CHAPTER THREE: CERTIFIED
Wendy Caulfield missed the Internet. It had been eight years and it seemed like she should be over it by now. And most of the time she was. She agreed with Zed and the others. It was better to have a world with more personal connections and less virtual ones. It was better to have a world where families talked during dinner rather than glancing at their iPhones every thirty seconds. A world where cyber-bullying and cyber-crime and online pornography were things of the past.
Still, she couldn’t help but miss it sometimes. Facebook. Twitter. Blogs. YouTube. Podcasts. The collected knowledge of human history a few keystrokes away. Sure, there was a lot of bad stuff and misinformation out there, but plenty of good stuff came along with it. She missed being able to take a five-minute break from working and hop over to CNN.com. And, okay, maybe Vulture.com too. Now she was left staring at Word and PowerPoint.
It was a better world the people of Rook Mountain had created for themselves, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t indulge in a little nostalgia now and then.
She sighed and pushed those thoughts away. She had to concentrate on this syllabus.
Wendy was just getting back into the groove when there was a rap on her classroom door.
“Come in,” she said. If this was Grace Harris asking for help with Excel again, Wendy was going to punch her in the face.
The door opened, and Becky Raymond stepped into the classroom. The city manager moved elegantly, sliding through the barely open doorway and easing the door shut behind her.
“Hi Wendy,” Becky said. “Do you have time to chat for a moment?”
“Becky, of course.” Wendy started to stand up, but Becky held up a hand.
“Please, don’t get up for me. I know you’re busy. I won’t take much of your time.” Becky walked to the student desk nearest Wendy and sat down. “How’s the prep going? Ready for another year?”
Wendy smiled. “I’m getting there. It’ll be a challenge with the restructuring, but we’ll make it work.”
“I appreciate that, and Zed does too. I know we threw you for a loop with the reduced classroom hours this year, but we feel that the students of the Beyond Academy are better served by having more time in the field.”
Wendy nodded. “I understand. I hope you know that reduced class time means we have less time to spend with the students who are struggling. It also probably means lower Certification scores.”
The smile was still frozen on Becky’s face, but her eyes went a shade colder. “The Board knows that we have the best teachers here. We ask a lot, but I think you’ll agree that we reward you well for your results. The Beyond Academy has a history of one hundred percent Certification of our graduates, and that can’t change. Otherwise, what are we doing here? We might as well send the students to one of Will Osmond’s night classes.”
“I agree. I’m not saying they won’t pass certification. I’m just saying you have to expect this to have some impact.”
“We understand that. And we are confident that you and the other teachers will find a way to mitigate those impacts. But I’m sorry to get off topic. I didn’t come here to discuss the schedule changes. I came to talk to you about one of your new students.”
“Oh? Which student is that?” Wendy knew which student, but she felt it polite to ask.
Wendy rubbed her arms. “Okay, sure. Trevor’s a bright kid. I’ve seen his test scores and his essay work is strong. Seems mature enough. I’m not expecting any problems due to the age difference.”
“The age difference isn’t my main concern. His family is.”
Wendy sighed. “Is it his mother the doctor that’s worrying you? Or his step-father who runs Zed’s certification program?”
Becky drummed her manicured fingernails on the desktop. “There’s no need to be a smart ass, Wendy. You spent a lot of time with his family in the Before. What do you think?”
Wendy fought to remain calm. This woman was technically her boss, one of them anyway. Becky wasn’t being rude exactly—she was interested in a situation into which Wendy had special insight. But Wendy had long ago grown tired of talking about her ex-boyfriend and his family.
“Yes, I spent time with the Hinkles. Christine and I were good friends. But that was all in the Before. Trevor was a baby. I’m not sure how I can help you.”
“I know. It’s not fair of me to ask. I guess I’m a little nervous. Here’s this kid whose father threw that little temper-tantrum after Regulation Day. His uncle has been in prison for most of the kid’s life. How will a kid like that will hold up under the strain of the Academy?”
“We’ve had kids from tough backgrounds before. You remember Marcus Yates? There were three Regulation Breakers in his immediate family. He managed to turn his life around in here.”
Becky smiled. “Thanks for saying that. I needed to be reminded of something positive today.” She tilted her head at Wendy and lowered her voice a little. “Can I bounce something off you?”
“Zed’s considering fast-tracking Trevor. He thinks maybe if he takes Trevor outside early in the semester, it might help get the kid in the right mental state. What do you think?”
Wendy sat up in her chair a little straighter. “You mean take him on a trek out of Rook Mountain?”
Students didn’t usually make their first trek until their second year at the earliest. Had a freshman ever been allowed outside? But there was only one answer Wendy could give. She spoke slowly. “Kids are different when they come back from their first time. Some of them have a hard time dealing with it. If Zed thinks Trevor is ready for that, I trust him.”
Becky smiled, showing her impossibly perfect teeth. “Good. I appreciate your honesty. One more thing I wanted to mention while I’m here. Frank is out of prison. Got out yesterday.”
Wendy suddenly felt numb all over. “How is that possible? He had years and years left on his sentence.”
“I oversaw the release myself. The Board thought he might be able to help us find his brother.”
“But—why now? After all this time?”
The smile fell from Becky’s face. “That’s Board business. I just wanted to let you know in case he contacts you.”
Wendy sat for a few long moments, trying to think of something to say. Nothing came to mind.
Becky stood up. “Thanks for the chat. Please let me know how things go with Trevor.” The city manager stood and walked out of the classroom. She did not shut the door behind her.
Wendy closed her book and rubbed her eyes. She wouldn’t get any more work done today. Frank was back and he was looking for Jake. Well, good luck to him. Wendy was the one person who knew exactly what had happened to Jake, and she wasn’t talking.
In another classroom across town from the Rook Mountain Beyond Academy, Will stood in front of a class of bored and vacant-eyed teenagers. They all aspired to part-time jobs in the Rook Mountain food service industry, but before they could take their proud places in the checkout lines or in front of the fry cooker they needed to pass the Rook Mountain Food Handling Certification Test. Will’s job was to get them ready.
“Okay,” Will said. “Renee and Brad, you role play the scenario. Renee, you are a customer breaking Regulation 14 at a grocery store, and Brad is the Food Service Professional who is going to stop you. Got it?”
Brad and Renee looked at each other for a moment and then nodded, signaling their mutual readiness. Renee took a deep breath and then began.
“Oh, man, you know what my family totally loves? Pepsi.” She spoke in a loud, theatrical voice. “The store sure has a lot of Pepsi this week. But what if they don’t have any next week? You know what I’ll do? I’ll buy, like, fourteen cases of the stuff today to be safe.”
A twitter of laughter made its way through the classroom.
“Okay,” Will said. “Good, Renee. Brad, she’s bringing her fourteen cases of Pepsi to the checkout counter. What do you say?”
Brad cleared his throat. “Excuse me, ma’am. May I ask you how many people are in your household, please?”
Renee put her hand to her chest and put on a shocked expression. She was in full-on drama club mode. “Oh, certainly, young man. It’s me, my super rich and handsome husband Jacques, and our three lovely girls.”
The class laughed again.
“Ma’am,” Brad said. “I notice that you have fourteen cases of Pepsi. That is over the weekly limit for a family of five. Can you please put twelve of them back?”
“Nicely done,” Will said.
Renee pretended to choke up. She wiped a mock tear away from her eye. Will really wanted a drink, and not Pepsi. “But what if you don’t have any Pepsi next week? My Jacques would be so disappointed in me!”
Brad held up a hand. “Ma’am, the Rook Mountain Resource Expansion team is hard at work even as we speak, gathering supplies for next week’s groceries. They won’t rest until we all have what we need. You have to trust them. Trust is a must.”
Will rubbed his eyes and reminded himself that he only had two more classes today.
“This is unbelievable!” shouted Renee. “How dare you deny me my rights! This is America. I’ll buy as much Pepsi as I want, and you can’t stop me, you fascist pig!”
“Okay, we probably don’t need the name calling,” Will said. “That was good, though, both of you. A round of applause for Renee and Brad?” The other students clapped half-heartedly. “At this point, Brad would call for his manager to assist with the situation. And Renee would probably be looking at a nice fine after all that fascist talk. Any volunteers to go next?”
Will loved asking that question. More to the point, he loved the silence that followed, the absolute peace in the classroom while every student tried to sit still and not be noticed. Back in college, they had taught Will to wait a full seven seconds after asking a question. At first, that had seemed like an eternity. Now he preferred to stretch it to fourteen. It gave him a moment to collect his thoughts. And this morning he needed all the moments he could get.
Last night had been rough and he hadn’t gotten much sleep. With the shooting yesterday and Christine finding the key, there would have been more than enough excitement. And then Frank showed up.
It was worrisome, Frank showing up the same day they found the key. It was too much of a coincidence, and Will didn’t believe in coincidences, not these days. How much did Frank know? And why had they let him out of prison? What had he promised them? Will trusted Frank, the old Frank, but who knew how nine years in prison could change a man? Frank hadn’t been there on Regulation Day. He hadn’t been there for what happened to Jake.
Will suspected that he and Christine had changed as much as Frank had over the last nine years. The old Will certainly wouldn’t have shot a defenseless human being on top of Rook Mountain for the purpose of keeping up appearances.
Last night Christine, Will, and Frank had kept the conversation light. They didn’t talk about Frank’s time in prison, or why he had been released. They didn’t discuss the shooting earlier in the day or the key Christine had found. They hadn’t mentioned the Regulations. They avoided these topics by unspoken, mutual consent. They had talked about old times. Frank had marveled at how old Trevor looked and had asked a lot of questions about the boy. It had been nice.
But they wouldn’t be able to avoid the difficult conversations forever. They would have to face them soon—probably tonight.
Will noticed a hand raised near the front of the class. “Yes, Jen? What is it?”
“I will,” the girl said.
Jen looked confused. “I’ll volunteer. For the role play.”
“Oh,” Will said. “Right, sorry.” Will focused on the class. He couldn’t let his attention waver, not now. The last thing he needed was a student mentioning to the wrong person that Mr. Osmond seemed weird today.
“Who else?” Will asked. He suspected a few of the boys would be more apt to volunteer now that Jen Durant had.
The last ten minutes of class went by without incident. Will took a long drink of his room-temperature coffee as the class filed out. He didn’t mind the temperature or the harsh, bitter taste. He’d need all the caffeine he could get for this next class.
Rook Mountain offered twenty-five Certification tests on topics ranging from heavy equipment operation to law enforcement, and Will taught prep classes for every one of them. He had little input into the tests themselves—the board of selectmen put those together. He just prepared the students. It was a job the old Will, the Will from the Before, would have hated. It was the very definition of ‘teaching to the test.’ Old Will would have complained about the instructional philosophy behind a system so test heavy. The present day Will drank his bad coffee and tried to make it through the day without breaking any Regulations.
Of all the Certification courses he taught, this next one was his least favorite. It was also the most popular. Resource Expansion Certification. The only Certification that gave the ability to leave Rook Mountain. Will had trained this class to over four hundred people. Four hundred in a town with a population of four thousand. Young and old, it seemed like everyone wanted to venture beyond the borders of the little town. None of his students had ever passed.
And none of the students at the Rook Mountain Beyond Academy had ever failed.
It was a source of constant frustration for Will. Unlike the other Certification tests, Will was not allowed to see the Resource Expansion test. He had only a vague idea of the topics the test covered. As the teacher, he was barred from taking it himself, and others who had taken the test were barred from discussing it lest they face jail time under Regulation 17. The Beyond Academy had three years to prepare their students for the test, and Will was sure the teachers over there knew what was on it. The deck was stacked against Will and his students. Those not selected for Beyond Academy weren’t meant to pass the test, and they never did.
Will actively discouraged folks from signing up for this Certification course, but most of them could not be deterred. They kept signing up, month after month, and Will kept teaching the curriculum designed by the board of selectmen, despite its zero success rate.
Will looked out at the class. It was the first day of this course, and they were eager. Hopeful. They’d all heard the stories about how difficult the test was, but they all thought they would beat the odds. It made Will sad to look at them. He wanted to tell them to go home, that it wasn’t going to happen for them.
Instead, he put on a smile, stepped to the front of the class and said, “Okay. Ready to begin?”
Frank hesitated at the bottom of the porch steps for as long as he dared, then trotted up to the front door of the house. The steps bent and groaned under his feet. The porch was badly in need of a paint job. A single artificial plant stood in a moldy planter near the door.
Frank knocked and waited. There was no answer, but he saw the living room curtains flutter.
He knocked again. He saw a dark, indistinct shape through the door's frosted glass window.
“Sally,” he said. “Sally, are you there?”
Again there was no answer, but the shape in the window grew a bit larger.
“Sally, it’s Frank Hinkle. I need to talk to you for a minute. It’s about my brother.”
He heard a series of clicks as deadbolts were released and locks were turned. The door opened three inches.
“Did they let you out of prison, or did you escape?” The voice coming from behind the door was low and raspy, but definitely female.
“They let me out, fair and square. I’m actually on assignment from Becky Raymond. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
The door eased open halfway, and Frank saw Sally Badwater for the first time. Her face was sickly thin and her hair clung to her head in stringy, greasy clumps. Though she was close to Frank’s age she looked at least ten years older.
“Damn Hinkle boys,” she said, looking Frank up and down. “I want to be left alone to do my business and you all keep bothering me. The devil take both of you.”
Frank cleared his throat and gritted his teeth. “What business are you in?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I’m curious why you're so interested. You never gave me the time of day back in high school.”
“I apologize for that,” Frank said. He shrugged. “I don’t have any excuse except that I was a dumb kid, and that’s no excuse at all.”
She stepped out onto the porch and leaned against the door frame. “I suppose we all were. You asked about my business. It’s photography. I do the usual weddings, senior pictures, and the like. The occasional boudoir type thing for an anniversary.” She winked at him. “I’ve been known to capture some other stuff too though. Scary stuff from you-know-where. Figure it’ll make me rich if we are ever allowed to travel again.”
Frank had no idea where ‘you know where’ was, but he nodded. He was still trying to assess Sally Badwater’s sanity.
She frowned at him. “I trust you won’t share what I just said with Becky Raymond? It might technically be against the rules.” Frank shook his head. “Good. They got lots of rules here now. They tell you about those?”
“Some of them. I hear we’re not supposed to leave town. Or sleep in the parks.”
She snorted out a laugh. “Yeah buddy, and that’s only the start. You want to do something, they probably got a rule for it.” She squinted at him again. “'Course, I’m sure they’ve got their reasons. Trust is a must and all that. What did you say you were doing here again?”
“I wanted to talk to you about Jake. About the day he spoke to you. Would it be all right if we went inside?”
She crossed her arms and glared at him. “No. Out here’s fine. And I already told the police all about what Jake said to me.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “I read the report. I’m wondering if there could be anything else you might have forgotten to tell the police. Between us.”
“I didn’t forget anything and I didn’t leave anything out on purpose neither. Jake kept it short and sweet. It was over in ten seconds. And I’m not dumb enough to hold back info about Rook Mountain‘s most wanted. Even if I did make out with him at some party in tenth grade.”
Frank sighed. “Okay. Of all the people in town, why did he pick you?”
Sally shrugged. “How the hell should I know? I hadn’t spoken to the man in years.”
“Have you thought any more about what he said? Does that thing about the quarry make any more sense to you now?”
“No,” Sally said. She pulled at the neck of her sweater as if it were choking her, although it looked two sizes too large. “Trust me, I’ve thought about all this. Why me? Why did he say what he said in the way he said it? I can’t make heads or tails though. How about you? Did it make any sense to you?”
Frank shook his head. “I have no idea what the quarry is or when he wants me to meet him.”
“What about the thing with the lock?” she asked.
Frank’s head snapped up. “What?”
“The lock. What he said about the Cassandra lock. Did that make sense?”
“Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.”
She snorted again, this time with frustration. “I thought you read the report.”
“I did,” Frank said. “But the copy I saw didn’t say anything about the Cassandra lock.”
Her face softened a little. “Guess they’re lying to you too. That makes me feel a little better about you as a person.”
“Sally, what did he say? Tell me exactly.” Frank felt the breath catching in his throat as he spoke. He had considered that this woman might be insane, that she hadn’t spoken with Jake at all. There were a million inside jokes and stories Jake could have used in a message that only Frank would understand. Why would he pass along one that Frank couldn’t? But this, the Cassandra lock… Sally had spoken to Jake. There was no doubt in Frank’s mind.
She licked her lips and spoke slowly. “He said, ‘Tell my brother to meet me at the quarry.’ Then he turned and I thought he was gonna leave. But he stopped like he had remembered something and he turned back. He said, ‘And if Frank comes, tell him to bring the Cassandra lock.’ That part mean anything to you?”
“No. Not a thing.” The lie came to his lips automatically and without thought. His mind was a million miles away.
“And the way he disappeared. I could tell the cops didn’t believe me, but I swear it’s the truth. He was there one second and gone the next. He didn’t run away. He just… vanished.”
Frank needed to get away. He needed to think things through. “Listen, I should go. I’ve bothered you enough. Thanks for your help.”
He turned and scurried down the steps before she had a chance to respond.
Christine read the letter for the fourth time.
“When were you going to tell us about this?” she asked.
Trevor sat across the dining room table from her. He looked miserable and frightened. Sometimes Christine could have sworn he was a grown man. He'd get that determined, mischievous look in his eyes, and he was the spitting image of his father. But right now he looked like a scared little boy.
“I’m telling you now,” he said.
“Yes, you are. Less than a week before the start of school.”
He squirmed in his chair. She let him sit in uncomfortable silence while she read the letter one more time.
“So there’s no registration paperwork I need to fill out?” she asked. “Or some kind of parental consent form or something? ’Cause I’m guessing we missed the deadline for all that stuff.”
Trevor shook his head. He looked relieved to have been asked a question for which he could give a solid answer. “No, Mr. Thorpe explained all that to me. The Academy is technically part of the Rook Mountain school system, so they pull all your paperwork from there. He said no one has ever declined an invitation to the Academy, so you don’t need to accept or anything. They assume everybody who got in is coming.”
“Well,” Christine said, her eyes still on the letter. “There’s a first time for everything.”
Trevor got quiet again.
“May I ask why you waited so long? Were you afraid we would say no?”
“I can’t help but notice that you waited until Will was at work before you brought this up,” Christine said. Trevor stared straight ahead. She reached across the table and took his hand. “What do you want to do?”
He looked up slowly, that shaggy hair he refused to cut hanging in his eyes. “I want to go.”
“Okay,” she said. “Tell me why.”
“I want to get out of this town someday. I want to see what’s out there.”
“Honey, you know what’s out there.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but beyond that. Out farther. Out of this state. Maybe even across the ocean, you know?”
Christine raised her eyebrow. “You know they don’t let Resource Expansion workers do that, right? They go as far as they need to in order to get what we need. Then they come back.”
“Maybe someday they will. You always said I should go after my dreams, right?”
Christine looked back down at the letter. “What about supplies? Dress code? There’s not a lot of information here, Trev.”
“Mr. Thorpe said they’ll cover all of that during orientation.”
“Did Mr. Thorpe say why they picked you? Was it your test scores?”
“Yeah, I guess that was part of it. Zed selects every student himself. He came to the school a couple of weeks after we took the tests. We had an assembly and he talked for a while and looked every student in the eye. It kinda creeped me out. But then the next day Mr. Thorpe gave me the letter.”
A chill ran through Christine. Zed had looked her son in the eye and liked what he had seen there. She let the silence linger for a moment. Then she said, “Youngest person ever accepted, huh?”
Christine smiled. “I’m very proud of you. I’ll talk to Will. And we will all discuss it as a family, okay?”
“Think he’ll be mad?” Trevor asked.
“No, of course not.” Will wouldn’t be mad at the thought of Trevor going to the Beyond Academy. He’d be terrified.
Christine reached into her pocket and touched the key she had taken from Jessie Cooper. She knew she would let Trevor attend the Academy. It would look too odd if she didn’t. No one had ever declined an acceptance before. She had no choice. It was a terrible risk, putting Trevor in that place, but Christine couldn’t think of a way to avoid it.
Things were changing, accelerating around her. The key. Frank showing up to stay with them. And now this. They would have to move up their timeline. They’d been taking it slow and playing it safe for too long. Trevor might start Beyond Academy, but there was no way in hell he was going to graduate from it. If things went as planned, this would all be over long before that.
Frank dragged the knife across the steak, sawing off a tiny piece. He wanted to savor every morsel of the rib-eye. He slid it into his mouth and closed his eyes. Without a doubt, this was the best thing he had tasted in nine years.
“Dang, dude,” Frank said. “This steak is outrageous.”
Sean smiled. “Thanks. I dry brine them. That’s the key. People think it’s the way you cook it, but it’s actually the preparation that makes the difference. You like the beer?”
Frank set down his fork and took a sip from the frosty glass. His eyes widened again.
“I know, right? That’s Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. My personal favorite.”
“Man, what did I ever do to deserve all this?”
Sean laughed. “It’s your welcome home. What did you expect? I’m sure Will and Christine will have something at the house sooner or later, but I wanted to be the first.”
“Thanks, man,” Frank said. “So do you see Will and Christine much?”
Sean shrugged. “Not as much as I’d like, but we get together every once in a while.”
“How about Todd? You still tight with him?”
Sean set down his silverware. “Frank, I’m sorry to tell you this, but Todd’s dead. He died about eight years ago.”
“What? No. What happened?” Todd had been a friend. He’d been closer to Jake than to Frank, but it was still a shock to hear he had died.
“He was shot. They say Jake did it.”
A chill ran through Frank. “No way. I don’t buy that for a second.”
Sean furrowed his brow. They both took a few more bites of steak.
“Did Christine and Will talk to you last night?” Sean asked. “Did they give you the run down on, you know, the Regulations and everything?”
Frank shook his head and answered mid-bite. “No. We kept it pretty light.”
Sean sighed. “Well, as the first to officially welcome you home, I guess it falls to me to give you the lay of the land.”
Franked nodded. He had been dying for someone to come right out and give him some answers rather than hinting around everything. He had intended to ask Will and Christine last night, but things had been too awkward. “Thank God. Start at the beginning.”
“The beginning, huh?” Sean took another sip of his beer. “Well, you were here in the beginning. You remember Zed showing up in town, right? And the way people started going to listen to him talk in the park.”
“You kidding? My ex started following the guy around.”
Sean grinned. “That was pretty funny.”
“I remember him showing up on my doorstep too. Showing up on everybody’s doorsteps. What’s he got to do with what happened?”
“Maybe nothing.” Sean paused for a long moment. “Maybe everything. It’s not something people talk about, and honestly it’s not something I even like to think about. All I know is that when the bad things happened, Zed and his disciples got organized mighty quickly.”
“What bad things? You’re being vague again.”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ve never had to explain it before. It’s just something everyone knows.”
Frank let the silence linger. He wanted to give Sean the time he needed to find the right words.
“March 27th, 2014, we went to bed and everything was normal. We woke up on the 28th and everything had changed.”
“Changed how?” Frank asked.
“People were dead. Lots of people. There had been attacks during the night. I went on duty that morning and the dispatchers were already overwhelmed. We tried to contact Elizabethton to send some support units, and that was when we realized something was really wrong.”
“People were dead? What people?”
Sean took a deep breath. “Okay, it’s like this. Sometime during the night of March 27th, every person on the streets of Rook Mountain was killed. Torn apart. We didn’t know who did it and we didn’t know why, but fourteen people were ripped to shreds. Took awhile for us to even ID the victims. It was Christine who finally cracked that nut. We found what was left of the bodies in the streets. It looked like it had been done by wild animals. The meat had been stripped from their bodies.”
Sean glanced down at Frank’s steak. “Sorry. Maybe this isn’t the time.”
Frank set down his fork, his appetite shrinking. “No. Keep going.”
“You remember Kurt Hansen? Ty’s brother?”
Frank nodded. “Ty and I got reacquainted yesterday.”
“Kurt was one of the people they killed that first night. We found him on top of a squad car outside the station. Anyway, when I got to work it was chaos. Someone finally thought to call for help from an outside department, and that was when people started to lose it.”
“What do you mean?” Frank asked.
“Well, we tried calling Elizabethton and the call didn’t go through. That’s not exactly right. The call went through, but there was no answer on the other end. No voice mail either. It just kept ringing. We tried a dozen other departments and they were all the same. Our cell phones were down, and all we had were the landlines. Some of the cops at the station tried calling out of town friends and relatives, and there was no answer from any of them.”
Frank’s mouth felt dry. It had been filled with the savory taste of steak a few minutes ago, but that was forgotten now. “It sounds like some kind of coordinated attack or something. Like someone was trying to isolate the town.”
“Maybe,” Sean said. “As the day went on it started to feel like we were the last people left on Earth. The Internet didn’t work. All we could get on the TV was static—even the over the air local stations were gone. People started gathering around the police station and City Hall. They wanted answers and we didn’t have any to give.”
Frank wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “So you’re telling me that a bunch of people were brutally murdered in the middle of the night, and the next day Rook Mountain was cut off from the outside world?”
Sean smiled. “It sounds even weirder when you say it out loud. Don’t get me wrong, it seemed crazy that day too, but I was busy. I kind of took it in stride. I guess most people did. We eventually got everyone to go home for the night. That turned out to be a pretty good move. There were eight more murders that night. Again, it was all people who were outside. Four of them were cops. One was my partner Wes Dinsmore. He’d volunteered to pick up an extra shift.”
“I’m sorry, Sean.”
Sean nodded. “Thanks. The next day, as you might imagine, the group of people in front of City Hall was even larger. They wanted someone to explain what the hell was going on. No one could. Then he showed up.”
“He?” Frank asked.
“Zed. By that time, everyone in town knew him. He’d knocked on almost every front door in town. Most people thought he was a harmless nutcase, but he had a dozen or so loyal followers by then. Most of them were people in their early twenties. A lot of them came from rough backgrounds and were looking for something, you know?”
“So what does that wacko have to do with any of this?” Frank asked.
“He gets up in front of the crowd and starts talking about how he foresaw this. Saying that he warned the town.”
“Warned the town? How?”
Sean raised an eyebrow. “You said he came to your door, right? Do you remember what he said?”
Frank thought for a long moment. Then he remembered. “Holy shit. Are you saying that this dude actually saw this coming?”
Sean shrugged. “I’m just telling you what happened. I don’t know if he told the future or if he caused his prophecy to come true or if it was all a weird coincidence. But when he stood up in front of the town and said he had warned them, every person in the crowd knew exactly what he meant.”
Sean poured the rest of his beer down his throat. “There was a moment,” he said, “when it could have gone either way. For a split second, it seemed like the crowd might turn on him, blame him for what was happening. If it would have played out that way, I don’t know how it would have ended. Maybe we all would have lynched him or something. But it didn’t happen that way. Because, at exactly the right moment, Zed told us he knew how to fix it.”
Frank tilted his head. “He said he could set things back to normal?”
“No. He was very clear on that. He said life would never be the same, and there was nothing he or anyone else could do to change that. But he said he could stop the killings. He could protect us.”
“Did he say what he was protecting you from?”
Sean paused and looked away for a long moment before speaking again. “He didn’t have to. Many of us had seen the creatures by then. The rest had heard about them. It’s hard to describe, but I can tell you that he spoke with authority. I fully believed he knew what he was talking about, and so did everyone else. And then he pulled out this long sheet of paper and tacked it to the City Hall door.”
“What was it?”
“It was eighteen Regulations.”
“Huh,” Frank said. “So that’s how the Regulations started?”
Sean nodded. “Zed said that he could stop the killings for good, but that the town needed to agree to live by these Regulations. He didn’t ask for any elected office or any sort of title. He just wanted the vow of the people.”
“And the people agreed?”
“Yeah, they agreed. Wait, I’m trying to be honest here, so let me restate that. We agreed. I voted too. But, think about it, what was the harm? If Zed couldn’t protect us like he said, we were under no obligation to follow his rules. If he could protect us, well, maybe he knew what he was talking about and we should listen to him anyway.”
Frank whistled through his teeth. He wasn’t sure how much of this to believe. Twenty-two people dead in two nights? “What did these Regulations say?”
“They were well thought out, that’s for sure. Basically, they were the rules for sustaining a society in isolation. Stuff like how much food was allowed per person per day. How specialty fields like medicine and plumbing would be managed and sustained. How to go about getting gas for your vehicles and what to do if your vehicle broke down. But the most important Regulation was that no one was to leave town. Regulation 18 set up a plan for certifications.”
“Certifications for what?”
“They call them certifications, but most of them are more like exceptions. If you're certified for a certain Regulation, that means you're allowed to break it. Will runs that program, by the way.”
Frank ran his hand through his hair. He always did that when he was nervous. “And the people agreed to follow these rules?”
“Yeah,” Sean said. “They… we did. It seemed like a long shot, but we didn’t have many options at that point. So we voted to approve the Regulations. As soon as we did, one of Zed’s weird disciples came out of the crowd and handed him this little box. Zed said he needed a room with some privacy, so me and a couple other cops showed him to an empty office in City Hall. A few hours later, Zed came out and said everything was all set. He said no one is to go in that room and he asked us to lock the door.”
“So what happened after that?”
Sean smiled. “Nothing. Nothing at all. There were no killings that night. Or the night after that. Or in the eight years since. At least not in Rook Mountain city limits. Regulation breakers haven't always been so lucky.”
“So who killed those people?”
“It wasn’t a who. It was a what. The killings were done by these...animals.”
“What kind of animals?” Frank asked.
“We’ll get to that,” Sean said. “But to understand that you have to understand a little more about what’s happened to the town. With the killings stopped, the Regulations took on this holy significance. We started enforcing them even though they had never officially been passed into law. Regulation 18 says that anyone who knowingly fails to report a Regulation breaker is just as guilty as the one who committed the crimes. There were these in-depth investigations into who knew about which crimes and when they knew it.”
“That’s why you told me to be on the defensive?”
Sean nodded and then continued. “Zed’s disciples started getting elected into public office. It’s gotten to the point where no one outside of his inner circle has a prayer of being elected to the board of selectmen. Officially, Zed runs nothing. In reality, he runs everything.”
“People like Becky Raymond?”
Sean smiled. “Yeah. She’s got ambition, that’s for sure.”
“And my brother?” Frank asked. “What do you know about what happened to him?”
Sean shrugged. “On that, I’m not much of an expert. I only know what I’m told. He killed three people. Two police officers and Todd. Then he disappeared.” Sean tilted his head at Frank. “Wait a minute, is that why they let you out? Is it about your brother? Is it because of the thing with Sally Badwater?”
“Yeah. They want me to find him. If I do, I get to stay out of jail.” Frank took a long pull on his beer. “But I’ll tell you something. I know Jake, and there is no way he stuck around the scene of the crime. Maybe he did duck back into town to give Sally his cryptic message, but he is holed up somewhere else. If I am going to find him, I need to leave Rook Mountain.”
Sean held up his hand. “Whoa, Frank. That’s a really bad idea.”
Frank felt his face flush with anger. “It’s the only one I’ve got. I’m going to find my brother. He needs my help. And I’ll tell you something else. I wasn’t around to get brainwashed by Zed and his weirdo disciples. I never agreed to his Regulations and I don’t see why I should have to follow them. Jake’s hiding outside of town somewhere, and I’m going out there to find him.”
Sean sighed and shook his head. He grabbed the phone and punched in a number. Ice filled Frank’s chest. Had he misjudged his friend? Was Sean turning him in? Was he about to be sent back to jail?
Then Sean spoke. “Hi Christine, this is Sean. Listen, does your neighbor still sell rabbits? Could Will pick one up for me and bring it to the edge of town over on Dennis Cove Road? Frank needs a little demonstration.” There was a long pause where Sean did not meet Frank’s eyes. Then finally, “We're finishing up our dinner. Can he meet us in twenty minutes? Perfect. Goodbye.”
Sean took a bite of his steak and then motioned to Frank’s. “Eat up, my friend. We have somewhere to be.”
It was full dark when they pulled over to the side of Dennis Cove Road in Sean’s Subaru Forester. Will was already there. He was parked perpendicular to the road, the headlights of his sedan pointing into the woods fifty yards off the road. Sean eased his vehicle onto the gravel alongside Will’s. With the headlights of both vehicles pointed toward the grassy area off the road, it was lit up like day.
A wire-mesh cage sat on the ground next to Will’s feet. In the glow of the headlights, Will looked grim and uncomfortable.
Frank opened his door and stepped out before Sean had come to a complete stop. He raised a hand in greeting to Will. “Hey, roomie.”
Will nodded back to him. “So I take it Sean’s been telling you about the Regulations?”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “I’m not sure how much to believe, but he’s been telling me.”
“Good,” Will said. “Look, Christine and I should have been the ones to give you the rundown. I’m sorry. Things last night were a little…”
“Weird,” Frank said. “I know.”
Will nodded. “Yeah. Sorry about that. We’ll do better tonight.”
Sean stepped up beside Frank and patted him hard on the shoulder. “Will, your boy here has been taking this whole thing in stride. He hasn’t freaked out on me once.”
“Night’s not over yet,” Will said.
“That’s for damn sure,” Sean said. “But really, Frank, I’m proud of you. You seem to be taking this better than I ever would.”
“Thanks,” Frank said. “It’s all a bunch of crazy-talk of course, but bits and pieces of it make sense. This whole Regulation thing happened about the same time they stopped letting us prisoners have any contact with the outside world. Guess now I know why.”
Will pointed at something on the pavement. “You see that white line going across the road? That’s the town line. We are on the Rook Mountain side. Whatever happens next, do not cross that line, you hear me?”
Frank nodded. He heard a little chirping-like sound coming from the cage, and he bent down for a closer look at the rabbit inside. It was a fat little thing with long floppy ears hanging down on either side of its face. It huddled in the corner of the cage farthest from Frank.
“Cute little bugger,” Frank said.
“Don’t get attached,” Will said.
Sean patted Will on the back. “Thanks for coming out, man. Frank was talking about maybe leaving town. He said he wasn’t sure that the Regulations applied to him. I didn’t know how to explain. I thought maybe we needed to show him.”
“I figured it was something like that,” Will said.
Frank crossed his arms. He couldn’t help but smile at his two friends and their clandestine plan. “I’m game. This is the first time I’ve been outside after dark in years. Just seeing the stars is enough of a demonstration for me. Ain’t nothing better than freedom on a warm autumn evening.”
Sean grinned at Will. “He thinks he’s free now. Isn’t that cute?”
Will lifted the wire-mesh cage and walked toward the town line. “It’s like the old saying, I guess. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.” Will set the cage down on the white line. He put his foot on the back of the cage and slowly pushed it forward until it was completely on the other side of the line.
“Okay,” Frank said. “What’s supposed to happen?”
Sean put a hand on his arm. “Shhh. Listen.”
Frank watched the cage and tried to listen. He didn’t hear anything besides the oscillating whine of the cicadas. He stood like that for about thirty seconds, listening, but wasn't sure what he should be listening for. Then, under the cicadas, there was something else.
“Here it comes,” whispered Sean.
At first it was just one sound, like a man singing a wordless melody in the distance. Then it was joined by another. And then another. It vaguely reminded Frank of a Gregorian monk’s chant, except this tone was aggressive instead of worshipful. The pitch of each of the voices was different, but the notes of the song fit together into an unsettling and beautiful harmony. More voices joined the throng and the clamor grew louder. Frank tried to count how many distinct voices he heard, but he quickly lost track. He became aware of something else under the sound of the many-tuned song. It was a sharp snapping sound, a fluttering sound. It was the sound of wings.
Quick as a flicker of light, a shape appeared in front of the cage. Frank could see it all too clearly in the beam of the headlights. The creature was about four feet tall, and it was bone thin. It had a face of a bird and a large curved beak. Its bat-like wings reached from its shoulders to the ground. It had no feathers, and its skin, its beak, and even its eyes were all the purest white. Its beak was wide open and pointed toward the sky as it sang its song. Others of its kind soon joined it.
Frank stepped back and felt himself taking sharp, quick breaths. The creatures were less than five feet in front of him.
Will put a hand on his shoulder. “You’re safe. They won’t cross the town line.”
Frank forced himself to stand with the other men though his every instinct told him to run. He reminded himself that he was the stranger here and he didn’t know the rules. Will and Sean did. If they were confident in their safety, Frank should be too, right? He clenched his fists and stood fast, but his heart thumped so loudly in his chest that he felt sure the creatures would hear it and attack.
“What the hell are they?” Frank asked, his voice betraying his fear.
“Zed and his crew called them the Unfeathered,” Will said, “which I always thought sounded sort of lame. Most people call them the Birdies.”
“Both pretty good band names,” Sean said.
There were eight of them gathered in a semicircle around the cage. They were crowded in tight. The backside of the cage was flush against the town line, the line the creatures appeared unable to cross, so Frank had a clear view of both the cage and the Birdies.
The creatures stood stone still, their heads raised, singing their terrible song. All the beauty Frank had heard in it before was gone now. It sounded as much like a cacophony of screams as it did music. It grew louder by the moment, filling Frank’s ears and worming its way under his skin, making him feel unclean.
Frank turned to Will. “I thought you said things weren’t going to be as weird tonight.” He had to speak loudly to be heard over the singing. He heard the quiver in his own voice as he spoke.
“I guess weird is a relative term,” Will said. “I’ve seen a fair amount of these guys in the last nine years. I ain’t seen you once.”
Frank nodded, conceding the point.
As if by some undetectable signal, the creatures all stopped singing at the exact same moment. Silence ruled the night. Even the cicadas had gone silent.
Then, as one, they struck.
Their heads snapped into the cage, tearing into the mesh wire like it was wrapping paper. The rabbit huddled near the back of the cage, shaking violently. Soon the creatures had torn open a hole big enough to allow their beaks access to the back of the cage.
The creatures slowed then. The mad hunt for food was over and it was time to enjoy their meal. Their beaks still moved with an uncanny quickness, but they paused between each thrust, as if savoring the moments before the kill.
The one in the middle shot forward, its beak too quick for Frank’s eyes to follow. Just as fast, its head was back outside the cage, a strip of furred flesh dangling from its beak. The others quickly followed, tearing off flesh, then muscle, until the panicked rabbit was finally silent. Less than a minute later the rabbit was nothing more than bones on the bottom of the cage.
One of the creatures took a last half-hearted lunge at the carcass. The Birdie in the middle straightened up, shook itself off with a shudder, and launched into the air, cutting a graceful arch into the sky and back into the forest beyond the clearing. The others each gave an identical shudder, and then followed their brother into the night sky.
None of the men spoke for a long while.
Finally, Frank said, “Those are the things that killed all those people in town?”
“Yeah,” Sean said.
“They do that to anything that leaves town? Animal or human?” Frank asked.
Will said, “They come out quicker in the nighttime, but they’ll attack during the day too, albeit a bit more slowly.”
“There’s no way past them?”
Will and Sean exchanged a look. “There’s a way,” Will said. “Zed and his Resource Expansion team are able to venture out.”
“How do they do that?” Frank asked.
“We don’t know,” Sean said.
Frank thought for another moment. “Are all the other towns like this too? Are these things gathered around Elizabethton and Bristol and, hell, Washington, DC?”
“We don’t know,” Sean said.
“Why don’t they cross the town line?” Frank asked. “What exactly did Zed do to keep them away?”
“We don’t know,” Sean said.
“But we're hoping you can help us figure it out,” Will added.
IN THE BEFORE (PART 3)
A pounding noise woke Frank. It was as loud as a church bell, and he could feel it in his brain, his teeth, and his balls. He pulled the pillow over his head and tried to ignore it, but the noise didn’t stop. If anything, it grew louder.
Frank didn’t want to open his eyes. He knew the pain would be worse when he did. He wanted to drift back to sleep. He had been dreaming of the Cassandra lock. In the dream, he had finally figured it out. He’d discovered how to make it work.
But now he was awake, and he knew that the solution had been nothing more than a dream. The Cassandra lock was still a fantasy. He knew it would be perfect, but he couldn’t visualize it quite well enough to make it a reality.
It had been a rough night filled with liquor store moonshine, the stuff they produced for the tourists. It wasn’t only his raging headache that made him want to stay curled up under the covers. Getting up would mean coming into contact with three items he would rather not deal with: his text messages, his outgoing calls list, and his email. Wendy had broken up with him four days ago. He didn’t remember the events of last night too clearly, but he was certain he would see Wendy’s name on at least two of those three lists.
The pounding continued, and now a voice joined it. “Frank! You in there? You awake, buddy?”
Frank sighed. It was Brett.
It wasn’t that Frank didn’t like Brett. He enjoyed hanging out with him most of the time. There was something kind of cool about having three bachelors living in the cabins. There were many late nights of poker, whiskey, and non-judgmental slothfulness. Frank had never been to college, but he imagined this was what dorm life would have been like. It was the perfect environment for a recently dumped guy like Frank.
But Brett had boundary issues. He came over at all hours, and he never took the hint. He simply kept knocking and shouting until Frank opened the door. It had been that way even when Frank and Wendy were together. He had been meaning to talk to Brett about it, about how it killed the vibe a bit when Brett came knocking on the door wanting to play Madden when Wendy was over. But, Frank supposed, there was little need now. His nights could use a little filling, even if it was playing Madden with his socially clueless neighbor.
Frank tried to shift his mind to something more positive. Every morning he tried to think one or two positive thoughts before getting out of bed. Lately, it was getting harder and harder. This morning all he could think of was the Cassandra lock. He had the whole day in front of him without any plans. That meant he had the whole day to spend in the vacant cabin that served as his workshop. He was getting so close. A few more days and he would have it finished, he was sure of it.
Frank sighed and got out of bed. He glanced at the t-shirt and running shorts on the floor and then decided against them. If Brett wanted to talk to him so bad this early, he would get Frank in boxers.
Frank shuffled his way to the door and opened it, squinting into the sharp morning light.
“Hey man,” Brett said. “You up?”
Frank blinked hard. “Yeah. I’m up. What’s going on?”
Brett looked anything but remorseful. His face was straight, but a gleeful grin was beginning to peek through. “I wanted to make sure you were up. He’s here.”
“Well, mission accomplished—wait, who’s here?”
Brett’s grin widened. He was no longer attempting to hide it. “You know. That guy Zed.”
“Zed? The naked guy Zed?”
“The very same. I knew our turn was coming, I just didn’t know it would be so soon.”
Frank stepped back from the door and gave Brett a nod. Brett scurried inside.
“Okay,” Frank said, shutting the door. “Talk.”
Brett moved to the couch and sank into it. “About twenty minutes ago, there was a knock on my door. I figured it was you or Will. 'Course I heard you playing guitar and singing at the top of your lungs pretty late last night, so I figured it probably wasn’t you.”
Frank rubbed his eyes, trying to keep up with Brett. “Yeah, sorry about that. I was celebrating freedom.”
Brett waved him off. “No, it’s cool man. Anyway, I open the door, and there he is. He’s so tall that I have to crane my neck to look him in the eye. I’m not used to that. And he’s dressed in a long sleeve shirt, buttoned all the way up to the top. The shirt is one of those heavy wool jobs. He looks cool as a cucumber, though, I’ll tell you that. A man wearing that shirt on a day like today, and he isn’t sweating even a little? I’m not sure what to think of a guy like that.”
Frank walked to the bedroom and pulled on his shorts and t-shirt. “What did he want?” Frank called back over his shoulder.
“It’s like everybody’s been saying. He says he wants to introduce himself, but then he starts talking all weird, about blood in the streets and I don’t know what else. Guy’s a real loony, I’ll tell you that. He’s talking to Will right now, poor guy.”
Frank didn’t know if Brett meant Will or Zed, but he didn’t care enough to ask. He walked back into the living room and saw Brett fiddling with one of the locks he had left lying on the coffee table. Frank felt his face flush with anger.
“Dude. How many times do I have to tell you?”
Brett grinned at Frank. “What? I’m not hurting anything. I’m trying to figure out the trick.”
Frank took a deep breath. Every time it was the same. No matter how often he asked him not to, Brett always messed with his locks. His livelihood. And when Frank called him on it, it was always the same argument.
“They are not tricks. They are puzzles. And the ones I leave sitting out are the ones I’m working on. Which means they are not ready. You could twist something the wrong way and snap a tiny component as easily as snapping your fingers, and that would create hours of work for me.”
“Yeah,” Brett said, setting the lock on the table. “Sorry.”
Frank glanced up at the window and saw a large man in a black wool shirt walking toward his cabin. “Well, here he is. You staying for this?”
Brett chuckled. “No sir. I’ve had enough crazy talk for one morning. In fact, I think I’ll slip out the back.”
Frank waited until Zed knocked on the door. Then he waited a little longer. After a few moments, he shuffled over and opened the door.
“Good morning,” the big man said. His voice was soft and had a boyish quality.
“Hi,” Frank said. “Can I help you?”
The man smiled. “I am new in town and I’d like to introduce myself. My name is Zed.”
“Zed what?” Frank asked. Zed tilted his head at Frank questioningly. “What’s your last name?”
Zed waved his hand. “No need to be formal. You can call me Zed.”
“Okay, Zed. I’m Frank Hinkle. Pleased to meet you.”
Zed’s smile widened. “And I as well am pleased. Thank you for your warm greeting.”
“I’m just glad you're wearing pants.”
Zed’s smile didn’t waver. “Ah, you heard about my little episode. Not the way one wants to be introduced to one’s hometown. But what’s done is done, and now I am going around making my proper introductions.”
Frank leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms. “Can I ask you something, Zed?” Zed nodded. “Do you think it’s a little strange that you’re knocking on every door in town and introducing yourself?”
“No,” Zed said. “I think we live in a strange time in which common courtesy is perceived as odd.”
“Well, you call it courtesy. Some folks might call it a nuisance. In my experience, strangers who come knocking on doors are selling magazines, cookies, or religion. Which one are you peddling?”
Zed spread his hands out at his sides. “I am selling only myself. Rook Mountain is my new home. I want to know her, and I want her to know me.”
“Yeah.” Frank put his hand on the door. “Well, now we know each other.”
“There is a time coming, Frank, when you will need me. The world will spit out this town like a watermelon seed, and we will be alone. Death will come, first by night and later by day. That is when I will save this town.”
Frank squinted at the big man. “You’re going door to door spouting this nonsense? Scaring kids and old ladies with this?”
“Fear is sometimes a temporary side effect of truth.”
Frank had heard enough. “Okay. Good luck with your introductions. You’re really making a great impression.”
He moved to shut the door, but Zed looked him in the eye before he could. The smile was gone from Zed’s face. That stare held him like a vice. It was like a physical force, the way the man looked into him. He felt Zed’s gaze worming its way past his eyes and into the darkest corners of his mind. It was an invasion, and Frank’s stomach turned. He was powerless to look away.
Then Zed blinked and the spell was broken.
Frank staggered backwards, struggling to keep his balance. “What was that? What did you do?”
Zed smiled again. “It was very nice to meet you, mister Frank Hinkle.” He turned and walked away.