On Sunday morning, Jesse was suddenly awakened by a strange, muffled thump coming from somewhere nearby. With a bit of silence embracing both the time leading up to it and following afterwards, it was almost unworthy of his paying any particular attention. Still, isolated as it was, the sound was out of place, and that was enough for the teenager to stir, bringing himself out of his slumber. Subconsciously, he began listening again while he internally shook away the fog from his head, but once it had dispersed, he lay there frowning in annoyance. The sound did not repeat itself, at least not immediately, but he was forced to realize that the noise was definitely not normal. Glancing over, he saw Noah was still sound asleep, breathing deeply with a contented expression, which made Jesse grimace. He had already come to realize long before that his friend was a heavier sleeper, much like Benji was, where both were oblivious to the outside world from night until morning. Now, it seemed more so than ever. It was not something Jesse could fault his friend for, though. He, too, had acknowledged the feeling of security and contentment that enveloped them both when they slept near one another.
Jesse began wondering what it was that did wake him, though. Glancing toward the window, although the blinds were still closed, he could see the beginnings of the early morning light breaking outside. Being early December, he deduced the time was probably just short of eight, given the nights were getting longer, and the days much shorter. As that sank in, it made the teen frown even further. Before he could reflect on it though, he suddenly heard another sound, so similar to the first that had wakened him, that he turned sharply. Although muffled, it was clearly close by, and as he narrowed his sense further, it was clear then that it had originated from the direction of the window. Quietly, and with as little disturbance as possible for Noah's sake, Jesse extracted himself from the bed and stood up. In silence, he moved around to the other side of the bed, where he stopped and pulled open a single slat of the blinds before carefully peering outside.
Although the open-air world was overcast in a constant blanket of shadow both near and far, Jesse could make out a figure quickly retreating toward the rear of the lawn. Both lawns for the Cooks and McAllisters backed up to a dense tree line, marking the beginnings of a marsh dense with trees and wild-growing bushes that extended for several miles toward the Cumberland Lake. At first, Jesse thought perhaps his eyes were playing tricks on him, but as he blinked and concentrated again, there was no mistake in what he saw. Without a doubt, a shadowy figure dressed in almost total black was hurrying toward the rear edge of the property. When it arrived, it slowed considerably while moving along that outer edge, as if searching for something. Jesse glanced over to the teen still sleeping soulfully beside him. "Hey, Noah... wake up, bro!" he hissed, reaching out and shaking a bare shoulder.
Noah slowly opened his eyes, and was about to complain until he saw Jesse's naked body standing there. "Wh-what's going on? What are you doing up so early?" he muttered with a yawn, until he realized that something was amiss. "What's wrong?"
Jesse explained, all the while reaching down to the floor and picking up the clothes that both had dropped the night before. Noah, suddenly wide awake, pushed the covers back and pivoted onto the side of the bed immediately, following his friend's lead and pulling on his underwear. Within moments, both had their t-shirts and jeans on, and Noah quickly stepped over and searched his closet, before withdrawing two hoodies to guard them against the cold. In record time, with sockless shoes in place, they left the bedroom and headed quickly up the stairs until they reached the hallway and rounded the corner into the kitchen. Once through the opening, however, they suddenly halted when they found Allen seated at the kitchen table already, having a cup of coffee. "You boys are up early, wh-" the man began, but then stopped when he noted their look of apprehension. "Okay, what's going on?" he added quietly, now fully alert and setting his coffee down upon the table.
"I heard a noise that woke me up, from outside our window, and when I went to check it out, I saw somebody out back running toward the woods," Jesse explained quickly.
Allen frowned. "Who? Could you make anything out?"
Jesse shook his head. "They were dressed in black mostly, but they had white shoes, that much I'm certain of. I... I thought I was just seeing things at first, but then they started going back and forth across the tree line."
"Did you see anything?" Allen asked, glancing at his son, who shook his head.
"I looked, but by the time I made it to the window, whoever it was had disappeared into the trees," Noah responded.
Jesse continued. "I know, it sounds funny, sir, but... it looked like they were searching for something, and then when they found it, they just pushed forward and disappeared into the trees." Closing his eyes, he paused briefly before adding, "They had a hoodie on, I think, not much different than what we have on now, except it was all black, or at least very dark. And... to be honest, I don't really think it was a girl. I mean, the way they ran and walked and everything, it... it just didn't seem like it would be a girl, you know? The way it walked and everything, it was just more like that way guys do, I think. I know that's not a lot to go on, because it was just beginning to light up outside and everything, but... It's just the way it struck me and all, you know?"
"It's enough," Allen reassured him. Turning to Noah, he issued a command. "Hall closet, fetch me a coat and get the flashlights out. There's at least two, and should be three in there." Noah set off instantly, but returned by the time Allen took his cup to the kitchen sink and rinsed it out. Turning to both teens, he hesitated. "You can come with me, but mind you - you have to do exactly what I say, when I say it. Understood? If I tell you to haul ass back to the house here, you do it - no arguments. Deal?"
"Deal," Noah responded firmly, with Jesse nodding his agreement beside him. Satisfied, the man then led the trio out the back door and toward the trees. Being outside, the light was better now than what Jesse had encountered only moments before. The dawn was still wakening in the east, but the layout of the land was much more translucent as the morning awakened. The first thing the boys noted, too, was the sharp change in temperatures compared to the day before.
The first thing the trio noted, however, was the sharp change in temperature compared to the last few days. "Brrr! Old man winter has definitely decided to return from his vacation, I think!" Allen quipped quietly, zipping his coat up even further. As the trio approached the rear of the lawn, Jesse slowed and glanced back toward the house, trying to size up their location. When the others slowed, the teen eventually pointed toward the right.
"I think it was more, like, this way where I saw him disappear, like down by that bush thingy," the teen whispered. Allen nodded and then took the lead, encouraging both boys to follow closely behind. They found that Jesse was correct, because roughly 20 to 25 feet further down the line, the trio came to a break in the groundcover that separated it from the other terrain. The entrance was almost imperceptible, and had they not been on the lookout, it could have easily been overlooked.
Allen stopped and stared long and hard into the growth, holding his hand up to indicate silence. When none of them heard anything out of place, he quietly took his flashlight and stepped closer. "It looks like there isn't anyone here now," the man said eventually. "That doesn't mean we should throw caution to the wind, though. Look there: that brush has been pushed away - which you can tell by the way it's leaning twisted toward the opposite side." They also found along the ground several sets of footprints, both coming and going, indicating it had been frequented recently, and possibly by more than one person. Allen squatted down to observe them up close, before glancing back at both Noah and Jesse's shoes for comparison. "They're larger, for certain." Just then, the man stood up. "Okay boys, come on - we're heading back to the house. We're not going anywhere in there without more backup. I'll call Sheriff, and we'll get James up, too. Then by the time we're ready to do this, there should be better daylight to navigate with."
Both boys glanced at one another, and then began following Allen back to the house. Once inside, the man motioned for them both to wait at the kitchen table. He had no sooner than disappeared when Jennifer appeared, wearing her housecoat and yawning deeply before taking note of her husband maneuvering around and retreating back into the hall. "What's going on?" she called out sleepily, but then became instantly alert when she noted both boys standing there, fully dressed.
Allen stopped and turned, calling back to her. "Jesse saw someone sneaking around outside and then running back into the trees. We took a little trip to investigate, and found where someone, at least, if not several people, have been making their way in and out of the thicket. I'm going to call Sheriff Hunt now and let him know," he explained, before moving on.
Jennifer's eyes grew wide. "You mean, you went out there, by yourselves? You... you took the boys with you?" she hissed. "Allen Cook, have you taken leave of your senses?"
"Mom! We-" Noah began, but then suddenly Allen was back and placed his hand upon his son's shoulder.
"We didn't pursue anyone, dear. Plus, I needed Jesse to show me where he thought they had broken through and disappeared. Besides," Allen paused, nodding toward the two teenagers. "Do you honestly think I could have kept them from sneaking back there eventually?"
Jennifer clucked her tongue, but then shook her head. "Probably not," she relented, but then waved both boys to sit down at the table. "Here, park your butts in place, and do not move from those seats unless you have to go to the bathroom!" Sighing, however, her tone softened. "I'll get some more banana bread for you to munch on for the moment, then make us all some breakfast."
As both teens did as they were told, Allen made a call through his cell phone and connected with a switchboard. Within minutes, he had been forwarded to Sheriff Hunt. "Jim? This is Allen Cook. Listen, the boys here made a discovery this morning around daylight, where they saw someone lurking around at the back and then disappearing through the thicket leading into the state park. We walked out there and found an opening, with footprints and markings. It looked like one or more people may have been using it as a way to get back into the woods." There was a pause as Allen listened, and then he nodded. "That's what I thought, too. It could also explain how the Haskell kid got away from you guys last night. You do know, I guess, that area back there - it extends some length before it ends up at the lake. I was thinking, do you believe someone might be camping, or...?" Another pause. "No, I don't know of any roads through there close by, but that's not saying much. We've never gone very far into it, since it belongs to the state reserve." Another long pause occurred, in which the trio could make out the telltale sounds of a conversation, but not necessarily the content. Before long, Allen began to nod grimly. "Sure, we can take a trek when you get here. I'll go next door and grab James, too. I know he'll want to join us. What do you think, a half-hour or so before you get here? A little longer? Okay, we'll be ready."
Hanging up, he passed along what he had learned. "He's going to call in a couple of deputies, and then we're going to see if we can follow the tracks and determine where they lead." He saw Noah's eyebrows shoot up, which made the man grunt again. "Yes, you boys may come along and help, as far as I'm concerned - BUT, my conditions still stand: you have to stay with me or James at all times, or with one of the deputies, and you have to do exactly as you're told to do. No exceptions, no excuses - otherwise your mother and Makalah will have our hides, but not before I'm done having yours. Understood?" A chorus of 'Yes, sir!' from both resounded throughout the room, but Allen paused as he turned to his wife again and waited. Jennifer did not look happy about the arrangement at all.
"Allen, what if... it could be dangerous!" she breathed quietly.
Allen gave it a brief consideration, but then shook his head. "We'll need all the eyes we can have, and that's one thing Noah excels at. I would venture Jesse does too, since he spotted and watched the man earlier. They should both be safe enough though, as long as they stay with us. You heard my conditions, too. I won't let them venture out on their own, I promise. Right boys?"
"We won't leave your side, we promise," Jesse piped up.
Jennifer acquired a look of defeat before finally nodding. "Well, half-an-hour is not enough time to prepare and enjoy any kind of a real breakfast, but... I can at least get some oatmeal going. You'll have a few minutes you can enjoy it, along with some more of that bread," she conceded, before beginning to bustle about in the kitchen.
"You boys stay here; I'll be right back. I want to put on some warmer clothes and call James," Allen announced before he once again disappeared.
Approximately 40-minutes later, the family heard vehicles approach and turn into their driveway, at about the same time Jesse's father knocked at the back door. After initial greetings, the boys and their fathers moved out into the back yard just as Sheriff Hunt and three of his deputies walked up and joined them. After a quick exchange of greetings, the Sheriff turned to the teenagers. "Which one of you spotted this person?"
"I did, sir," Jesse replied, taking a small step forward before giving a brief account of how he had been awakened by a sound, which eventually led him to look out Noah's window. The Sheriff glanced back toward the rear of the property and then raised both eyebrows. "That's relatively impressive, I think, given it was around daybreak. Are you sure you didn't just dream or think you saw something?"
"No sir, I'm certain. First was the sounds that woke me up and then they repeated. That's when I looked out and saw a man in a black hoodie, moving very carefully along the edge of the property back there until he reached a spot. Then I watched him make his way through it and into the trees. I could still make out his, I don't know, kind of outline I guess, against the background and everything," Jesse responded with confidence.
The Sheriff nodded. "I don't guess you could really make out who it was though, could you?"
"He was too far away, sorry. Plus, he had his hoodie pulled up and over, so I really couldn't make much more out, other than his shape and how he walked," Jesse explained.
"What do you mean? Was he, like, chunky, or a heavy-set person? Or was he like a skinny individual?" the man asked, his eyebrow raised.
"Um," Jesse hesitated, thinking. "He wasn't skinny, but... not fat either." The teen shrugged. "All I know is, he was... well, hurrying along like a guy does and everything, and... it just didn't strike me it might be a girl, you know? And... he didn't, like, have a bulge or anything up here, either," he added, taking his hands and holding them to his upper chest. The teen blushed, but the men chuckled afterwards.
"Okay, medium build, and more likely a guy, then. That's pretty good, I think." The lawman then turned his attention upon the group. "Okay, this is really quite simple - the boys will stay with each of you," he announced, nodding at Allen and James. "and you'll each be accompanied by a deputy. Let's just set that up now - Chester, you go with me, Josh you go with the McAllisters, and Freddie, you with the Cooks. That'll make three groups, so we can spread out somewhat at least. Once inside, be on the lookout for a trail and follow it. If we lose it, we'll separate - but no more than, say, 100 to 150 yards, to see if we can pick it up again. Mind you, it'll be pretty dense in there in places, and a lot of rocks and bluffs - so don't fall off one of those. Keep your eyes ahead, above, behind and around you. Watch for any movements, and if you find something and the rest of us aren't around, you drop to the ground and tag the rest of us on the radio. Got it?"
"Tag?" Jesse asked his father in a whisper, to which James smiled.
"He means make a quiet call," came the answer, which made the Sheriff nod as he looked on.
When the others agreed, they set out toward the back of the property once again, and in no time found the opening. Sheriff Hunt observed the spot carefully before nodding. "Yep, definitely more than one person has been using this. Not sure what to make of it, but just in case, be careful. From here on in fellas, try to be as absolutely quiet as you can." The others nodded in silence, and then each entered and made their way into the forested region of the park.
Jennifer was startled to hear a knock came from the back door, enough so that the woman turned her coffee cup over by accident. She clucked her tongue before standing, grabbing a nearby towel and using it to prevent the beverage from immediately dripping off the table. Chastising herself, she turned and headed to the door quickly, only to sigh with relief when the woman standing on the other side turned out to be Makalah, favoring her good leg while using the doorframe to prop against. "Oh, my goodness, get in here out of the cold!" she exclaimed as she opened the door and stepped back. "What on Earth would possess you to get up on that foot again and trek over here? What am I going to do with you!"
"I agree, that wind will knife right through you at times, I think!" Makalah remarked, hobbling past her friend while she shut the door behind her. Removing her coat, she then hung it on the nearby rack. "I take it you're probably as unnerved about all of this as I am," she stated calmly, ignoring the rest of her friend's outburst.
"And how," Jennifer replied grimly, leading them back into the kitchen. She stepped over to the sink and retrieved another hand towel, before working on cleaning up the mess at the table. "Enough so that you goosed me good when you knocked."
"Sorry about that," Makalah apologized. Before sitting down, however, she limped to the counter and picked up a cup from a nearby rack. "If it's alright, I could sure use a cup right now," she muttered, helping herself to the decanter and its' steaming brew. While she was at it, she poured a second one as well, before turning back.
"Help yourself," Jennifer replied, dropping a now thoroughly stained and soaked towel into the sink. Taking the cup offered her, she watched as Makalah hobbled to the table and sat down before she went on. "So, where's Benji? Is he still in the bed?"
Makalah nodded. "I made a very nice-sized note and taped it inside their door, that way he would see it when he got up. Knowing him, he'll sleep another hour at least, if not longer." Both women sat in silence for a moment, listening to eerie quietness surrounding them. "You know, I wouldn't mind this half as bad, I think, if it wasn't for the kids," Makalah voiced out loud before she took a deep breath.
"I know what you mean," Jennifer agreed. "I would have never thought that boy could hold such a grudge, either. I mean, Pete has been here a couple of times - more like just passing through than anything else. From outward appearances, I knew he was kind of rough around the edges, but at the same time he never gave me any indication of being someone so callous. At least, that's what we thought - until we heard a little more about his family. Or rather, more specifically, his father."
Makalah's eyebrows shot up. "That's surprising. What had you heard?"
"Mostly just little things here and there," Jennifer replied, sitting back in thought. "Like, one of the staff up at the college had overheard some students talking one day. Something about a man named Haskell, who got picked up for some sort of social misconduct on campus. It was suggested that he might have been trying to fence some drugs to the students, and honestly, I wasn't surprised - at least about the drugs. There is rampant use on campus, and the kids have to be getting them from somewhere. Still, I knew that name, but I didn't put two-and-two together for a while."
"What happened?" Makalah asked.
"Well, Allen and I both started hearing about some domestic disputes, coming from over near Knifley, and we sort of put it together it was Pete's place. Then Allen heard that Mrs. Haskell upped and left them several years ago. As I recall, that caused quite a stir."
"Wow," Makalah whispered. "I think... yeah, James and I heard something about that, too. He said someone came in up at the store and was talking about it."
Jennifer nodded. "Of course, we didn't find out about any of this until early this summer. That's when we tried to warn Noah that he needed to be careful, but... it was one of those wedges that ended up driving us further apart, I think. I mean, he thought of Pete as one of his closest buddies, see, and Noah - well, I think he resented our interfering. He believed we were just trying to get him to split with his friends, but of course it wasn't really that. We didn't necessarily expect him to just up and break away, but more like... you understand, we wanted him to be cautious. He didn't understand that though, and all in all, Noah stopped talking to us pretty much all summer. Unless we dragged him away for something, he chose instead to hang out up the road with his 'friends' and do his own thing, every moment he could get away. It was... unsettling, really. We could have put our foot down harder, but..."
"That's not your fault, you know," Makalah offered, but Jennifer looked up and scoffed.
"No, maybe not, but we didn't have to make it as easy as we did, that's for sure." The petite woman shook her head. "Allen and I were dealing with Noah on so many levels, though. Honestly, at times we were at our wits end. How you come down on a budding teenager, making his way through puberty, hormones and whatever else drives them, without alienating yourself - that's one of the hardest lessons some families have to learn, Makalah. We tried to raise him right, but... we lost him somewhere along the way, and that made it doubly more difficult, I think." She became thoughtful for a moment, before continuing. "When school started back up this fall, things got a little better, I guess. For a while, Allen and I started getting a little more aggressive, and we tried at least to make him spend more time with us. But... dark clothes followed a lot of moody mornings and nights. You saw how he was, at least when the tornado came through."
Makalah nodded. "Yes, we saw, but... he wasn't a lost cause, not by any means. I think that has to be because of you two. You were doing the right thing, and some of it was sinking in. Look at him now - he hasn't lost that heritage you gave him, so that says something very good, and very pure, you know? I know how you felt, though. I wish it hadn't been so rough, but at least it has worked out, right?" She set her cup down and looked straight into the eyes of the other woman. "You already realize it, I hope. Every parent has their battles of some sort, Jennifer. I'm no expert at parenting, neither is James - but even we saw you getting through to him, a little bit at a time."
Jennifer fell silent for a moment before responding. "I'm glad it's at least changed," she finally admitted, without giving herself any credit. Makalah, however, would not let it slide.
"Seriously, girl, lighten up. None of us can choose our friends for our kids. I mean, James and I may not have had the social problems, or the stubbornness you and Allen were dealing with, but we still had our own. For instance, did you know that Jesse, when he spoke, had a lisp in his speech? One of those speech impediment things. Supposedly if you catch it early enough you can divert it, but for us it wasn't easy. He went through with a lot of therapy sessions before he began to overcome it. Even now, if you listen hard enough, you'll still hear it from time to time. Oh, and Benji - he can't hear very well, and no one seems to understand why. He's not deaf, but he's far from hearing what most people can normally detect in the way of sounds. I've had him checked several times, even took him to a specialist, but even now we still don't have answers."
"No, I didn't know that," Jennifer admitted, almost whispering. "I admit, I have heard Jesse pronounce a few words oddly, like with an extra 's' on the end and all, but... honestly, I didn't think anything of it."
"We never did either at first, because James and I both thought he would just grow out of it. He got teased about it from the other kids though, back in elementary school. Although it never seemed to faze him, I knew it was creating this kind of low self-esteem image and all. It all turned out for the better, but..." Makalah shook her head before leaning forward again. "Listen to me, huh... I don't mean to minimalize, or even trivialize our problems and suggest they are on the same scale of what you and Allen have gone through. I'm just saying, I think all parents go through things at one point or another, some more minor and common while others more involved. I mean, you yourself talked about puberty and hormones a bit ago. You do know these two teenage boys of ours are on the cusp of getting ready to enter that world of dating, and girls and whatever else goes with it. In fact, I'm beginning to think it's already hitting Jesse somewhat."
"I know Noah is in it," Jennifer added wryly. "But... in all honesty, I think he's been very tame about it, so far."
"Same here, with Jesse. I mean, girls and sex and all that which goes with it, he's been very tame thus far, but his body is changing, and it's only a matter of time. Don't you see, though? A lot of parents have to deal with that battle, Jenn, and I suspect we'll have that come down on both of us, too... but, we can at least hope it doesn't have to come right away, you know? And not all at once, I hope!"
Jennifer giggled, but nodded. "I agree." She admired the woman who had become one of her closest friends. "It's like, we always want our little ones to stay as little as they can, for as long as they can, you know? Only, I think Allen and I have missed out on some of those last few precious moments with Noah. At least, for the last year or so."
Makalah reached across and took hold of both her friend's hand in her own. "Well, I don't think so. We still have a few more precious moments to come, and we can always watch and be proud of the right things they learn to do, both right and wrong for that matter. It's a part of growing up, see? I, for one, am happy to just be along for the ride."
Jennifer smiled and squeezed, accepting the show of strength and encouragement. "Yeah... Now, we just have to get through all of this with the Haskells."
"I think we will, but without a doubt, we'll have to be more careful now - at least until the one is caught," Makalah responded before letting go and sitting back again. Taking another sip of her coffee, she changed the subject. "Who spotted the man this morning? Do you know?"
"Yes, Jesse did. He said there was some kind of sound or something that woke him up, and he looked out the window and saw someone running toward the back of the yard," Jennifer replied.
Makalah sighed. "That kid of mine... It's a wonder anything ever gets by him," she remarked. "He will pick up on things like you wouldn't believe, and at times when you least expect it."
"That's a good thing, I think... isn't it?" Jennifer asked.
"It's a very good thing, although sometimes it is also very annoying," Makalah admitted. Both women stared at one another briefly before breaking out in giggles.
"Do I detect some reluctance or something there?" Jennifer asked.
Makalah grinned, and then started to explain.
Jesse discovered that the forest, as they had come to label it, was not a sparse woodland by any means. He and his father made their way as carefully as they could through the brush and terrain, but not without stumbling. In places, the ground gave way easily to let them pass through without issue, but in others, the teams had to climb over rocks, push branches and thickets aside, and navigate uneven and soggy territory as they continued following the trail. The air around them felt heavy and cold, and without their usual verdure of leaves so common in the spring and summer seasons, the trees did little to shield the moderate breeze that steadily moved down and around them. That was something Jesse eventually grew conscious of. Earlier, although cold, there had been a calmness in the weather when they were first awakened. As the morning progressed, however, the air currents seemed to pick up with more haste. More than once he paused to ensure that his coat was pulled tight and buttoned up properly, hoping it would at least insulate him until they could do better. Like Noah, the teen shoved his hands deep into his pockets when he could, since neither he or his friend had thought to don any gloves before leaving.
They followed the original path for about a half-mile or more, before arriving at an odd intersection. Aside from their own, there were five other routes that had presented themselves, converging in a natural clearing. Sheriff Hunt and his deputies studied the various trails, but found no obvious signs as to which might have been utilized most recently, or more frequently. After a short discussion, the Sheriff divided and placed each team upon three of the given paths, warning all to not stray any further than was necessary, and to report in over the radio every 15-minutes maximum. He told them if any path became obviously unproductive, to abandon it, return and try one of the two remaining trails yet unexplored.
As each team made their way along, no more than 30-minutes into the task, one of the deputies with Noah and his father announced that they had reached an overhang, with no obvious route to climb down and continue onward. As planned, they began retracing their steps with the intent to try the next trail in sequence. Other than the normal check-ins, the radios remained quiet for some time.
Deputy Josh Auburn, assigned to escort James and Jesse earlier, continued along their chosen path until they reached a large culvert, which crossed beneath a wide highway that ran several feet above them. The tunnel smelled putrid, Jesse thought, even in the cold of the winter season. They observed that some water was still making its way through the opening, coming from the far side, which made sense given the mix of heavier rains that had fell earlier in the week. Approaching, the team saw the trail obviously led through the entrance and into the tunnel, so both of the older men grunted as the trio stepped inside. Jesse found the culvert was large enough they could all stand if in single file, but they had to use care with their footing in places, lest they end up in the stream. About half-way across, all three noted the sour odor had become extremely stout, and as Jesse moved to pull his coat up over his nose, Deputy Aubin spied and pointed out the source: a skunk, half-submerged within a standing but dirtied puddle, was sprawled on its side in an unnatural way. It's rotting corpse, combined with the stench of its obvious natural defenses, had pervaded the air around it, and the morning breeze was carrying it further out of the tunnel. Once they glanced at one another, the trio picked up their pace and quickly left it behind.
Reaching the other end of the culvert, Deputy Aubin held up a hand and the group quietly stopped. The trail no longer extended into the growth ahead, but instead to the edge of the culvert, where they saw a path that seemingly climbed up the bank toward the highway. After a moment of listening, the deputy indicated to the others that they should wait, before taking the liberty to make the climb by himself. He was gone only a moment, however, before he returned and dropped back to the ground. "This leads up to the overpass all right, and there's a short strip up there where it looks like someone has been parking a vehicle. I even noticed one set of treads is fairly fresh, too, so likely they were left fairly recently."
James looked on thoughtfully. "So, it's possible our visitor may have actually come out this way then, and hopped in a car or truck to make his escape."
Josh nodded in agreement. "That's a possible theory, yes - provided he actually did come out in this direction. I'm sort of surprised, though. You see, this is the only real road that cuts through this neck of the woods, and it's only a service road at that. It's used by the Corps of Engineers to get access to certain areas along the lake, and down to the upper side of the marina. If I recall correctly, I think they keep it pretty heavily gated, so that the general public doesn't just up and get back in here. Not a lot of people know about it."
"But... there's no water in the lake now, is there? Doesn't the park service empty it out during the winter months?" Jesse asked.
"That's right, Jesse. It usually starts to be drained right after Labor Day weekend, and then closed back up beginning in mid-to-late March," the deputy replied.
"So, then I guess there's really nothing to use the road for now, is there?" Jesse mused.
The deputy raised his eyebrow. "Not necessarily. There are a lot of ravines and other natural inlets the Corps keeps cleaned out, and some maintenance buoys that monitor different things along the river. But... I admit, those probably are not looked at very often during this time of year."
"Do you think our 'visitor' could have come along here, then?" James asked.
"Well, someone has, but whether or not it's the person we seek is an unknown. Still, that is unless someone could be using the marina to hide out, so we can't discount that as an option. There's always a small portion of the water held back so that people can keep their boats and other equipment docked at the marina during the off-season." Josh looked about again before standing tall and stretching. "Well, we've reached as far as we're going to go here, I think. I suggest we go back out the way we come in. I know, it's a good 40-minute hike, but we may as well see if the others have turned anything up. As far as the marina goes, if I know Jim, he'll probably send some of us down to check it out before the day is up."
James nodded his acceptance of the situation. "I know I'd appreciate it," he muttered as the three began retracing their return back through the tunnel.
Almost three miles away, Noah and Allen had just topped a rise with their own escort, when the deputy suddenly held out his arm and stopped them. The three stood quietly as the man stared intently ahead, at some point further down the path. Before either of the Cooks could follow his gaze, however, the deputy suddenly dropped to his knees and pulled the other two with him. "Look, do you see what I think that is, over there... About 50-yards or so out, against that bank on the right?"
Allen followed the direction indicated and at first saw nothing special. He was about to comment on that fact when suddenly there was a movement that caught his eye. Seconds later, they made out the figure of a man, moving in and out of sight off the far side of the embankment. "Yeah, I see what you're talking about." He pointed it out to Noah, who nodded quietly.
Pulling his radio mike up, the deputy spoke in a low voice, "Jim? This is Freddie."
Almost immediately, a subdued response returned. "I got you. What have you got?"
"Not totally sure, Sheriff. We're, probably about 30-minutes along the second path, where we've topped a rise and saw some movement about 50-yards ahead. There is definitely someone up ahead moving about," Freddie explained.
"All right, just stay there! Our trail just came to a dead end, and Chester and I are already double-footing it back to the clearing now. We'll catch up to you as quick as we can. Do NOT, under any circumstances, go any further without backup. Understood?" came the orders, which Freddie acknowledged. He and the Cooks then backed away a short distance on the trail, to a better place of obscurity where they could watch both directions.
Twenty minutes later, they heard sounds of someone approaching from behind, and turned to see Sheriff Hunt and his deputy quickly arriving. Both were red-faced and gasping for air as they slowed to a stop, and each required a moment to catch their breath before they could speak. As soon as they were able, Freddie led his boss up the ridge, where they crouched low at the top and looked ahead. After a few minutes of observation, the two backed down again to join the others. "Okay, he's right... there is someone up ahead there. Chester, that slope to the south doesn't seem to be very steep. Do you want to see if you can slip around and come up from the other side, just in case? We'll give you a few minutes and then Freddie and I will move in from this side. We'll then confront them, as long as it seems safe enough, and see what we learn in the aftermath. You two," he paused, pointing to Allen and Noah, "just make yourselves comfortable right here. I don't want you involved if we can keep from it, at least until we've checked it out. Okay?" Both nodded in agreement before watching the lawmen as they all set off.
"Come on," Allen announced after a moment. "There's no reason we can't go up to the top here and at least watch them." Noah grinned, recognizing his father was just as anxious in discovering the thrill of the adventure as he was. Pulling his coat tighter around him, he shivered, but was ready to follow, regardless. It was something that Allen did not fail to notice. "I know, it's a lot colder out here than I thought it would be. We'll be home soon enough, though. Just hang in there."
"I'm fine, Dad, I promise," the teenager whispered back. Both father and son then crept the short distance again, dropping to their knees and settling in to peer ahead. They watched as the Sheriff and Freddie moved in cautiously. Before long, both made out an exchange of words in the distance as the two approached, but then nothing else. To his credit, however, the Sheriff stood in plain view from the path, and looked from time to time to be turning his head and nodding.
Some minutes had passed when Josh, Jesse and James suddenly appeared behind them on the trail. Leaving Noah to continue watching ahead, Allen backed away and filled the others in. Just as he was wrapping up, Deputy Aubin's radio came to life. "Josh, what's your current location?"
"Right here near you, Jim, having a chat with the Allen Cook," the deputy readily replied.
"Good! All of you can come on down here, then," the radio announced before going silent again. After a brief glance at each other, the five of them set out over the rise, and gradually approached where the Sheriff was standing and waiting to greet them. As they got closer, the deputy slowed in order to size up the situation, but then they could all hear the Sheriff call out. "Everything is fine, fellas. Come on in."
Upon arriving, Allen and Noah suddenly made out more of the details they had observed from a distance. The area was a flat clearing in a recess underneath a large overhanging granite cliff. Off to one side was a camouflaged tent, erected clearly out of view from the path, surrounded with various packs and coolers. A small camp fire burned low in front of the tent, and various cooking tins and other paraphernalia sat close by. Standing to one side of the tent was a balding, middle-aged man, with a reddish-colored beard that extended well beneath his chin. He gazed amusedly at the group as they approached, as if he found something humorous in the situation altogether. Behind him against the wall of the overhang, sat a long-barreled rifle, as well as two large backpacks.
Allen and James both sighed in relief, a distinct sound the teens had not expected. As they both glanced back, they saw expressions of relief. Sheriff Hunt noted it as well. "This here is Tom Bush, fellas. A somewhat local hunter and outdoorsman, but visiting us down from Indianapolis." The man then introduced the crew to the hunter, who nodded in acknowledgment. When the teens were introduced, however, they could see the man sizing them up scrupulously before continuing on. Jesse noted it, which caused him to frown just as Jim Hunt continued. "Tom says he's been down here for almost the last two weeks, right?"
"Yes sir, me and my brother. He left late yesterday to head on back home, so I'm alone at the moment," the man replied in a deep, measured voice. It was a friendly enough tone, but it was also one that was definitely guarded. The man stood relaxed, but his eyes were constantly shifting amongst his visitors, as if measuring them up as a group - or, at least, so Noah thought.
"I've checked his ID and all, and it seems he's got all the required permits and everything," Jim Hunt quietly passed on to his deputies, before acquiring a louder voice. "The reason I invited you four in here, though," he started, beckoning to the Cooks and McAllisters, "is because Mr. Bush here has just informed us about something you might find interesting. Would you mind filling it in for them, sir?"
"Sure. I understand you've been out here trying to track down someone you saw sneaking around your house, right? I was just telling the Sheriff here, that me and my brother have been hearing odd things all week long around here. One night, we heard a lot of racket off toward the lake, and decided to go check it out. Didn't find anything, but when we got back, we noticed the next morning some of our food and supplies were missing. Then, on another night, Randy - that's my brother - said he woke up and went out to take a leak. He was in the middle of doing his business when he saw a couple of flashlights or something, farther back on up the trail there. He said it looked like someone was approaching, so when they got a closer, he called out to them. They stopped though, as if they got spooked, and then ran away, moving back the way they had come. He chased them for a couple of hundred yards, but then the lights were shut off and he didn't have anything but the moonlight to go by, so he gave up and made his way back here."
"Could be our suspects," Chester murmured, which made the Sheriff cock his head to one side in agreement. When he spoke however, his team could see the man was now shifting his eyes more in the direction of his tent.
"I agree, could be, yes - but it could also be someone else who just didn't expect to find anyone out here, especially for the time of year and all." He turned his attention back to the camper. "Either way, I'd suggest you might want to vacate from around here, Mr. Bush, and soon," the Sheriff informed him. "Mind you, I'm not saying you have to do the proverbial get-out-of-Dodge routine, but there are some safer areas to do your hunting than being up against the ridge here. We've got an escaped teenager, a young man wanted for questioning for several events, and I'm uncertain if he has any friends involved or not. We don't believe him to be dangerous, but all the same, he's become problematic. Leave it be said, we'd all like to get some things resolved, if we could."
There was a momentary silence before Mr. Bush finally nodded. "Sure thing, Sheriff, I can do that. I was actually planning to pack up this evening anyway and head back north. I've still got a few things to collect and pack first though, if that's all right."
Glancing about, Josh observed the abundance of coolers and other campsite belongings. "Do you have a vehicle or something nearby?"
"Sort of, yes. It's parked over in Columbia, near Walmart. My uncle works there, Fred Moore, and he got permission for me to leave it a few days while my brother and I were out here," the man explained. "That way we didn't have to have two vehicles out here in the wild."
Although the man's story and reasoning were plausible, there was something about his demeanor that seemed off to the other deputy. Before he could continue, however, Freddie spoke up. "Say, did you have much luck hunting?"
"We had some, yes," came a rather quick reply. "Randy bagged a 10-pointer just a couple of days ago. That's the real reason he pulled out actually, so he could take his prize on home."
"And... he just left you out here, alone?" Sheriff Hunt asked quietly.
"Sort of, yeah. Like I said, there's a few things I still needed to take care of, such as breaking everything down, getting it packed away. Randy is supposed to call my uncle on his way out and tell him to come down here and meet me at Ballard's Point around 2:00 today. That's so I can hitch a ride back to my truck," the man answered casually, but Jesse continued to look on. Something about the man seemed awfully familiar to him, but despite his best efforts, he couldn't pinpoint it right away.
"I guess we could help you out," Sheriff Hunt announced unexpectedly. "We could give you a ride back up that way on our way out."
Mr. Bush, however, quickly shook his head. "There's no need, Sheriff. I do appreciate the offer, absolutely, but... I'll make out just fine," the man stated in a flat tone, his words suddenly becoming both forced and final. Seeing the reaction of the lawmen, however, forced the man to change his attitude by relaxing. "Seriously, as you can see, it's going to take me a little time to get things broken down and finished up anyway. Besides, Uncle Fred will be coming in, too. He'll give me a hand."
There was a sudden stare-down between Mr. Bush and the Sheriff, one that lasted some time as Jim Hunt tried to make a decision. "Very well," the man finally concluded, but then rose to his full height. "In that case, Mr. Bush, let's make it plainly understood: be sure you clear out of here, as expected, no later than late-afternoon. No dallying."
Mr. Bush raised both eyebrows in surprise. "Why, am I suddenly a target of the law or something? It's public property here... right?" he half-sneered before grimacing. "Okay, okay - I get the message!" the hunter replied, holding up both hands in defeat. Nothing more needed to be said, so the men parted in silence, with the deputies, McAllisters and Cooks following the others back down the trail.
When the group had trekked some 500 yards, Jim Hunt suddenly stopped and turned. "Do one of you boys want to volunteer here? I want to make sure he ups and leaves like he says he's going to, and pronto. Plus, I wouldn't mind knowing what the hell he's talking about, when he says he has a 'few things to collect'. There's no way he'll break all of that down and move it anywhere along the trail, if it's to be picked up in the time he says. Get my drift?"
"Yes, sir," Chester spoke up immediately. "I'll do it, Jim. Say, by chance, did you guys notice something else? There was no sign of any game back there at all, was there? None that I could see, that is. I mean, even if poor, older brother Randy did take everything away, a ten-point buck would still have been a massive weight to haul away, campsite or no, right? But from what I could tell, there was nothing back there at all that looked like any game had come in or left. I mean, no dressings, no cleanup, no leaves thrashed about, no real ground disturbed - nothing. I thought that odd, given how long he said they've been down here."
"True, and yes, I did notice," Jim replied. "He seemed to be somewhat decent at first, but boy, that demeanor of his sure changed in a hurry once the rest of you fellows arrived. Did you notice how long and hard he was looking at those boys? I don't think his story jives quite right, you know?" The Sheriff then shook his head. "Okay Chester, you have first watch. When I get back to the office, I'll send Phil out here as soon as he comes onto his shift. Keep your radio on, but use a low volume, you hear? See if you can find a place to watch him, but without getting caught if you can help it. I'll check in with you later in the day, as well."
"Got it, boss. One stake-out coming up," the man replied, before nodding to the rest of the group and retreating back in the direction from which they had just come.
"Hey, boss, if you suspected something, then... do you think it's safe to leave Chester back there all by himself?" Josh asked.
"Not really, but I'm going to need you and Freddie to check out that remaining path when we get back to the clearing. In the meantime, I'm going to take these boys back to their house, and then go check out this man's story on dear old Uncle Fred." The man then turned and walked on several feet, obviously in deep thought. The others followed in silence until he paused again and looked up. "I tell you what though, now that I'm thinking about it some more, that actually does make me a bit nervous leaving him here alone for so long. If one of you want to volunteer and stay with Chester, then go for it - but make sure you warn him you're coming. You don't need to spook that poor man and get inadvertently shot, if you know what I mean... right?"
The deputies chuckled before nodding. It was decided Josh would return and stay with the deputy in the stake-out. Bidding the two families a pleasant day, he turned and walked back, while the group then continued their trek in silence. When they arrived at the clearing where all of the paths crossed, the Sheriff wished his remaining man good luck, with instructions to stay in touch. As the man set off on the yet unexplored trail, the Sheriff escorted the remainder of the party back toward the house. "Say, Allen, you've lived here for some time, haven't you?" the Sheriff suddenly asked.
Allen nodded. "Practically all my life, mostly. Why do you ask?"
"Did you or your brother ever explore these back woods very much?" the Sheriff inquired, ignoring the initial question.
"Well, no, not really," Allen replied. "Dad used to hunt squirrels in here, quite a bit actually, while we were growing up, but for the most part he never took me or my brother with him. He told us there were all kinds of hunters and bootleggers in these parts, and that it was pretty rough land to up and get lost in. I guess we just kind of avoided it for the most part."
Jim grunted. "Can't say I blame you. If you think some of this was rough getting around in, you should see some of the other areas around the lake - especially with all the growth that comes in the spring and summer! There are places almost impassable, with gorges that suddenly drop off several feet when you least expect it, not to name the thick briar growths, inclines, poison ivy, snakes - you name it. I used to come out through here when I was a boy with some of the family, at least a few times anyway. We always drove down, oh...what was it? Hmm, I can't think of the which road it was right now, but it ran off the other side of the spillway, couple of miles upstream. We would always work our way back up in this direction, hunting coons mostly, although we'd sometimes go after squirrels, too, like your Dad did. Honestly though, I don't remember much of it that well. I just remember getting all those thorns and everything caught up in my britches! Especially between the legs - that made my boy-parts' life quite interesting a few times, I tell you!"
James and the boys laughed politely while Allen smiled. "I remember Pop telling us about some stuff like that, for sure. He'd complain, too, although I could never figure out how he got them all over or in certain places!"
Jim Hunt laughed heartily. "Oh, it happened easy enough! Trying to get through some of the brush and all, or climbing over logs or rocks, you could easily land in a briar thicket!" Just then, the group arrived at the edge of the woods and the entrance to the Cooks' rear lawn. Stepping out, they all paused to look back. "You know, Allen, someone has used this before over the years. I mean, those paths were well-worn, and that doesn't just happen with an occasional adventurer. Now technically, there is nothing legally wrong with that part of it, as it is part of the Cumberland reserve, and for the most part it's open territory. There is still the fact though, that whoever uses it would have to trespass on your property back here, in order to get to this trail at least. You see what I'm saying, right? There is no easy access other than coming down either of your lawns, or from Bailey's field over there."
"I know what you're saying, yes," Allen replied. "I've already been thinking we might want to run some sort of fencing back here, at least across the span of our lawns. I understand it might not be that big of a deterrent, but... it might at least be a little better than nothing." He then glanced at Jesse. "We might even put something up with light-colored highlights, too. That way, if some certain boys, or anyone else for that matter, happen to be watching out back here, they might see certain types of things with a little more clarity for clues in the future."
Jesse blushed as he understood the implication of those words. "I'm sorry, Mr. Cook. I really didn't mean to stir anything up."
Allen placed a hand upon his shoulder and squeezed it gently. "No, you misunderstood. As far as I'm concerned, you were right. Exactly how you came about even seeing that person in the first place, I don't have a clue - especially given all of this terrain back here. Regardless, though - I needed to know about all of this, period. It's like the Sheriff said on the phone this morning, this may have been how Pete actually got away from everyone last night, if it was him."
The Sheriff nodded. "I'll make sure to let the rangers know about it, too. Like I said, there's nothing outright illegal about it, but... it is a bit unusual. At least enough so that I've got my eye on it for the time being." He grunted and then nodded toward the houses. "I see Tim Harper, yonder. He's another one of my deputies, photographing the damage to your water outlets and all. It shouldn't take him but a few minutes and then he'll be out of here as well."
"We appreciate it, Jim," Allen replied as the group started walking again.
Sheriff Hunt glanced at his watch. "One more thing: I'll call the water company on my way back in. It's late enough to not disturb their beauty sleep, which will go a long way in talking them into taking care of those faucets for you. In the meantime, I'll be in touch if we turn up any new information." With that, the man shook hands all around and then started for his car.
Allen glanced at James. "I don't know about any of you, but my gonads are nearly frozen, along with my fingers and toes. What say we all go get warmed up, and then go have ourselves a hot breakfast - if we can talk the women folk into cooking one up for us! Then," he paused, turning his attention to James. "You and I can go check on the water that froze around the foundations and see if there's anything we should worry about."
"THAT," James agreed, "sounds like a good warm-up plan! Count me in!"
Given the adventures of the night before, and the following morning, Noah and Jesse were both rather glum for the rest of the day, each lost deeply inside thoughts of both uncertainty and mystery. Although the morning clouds gave way to partial sunshine by afternoon, the breezy conditions grew in strength, thus adding a more chilling effect to the cold already engulfing the valley. Benji eventually joined the families just as breakfast was ready to be served, and following an initial set of good-natured ribbing about sleeping so late, he was amazed to hear of the morning's exploits. "Why didn't someone come get me?" he complained, but then shook his head. Within minutes, he was onto other topics, including the play that the group attended the previous evening.
The trio of boys eventually retired to Noah's room, where they attempted to play some video games to pass the time. Only Benji's heart was in the matter, however, and he easily seemed to take command of any competition between them. The events of the last 12 hours had seemingly un-fazed the youth, something Jesse noted more than once, and was quite thankful for in spirit.
As the noon hour approached, both families were visited by a technician from the area water company, who greeted them cheerfully before gathering some basic information and then proceeding around the house to inspect the faucets. "Yep, it looks like someone opened the flow and then took a heavy hammer to the knob. Makes a hell of a running mess, I think," the older man commented, before scratching his head. "To tell the truth, this is becoming more common as of late, too."
"What do you mean?" James asked.
"Well, teenagers are always pulling pranks around town, being bored to death, I guess. Up until recently though, they were mostly just doing harmless stuff, I think - but, we've had several houses with this done now over the past, oh, I'd say seven to eight months. It's like a new level of callousness, if you catch my meaning, because these incidents are causing physical damage, and they're adding up in repair costs and all," the man explained. He shook his head and sighed. "I'll have these restored in short order, though. You folks just give me a bit." With that, the man returned to his utility van and extracted some tools before going to work. As promised, roughly an hour later, he had finished the repairs and tested the new faucets before restoring their water. They thanked the man, and then he left as quietly as he had arrived.
The New England Patriots faced off against the Green Bay Packers that afternoon, a classic American rivalry within the NFL, although the football game did little to lift the boy's spirits. Once it had finished, Jesse and Benji bade their host farewell, with Jesse promising to see his friend the next morning. Arriving home, they hung out in their room for a short period while waiting for the water heater to do its job of preparing a supply of hot water, then both boys took individual showers. A light supper followed, and then with nothing else happening news-wise, they retired for the evening. After watching a Christmas show on TV with his brother, Jesse fell asleep much earlier than common. He only stirred again when, at some point, he felt Benji quietly slipping into bed beside him, but once they had snuggled up, the teen was once again oblivious to the world.
During the early hours of the next morning, however, Benji awoke to find his brother tossing and turning behind him, as well as muttering under his breath at times. When it became more intense, the younger brother's senses sharpened and he realized how uncharacteristic it was for Jesse to have nightmares - especially when he resorted to swearing. Recalling what had happened in the bath tub only days before, Benji turned on the night lamp and rolled over, only to find his brother sweating profusely and his face displaying a constant mix of expressions varied between surprise and fear. It didn't help that the older boy was also kicking at the covers and thrashing his arms and legs about radically, so as Benji sat up, he tried to shake his brother to wake up. "Hey, Jess! Wake up man, you're having a bad dream!" When his brother didn't respond, Benji grabbed hold with both hands and then shook harder, but it was all to no avail. No matter what he tried to do over the next few seconds, nothing seemed to work and his brother seemingly was becoming more agitated. It was then Benji started to really worry, because the thrashing about became much more intense. He quickly realized he needed help, and thus climbing from the bed, the boy ran from room.
Less than a minute later he returned, both pulling and dragging his father behind him. James, initially bleary-eyed when he entered the room, instantly became wide awake the moment he observed his older son and saw what was happening. Quickly sitting down on the edge of the bed, he grasped both shoulders and started trying to hold his son down. "Jesse, wake up!" he commanded in a stern, yet respectful voice. When Jesse failed to respond, his father then moved to climb further into the bed, hovering now above the teenager and securing the arms back steadily against the mattress.
"No!" Jesse suddenly moaned, and then repeated it again, crying out with a loud wail that sounded pitiful in the otherwise dead silence of the morning. His father spoke loudly twice again, but still it had no effect. Glancing at Benji, he spoke quietly. "Quick, get a glass or something and bring it to me with water!" Benji sped away quickly to do as he was instructed.
By then Makalah had appeared in the doorway, pulling her housecoat together as she hobbled inside. "What's going on?" she asked sleepily, having to step back awkwardly as Benji sped past her. Seeing Jesse, however, caused her to forget all else and hop forward, sparing her still injured ankle as much as possible. "What is it? Is he having a seizure or something?" she asked in alarm while falling to her knees by the bedside with a loud thump. Quickly reaching out, she checked Jesse's pulse. "his pulse is racing like wildfire!"
James nodded silently. "I think he's just having a nightmare, but it's got a real hold on him in some way... he can't seem to wake out of." Just then Benji returned with the requested glass, which he handed over promptly. "How long has he been this way, Ben?"
"You mean tonight?" the young boy replied. "I just, I don't know... He woke me up from turning and everything."
Makalah turned to observe her son closely. "What do you mean, 'tonight'? Has this happened before?"
Benji hesitated, but then nodded. "Once that I know of, but not in here, and not really like this."
"How then? Come on honey, tell me- I really need to know," Makalah coaxed.
"Well, he was in the bathtub and fell asleep the other night. I mean, last week, I think. I didn't see him, but he woke up with a yell and everything, and I got up to check on him. He was... well..." The boy stopped, confused and uncertain what words would adequately describe the state he had found his brother. His mother, however, sensed his confusion and turned back to observe her older son.
"Was he kind of wild-like?" Makalah asked, and when her son nodded, the woman turned her attention back to James, as he began sprinkling water on the boy's face. He was still speaking loudly, trying to coax his son to come out of it. By this time, however, Jesse was moaning and muttering incoherently again, which in turn caused the others to become more concerned.
Benji went around and leaned in from the head of the bed. "What's wrong with him, Dad? Why won't he wake up?" There was a note of fear in the youth's voice, one which caused his father to look up and smile weakly.
"It's just a bad dream Sport, don't worry. He'll come out of it, you'll see," the man soothed before turning his attention back to Jesse, who was now beginning to fight against his restraints.
It was Makalah, however, who reached out and tapped her husband's arm. "Hold up for a minute," she urged him, before placing her hand upon the side of Jesse's face and trying to cup it tenderly. "Honey, it's Mom," she said calmly, all the while letting her voice carry the words clearly. "Jesse, it's Mom, baby. Come on, it's time to wake up. It's time to wake up, honey."
Whether it was her words, or the calming tone of her voice that did it, nobody really knew, but Jesse then suddenly seemed to calm down. As he lay there, he finally started to follow the direction from which the voice came, and then seconds later he whispered, "Mom? Are... are you really... Are you there? Really... there?"
"Yes, honey. I'm really here. I'm right beside you, and so is Dad, and so is your brother. You're having a dream Jesse, but it's time to wake up now, all right? You need to wake up, you need to wake up right now," Makalah repeated. At first, the trio looked on and observed the continuing flux of emotions that still crossed the teens face, and it initially began to look like it wasn't going to work. But then Jesse's eyes began to slowly open while Makalah continued to coax him softly. When the teen saw his father looming over him, along with his mother by his side, he stared at them both for what felt like an eternity before his eyes began to fill with tears. Their anxious faces changed into one of relief afterwards, and James slowly began pulling back before setting the glass aside. There was a silence in those precious few seconds, until Jesse suddenly collapsed in utter exhaustion.
"Wh- what hap..." the elder brother began, but then stopped himself as the tears suddenly began to fall along the sides of his cheeks. "How... what... Oh my God, you're... your..."
It was then James took hold of his son and gently pulled him up into an embrace, Makalah leaning in further and adding her own from the side. "SShhh..." she continued whispering in a soothing voice. "It was just a bad dream, Jesse... Everything is alright now, honey... SShhh..."
"Your mother's right, son, you're alright. Nothing has happened now, you're safe, believe us," James added, noting the ever-increasing strength in the hug that his son engulfed them both with. "I've got you, and we're all right here with you. You're okay," he added in his own, emotion filled whispers. Jesse began to cry and then wail even more, burying his face into his father's shoulder. James could not remember that ever happening before, in all the years since he came into their lives. He glanced at his wife with concern, and she returned her own look of worry in equal proportions. No one spoke again, however, for several minutes. There was a part of this, whatever it was, they both felt the teenager needed to just let out, although the anguish in which it was delivered wrenched and pulled at their own heartstrings. This was something that had never happened before with either of their children. Benji had had nightmares before, but usually a calming brother, or his parents, had put things right very quickly. Here, in this moment, Jesse was pouring his heart out for something that must have been so intense that it had seemingly turned his soul inside out. At one point, when he realized his mother was still there so close, he reached his arm out shakily and pulled her in closer, holding them both for some time before he began to calm down.
All the while this was happening, Benji simply climbed in and sat at the head of the pillow. He observed the moment with some relief, feeling elation that his brother had finally woken up, but as he watched, streaks of tears fell from his own cheeks and rolled off of his chin. In his mind, somehow something important had happened, but it was something he clearly didn't understand. His father had tried to wake his brother, but of all the measures his parents enacted, it was a soothing voice from his mother that made his brother finally calm down. Why? As he sat there befuddled, a sob escaped on its own, and it was one Jesse heard very plainly. Pulling back abruptly, he looked around until he found its source. Letting go of his parents, he turned and pulled Benji into his lap, before giving the boy a much deserved, and needed, embrace of his own.
"I'm okay, Ben, I promise," Jesse whispered, all the while Makalah reached out to stroke her younger son's hair.
Some time passed again as everyone quieted down, before James spoke. "Do you... do you want to talk about it son?" he asked quietly.
"Not really, Dad... at least not now," Jesse replied with a whisper, shaking his head and closing his eyes briefly. With Benji lying against his chest, Jesse opened his eyes to observe both parents and, catching their attention, he made quick glances back and forth toward his brother. Both parents then understood the significance right away, and did not push the issue.
"Do you think you'll be alright, now?" his mother asked quietly, causing Jesse to smile weakly.
"Yeah, I will. I've got you guys all around me, I know nothing's going to hurt me now," he whispered. James eyebrows arched, but then he nodded in understanding. Whatever had happened, it was serious enough that Jesse was being careful around his brother, and both parents respected that.
"Okay, tough stuff... as long as you think you'll be okay," Makalah replied quietly. When Jesse nodded again, both she and James began to back off the bed, with her husband climbing to his feet and then helping his wife to stand again. "Try to get some sleep, okay? If you need anything, Benji can come and find us. Remember, it was just a bad dream. You're safe now, alright?"
For the third time in as short as the moment, Jesse nodded his acceptance. The older McAllisters took one last look over their sons, and then quietly began making their way out of the bedroom, closing the door behind them. In his arms, his little brother had sat just as quietly, never removing his head from Jesse's chest, listening intently until he was certain their parents had gone. Once done, he pulled back and looked up. Jesse's tears had pretty much dried up by then, but he saw a look of utter exhaustion meet him. He paused only a brief moment before he finally whispered, "I'm sorry, bro."
"For what?" Jesse whispered back. His breathing had now returned to normal, and although he felt a headache in the making, he mustered the energy to shift himself back against the damp sheets beneath him. He ignored their clammy feeling though, and focused on his little brother while he waited.
"For going after Mom and Dad. I mean, I couldn't get you to wake up, and ... and I got scared, and..." Benji confessed, his voice still a soft whisper.
"SShhh..." Jesse whispered, pulling his brother down to the bed with him. "You did okay, squirt. You did just fine. I'm glad you did it."
Benji lay there for a moment, his head tucked into Jesse's shoulder, before he looked up again. "So, it was bad? I mean, you didn't want to tell Mom and Dad... Probably because I was in here, right? But... it was bad?"
The innocence in the voice tugged at Jesse's heart so heavily, he had to fight back a sudden rise in his emotions that threatened to overtake him again. "Well, yeah, kind of... but, I didn't want you having nightmares, little bro, that's all. It was all just stupid stuff anyway, I promise."
"That's what you said last time, Jess. But it can't be really all that stupid, can it? I mean, aren't you having a lot of them lately? I know you were mumbling the other night, and... and..." Benji asked anxiously. "Maybe... I don't know, maybe you should be telling someone about them, you know?"
Jesse stared deep into the blue eyes that met his own and smiled. "Tell you what, if it'll make you feel any better, I promise, I'll think about doing that at least."
"Please do, Jess. I mean, you looked pretty scary, and then, no one could wake you up, you know? That's what... that's..." Benji's voice began to crack again, and Jesse made sure to pull him in closer and hold him.
"I'm sorry, I know it was... intense, I guess. It wasn't your fault though, Short-Stuff, it was mine... all mine," Jesse whispered. He then sighed. "It won't happen again."
Benji's head jerked up at that. "Bullshit, Jess," he uttered rather forcefully. "You can't make that kind of a promise, and you know it!"
Once again, Jesse's emotions were on the verge of taking over, so with a supreme effort he willed himself to calm down and smile instead. When he trusted himself again, he leaned in and did something that Benji didn't expect. In recent weeks, the younger boy had given his brother a kiss not just once, but twice. This time, however, it was Jesse's turn, and he repaid it right on his brother's nose. "I can try, Ben. I know, maybe no one can promise forever, like you said, but... I can try, can't I?" The smile widened. "I love you; you're my brother, so don't ever forget it. For that very reason, I promise you I will try to not let it happen again. Okay?"
It was a full half-minute before Benji finally nodded. "I can accept that, yeah." Both boys lay for a moment, cuddling together before a scent reached Jesse that made him sigh. Throwing the covers back, he slipped out and over his brother until he could sit up on the edge of the bed. Benji watched him curiously before speaking up. "Where are you going?"
"Um, I was thinking I might go rinse off in the shower, you know? I... I feel icky all over, and... and..." Jesse did not have to explain any further as Benji moved to sit beside him, nodding.
"Yeah, you kind of feel it, too," the younger boy replied. "Go, I'll pull the sheets off and just put our covers down while you're gone. Tomorrow we can change them and everything."
Jesse smiled, observing the boy. "You are so damned smart sometimes, you know that?"
"Shut up," Benji snapped back, good-naturedly. "It's nothing we haven't done before." It was true, Jesse realized. There had been other times and incidents, including bedwetting, illnesses and, yes, bad dreams, where they had done this very thing before. Benji glanced up when his brother had yet to move. "Well? Go on... I want to go back to bed sometime tonight, you know!" Jesse nodded and then stood up. He thought about getting a pair of fresh briefs, but glancing back at his little brother, he decided against it. Instead, he walked quietly from the room and down the hall.
Some 15-minutes later, the elder brother returned to find Benji sitting in the lower bunk, but this time with his back to the wall and waiting. When Jesse closed the door, he pulled the towel from his waist and used it to dry his hair, oblivious to the fact his younger brother was staring intently at his naked body. It had never been an issue before, and Jesse was wanting to make sure Benji still saw it wasn't going to be an issue now. He did it slowly and deliberately, before putting the towel down and withdrawing fresh sleepwear and donning them. He then crawled back into the bed and turned off the light. Nothing was said between them, but Jesse grasped and pulled Benji down practically on top of him, hugging his brother dearly. "I meant what I said. I love you, Short-Stuff. I'm glad you're my brother."
A small whimper escaped Benji before he whispered in return. "Love you too, numb nuts." Jesse giggled, causing the boy to rear back and grin in the darkness at the grin that met him. "And I'm glad you still trust me as much as you do, too."
"That will never change, Ben. I keep telling you that, but it's okay. Our trust will never change between us. I promise," Jesse whispered in return, and then they both stretched out beside the other. Jesse pulled the boy in close and, with a feeling of contentment, they then quietly fell asleep for the second time that night.
Jesse awoke Monday morning with a start. The sun was out, beaming brightly through their window, which made the teenager suddenly realize that he must have overslept. To capitalize on the moment, he looked about and found no trace of Benji anywhere. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he pivoted himself until he was sitting on the side of the bed. Seconds later, he was on his feet when he noticed a note on the bedroom's doorframe. Walking over, he paused to read it.
Taking Benji to school, will be back in a few minutes. Love, Mom
The teenager frowned as he turned to the clock and noted it was almost nine. He groaned, realizing he was supposed to have had a quiz in Geography that morning, and make-ups were not normally allowed. Silently, he kicked himself internally, realizing what the dream the night before had cost not only him, but his family as well.
Jesse had no more than made his usual trip to the bathroom and returned to dress, when he entered the kitchen a few minutes later to find both of his parents returning. "Oh, good morning sunshine! How are you feeling this morning?" his mother asked, leaning down and giving him a kiss on the forehead. He returned a half-hearted, one-handed hug, as his father pulled a chair out for him at the table. Jesse then noted a plate of scrambled eggs and bacon sitting there, one he assumed had been served up just for him, and at his mother's encouragement, he took his place. He was surprised to find them still warm.
"Wait, did you both take Ben to school?" he asked after his first mouthful. His father scoffed.
"No, I stayed behind to make me some breakfast, and I fixed those for you while I was at it," the man explained, before grinning widely. "Not my best cooking, I admit but..."
"They taste just fine," Jesse responded, all the while Makalah made her way into another nearby chair that James had pulled out for her. The teen already surmised what was up, especially as his father finally sat down on his other side, thus creating the proverbial parent ambush. It wasn't that Jesse dreaded it, but it still left him feeling apprehensive. He wasn't sure how he felt, really - the events of what happened still fresh, and still rubbing raw against his nerves. "I guess the hour of truth arrives," he remarked when he had finally finished his plate, all the while both parents watched him.
"We won't force you, honey," Makalah voice quietly. "I mean, we take it that it was just a bad dream, right?" Jesse nodded, which caused his father to lean forward and place both elbows upon the table.
"I agree, it was just a bad dream, son... The only part though, that I can't let go of easily, is that you couldn't seem to wake up. That's, well, that's pretty powerful in itself. Can you at least tell us a little bit about what was going on inside that head of yours?" he asked.
Jesse hesitated, but then sighed. "I've been having some dreams lately, and... well, since Pete hasn't been found, some of them have been about... us, as a family and all."
When her son did not continue, Makalah frowned. "Pete? The boy you were in the fight with, right? The boy they were searching for Saturday night?"
"Yes, Pete Haskell and family," James answered for his son when Jesse sat quietly. "What kind of dreams though? Is somebody getting hurt? Or are you in a fight with him again or something?" When the teenager turned his eyes up and stared at his father with a blank expression, the man shook his head. "Come on, son... your brother couldn't wake you up, I couldn't wake you up... It was something really deep, it had to be. Stupid or not as you called it, what was so bad that you couldn't shake it?"
Jesse frowned. "Dad, I..." Again, he fell silent while looking back and forth between both parents before sighing. "It was just real, you know? Everything - you, Mom... even Benji... and Noah, they were..." Jesse visibly shuddered. "Please, don't make me... I don't want..." he whispered at the last.
Makalah then cleared her throat. "Again, we won't make you tell us everything, honey, but... hear us out, okay? On the way to school this morning, I asked your brother about something he told us last night, about you falling asleep and then waking up in the bathtub one night. He said you were just as wild that night as you were early this morning, except that you had already woken up by the time he got to you. And he said he's heard you mumbling at other times this week, too. So, we know you've been having something going on for a while, at least. That's what has us worried, Jess. We're concerned."
"Even I have noticed how you're more fidgety lately, and... anxious, I guess," James added. "That goes along with some of what's changing around you, I'm sure. The point is, son, we don't want you to feel alone, or out of place. Not with your mother and I, not with your brother... not even with your best friend next door, either. There's a point where all we can do is guess, you know that - but sometimes, it helps to just get things out in the open. We can't help you if we don't know what's going on. Understand?"
Jesse nodded. "I know," he whispered.
"I've never seen you break down like you did in your father's arms last night Jesse, not even since you were a little kid," Makalah went on. "I know, or rather I feel, like something deeper is going on, and I thank you for telling us that... but like your father said, we can't help you honey, unless we know what you're dealing with."
"I know that," Jesse replied eventually still in a low voice, but regaining his composure before looking back up at the pair again. He saw the concern and... something else. He recalled what he had told Benji before they went to sleep. "I promise, I'll try not to scare you again. It really was just stupid stuff, but... last night it was just real, so stupidly real, and... and... wild and crazy. You, Dad, everyone I love... you were... I mean, I think I knew it wasn't real, too, while I was dreaming, but I couldn't let it go, you know?" He turned to his mother. "Truth is Mom, somehow I could hear you both, but Pete had hold of me and was dragging me away, and... and he wouldn't let me move and... and..."
"You know, that might have been me, Jesse. I was holding you so you wouldn't hurt yourself," James breathed softly.
"I think I know that now, but then... It, I mean... I heard your voice Mom, even though you were... dead... I heard you and... and..." Once again, he lost it, breaking down before them. Tears ran swiftly down his cheeks as his mother suddenly got up and scooted her chair closer, before sitting and taking him in her arms again.
Jesse's helplessness wasn't as painstakingly drawn out this time, however, as it had been only hours before. Eventually the teen sat up a little straighter, and finally gazed deep into his father's eyes. "You were both dead, you see. And Pete, he was... he had this knife again, trying to stab me and, I was holding his arms back, trying to fight him off, but no matter what I did, he kept coming at me. He kept screaming at me, everything, and it was just so loud! I mean, I couldn't hear anything else going on, I guess. I think that's why I couldn't wake up, Dad - I just, it was hard, you know? And then there was something else, about Benji... Pete kept saying my little brother would be the last he was going after, that he was... he was... going to gut him like a pig." Although he kept his composure, Jesse's voice was straining at this point. "See what I mean? It was... it was just stupid stuff! But then, somehow, I heard this voice, this - quiet, calm voice, telling me it was time to wake up, and... and... then I realized something was wrong. I think I realized finally that you weren't dead, and you were trying to make me realize that, see? Then the next thing I knew, I could feel it... it wasn't Pete holding me, but it was you."
Both parents sat in shock, and it showed. Jesse noted it too, before dropping his head in shame. "Like I said, stupid stuff, really, but... his knife, it was dripping with blood, and... and... you both, you were in the bedroom, on the floor, lying there with all kinds of ... of blood everywhere, where you got stabbed all over, and... it was just so real. Now do you understand? I can't tell Benji any of this stuff, I don't think I can even tell Noah. He's... he was the one who sent me into the bedroom in the first place!"
"What do you mean?" Makalah asked softly. "What does Noah have to do...?"
"He, I mean... I was coming home, I think, and I found Noah just inside the door over there," Jesse paused and pointed to the rear entry. "There was blood all over his shirt, because he was stabbed just like I found you guys. I- I tried to bend over him and all, but that's when he... he pushed me away and pointed to... toward your room. I thought he was trying to tell me to go get your help, but... when I went, instead that's when I found you, too. Then out of nowhere Pete jumps behind me, see, and... everything just went so crazy, and..." Jesse finally stopped, suddenly withering. He slumped into the chair and against his mother's embrace with exhaustion. "I'm sorry... I don't... I don't mean to be so graphic about it. It... it was just... so..."
"Real, yeah, I get it," James muttered softly, glancing at his wife. It was then he moved to Jesse's other side and added the strength of his own arms into the embrace. "Never, ever be sorry, son. There is nothing you can tell us that will make us regret the truth, I promise. If anyone should be sorry, it should be us. We said we wouldn't make you tell us, but that's... that's sort of what we just did, isn't it?" In one way the man felt glum, his feelings for what they had accomplished, and in the way it had happened, being not what either he or his wife had planned. In another way, however, he was very thankful at having gotten to the bottom of what had happened as quickly as they did. Now, they just had to figure out a way to get past this so that Jesse could begin healing from it.
On that note, Makalah was already ahead of her husband. "Okay, back to bed with you. You're taking the day off from school, no arguments. James, you need to stay here, too, until I get this ankle x-rayed and return."
"I said no arguments, remember?" the woman rebuked her son, but then smiled afterwards. "Seriously, you haven't had but a few hours of sleep anyway. Just, try to rest for a while. This afternoon, you can go with me down to the grocery and watch me wheel around in one of those old-people cart thing-a-ma-bobs, while we pick up a few items."
Jesse giggled. "I thought you said you would never get in one of those things?"
Makalah rolled her eyes. "That was before I found out I can still be as fragile as some of those other people are!"
Jesse smiled, looking up tiredly at his father. "You can go to work, Dad. I promise, I'm not suicidal or anything. I'll be fine."
"I know you will, but still... I don't have to be in for a few hours. We'll let your Mom do her thing, and then-"
"Shouldn't you be taking her up there, so she doesn't have to drive?" Jesse asked, frowning as the thought suddenly struck him.
"I'm not driving," Makalah interjected. "Jennifer is taking me, remember?" She glanced at her watch and then clucked her tongue before leaning in for another brief embrace with her son. "Speaking of which, she'll be ready to go, soon." She pulled back and tugged her son's chin up gently until their eyes met. "As for you, you're safe. Your father isn't going to allow anything like that to happen, so try and put it out of your mind, okay? I know, enough weird shit is going on around here as it is, but... we're still a family, honey." She then rolled her eyes at seeing her son's reaction. "Yes, I said the word 'shit'... deal with it." Smiling she gave him a kiss on the forehead. "We love you - you know that, right? We really do. We couldn't be prouder of the young man you're becoming." Then getting to her feet, she swatted him on top of his head. "Now... go, rest, get a nap or something."
"Yes ma'am..." Jesse replied with a sigh. He knew there was little sense in arguing.