in the locks Frank left laying around the house. Brett would mess with them for days trying to figure out the trick to opening them until Frank finally took pity and showed him how to do it.
Frank started at Brett’s cabin, first knocking on the door and then breaking in through a window when there was no answer. The inside of Brett’s place had always been sparse –nothing on the walls and only a few pieces of furniture, as if he expected to move back in with his wife at any moment—but this took it to a whole different level. The furniture was still there, but everything else was gone. The clothes, the bedding, even most of the food. Brett must have packed up his things during the night and headed out.
The room felt ten degrees colder than it had a moment ago. How long had Brett been planning this?
Frank sat down on the old overstuffed recliner in Brett’s living room and pushed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. The pain brought clarity.
It all made a sick kind of sense. Brett had been wiped out financially and emotionally by the divorce. He had gone from living an upper-middle class lifestyle to barely being able to scrape by. He had been on the edge for a while. It wasn’t shocking that he would bolt in the night. But what was he planning to do with Frank’s locks?
He took a deep breath and pulled out his cell phone. He needed to call the police. Something held him back, though. If he could get to Brett himself and talk to him, maybe the law didn’t have to get involved. And there was one place Frank was almost certain Brett would go before leaving town for good. Frank glanced at his watch and ran for his truck. There was still a chance.
He almost cried with relief when he saw Brett’s Chevy Malibu parked in front of the bank downtown. Its back seat was stuffed with clothes and boxes. Frank pulled in next to it and got out. He leaned against the back of Brett’s car and waited.
Brett walked out of the bank ten minutes later, carrying a backpack slung over one shoulder. Brett slowed when he saw Frank. The color drained from his face, but he recovered quickly, forced a smile, and kept walking.
“Hey man,” Brett said. “A little early for you isn’t it?”
Frank put on a smile of his own. “I couldn’t sleep. I kept having this weird feeling like there was something I needed to do this morning.”
“Cool,” Brett said. “We still on for poker tonight? Maybe we can see if Jake and Christine are free?”
“I don’t think that’s gonna happen, buddy.” Frank nodded toward the backpack. “You might have packed up during the night, but I knew you’d have to wait until the bank opened to get those. That was a mistake. What are they worth? Two grand?”
Brett shrugged. The smile was gone. “Sentimental value, I guess.” His grandfather’s coin collection was one of the few things Brett had been able to keep in the divorce. He was immensely proud of it. He kept it in a safety deposit box at the bank, but he talked about it constantly. Frank knew he wouldn’t leave town without it.
Frank stood up straight and crossed his arms. “I only have one question. Was this a spur of the moment thing? Or have you been planning this?”
“I’m not going to lie to you. It was a little of both. I’d been thinking about it for a while and last night I saw my opportunity.”
“Damn dude, that’s cold. How’d you get the guitar case out?”
“I slipped it out the bedroom window. I came back and got it later after you went to bed.”
“What are you gonna do with a bunch of puzzle locks anyway?” Frank asked.
“This dude approached me, and offered me some cash for your locks.”
Frank paused. Who would want his locks? A competitor? “How much?”
“They offered me five grand.”
Frank stepped forward. He was close to Brett now, only a few feet away. Within arm’s reach.
“That’s it?” Frank asked. “Five grand? You sold me out for five grand?”
Brett stepped up to Frank. “I was leaving town anyway. I needed a little more cash. But don’t act like we’re lifelong buddies. We’ve known each other what, six months? And you’ve looked down on me the whole time. You’ve always thought I was pathetic.”
“Give me the case and I won’t call the police,” Frank said. “I’m gonna beat the piss out of you either way, but I won’t call the police.”
“I’m not giving you the case. I’m getting my money and leaving town.”
Frank looked away for a moment and took a deep breath. How many times had Brett been in his home? How long had he been planning to betray Frank? “You don’t understand what’s happening here. I caught you. You are not leaving my sight until you give me the case.”
Brett chuckled. “No, you don’t understand. You want to live your weird little bohemian lifestyle in the mountains making artisan locks or whatever, go right ahead. Live your hippie dreams. I don’t want to live like that. I had a great life, and I want to make a new one. I’m leaving, so get out of my way.”
He shoved Frank. Frank stumbled back two steps and caught himself on the side view mirror of Brett’s car. He straightened himself to his full height and glared at Brett, with his middle age beer gut and that stupid backpack over his shoulder.
Frank lunged forward and drove his fist into Brett’s stomach. Brett’s breath left him with a whoosh, and he doubled over. The backpack slipped off his shoulder and hit the ground with a thud, and a dozen coins tumbled out of the bag and clinked onto the pavement. One of them fell against Frank’s right foot.
Frank glanced down at the coin. He paused, then looked at it a little harder. The coin was different than any currency Frank had ever seen. It didn’t feature the face of a historical figure. It didn’t display an eagle or the Statue of Liberty. This coin featured a different symbol—a broken clock.
Frank found it hard to look away from the coin. It held his gaze like a vise. It was suddenly hard to concentrate. Frank felt dizzy.
He heard Brett moan, and the coin’s spell was broken. Frank looked up at Brett, and he felt a fury like none he had ever known before. A single punch to the stomach? That wasn’t enough punishment for what Brett had done. Not nearly enough.
Frank looked to his left and there in the bed of his truck was his tire iron.
Frank picked up the tire iron, gripping it with both hands. The iron felt cold against his skin and the weight of the thing in his hand was pleasant. He raised the tire iron and brought it down hard on Brett’s back.
Brett collapsed, groaning as he wriggled on the ground. After a moment, he rolled onto his side and looked up at Frank, his body rigid with pain.
Frank shifted the tire iron to one hand. He raised it over his head.
“No!” shouted Brett. “Wait! I’ll tell you where it is. Just put that thing down!” He twisted onto his back and crab-walked backwards through the parking lot. Frank followed, not hurrying, the tire iron still raised above his head. Brett looked pathetic scooting across the blacktop like that. Frank felt numb and cold.
Brett backed onto the grass next to the parking lot, and kept going until he bumped against a sign. ‘Grayson Park: Hours 7am-7pm.’ Brett pushed himself up, using the sign for support. He held out of a hand in front of him as if to keep Frank at arm’s length.
Frank felt a fresh wave of anger flow through him. He reached back with the tire iron, then brought it around hard. It crashed into Brett’s temple, rocking his head to the side like it was on a hinge. Brett fell to the ground and moaned. After some time—Frank had no idea how long—he noticed the moaning noises had stopped. Brett wasn’t moving.
Frank stood over Brett, the tire iron still clutched in his hand, for what felt like hours. Eventually he heard someone scream, and a little while later, he heard a voice yelling at him to drop the weapon, to drop it or they would shoot. He absently wondered what they were talking about, and then he noticed the tire iron in his hand. It was sticky with blood.
With a great effort, Frank uncurled the fingers of his left hand. The tire iron fell to the ground with a clang.
The screaming voices told him to put his hands on his head, and he did. They told him to drop to his knees, and he did that, too. Then they were on top of him, throwing him to the ground. He felt handcuffs click on his wrists and wondered how long it would take him to escape from them if he wanted to. He didn’t want to, though. He wanted to lie there and die.
He looked over and saw his old friend Sean. Sean looked upset, and Frank wondered if he was having a bad day.

By the time they put him into the police car, Frank was starting to come back to himself. He didn’t fully understand what he had done—not yet—but he couldn’t stop hearing the meaty thud of the tire iron hitting Brett’s skull, feeling the jar of the impact in his hand, and seeing Brett’s dead face.

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