Posting for feedback. For those who have read this before, this chapter has been split up (so it’s about half the length) and there are some minor changes, but nothing integral to the plot. Thanks for reading!
I’m driving down the winding, snow-covered roads that run between our little valley farm and the highway into Flemingsburg, and our old Chevy truck is rumbling and racketing around me in complaint over the ruts frozen into the snow. The sky is clear at the moment, but the evergreens crowding the sides of the road are real heavy with last night’s storm. My breath comes out in these cold little puffs, freezing the lipgloss onto my lips.
It’s the first morning of Swedish Days, the big Founders Day festival, and I’m headed into town to sell some of our greenhouse produce. I figure with the kind of crowds that come in for the festival I could sell everything before lunch and still have plenty of time for me and my friends to get our fill of what the festival’s got to offer. This is our last year before some of us, at least, will be heading off for college, so we want to make the best of it.
The sun’s only been up an hour or so, and, other than the noise of my truck, everything’s real still and kinda otherworldly with the way the light’s shining on the snow like it is. I’ve got this thing I do where I squint my eyes real tight and then flash them back open again, and suddenly it’s like I’m in another time and place. Blinking my eyes now I find myself in the pilot seat of a WWII-era plane. One of those with only two seats but lots of cargo space. And I’ve got a co-pilot who’s real handsome. Like as handsome as Matthew Wolfe, this actor my friends Sara and Melodie are into right now. It’s stormy outside and dark and we’re bouncing pretty heavy in the turbulence and it’s all I can do to hold the plane on course.
“We can’t see where we’re going!” shouts my co-pilot over the noise of the engine. “We have to turn on our lights or we might crash!”
“We can’t do that, Harry!” I shout back as loud as I can. “We can’t risk being seen. We’ve got to get our cargo to the drop site by morning or the whole plan will fail. We’ll just have to trust our instruments tonight. Old Jinny’s gotten us through worse than this.”
I pat the dash tenderly with one palm but have to quickly grab both hands to the wheel again to stop from losing control of the plane.
“It’s not Old Jinny that I trust,” Harry says. “It’s you,” and the look he gives me makes me feel proud and warm all over, like the way you imagine a kiss is supposed to make you feel but then it doesn’t.
Melodie says I have a “wild imagination,” which I think is kind of a compliment. Other people spend a lot of time wishing they had what they don’t or that their lives were different than what they are. If I want something, I just imagine I’ve got it and then I’m happy enough. Maybe imagining those things isn’t as good as actually having them, but I wouldn’t know the difference.
When I get to the smooth asphalt of the snow-plowed highway, I blink myself into a spaceship. I’m on a leisurely scenic drive through the Jupiter region. I stare out my windows at all of the moons, greet them by name like they’re old friends. Only I don’t actually know any of the names of the moons so I just make stuff up.
“There’s Gorgilon,” I say with my cell phone up to my mouth like it’s some sort of recording device. “Its reds are looking particularly vibrant this year. Just like the old historian wrote, ‘The blood spots of Gorgilon seem to pulse, like cavernous windows into the heart of the fiery moon’.”
A couple times cars pass by me going the other way and I turn them into asteroids, saying into my recorder, “The asteroid count is low right now, but they may just be outliers from a larger field. I need to keep my eyes open.”
My stomach’s a little upset. This buzzy sort of static behind my belly button. Probably because of all the jostling of the truck after such an early breakfast.
“I can feel the forces of Magnitronius tugging at my innards. I’m keeping my distance. Many a traveler’s fallen victim to the power of that giant moon.”
The traffic starts to pick up a little bit the closer I get to Flemingsburg. The thing about Swedish Days is that it happens right in the middle of February, and it’s always cold in our part of Idaho at that time of year. Like, it snows pretty much every day. So you’d think there wouldn’t be much of a turn out. I mean, Flemingsburg isn’t the biggest town around or anything. Definitely not the most exciting. But people really flock in from all over the area. Maybe because, in spite of having both Valentine’s Day and President’s Day, February’s one of the most depressing months of the year and they need something to brighten up their lives a bit.
It’s the only time that our little town has a crowd, and that crowd is not small. I’ve come pretty early, and I’m still just barely able to find a spot to pull up alongside Fleming park where most the activities take place.
Before I get out of the truck I take some hand warmers and scrunch them up to get them working. I put them in my boots and in my coat pockets so I can shove my hands in there whenever they get cold. Then I step out into the chilly morning to pull out the crates of produce and set them up on the snowbank by the sidewalk. Across the side of the truck I stream this big sign I spent pretty much all night on.
When I was first making it, I planned for it to say just “ROOT VEGETABLES!” I put my heart and soul into that thing. Painted little pictures of beets and potatoes and happy people with their mouths open getting ready to eat everything. But like most of my artistic efforts the thing failed pretty bad. Turned out looking more like people screaming and being attacked by giant slugs.
I didn’t have time to fix it, though, so this morning I just added some words at the bottom to make it seem like I did it on purpose: “ROOT VEGETABLES WARD OFF GIANT SLUGS.”
I call out to people as they pass, “Watch out for the giant slugs! Protect yourself with these sweet potatoes!”
Some people go way out of their way not to look me in the eye, but a lot of people grin back at me and stop to go over the selection. Our produce is pretty good so most of them actually buy something too. I’ve sold-out close to all the crates by the time Logan calls me and says he’s gonna be here soon.
Mom’s into what people call “subsistence living” and she always says, “We don’t own this farm to make money,” like it’s a badge or something. So I take her at her word and I just start giving out that stuff for like ten cents a pound, and after a group of old ladies gets done picking through everything I’ve only got one beet left. I give that to a couple of kids with pellet guns who want to use it “for target practice,” and then I pack all the crates back into the truck and fold up the sign. With a quick peak in one of the side view mirrors to readjust my beanie and fix my hair, I start off toward the center of the park where Logan and I are supposed to meet each other.
He’s not exactly the most handsome guy in the world. It’s not like Flemingsburg is full of gorgeous guys anyway, and Logan falls right about in the middle of the Flemingsburg scale. But he’s real nice and he’s funny and he likes to listen to my stories. So I’m pretty excited as I’m scanning the park for his scruffy red hair and his goofy cowboy boots he always wears. Nobody our age wears those things and kids tease him about it, but they were his grandpa’s boots and he’s proud of them no matter what anyone says, and I like that about him.
That fuzziness in my belly has spread to my arms and my left leg, right under my skin like that weird sort of tickle you get if you stand too close to the screen on an old TV. I jiggle my arms a couple times, kick out my leg like I’m shaking the snow off my boots, but the feeling won’t go away.
The morning’s pretty far gone now and the park is full. Everybody’s packed into these narrow lanes of shoveled concrete, sandwiched by the three-foot high banks of snow that rim all the festival activities, and even though it’s probably only ten degrees above freezing right now I start to feel pretty hot. Hot enough my scalp’s gone all sweaty and my fingers feel about twice as thick. For a second my vision even starts to swim a little.
Snatching off my gloves and hat, I swerve off the path real quick so I can rest against one of the rough picket fences that was thrown together for the festival, leaning with my elbows tucked between the fence’s wooden peaks and trying to act like I’m not having to struggle real hard to breathe.
The fence itself surrounds the big sledding hill that takes up a good portion of this side of the park, and up at the top of the hill I notice this old guy dressed in a real distinguished-looking wool trench coat and a bowler hat. By his skin tone I’m guessing he’s probably Indian or Pakistani or something, and he’s got this silver mustache that drips down almost to his belly and a bow-tie that’s as deep a grey as the sky.
In Flemingsburg—even during Swedish Days—you notice a man like that.
He’s gripping one of the rental sleds in his hand and he’s eyeing the slope in front of him like it’s some sort of abyss or something. I watch him as he sets the sled down on the snow and then sets himself down on the sled the same way you’d sit on a dirty park bench. He pulls the sled’s rope into his hands nice and tight for a second and breaths in real deep, scanning all of us who are watching from the fence line.
For a second I could swear he zeroes right in on me, just staring me straight in the eyes. He gets this big grin on his face as he lets go of the rope with one hand and pulls his hat off, exposing this real bald knob of a head. Then, swinging that hat above him like a flag, he lets out this battle cry you could probably hear all the way in Boise and pushes himself out onto the slope alongside an army of little kids and teenagers.
Real fast his battle cry turns into something more like bloody murder. He’s not going down any quicker than anyone else, but with that hat waving all frantic in the air and his mile-long whiskers whipping out behind him like some old lady’s dress, he sure gives off the impression of speed.
I can’t pull my eyes away from the guy. Not even after he’s slowed safely to a stop at the bottom of the hill, his mouth still half open in a memory of his shout and his posture still real precise and prim. This time when he turns his gaze on me, I know for sure it’s me he’s looking at. These dark, smiling sort of eyes staring right inside me, and I get this feeling in my chest like this man knows me. Not like I’ve met him somewhere before and just forgot about it or something, but like he’s always known me. Like he will always know me.
I stand up real straight then, my gloved hands wrapping themselves tight around the top of the fence’s picket slats at the same time that my shoulders are trying to turn my whole body away from the guy. It’s like even my instincts don’t know what to do with this situation. I mean, you don’t go around having those sort of feelings about people every day.
The man’s standing up, walking toward me. He could be taking his sled back to the rental booth further down the fence, but he’s still looking right at me so I doubt it. He’s got this sort of tentative smile that’s just begging for a smile in return. He seems innocent enough with his hat tucked between his slender hands and that face of his that makes me wonder if he’s somebody’s grandpa and what would it be like to be that kid, but I just keep thinking about how many times Mom’s warned me about strangers. About anybody acting strange.
Living in a place like Flemingsburg, it’s not a concern I’ve ever taken too serious but—and maybe it’s all that tickling under my skin right now—suddenly this whole day just feels real odd. Like the sort of day when you just know odd things are going to happen.
That man’s coming straight for me now. There’s no doubt he’s going to try to talk to me, and I get this jolt in my stomach just at the idea of it. With a flash of a smile at him that’s maybe a sort of apology, I turn real quick from the fence and slide back into the stream of people squeezing their way through the park.
When I glance back at the man, he’s not looking at me anymore. He’s stopped mid-stride with this serious expression on his face, and he’s got his head turned away like he’s searching for somebody else and like finding them right now is real important.
The momentum of the people around me is doing a pretty good job of swallowing me up into their flow, so I’m having to sort of crane around to catch a glimpse in the direction the man is facing, which means I don’t see the other girl until I’m nearly crashing right into her. She’s just standing there, all tall and sturdy, in the middle of the path as if this is exactly the place a person is supposed to be standing. Like the rest of us are being real rude by jostling her.
She’s turned away at first, but as I try to find a way around her she looks down at me all sudden, with this glare so forceful I kind of freeze in place and have to stare back at her. She’s real pretty, in a furious sort of way. Like every day of her life’s been one bad joke after another and she’s just waiting for this day to be the same.
“Sorry,” I apologize, even though I haven’t even actually touched her.
Her eyes just go real narrow and she lets them travel down to my toes and then back up again, nice and slow like she’s deciding if maybe she’d like to eat me.
I get this stupid grin on my face, all stiff and lopsided and probably showing exactly how scared I am. I sort of shuffle to my left, inching my way back into the stream of people without my eyes leaving her face. My instinct right now is to get away from her as fast as possible—before she starts chewing me out for staring or something—but with her eyes still steady on me I can’t make myself look away until I’ve been swept around a curve in the path and there are enough people between us to block me from her view.
My stomach’s beating as if it’s taken over the duties of my heart and I’ve got this weird tightness at the back of my throat that makes it feel like I’m going to puke pretty much any second. Probably the run-in with that girl just now has something to do with it, but I figure maybe also my blood sugar’s off. It has been a while since I ate.
I know there’s got to be a food truck around here somewhere and while I look for one, I play this focus game Mom does with me. “You’re a secret agent during World War II,” she says. “You’re walking the streets of Berlin looking for your contact. Everyone around you could be your enemy. You have to watch for any possible sign that something isn’t normal. Tell me what you see.”
I start listing everything in my head. An older woman moving along the fence with this real thin, hungry-looking face and a glazed look to her eyes as they pass over me. A couple boys my age near the ice sculpture display, arguing real intense about something under their breath. A guy wearing a T-shirt and a pair of shorts and this forced grin like he’s pretending real hard that these were smart clothing choices, though, that’s not exactly strange behavior. There’s always a couple kids like that at Swedish Days.
When I see the hot chocolate stand, I figure that’s close enough to actual food. You can get these Swedish-themed flavor add-ins like cinnamon lingonberry and stuff, and the owner of the place always dumps in loads of marshmallows. But the truck is a pretty popular one and, with this many people, there’s never a proper sort of line. If the sidewalks seemed packed, waiting in front of the hot chocolate truck is like being suffocated to death in the fumes of other people’s breathing. I’m regretting deciding on hot chocolate as soon as I’m far enough into the crowd to make it more trouble than it’s worth to fight my way out of it again.
The buzzy tickle’s all over my body now, even my tongue. When the people in front of me shuffle forward a few inches, their steps make them sway a bit in a way that, for a second, makes me think maybe my vision’s gone all swimmy again. Then I notice that the guy next to me is standing way too close. He’s dressed like some sort of lumberjack or something, in this hunting cap and a flannel coat and a cowboy shirt and lots of dark brown facial hair. He looks like someone wearing a hick-town costume, like it’s some sort of a joke. But he’s still real good looking and he’s got these real pretty blue eyes, and probably I wouldn’t be bothered at all by him if it weren’t for how interested he seems to be in me.
Not like he’s staring too hard or something, like he thinks I’m cute. I don’t think he’s actually looked at me even once, but it’s like I can just feel the weight of his attention. Like if this were a cartoon, he’d be leaning way into me and his ear would’ve gone real big and listeny and it’d be right in my face.
Maybe my imagination is getting the best of me, but Logan’s always digging up these news stories about perverts rubbing up against girls in public and stuff like that. “It’s a sick world out there,” Logan likes to say, as if Flemingsburg isn’t even on the same planet as the rest of the world, which I guess it practically isn’t. But who’s to say that none of those creeps would ever come to Swedish Days, and who’s to say that this kid isn’t one of them? Right now I’m just really not in the mood to let some freak get his kicks off of rubbing himself all over my arm or leg or something.
In fact, with my head all fuzzy and my guts topsy turvy and my sense of reality a little foggy maybe, it’s real easy to make myself believe that that is exactly what this guy is trying to do—even if there hasn’t actually been any rubbing. The creep is just waiting for the right opportunity, probably.
Which is why when we get to the service window of the truck and I see him stretching his hand out toward me, I realize a second too late that he really might just be reaching for some napkins. My reflexes are pretty quick, and my hand is around that guy’s wrist before either of us really knows what’s happening.
He’s obviously pretty startled by it, but not as startled as I am because as soon as I touch him something happens that is definitely not my imagination. Where my fingers are wrapped tight against the bare skin of his wrist there’s this feeling like static electricity biting and jumping between us, pushing into my hand and crawling up the inside of my arm.
I look up into his face and see that his eyes have gone as wide as I bet mine are. Then, with the force of an explosion or something, the electricity’s just torpedoing through my whole body. All these tiny shocks surging in my veins and, at the same time, a thousand images rushing into my head at once. Shapes and colors jumbling together into these visions of people and places, none of them things I recognize and none of them lasting any longer than the switch of a light.
The kid doesn’t look shocked anymore. Instead, he’s looking at me with all that interest I thought I might just be imagining from him before.
Next: Chapter 2
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