“Go on, students. Be bold. Have heart. These next four years of your life will decide the next fifty.”
And with that, the dismissal bell rang aloud, announcing unreturnable freedom at last.
“Class of 1978, you’re dismissed!” Mrs. Callahan’s perky face lit up.
The eighth graders swiftly leaped to their seats, some even cheering as they pushed their chairs into their desks and sprinted like a mob for the exit.
Neil got to his feet casually, his mind far from summer vacation. His backpack slung over one shoulder, he couldn’t help but walk over to Mrs. Callahan. Knowing it was the last time he was going to see her- at least, reliably- he felt he should tell her goodbye. After all, she was his favorite teacher.
“Hey, Neil,” the young blonde woman smiled, cleaning up her desk.
“Hey, Mrs. Callahan. Just wanted to say thanks for being such a good teacher. And talking with me after school and all that. It…” he curled his fist awkwardly. “It helped.”
“Of course, Neil,” she nodded. “You’re Rachel’s son, and I know she’s busy. And Hank’s son, too. It was my pleasure.” Neil nodded. He was about to leave, but she asked, “Excited for summer vacation?”
He didn’t know how to reply. His hazel eyes fell to the floor.
“I’m glad to be out of school for a couple months. But…”
She tilted her head, smiling knowingly.
He blushed. He refused to make eye contact with her, embarrassment sweeping over him.
“Neil, it’s nothing to be ashamed about,” she chuckled, erasing “Congratulations, Class of 1978!” off the board. “You’re a boy. She’s a girl. Boys have feelings for girls.”
“I’m not gonna’ see her for three months straight. Why does it have to be like that?” he couldn’t believe he was saying it. “Why is her dad so mean? I… I don’t want it to be summer, if that means I don’t get to see her the whole time.”
She was quiet for a moment. She seemed to be shocked that he finally admitted the way he felt. He always dodged the question of whether or not he had feelings for her. And finally, he owned up to it.
“Glad you finally told me. Look, Neil… Enjoy your summer. You’re fourteen. You’ve got four summers left. A lot’s about to change… So, relax while you can. Don’t let your summer vacation be spent wishing for something. In fact, that’s what your whole adulthood is for: wishing you could go back to today.” She wore a dry smile on her face.
“And, hey, you never know. Maybe you’ll see her around town or something. And there’s only two high schools in town. There’s a pretty good chance she’ll attend yours.”
They were silent.
“Did you ever tell her, Neil? How you feel?”
He didn’t have a response.
“I see. Well, listen. Maybe you won’t see her over the summer. But that means you have three whole months to be completely sure you want to tell her, and know exactly how you’re gonna’ say it.”
“Mm-hm. Thanks, Mrs. Callahan. Have a good summer,” he smiled for her, walking out of the classroom.
“Have a good summer, Neil…” she smiled back.
“No, dickbreath,” Terry shoved Neil, who almost fell off the sidewalk. “I already told you, Jane signed my yearbook. Stop saying she didn’t.”
Neil was smirking. “Show me tonight.”
“It’s at my house, you spaz!”
“Maybe you two should just change the subject…” Oz sighed.
Terry Bruckheimer was skinny, average in height, with a considerable overbite that his braces had failed to correct over the last two years. He had brown eyes and long brown hair that hung all around his head messily. His voice was cracking more often now as puberty hit. He was the mischievous member of the group, always concocting a scheme that Neil and Oz would usually decline, to then be referred to as “spazzes.”
Oswald Patterson, who was referred to by the group as “Oz”, was taller than most boys his age at 5’9”, with a lanky body and round spectacles over his dark eyes. He had dark brown hair, cut short and neat. He was adept in his element, graduating fifth in the school from Pembroke Middle School, but in social settings, he was a recluse. He and Terry frequently argued, but nonetheless couldn’t live without each other; Oz talked Terry out of plenty of horrible ideas, and Terry forced Oz to overcome his social anxiety on a handful of occasions, albeit typically against Oz’s will.
Neil Hart, seen commonly as the ringleader of the inseparable trio- though, Terry insisted he was the leader- was averagely tall, with olive toned skin and hazel eyes. He had short brown hair and a slight build from being on the football team. He had a lower voice than most of the males his age, and was the first in the group to get armpit hair.
He was quiet most of the time, but around Terry and Oz, he was much more open.
The three walked up 19th Avenue, their stomping grounds since they were old enough to be given permission to walk to Gordy’s themselves. Gordy’s was a gas station a mile up the road, a common hangout spot in the miniscule town of Pembroke, Nebraska. Nearly every Friday, Terry and Oz would stay the night at Neil’s house, and they’d christen their weekend away from school with a walk up to Gordy’s to buy soda and snacks.
Today, they were celebrating the first day of their summer vacation.
“So, Neil,” Terry smiled impishly, “gonna’ miss your girlfriend all summer, just like last year?”
Neil cut his eyes at him.
“Come on, Terry…” Oz sighed awkwardly.
“What?” Terry faced him defensively. “So he can make fun of me about Jane, but I can’t do the same thing to him? That’s called censorship.”
“I just… don’t get it,” Neil grunted. “Why is her dad such a jerk? Keeping her locked inside all day, every day. Like she’s in prison. What did she do to deserve that?”
The three whirled around as a car horn blared on the road immediately beside them, meeting the faces of two girls sticking their arms out the rolled-down window and calling, “Hi, Neil!”
Neil shuddered in embarrassment as the car continued down the road.
Terry crossed his arms.
“Hi, Neil,” he tried to talk as high as possible, but his voice cracked, causing Oz to chuckle. “Let me s**k your d**k, Neil. Oh, Neil!” he grabbed onto him, moaning.
“Get off!” Neil shoved him, and Terry sighed, “Yes, Neil, harder!”
“Terry,” Neil curled his fist.
“Stop being such a brat!” Terry laughed. “Look at you, whining about the only girl that doesn’t want to marry you. Stop being such a fricken baby.”
Neil started to feel slightly convicted.
“I don’t want all those girls. They’re all just, like… Come on, Terry. You know. They’re all fake. I don’t like any of them.”
“And Lily’s different? You don’t even know her, man. None of us do. Cause she doesn’t talk to anybody. Hell, back in sixth grade, we didn’t even know if she knew English. Remember?”
“It’s a shame watching you waste your summer away, sad you aren’t with Lily,” Oz patted his shoulder. “It’s not worth it. You said it yourself at the end of last summer: you weren’t going to do that again.”
“I know. Sorry. And, I’m sure you two are sick of me whining about her.”
“You got that right,” Terry nodded, patting his back too.
When they got to Gordy’s, a huge group of their classmates were sitting outside on the benches, laughing together and talking. “Mr. Blue Sky” by the Electric Light Orchestra was playing on a speaker both inside and outside the store. One of the girls ran up to Neil, yelling, “Neil! Thank god! You never signed my yearbook!”
“You’re still carrying it around?” he asked. “After school?”
“I know you come up here on Fridays,” she smiled. “I was hoping I’d catch you.”
Terry was speechless.
“Oh, but Amy!” he gasped melodramatically. “Did you remember the ring?”
She cut her eyes at him. “Shut up, Overbite.”
His eyes grew huge.
“Terry, Terry,” Oz grabbed onto him and pulled him into the store, Terry manically wiggling around, trying to escape his grasp but failing.
Once they were in the store, Neil said, “Sorry.”
“Whatever,” she chuckled. She handed him the yearbook, pointing at a large blank spot. “See? I left this spot just for you.”
He took the pen and the book. He handed it back to her a moment later. She excitedly looked at the page, hoping to find a note, but saw only his name written, leaving the rest of the blank space empty. Her chest sunk as he casually departed into the store.
“Ridiculous,” Terry grumbled, clasping a Coke in one hand and a bag of potato chips in the other. “She’s lucky I didn’t…”
Neil grabbed a Coke, and nothing more. Oz had a Coke and a chocolate bar. They walked over and set it on the counter. Since Oz got an allowance, he paid for their snacks every Friday. The cashier rang it all up, and after Oz paid, the cashier asked, “Want me to open those now?”
He got a bottle opener and popped the lids off all three colas, then wished them a good afternoon as they left.
They exited the gas station, walking past the group of students and feeling the weight of Amy’s stare. They walked behind Gordy’s and into the woods, sitting on logs. This was where they always spent their Friday afternoons.
Neil sipped his Coke, his mind still on Lily. He tried to forget about it, but he simply couldn’t. Oz munched on his chocolate bar, sipping at his soda, and Terry tossed his backpack off his shoulders, unzipping it and fishing for something.
To their shock, he pulled out a lighter and a pack of Marlboro reds.
“Terry!” Oz gasped.
Neil was wide-eyed.
“Aww, stop being a bunch of spazzes,” he couldn’t conceal his smile as he sensed their awe. “I smoke all the time.”
“Where’d you get those?” Oz demanded.
“From Robert. He leaves ‘em around his room all over the place. I’ve been stealing these for the past three weeks, just a couple at a time, so he won’t notice any missing.”
“You’ve smoked before?” Neil questioned.
“Yeah, Neil, did ya hear what I said?” he placed the cigarette in his mouth, seeming uncomfortable but attempting to play it off as he brought the lighter up to the tip.
He tried to light it, puffing at the same time, just like he’d seen his brother do. Sure enough, it softly glistened orange. He smiled proudly before inhaling. Then he launched forward, choking vehemently.
Neil burst into laughter as Oz ran to his side, panicking “Terry!”
“Get off!” he pushed Oz away, squinting his eyes and rebuking, “Just inhaled too much!”
He took a swig of cola, then smoked it again, and this time, he only slightly coughed. His eyes were watering.
“Hey, Neil,” he snickered, “look, I’m crying like you’ll be tonight into your pillow.”
Neil didn’t respond.
Oz sat next to him on the log.
“Still thinking about Lily?”
“I just can’t think about anything else,” he sighed. “Look. I know it’s stupid. We all barely know her, and she probably doesn’t know my name… but, I just can’t get her off my mind. It wouldn’t bother me this much if there was a good reason. But there’s not. She’ll just be sitting there in her house all summer long, doing nothing, and it’s just cause her dad is an a*****e.”
Oz nodded slowly.
“Yeah… It’s really unfair.”
“You think she doesn’t know your name?” Terry asked, crunching on a handful of potato chips. “No way. Everything at that school with a v****a knows your name.”
“You act like that’s a good thing,” Neil’s hazel eyes locked with Terry’s light brown. “It isn’t. All those girls are idiots. I don’t care about any of them. The only girl that won’t look my way to save her life is Lily. The only one that I wish would. The rest are an annoyance.”
“Dude, you’ve got some au… au…” he paused. “Oz, what’s the word.”
“Yeah, that. You’ve got some audacity acting like that. Oz and I can’t get a girl to look at us without screaming, but every girl in the school wants you and you’re gonna’ be all upset just cause the weirdest girl in town doesn’t.”
He felt a mix of emotions: conviction, annoyance at him calling Lily weird, and even empathy for Oz and Terry. In the end, he couldn’t deny that Terry was right.
“This is why I don’t like talking about this.”
“No, Neil, we’re your friends,” Oz replied. “You can talk to us about whatever’s on your mind.”
Terry rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Oz is right. Even if it is stupid.”
He walked over to the log they were sitting on, plopping next to Neil. Oz squinted as cigarette smoke got in his eyes.
“Lily’s weird. But it makes sense. You’re weird, too.”
“She’s such a mystery to me…” Neil whispered, his mind trailing off.
He imagined her vibrant blue eyes. He saw her wavy brown hair, done up with a blue bandana as spontaneous as her irises. She always wore that bandana. Her voice was as smooth as her olive toned skin, quiet, but full of diction, making every word she spoke carry gravity. She never spoke unless spoken to, but was always polite when she did. She was undoubtedly smart, graduating second in their class, and her mind always seemed to be on something more important than the rumors swirling through their eighth grade classrooms.
And there was no shortage of rumors about her.
She was mostly off the radar during elementary school, but when sixth grade began, people began to take notice of the fact that she was never seen anywhere except for the schoolgrounds, and didn’t like to speak with anybody. The most common rumor was that she was an alien, sent to earth to study the human populace. It also explained how bright her eyes were. Other rumors were that she was really an adult FBI agent that looked young enough to attend the school under the alias of Lily Brooks, and she was involved in an operation to catch Mr. Marvin, the eighth grade history teacher rumored to have slept with a student in 1974. They argued that the FBI kidnapped the real Lily Brooks, and the Lily they all knew now underwent surgery to look like her and replaced her sometime after seventh grade began. Some were outrageous enough to speculate that Lily was dead, and her spirit haunted the school, which is why no one ever saw her off the campus.
Regardless, to everyone, she was a total enigma.
Even more rumors pervaded about her mysterious father, who kept her locked inside after school and on the weekends. He was the only member of the community that didn’t attend church. He looked far too old to be Lily’s father, and he was rarely seen around town. He had a reputation for being mean and unapproachable.
“Do you guys remember that stupid year we were all in the choir at church? Sixth grade? And the pastor somehow convinced Lily’s dad to make her join too? Chick sounded like an angel.”
Neil was covered in butterflies as he remembered it.
“Yeah… The pastor said it was everyone’s duty in the church to participate in something, and so all the students had to be in the choir for a year, because we were too young to do anything else,” Neil recalled. “It was so stupid. But Lily being there made it so worth it. I can’t believe her dad let her. I can’t imagine what Reverend Clark said to him to make that happen.”
“You couldn’t really hear her in the group, but she got that solo,” Oz remembered. “Made Mrs. Anderson cry.”
“You know what I always thought was so weird about it?” Neil asked. “She wasn’t scared, or embarrassed. Like, she doesn’t talk to anybody… but it’s not cause she’s shy. Obviously. That’s what’s so confusing.”
“Everything about her’s confusing, Neil,” Terry shrugged, before smoking the cigarette. “She’s,” he coughed, “probably a ghost. I don’t know how she got off the campus for that. Ghosts evaporate in church, don’t they? So then she has to be the FBI agent.”
“Remember… her at the eighth grade dance?” Neil’s voice trailed off. “She was… I mean, that was the only time she ever wore makeup. She was… breathtaking…” he remembered her frilly blue dress that accentuated her sky-blue irises. “She just stayed in the corner, the whole night. I wanted to talk to her so bad. She’s the only girl that scares me.”
“Hell yeah, I remember that,” Terry grumbled. “Once again, every girl in the school wanted to dance with you, and you spent the night alone like us because you couldn’t get over Lily.”
They were silent. Neil stared at the forest floor. He took a sip of Coca-Cola.
“I know you want Lily,” Oz spoke carefully, “but, Neil… It’s just not worth it. You can’t see her this summer.” The words were crushing to Neil. “It’s how it is. It’s reality. So, just stop letting it bother you.”
Neil didn’t say anything, feeling a sudden fury well within his chest.
“It’s so stupid…! Why?! Why can’t I?!” he thought.
“All right, Neil,” Terry stood up, pacing in the clearing, “once again, I’ll do the thinking for you. You could spend your summer bitching about Lily… Or,” he faced him intensely, flicking ashes to the ground, “you could do something about it. We all know where she lives. And we know she sits in her backyard pretty much every night. So, you sneak out there one night, and you talk to her.”
“I… don’t know, Terry…”
“See? That’s why I’m not sorry for you. Cause you won’t do what you have to. Either get over her, or man up. But, god, stop moaning about it.”
“No, Neil,” Oz replied, “that’s not how it is. That’s a terrible idea. Get caught, and her dad will probably shoot you.”
Neil couldn’t reply. To his disbelief, he actually began considering it.
“You’re not… considering it, are you?”
“I… Terry,” he faced him. “You’re right. You’re totally, one hundred percent, right. Then, it’s settled. Tomorrow night… I’m gonna’ do it.”
“Seriously?!” Terry was speechless.
“Neil!” Oz gasped. “Don’t! It’s a horrible idea!”
“I didn’t think you had the balls, buddy!” he laughed, throwing his arm over his shoulder. “Right on! You’re really gonna’ do it?”
Neil slowly nodded, but then he resolutely stood up.
“Yeah. I’m going to.”
“Neil…!” Oz trembled. “Her father will kill you if he sees you out there! Besides, the only reason we even have to think she’ll be in her backyard is that poem she read five months ago! You can’t be serious!”
“No, you heard her,” Neil insisted. “When Ms. Larson asked her about the poem, she said it’s something she does every night. Or, almost every night. Whatever! She’s just trapped at her house all the time. What else would she be doing? Terry’s right… I’m never gonna’ see her, unless I do this. And you’re right, too, Oz… I said this summer wasn’t going to be like last summer. Well, it’s not. This summer, I’m gonna’ see her.”
“Oh, no…” Oz was terrified.
“Hell, Neil,” Terry avowed, “I’ll even go with you.”
“Of course. I’m so proud of you. My little Neily’s finally growing a pair. And, Oz,” he faced him, “you know you’re coming too.”
“Quit it with all the big words, dork. This isn’t the Pembroke Spelling Bee. We’re Neil’s friends. We gotta’ be there for him.”
“You know that’s not what this is!” he rebuked. “You’re just shocked one of us is actually going along with one of your horrible plans! And you want to sucker me into it too! Well, no amount of convincing-”
“Oz,” Neil cut him off. They made eye contact. “No one’s forcing you. But… you’re my best friend. You and Terry. And I would love if you were there with me.”
“I… I…” his shoulders sunk in defeat. “Okay. I’ll go.”
“You will?!” Terry cried, “Holy s**t!”
It was just past midnight. Terry and Oz were passed out in the living room, Oz on the couch, and Terry on the recliner. It had been a long night of pizza, TV, and talking while listening to the radio. Now, Neil was lying in his bed, the radio softly playing on the nightstand. All he could think about was Lily. That this summer would be different. That tomorrow night, he’d tell his mom he was going to a party. And then he’d go see Lily.
“And now you know I can’t, smile, without, you,” the lyrics hovered through Neil’s bedroom. “I can’t, smile, without, you! I can’t laugh, and I can’t sing-” he shut off the radio.
Now he sat in silence. He thought of Lily’s face.
His stomach filled with butterflies.
Like clockwork, the lyrics slowly came to his mind. He couldn’t help but whisper them.
“Another silent night I sit,
My eyes fixed on the stars.
I’m no longer on my back porch step,
But meandering on Mars.
Pulled into the cosmos by
The milky hands of twilight,
All my problems and doubts and fears
Stay on Earth by the wayside.
But, like waking up from a happy dream,
And just like the sun sets,
Eventually, I run out of air,
And have to return to Earth again.”
“That… poem,” Neil sighed. “I can’t forget it. It’s never left my mind, since that day Ms. Larson made us all read our poetry aloud.” He recalled Lily’s silky voice as she read it. It was intoxicating. “I’ve always wondered what problems, and doubts, and fears she was speaking of. She’s so quiet… I wish she’d confide them in me,” he whispered. “Or, I wish I could meander on Mars with Lily…”
He took a long, deep breath. He remembered how most of the class cited the poem as evidence that Lily was an alien, and how it perpetuated the rumor to a disastrous proportion. He couldn’t believe so many people were afraid of her, or thought she was weird. He thought of her as perfect.
He was so excited that he just might see her tomorrow. He hoped desperately she’d be outside on her back porch step when they got to her house.
At last, just past two in the morning, he overcame his anxiety and fell asleep.
Oz’s and Terry’s parents picked them up the next morning. They all agreed to meet at Frost Park that night at eight o’clock. It was the closest landmark by Lily’s house, which was notoriously the only house in town built north of the park, off into the wilderness. This made her even more of an enigma, and aided in validating her rumors, since anything could be hidden out there.
Neil figured he wouldn’t have trouble convincing his mom he was going to a party. What did concern him, however, was getting her to drop him off. He was scared that when she dropped him off and saw no one at the park, she’d become skeptical. He mulled over ideas in his mind. At last, around five in the afternoon, she got off work. He found her in the living room. She was 5’5”, skinny and comely, but years of work and stress had aged her. She had dirty blonde hair and bright hazel eyes like Neil’s.
“I got invited to a party tonight,” he began. “Amy invited me. Would you mind dropping me off?”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down,” she replied, shocked. “Amy? Who’s Amy?” She waited excitedly for an answer.
“Just… a girl.”
“A girl?” she smiled. “Neil! Have her over sometime! Of course, I’ll take you. Why haven’t you told me about her?”
“Cause, that’s… not something boys talk with their moms about…”
“Uh, no,” she replied. “Smart boys talk with their moms about girls. Because, moms are girls. And we know what girls think.”
“Thanks for taking me. It’s at seven, so I’d like to get there at six-thirty. I like to be early.”
“Neil… You sure you don’t want to talk with me about her? Please?” she smiled. “For me?”
“I’m gonna’ get a shower,” he walked away. “Once again, thanks.”
He felt slightly empathetic, but as the usual aggravation returned, he shrugged it off. He walked into the bathroom, turning on the shower and hoping she wouldn’t continue the conversation later.
“Well, Neil,” she pulled into a parking spot, surprised no one else was there, “we’re here. Wow, it’s awfully empty.”
“I’m thirty minutes early, remember?” he climbed out of the 1968 blue Ford Bronco. “Thanks, Mom.”
“No problem!” she called as he walked into the park, not looking back. “Don’t do anything illegal!”
She waited in the parking spot. She wished desperately that he’d talk with her about Amy, and about the party. She wished he’d talk more in general. At last, she sighed, pulling away.
“Just like Hank… A closed book. He’s even really starting to look like him… Amy’s one lucky girl.”
“Bye, Dad!” Oz called as his father finally pulled away. “Wow…” he sighed, sweating as he walked over to Terry and Neil. “I lied to my dad… I… I’m ashamed of myself…”
“Don’t be a spaz,” Terry shrugged him. “This is the coolest thing you’ve ever done, Oz. Don’t ruin it.”
“I told him we were here to watch the stars… So, I guess it’s not totally a lie.”
“My parents don’t even ask me where I’m going anymore,” Terry shrugged nonchalantly. “I just tell them to drive me and they do.”
“What about last month when you couldn’t go to the skating rink because Deputy Burns found kids smoking pot in the bathroom.”
“Shut up, Neil! I said ‘anymore!’ Now, you stupid spaz, are we goin’ or not? Or did you wuss out already?” he walked up the park toward the forest.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this…” Oz grimaced.
“Come on, Oz,” Neil smiled. “It’ll be fine. I’m just glad you came.”
They found the only road that led into the woods. It was composed of soft white dirt. They stayed close together as they walked up the dark path, the sun having already set and shrouding the woods in darkness. The half-moon helped in lighting up the path just enough for them to see. Neil looked up from time to time at the shimmering Nebraska stars, wondering if Lily were watching them too.
Oz and Neil were nervous, each for different reasons, but Terry led the way undauntedly. At last, after thirty minutes of walking, a house came into view. It was two stories tall, seemingly old, and off in the yard was a latch leading to a tornado shelter. As they crept into the clearing, now standing at the edge of the trees, just feet from the front yard, Oz whispered, “What now?”
“I’ll run around and see if Lily’s out back,” Neil replied, shocked he was about to do it.
“And if she isn’t?”
“Then we wait a little while. Hope she comes out. If not, we’ll go back.”
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Oz explained. “It’s already 8:35, and I barely got my parents to let me stay ‘til 10:30. It took thirty minutes to walk here. So, I’d like to leave a little before ten to make sure we’re back on time.”
“Okay,” Neil nodded.
“Well?” Terry grinned at him. “You gonna’ check, lover boy?”
Neil stared off into the yard. Lily’s yard. He gulped. He ran out of the tree line, hoping desperately he wouldn’t get caught. Sure enough, he made it to the side of the house unseen. Now his hands were beginning to tremble. He hadn’t thought this part through. What was he going to say to her? What if he scared her, and she screamed? And what if she wasn’t there at all? Was he really just going to wait there for an hour in baited breath?
He swallowed his fear. He peeped his head around the house. His heart sank in disappointment as he found the back porch empty. He stood there a moment, feeling totally crushed. Still, as he studied the porch, he realized that right there in front of him was the very step she’d talked about.
It began to excite him.
Here it really was, the place where Lily sat and stared at the stars. He almost wished he could sit there. And then his heart stopped.
The sound of the tornado shelter screeching open echoed through the silent yard, and he sprinted behind the house, diving in the grass. He crept over to the edge of the house, peering at the tornado shelter now from the back.
He was even older looking than the last time he’d seen him, picking Lily up from school one day at least a year ago. He had long grey hair and grey stubble on his weathered face. He walked up the yard sullenly, almost zombielike. Neil noticed he didn’t relock the latch to the tornado shelter.
When Neil heard the front door shut, he sprinted back across the yard for dear life, feeling as if he were sprinting along enemy lines in a combat zone. He dove into the tree line, gasping for breath. Now he noticed Terry and Oz were quietly arguing.
“Absolutely not! Absolutely not!”
“Neil!” Terry beamed, whirling around and facing him. “The latch is left open! We gotta’ investigate!”
“What?!” Neil whispered hoarsely.
“This is the chance of a lifetime!” he grabbed Neil. “This is Lily’s dad we’re talking about! Who knows what’s in there?! A prison full of indentured slaves! Or maybe a torture chamber! Or a portal to Hell!”
“You’re insatiable!” Oz spat. “We came here with you, and now you propose this?!”
“Neil…!” he begged. “He left the latch unlocked! I guarantee you, we’re the only people who will ever see what the hell’s down there! Come on- you’re back! Which obviously means Lily wasn’t back there! Let’s make this whole journey worth it!”
“Terry, you idiot!” Oz was mortified. “You’re right! He left the latch unlocked! Which indicates he’s likely sure to return! What if we’re in there when he does?!”
“Please, Neil…” Terry was restless.
“Why… don’t you just do it by yourself, if you want to so bad? Terry, he might kill us if he catches us.”
“Maybe you’ll learn something about Lily.”
Neil was silent.
“Neil!” Oz panicked.
“You be lookout,” Neil faced Oz.
“Lookout?! And what am I to do if he comes back?! How will I warn you?!”
“You can distract him,” Neil replied. “Throw a rock at a tree on the other side of the yard. When he hears the sound, he’ll investigate, and we’ll know to get out of there.”
“I can’t believe this! This wasn’t part of the plan…!”
“We have to go now,” Terry grabbed Neil’s shoulder. “Ready, bro?”
“Damn the both of you!”
They sprinted across the clearing. Once again, Neil felt as if he were in the scope of a loaded rifle. They reached the latch, Terry flinging it open before Neil sprinted inside. He left the right side open, in hopes they’d hear the rock if Oz threw one. He knew it might be noticeable, but it wasn’t that bright outside, and hoped Lily’s father wouldn’t notice before Oz got his attention.
When Terry made it down the stairs, he crashed into Neil. He scrambled to his feet, about to cuss Neil out for pausing on the bottom of the stairs, but when his eyes fixed onto what Neil had been staring it, he froze too.
They stood in silence, studying the machine.
It was large, about the size of a car. It looked almost like a giant engine, but a primitive operating panel was present. On the panel was a lever, pushed up, as well as a dial, and four b*****s. What really stood out about the machine was a sort of antenna that stuck off the side, protruding six inches or so. It was aimed directly at whoever was standing before the panel. All around the room were parts and pieces of metal, as if the machine weren’t finished being built. There were also blueprints all throughout, and dozens of writings concerning the device.
“What… is it?” Neil whispered in awe.
“It’s a f*****g space ship…” Terry choked.
“It… doesn’t look like something you can ride,” Neil responded. “But… it definitely doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen on Earth.”
“Let’s look at the papers,” Terry walked over to one of the many writings sprawled around the shelter. “Dammit…” he scratched his head. “It’s like, calculus or something.”
Neil reached for a journal.
His heart sank.
The sound of a thick rock slamming into tree bark resonated into the shelter. Terry and Neil locked eyes, petrified. They sprinted up the stairs, peering out of the shelter as they noted Lily’s father’s shadowy form in the dark moving swiftly toward the backyard.
“Let’s go!” Terry cried, and they rocketed across the lawn, when they remembered the shelter latch was still wide open.
Terry spun around, sprinting back and shutting it carefully. At last, he darted into the trees, tackling Oz and Neil.
“Let’s go!” Oz shrilled.
They sprinted away into the woods, running like their lives depended on it. They didn’t stop running until they’d made it at least a mile.
Neil sat in church beside his mother. He wore his Sunday best, a brown suit with a dark green tie. His mother was dressed in a green summer dress. On his left was Terry, whose parents sat beside him. Oz and his family were in the pew in front of him.
The entire night, Neil had pondered the machine. It didn’t look like anything he’d seen before, even in comics or movies. What confused him the most was the antenna that stuck out of the machine toward the operator. All he could think about was the contraption.
Only one thing was certain: perhaps the rumors surrounding the Brooks family were farfetched, but they were definitely hiding something.
As usual, Neil’s eyes glided over to Lily, who sat with Mrs. Dubois toward the front. Mrs. Dubois, the most elderly woman in the town, was Lily’s ride to church every Sunday, as her father refused to take her. Every Sunday after the service, Neil wished he could talk to Lily, but every time, she’d end up in conversations with whoever approached Mrs. Dubois. By the time Neil’s mother had talked with everyone she wanted to, Mrs. Dubois was only beginning her Sunday ritual of catching up with everyone in town. And Lily stayed by her side like a lapdog, not attempting to make conversation with anyone on her own.
He couldn’t work up the courage to approach them, and the one time he did, Mrs. Dubois immediately began talking with him about school, not letting him leave until thirty minutes later, when his mother finally rescued him from the conversation.
When the service ended, Neil, Terry, and Oz walked out the side of the church, loitering outside like they usually did as they waited for their parents to finish mingling. The warm summer sunshine coated their skin, and they leaned against the building, still speechless from the night before.
Finally, Terry broke the silence.
“We have to go back.”
“Terry…” Oz was desperate. “We were almost caught.”
“Come on, guys…” he faced them sincerely. “This… that was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. I can’t even imagine what it was. Like something from Futureworld…”
“I… I don’t know,” Neil admitted. “We could get killed if Mr. Brooks ever caught us. Now we obviously know he has something to hide. And, what if we never get that lucky again?”
“I’d devote my summer to this,” Terry argued. “Guys, think of all the rumors! One of ‘em’s gotta’ be true! Neil, Oz, you saw that thing. We’re about to stumble on the biggest news story since Watergate!”
“Quiet down!” Oz panicked.
“Look, guys… Now that we saw that thing, we can’t just do nothing.”
“Yes, we can,” Oz argued. “We can definitely do nothing.”
“I’ll admit… I want to know more about it… But I just don’t think it’s smart, Terry,” Neil sighed. “It’s too much of a risk.”
“Pussies,” he spoke, just as the side door opened.
The three tensed up, mortified.
“Reverend Clark!” Terry gasped.
“What did you just say, Terry?” he asked.
“I… I’m sorry! Please, don’t tell my parents!”
The three were studying him like a deer in headlights. He sighed.
“I’ll let it slide, just this once. But you need to clean that mouth of yours. Shameful, especially outside a church.”
“Yes, Reverend,” he nodded gratefully. “I’m sorry. Won’t happen again.”
“Now, I’m curious…” he began to smile. “Why’d you call them that? Three young men, at the start of their summer vacation between middle and high school. I can only imagine what conversation I stepped into.”
“It’s… I just…”
“He wants me to talk to Lily,” Neil blurted. Terry was bewildered. “Yeah. Cause, I like her. Can’t you tell?”
Reverend Clark smiled, experiencing a halcyon warmth as he recalled his youth.
“Aww, I see… Yes, Mrs. Dubois does make that challenging,” he chuckled. “Well, Neil, I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but… of all the girls in town, Lily probably isn’t the best choice. Her father isn’t fond of visitors.”
“Yeah…” Neil sighed. “Reverend… Can you tell me something?”
“What is it, Neil?”
Oz and Terry wondered what he was going to ask. They waited curiously for his question.
“Why… is Mr. Brooks… the way he is? They say that pastors know all in a small town. You don’t have to get too personal or anything, but… I just wonder. Was he always such a mean man?”
“Neil…” he sighed. “Listen. That man gets a very bad rep. He’s been through a lot.” The three listened carefully, hoping he’d explain. “He served in World War Two, you know. And if that wasn’t enough, I’m sure you remember what happened to his wife, Rory, back in 1971.”
“I… I vaguely remember,” Neil responded. “A car accident, right?”
“A severe car accident. He and Rory were both in the car. They slammed into a tree one night, when they hit a deep pothole. His wife was killed, and he was seriously wounded. After that, boys… He just wasn’t the same. And who could doubt the man. He’s seen some awful things. I don’t agree with his practice of missing church, and I’m sure Lily isn’t a fan of being kept at the house all the time, but she’s all he has left. He’s filling the void his wife’s death left him with with Lily. You need to be understanding of that. It’s disgraceful, the things people say about that man. Calling him a serial killer, or a Martian. He’s a war hero. Like your dad, Neil.”
“Thanks for the insight,” Neil nodded. “Have a good day, Reverend.”
“The same to you three. And, Neil,” he smiled at him, “don’t let this bring you down. Going back in time is impossible. This is your only eighth grade summer. I remember standing outside this same church with my friends when I was your age, talking about nothing that matters now, my stomach grumbling for Sunday lunch. Enjoy it while it lasts.” He walked to his car, then called, “And watch your mouth, Mr. Bruckheimer!”
“Of course, Reverend!”
He drove off.
“He served in World War Two…?” Terry was shocked. “He’s gotta’ be like, sixty years old.”
“I… think Reverend Clark is right, Terry. Maybe he’s just a sad old man. I don’t know what that machine was. But it’s not our business. I’m not going to go snooping around in there anymore.”
Terry looked at the ground, defeated.
“Terry…” Oz smiled. “Some things are just better left alone.”
“I guess…” he sighed. “Whatever.”
Author’s Note: The ending part to this story will be published shortly! Thanks for reading!