|Title: Tahitian Moon (Act One)
Synopsis: Post-Marybeth world, wherein Casey is murdered by a psychotic alien cult. Zeke has to deal, trying to learn how to.
Warnings: Death of major character, LOTS of angst, heavy violence.
Disclaimer: I own nothing--all fantasy on my end.
Author's Notes: WIP. Big, huge thanks to my lovely, beautiful beta, lisabellex, for putting up with strangely placed commas and buldings chasing Zeke around town. ;)
Grand Junction, Colorado
Even though traveling three days on the same route had taken a lot out of Zeke, it'd been well worth it. Route 70 had to be the most direct, 'no fucking way I'm getting lost now' way to get from point A to point B. He'd gone from small maps showing partial state routes and small town attractions, to a giant atlas that he kept in the passenger seat. He had somewhere to end up now.
It was time for a pit stop. Aside from a quick gassing up just outside Denver, he'd stayed on the road until his body went numb. And besides, he was feeling quite taken aback by the scenery, gone from plains and farmland to this…
Giant plateaus, national parks boasting endless trails into the wilderness--whatever else. Zeke felt like a tiny speck that didn't matter in heading past an orchard, with a giant mountain as it's background. It rose up like a cake with a million tiers. It made Zeke stop at the first gas station he came across, pick up a one-time-use camera and drive back, needing to capture it on film. Why he hadn't done such a thing until now astounded him, making him wish that he'd had the presence of mind to make a 'log' of his trip.
Now seemed to be the time to start the habit; he'd left behind what had become a barren wasteland to him, and found his place. He smiled a little as he got back in the car. 'Not there YET, but… good start,' he thought.
It wasn't long before he got into the center of town, finding it to be a bustling, pleasant area. Seeing as it was Friday night, people were out and about going into the bars, small clubs and shops lining the main road. Zeke's interest perked, as it'd been a long time since he'd actually gone out. Perhaps his body wasn't as numb as he thought it was.
His motel was near the main center, within easy walking distance of the town's amenities. First things first--he needed to eat, desperately. He passed a few places, most being small pizzerias or quick-stop convenience stores. His stomach rumbled as he finally reached what he'd craved.
The Chinese restaurant, 'Shanghai Garden' came into view, making Zeke turn to its doors. The smell of teriyaki, spices… it seemed to wrap around him like a blanket. A family sat in the waiting area, making him wonder if he'd need to wait.
A young woman, carrying menus, approached him with a smile. “Hello! Are you here for dinner?” she asked.
“Yea,” he replied.
“Well, there's a small table free--unless you'd like to sit at the bar?”
That was a good sign. His fake I.D. would probably pass here. He smiled to her and nodded. “'Bar's fine,” he answered.
“All right, then. Just go on over and seat yourself. One of our waitresses will be by,” she said, handing him a menu.
“Thanks,” he said. He walked over and seated himself a few places away from two guys, obvious college students. He grunted as he sat down then took up the drink menu.
Oh… he smiled, looking at the selection of drinks. They served a wide array of cocktails, including fruity rum concoctions. He was brought back to beaches, dreams… Casey. The 'Scorpion Bowl' looked tempting, but huge. He figured that getting back to the motel with his face intact was a must. The mai tai looked just fine.
“Hey there… can I help you?”
Zeke looked up to the bartender and raised his eyebrows. “Sure… mai tai, please,” he said.
“I.D.?” the man asked. Zeke put on the cool-as-a-cuke face he'd practiced for years and got his wallet out. Presenting the bartender with his I.D., he hoped for the best. He almost panicked at the man's eyebrows rising, but the smile he wore lightened him. “Ohio, huh?”
“Far from home,” he said, handing it back. “Comin' right up, then.”
Zeke sighed and sat back. It was always such a risk, but too worth it to not take. Soon after his drink arrived, a waitress came by and took his order--orange chicken with vegetable lo mein and an egg roll.
It was refreshing to sit here, unbothered, even filling out a Keno card. The sweet rum-filled drink eased down his throat with every sip, his eyes on the screen to take numbers down. He didn't win on his first card, uncaring--waste of money, but it wasn't like he needed it.
By the time dinner arrived, he was on his second mai tai and feeling light and airy. He winked to the cute waitress as she set everything in front of him, who blushed and went on her way. Yea… he still had it, shagged out hair and all.
The food saved him from impending starvation, making it the best meal he'd had in a long time. It didn't last very long, going down quick. He licked stray sauce from his thumb once done with everything but the egg roll. He picked it up as his eyes lifted to one of the TV screens closest to him, and then froze on the spot.
The loud talking and general movement of the place was blocking the report being shown on CNN, but at the sight of footage from the compound--Elliptic Dream, in the corner of the screen…
“Excuse… me, excuse me,” he stammered, grabbing the bartender's attention.
The man walked over, raising his eyebrows. “Another?” he asked, motioning to Zeke's empty glass.
“No--can you turn that up?” he asked, desperate to hear what the reporter on screen was saying. He recognized where she stood--right on the corner of the block where 'Soto Photo' had been.
The man nodded and reached to the TV, pressing the volume up, letting Zeke's ears in on the report.
“--a cell of cult survivors were found in Camden, Michigan, near the border of Ohio and Indiana. After reports of taped messages from various cultists came after the mass suicide, investigators finally found the second sect, who were apparently planning another attack in Herrington, Ohio.”
“Has anyone confirmed the targets of their planned attack, Jessica?” the anchorman, sitting in the studio, asked.
“Officials have told me that they believe it would have been another domestic terrorist move, much like the bombing that killed Casey Connor and his employer, Mr. David Soto, back in early February. Whether they had a specific goal in mind hasn't yet been clarified.“
Zeke's chest tightened, feeling sick as old footage of the disaster played, replacing the shot of the compound. It was a far-off shot, showing the billowing smoke and flashing emergency vehicle lights.
“Thank you, Jessica. We'll be covering this story as reports come through. Our cameras aren't being allowed near the area where the group was found, but two names of the remaining cult members have been released. James and Geraldine Humason, seen here in their mug shots, were the leaders of the next grouping from 'Elliptic Dream'--”
Blood pounded into Zeke's ears, hard. The pictures showed the two people, looking bedraggled and wide-eyed. Fucking psychotic, Zeke thought while trying to light a cigarette with shaking hands. The next few images tagged along with a reiteration of events, mentioning Casey's death… it grew worse for Zeke, sitting there as if glued to the chair, as footage from Casey's funeral played.
Did they have to do this…? Oh God… Zeke's mind raced, the faces of people leaving church going blurred. This night had gone from pleasant to sour in moments, making Zeke finally stand.
“All set?” the bartender asked. “Do you want your bill?”
“No… um,” Zeke started, feeling unreasonable. “No, I can just…”
The bartender frowned slightly. “You okay?” he asked.
Zeke didn't answer; he didn't know how much the meal had cost, nor the drinks, but a fifty would cover it. He slapped the bill on the bar and walked off, ignoring the odd looks from the man and whoever else had witnessed his confusion.
It felt darker outside as he rushed out the door, his mind clouded with intense, crippling emotion. He hadn't seen the old footage before, and certainly not from the funeral--not once. His breath came quick, almost panicky. He needed to get back to his room…
“Hey,” a voice called from behind him. He kept moving, hoping it wasn't anyone trying to grab his attention. “Hey, you!”
Feeling confused and out of it, Zeke halted his steps and turned halfway. The two college-aged boys that had been sitting at the bar were walking towards him, looking at Zeke with hard intent. He swallowed and frowned. “Yea?”
“You're that guy… aren't you?” one of them asked.
Zeke blinked fast, trying to look even more confused. “Huh? What guy?” he asked. The two got close now, stopping right in front of Zeke. The one wearing a backwards 'New Orleans Saints' cap looked him up and down a moment.
“Zeke. Tyler, from Ohio. The bartender said you were from there,” he said.
The other young man raised his eyebrows and nodded. “You were on the TV, man. At the funeral.”
Zeke hadn't even seen himself in that report. He sighed, low and shaky. “Don't know what you're talking about,” he replied, not sounding convincing at all. It made the two of them smile wryly, the one with the cap crossing his arms over his chest.
“Cut the shit,” he said. “You're so fucking him.”
The looks they wore were downright menacing now. It made Zeke's skin crawl, knowing something wasn't right with these two. “Look, I'm fucking tired, I've been driving all week--”
“From Herrington. What is it, man? Are the scary Martian psychos on your ass?” the other young man said, making his capped friend chuckle.
“Do you… have a fucking problem or something?” Zeke asked, trying to straighten and make an equally hard look at them.
“Yea. We got a problem. We don't like lying faggots in our town,” the capped one stated coldly.
Zeke's eyes narrowed. “Excuse the fuck out of me?”
“Aliens, my ass. I never saw the alien… thing, did you, Mike?”
'Mike' shook his head, scratching the top of his hat. “Nope. You, Wally?”
As Wally shook his head also, Zeke put his hands up. “Okay--I don't know what the fuck your deal is, but just back off. I'm not even gonna be in your stupid town for much longer anyway.”
“You should probably go… now,” Wally said, cracking his knuckles for effect.
“Like hell,” Zeke growled out.
“Is there a problem, boys?”
The voice from behind made the three of them turn; a police officer sat in his patrol car at the curb, eyeing them warily. He shone a light out at them, making Zeke flinch. “Ah, Mikey Farrow. Get your skinny ass home, boy,” the cop said.
Mike smiled and rolled his eyes. “Gonna arrest me, Harry?”
“I will if you keep loitering. Move along.”
Zeke didn't want trouble--or attention. He turned to head back down the street, hoping the two guys were thwarted enough by 'Harry' to leave him the fuck alone…
“Other way, boys.”
He turned his head to look over his shoulder, seeing the two boys stopping dead in their tracks; they'd meant to follow him, but Harry's warning made them give one last sneer Zeke's way, then turn to go in the opposite direction.
It wasn't a long walk to the motel, especially with the speed with which Zeke moved. He suddenly felt like all anonymity, whatever he'd had of it, was gone. He hadn't counted on this--this hate, so sudden and unwarranted. 'There are people that don't believe what happened, you fucking KNOW that,' he thought. That had never bothered him before… but the word 'faggot' had. He remembered the word being directed to Casey long before MaryBeth, then after, in the angry, spiteful 'fan mail'.
But this marked the first time that it'd been directed at Zeke himself. He'd been angry when Casey had to deal with it; how the boy had kept a straight, unworried face on when they did was appalling, seeing as how Zeke could barely see straight. When he got to the door to his room, his hands shuddered the key to the lock. He panted with panic until he was able to turn it, get the door open, and with one quick look over his shoulder he shut it behind him.
He slammed his back to it, his knees wobbly, head heavy. He kept breathing hard, thinking on the last ten minutes. He was tempted to cry, to scream and dig out bottles from his car. If not that, he wanted to get in the car and get out of this town, going non-stop to California with no rest, strained muscles and two drinks in his belly.
In an odd moment of calm, he slid down the door and sat, brain going numb as he realized…
'It won't change, no matter where you go. Go back to Herrington, or move on.'
The thought of Herrington sent a chill down his spine. Not only was it not an option whatsoever to head back--if the reports he'd heard were true, it was dangerous to do so. It made him wonder how everyone back home was holding up, whether they'd needed to 'take cover'.
Before he realized he was doing it, he pulled his cell from his pocket and dialed Delilah's phone. At the first ring, he winced--it was eleven-thirty at night, and he knew Delilah liked to go to bed early…
“Zeke! Is that you?”
He shuddered out a small sigh. “Yea, it's me.”
“Oh my God… how are you?” she asked.
“I'm… God, I'm sorry, I dialed you up before I realized the time,” he said, putting his head back on the door.
“Yea... one-thirty IS pretty late,” she said with a chuckle. “But it's Friday, and I saw the caller ID pop your name up”
Two factors Zeke hadn't taken into account--they ran on Eastern Standard time, two hours after him, at this point. It was worse than he'd thought. “Ugh… sorry, I'm an idiot. I'm two hours before you in Colorado; it's after eleven here.”
Delilah giggled. “Oh, Zeke. A bit flustered?”
He didn't know how it happened, but it came out in a rush; all the frustrations he'd felt on the road, getting lost, right up until minutes before dealing with the spiteful, violent-intent he'd faced. Delilah stayed quiet on her end, letting him go on and on about his troubles. When he finished, he took a deep breath and let it out, making a hollow echo through the phone.
“Well… wow,” she said, once able to speak. “Sounds like a lot of things going on with you.”
“Yea, but--what's going on back home?”
She sighed, sounding a bit distracted for a moment. “Let's just say--I'm glad you called my cell.”
“Why?” Zeke said, frowning.
“They rounded us up, in a way. They went to each of our houses right after school. Stokely and Stan called, asking if I'd had a visit from the Feds. They knocked right as Stokely was telling me that they'd gone looking for you.” she explained.
The familiar feeling of being watched made Zeke sit up straight and turn to the window. “Because of the threats and stuff?”
“Yea. I wouldn't doubt that they're tapping the lines. Hell, they probably ARE keeping a record of the calls on this phone,” she said.
“Has anyone… I dunno, made calls to you guys, threatening--whatever?”
“No. It's been quiet. We didn't even know anything was up until the Feds came by. It's scary, though, that those people were so close to Ohio. I just…” she said, drifting off a moment. “It sort of makes me wish we'd all gone 'on the run'.”
Zeke smiled a little and shook his head. “It's been crazy, but I AM glad I left. It might've been better with you guys along.”
“Maybe, but--I think you needed this 'sabbatical' for yourself, Zeke,” she said. “It's just sad that it has to be ruined by some ignorant pricks. You didn't get into any trouble over that, did you?”
“With the guys, tonight? No. A cop had pulled up in the middle of their 'hate speech'.”
“Good. Just know that you know the truth; that you have us back home, knowing the same shit,” she told him. “Try to not let that kind of crap ruin things for you.”
“Yea,” he said, feeling a bit more at ease. “I… know where I'm going, too.”
“Oh? Where to?”
“California. Morro Bay, to be exact. The guys in Illinois told me about it. They'd been on a fishing trip there, and I saw their pictures--it was gorgeous,” he said.
“Can you… like, head back here, pick me up?” she asked.
Zeke laughed aloud. “Oh, no fucking way. Sorry.”
“Damn… now I really do wish I'd gone with you. It would've been fun with me around, right?” she said.
“Oh sure. Stopping every ten minutes so you could do your hair and makeup. That sounds like a blast,” he told her. He could almost hear her sticking her tongue out at him with the small, pouty sound she made.
“Well, I would have brought a freaking MAP, at least. I would've cut seven hours off your trip, sending you down the right roads. I have a great sense of direction.”
“Sure you do. Hell, who knows… maybe if things clear up in Ohio, you guys can head here. I think I might stay a nice long time, if things look good enough.”
“That'd be really nice. I so hope you find what you're looking for, Zeke. Sometimes I wonder if I should do the same kind of thing. I have to get out of this town, at least,” she said. “Too many reminders.”
“Yea,” Zeke said, feeling a choke in his throat. “I should probably get some rest. If um… if any Feds come by and ask if you know where I am…”
“Zeke who?“ she interrupted.
Zeke smiled. “Thanks, Del.”
“Anything to keep you safe, babe. I'll let Stan and Stokes know you called; I have your number on my cell's caller ID, so maybe we'll drop you a line soon.”
Zeke nodded. “Thanks, Del.” he said again.
“Bye,” he said. He hung up the phone and closed his eyes.
He wouldn't cry… didn't WANT to. There was no need for it. He swallowed and let his limbs relax. “I'll make it okay. It's gonna be okay,” he said aloud, nodding as he spoke. As crazed as the night had been--as uncomfortable as he felt--it had to be the most liberating thing he'd said to himself for a while.
The next morning, he half expected to find his car keyed, broken into, tires slashed--whatever else hateful people would do. He got to breathe a sigh of relief in finding her unscathed when he walked out of the motel room. Though he was still tired and slightly hung over, he didn't feel welcome in this town anymore, no matter the beauty he'd admired within in.
He returned his key and went back to the car, tossed his bags in and left the lot. It was only a five-minute drive to the familiar route he'd taken the last few days, and then into Utah.
Zeke's face went stony as he lit a cigarette. “Fuck that,” he said to himself. If random jerks in Colorado gave him trouble, he didn't even want to think of what he'd run into in Utah, of all places. From what he'd heard of the backwards state, there was no gambling and no drinks that had more than one shot of alcohol. Definitely not for him. It'd be a long, long drive, in which he would need a stop for gas more than likely. He'd take the trip full throttle, barely getting to blink within the borders of the state.
Just before he got to the highway, he figured that perhaps a good fill-up of gas MIGHT get him through. His stop was quick, including a look to the maps he had. His eyebrows rose in looking to where Route 70 ended, and where the next Route, 15, took him.
Las fucking Vegas. His jaw clenched at the prospect; it'd be highly unlikely that he'd get into a casino as a twenty-one year old with his fake license. They all had much better technology to weed out people trying to sneak in for gambling, much less a drink--more than small town restaurants and bars, anyway. But being almost twenty was legal for many other things.
The idea of getting a room that consisted of more than a bed, a tiny bathroom and a coffee pot that barely worked was tempting. Yet as much as the small towns had annoyed him, or had even gotten him entirely lost, he was a small town, Midwestern boy. It dug deep into his body to the point where he couldn't deny it. His idea of luxury had always been a beer, his car, and a spray of his hose if it was hot outside. He didn't need wine or giant swimming pools. In fact, he didn't want that.
“Not like I can gamble anyway,” he muttered as he roared the engine on.
It had been a good thing that he hadn't made some ridiculous attempt to 'live it up' in Las Vegas, on this night at least. He stood near the mechanic as the man worked on his blown tire--something Zeke could have done himself, easily. The endless driving had claimed his senses, however, and in hitting a glass bottle on the highway…
'Damn it,' he thought, leaning on the garage wall. He counted himself lucky that he'd had this mishap just before three, seeing as 'Joe' closed up his shop then. He'd been pleased to take Zeke in, even if he had to stay open a bit extra; he seemed like a good guy, not some venomous con artist when it came to cars. The cigar he held in his teeth made a cloud around his head.
“So… from Ohio, huh?” his muffled voice asked.
Did everyone find that so fascinating? “Yea, pretty much,” Zeke replied.
Joe nodded as he wrenched the busted wheel off. He put it aside and went to a large stack of used tires on the other side of the garage. Zeke resigned himself to sitting in the chair by the front desk; the idea of his baby driving on a generic, used wheel hurt; he'd need to rectify that the next chance he could.
He was about to give in and grab one of the car magazines when the door opened, letting a young woman walk through. “Hi, Dad!” she called.
“Hey there, Emily,” he yelled back.
“Thought you were done with work today?” she asked, grabbing a hair scrunchie from her purse and pulling her brown hair up into a ponytail. Zeke watched as she then leaned on the counter; she didn't seem to notice him, otherwise she wouldn't be swaying her hips ever so slightly like she was.
“Had to do a quick emergency job. I'll be ready to drive you guys to Lake Mead in a few,” Joe answered. He now came up from the back with the tire, giving Zeke a smile. “Prom weekend,” he said.
Emily saw his line of sight and turned her head quick, finally seeing Zeke sitting behind her. She chuckled a little. “Sorry, I didn't know anyone else was here,” she said.
“No problem,” Zeke said, having a hard time keeping his eyes away from her well-endowed chest.
It went quiet a few moments, besides Joe's working on the car. Zeke looked away from Emily and grabbed up the magazine, figuring it would keep his brain occupied for a while. Just as he was about to read an article on drag racing, Joe grunted. “Almost done, Zeke--it's an easy enough job.”
“Yea, I know,” Zeke replied.
He looked up with raised eyebrows to Emily, who was looking from the car to Zeke, back to the car… her eyes went wide with recognition.
'Oh shitting Christ…' he thought.
“You're… you are!” she squealed out. “Oh my God!”
“What're you on about, girl?” Joe asked.
She pointed to Zeke, wearing a big smile on her face. “This--this is Zeke Tyler, from Herrington! The one that… y'now!”
Joe turned, cocking an eyebrow Zeke's way. “Headin' to Roswell?” he asked with a tiny hint of a smile.
“Um, no,” Zeke answered, trying his best to smile back. His eyes flicked back to Emily, who was digging in her purse for something. She then brought out a small, metallic object. Zeke recognized it and swallowed.
“I HOPE I get a digital camera this Christmas…” he remembered Casey saying just this past holiday season. Zeke had fulfilled that wish for him; what Emily held looked like the same exact model he'd gotten the boy.
“Can I… take your picture? My friends would never believe me if I didn't have proof!” she requested, nearly bouncing up and down in excitement.
Zeke shrugged. “I… guess,” he said.
“Oh my God!” she said. She put the camera to her eye and aimed. Zeke forced a small smile on his lips and raised his hand, as if waving. She took two, one horizontally, the other vertically. Once finished, she looked to the view screen and giggled more. “I don't believe this… you look so different than how you looked on TV!”
“That's enough, Em,” Joe told her, now lowering the GTO to its wheels.
“Where're you going? Are you running away, or something?” she asked, putting the camera back in her purse.
“I, um… out west,” he told her. “And no, just going on a vacation. Stuff.”
“Oh my God…” she said--yet again--looking ready to burst. “My friend Gail has this HUGE crush on you. She took all your pictures from newspapers and stuff, and--”
“Emily--enough,“ Joe warned. He got to his desk and groaned, shaking his head. “It'll be forty dollars even, son.”
Zeke nodded and stood, grabbing a fifty, adding the ten extra dollars as a tip. “Thanks a lot for keeping open a little extra,” he said, handing Joe the money.
“Any business is good business. Good luck on your trip,” he said. Zeke turned, giving both Joe and Emily a small wave. Emily had grown red-faced and was still giggling nervously, mumbling 'oh my God', over and over as he left.
Now that Zeke was alone in his next motel room, right on the outskirts of Mesquite, he couldn't help from chuckling at what he'd faced at the garage. He'd immediately climbed into the shower, feeling sticky and sweaty from the hot, desert air he'd been introduced to. While washing, he kept thinking on the supposed 'crush' some anonymous girl had on him. Judging by Emily's reaction to seeing him, he didn't doubt that she had at least some sort of thing for him, as well.
It was something he'd never really thought on before. It seemed only natural to have happened, however. He remembered Sarah Fenton, a girl from his fourth grade class, having a crush on the young, public figure, Ryan White. She was teased mercilessly for it, fellow students calling her 'gay' of all things, for having a thing for a young boy with HIV. She didn't stop, keeping the pictures of him on her Trapper-Keeper and notebooks, long after the boy had died. He hadn't been a 'real celebrity'; the girls in Zeke's class were more into the 'BOP' and 'Tiger Beat' stars. So when it came to him and his own odd notoriety… he supposed it made some sense, although imagining high school girls pasting pictures of him in their lockers made him snort.
After his shower, Zeke settled onto the bed with a gin and tonic, the TV remote and the infamous photo album. Before settling in for evening television, he sighed and flipped the book open, pausing at the last risqué picture he'd enjoyed. With a smile, he turned to the next photo.
He'd grown so used to seeing the older, semi-adult Casey, that finding a class picture from elementary school confused him. He searched out the faces, seeing some familiar ones. The two boys in front held up a board: 'Hillside Elementary, Miss Chevalier, Second grade: October 1987'. He finally found Casey at the very end of the first row, standing with a bright smile. His two front teeth were missing, making Zeke laugh. He soon stopped, a frown crossing over his face.
'Wait…' he thought. The very reason this class was so familiar was that it was his own. He scanned the class again and found his sullen, un-smiling face. His jaw lowered.
His mother and father usually didn't buy the school packages of pictures, choosing instead to get them cheaper at the Kmart photo studios. It wasn't money, as they'd always had enough; he swallowed, knowing that his father never liked spending cash on anything 'frivolous'. He'd never gotten any class pictures because of that.
Confusion swelled--how could Casey have been in his class? In that instance, Casey would have graduated last spring, while Zeke continued his second senior year…
'Idiot,' he thought with a roll of his eyes. There was another reason that he didn't remember anyone in this picture; this was October 1987. Zeke had been pushed up a year in November, a month after this photo was taken, deemed too intelligent and bored with second grade work. Getting straight A's while being a math and science expert did that sort of thing. It made him frown sadly, looking at his stoic face--he should have been smiling, making some goofy pose as the kid in front of him was, his tongue stuck out and eyes crossed. That's what second-graders did.
'Not me… never me,' Zeke thought more. He recalled how thrilled his mother had been after going to the teacher conference, and finding out their plan to have Zeke advance into third grade. His father hadn't even gone, having been stuck in meetings and what not.
When she'd relayed it all to him, he'd simply turned to Zeke at the dinner table with a stern face. “This means you're going to have to bust your butt even more, son. No goofing off.”
His mother's smile had faded, and Zeke hadn't worn one the entire time; he knew his father wouldn't have cared. After a few years of trying to prove to him that he was worthy for 'genius status', yet getting no real encouragement, he'd simply given up. Pissed it all away.
Still, a smile found its way to his face. He couldn't remember the name of the kids standing next to him, but the boy up front--why was he teased so badly? He was a gorgeous little man, his hair in a bobbed-bowl-cut of sorts, his smile golden and bright. He had a sort of innocence about him, but perhaps he was too innocent, marking him for taunts and schoolyard fights.
'He was in my second grade class… and I didn't even know it,' he thought with wild wonder.
Casey really HAD been invisible all those years, at least to him. It was bittersweet to realize that the boy had been so close, but that Zeke hadn't recalled such. The only consolation he had was that he couldn't remember any of the kids' names in this picture. He half-smiled and closed the album, turned on the TV and fell asleep watching 'Cops'.
Route 15, just past Jean, Nevada
“I'm less than twenty miles from Cali,” Zeke told his stuffed frog, a smile twitching on his face at seeing the road sign, 'Mojave National Preserve, 17 miles'. His fingers clenched the wheel, excitement burning in his blood. After such a long time driving, trying his best to get to any destination, the fact that it'd soon be coming to a close was an absolute thrill. He'd enjoyed being out on the road--not the whole time, of course, but when he was truly settled somewhere, he'd be able to find his 'place'.
Maybe. Even with the anticipation and the odd positive outlook, there wasn't any guarantee. He'd chain-smoked the entire ride from Mesquite to here, and his cigarette supply was dwindling. He still had a carton left after this pack, but he felt that he'd smoke that in half the time it'd taken for the first to go down. He knew he'd have time to settle in before having to go out for more, so he tried to not worry. “Stupid detail, anyway,” he said, lighting another cigarette off the one he'd just finished.
He sped up, impatience setting in. Everything flew by in a mass of desert and brush, small towns lining the highway, buzzing past without a care of mention in Zeke's brain. Seventeen miles turned to ten, ten to five, until at last…
'Welcome to California!' the huge sign he came upon 'called'. The smile on his face went wider than ever, and the foot on the gas pedal eased.
“Time to relax… finally,” he murmured.
Zeke licked a drop of cola from his lip while staring out onto the cityscape, eyes scanning the array of streets and buildings. A gentle breeze spread the leaves of palm trees nearby, making them fan out, seeming to wave at Zeke below.
His jeans had turned into cut-offs now, the temperature making him wish he'd gotten some shorts before coming here. He'd get some at the mini-mall he'd passed on his way while looking for a motel. For now, he enjoyed the view from his motel, sitting outside his door in a lawn chair. Even with the heat, it wasn't like an Ohio summer; it was way too humid back home when school let out for the season. Sometimes northern winds would come from Lake Erie, but it also brought loads of humidity. Most of the time was spent roasting in the summer sun and the soaking heat it made.
Here and now, in this small dead-end town, Zeke felt the comfort of his cold Coke and relaxed posture, not caring if someone saw him lounging with his legs wide open, shoulders slumped down, looking bummy and 'who cares'. The sun was sinking slowly, leaving the sky bright orange and glowing, shining hard enough to reach through his closed eyes. Everything was quiet and slow, putting a smile on his face.
The sudden voice almost made Zeke jump. He turned his head and opened his eyes, his sight resting on a dirty-faced little girl. She looked to be about four years old, with thin, gangly arms and legs. She seemed familiar for whatever reason, but Zeke couldn't place on why. “Oh… yea, hi,” Zeke replied.
“What's your name?” she asked.
Zeke quirked an eyebrow. “What's yours?”
“I asked you first.”
He couldn't help a smile. “Zeke.”
“Mine's Claire,” she replied.
“Whatcha doin'?” she asked. She then hopped over to the edge of the parking lot. Zeke noticed the piece of chalk she carried and saw child-like scrawling on the pavement. She must have been there for a small while now.
“Just… having some soda,” he answered.
“You shouldn't drink soda before bed. You get cavities,” she told him.
“If you don't brush your teeth, yea,” he said with a smile. He watched her for a few moments, scraping the green chalk on the ground. “What're you drawing?”
“A cat,” she said. It didn't look like one, but Zeke wasn't about to crush the girl's artistry. It was then that she looked back up at him, her eyes narrowed with question. “Are you… looking for something?”
“Is that why you're here… you're looking for something?”
Was the girl psychic? “I… guess. Yea,” he said, turning his head a little and looking at her edgewise.
“I love California. It has everything. I go to the beach a lot,” she now rambled, going back to her artwork. “You'll really, really like it here. You can go swimming any time you wanna.”
Zeke nodded, smiling a bit. “Yea, that should be fun.”
It went quiet for a few moments. Zeke finished off his drink and sat up further, groaning as he did. “It's getting late… are you staying in one of the rooms? Your mom or dad will wonder where you are,” he told her.
Claire shook her head. “Naw. They let me stay out as late as I want to,” she said.
“Oh… um, well… I'm gonna go to bed. Nice meeting you, Claire.”
“Nice meeting you too, Zeke,” she said, still not looking up from the pavement.
He felt odd, standing up and going into his room. The girl really needed to go back to her motel room, but it wasn't his problem, really. He needed to rest and not worry about someone else's kid.
A small fire lay just ahead on the beach, glowing and leading Zeke's footsteps over to it. He watched it dance against the blackened sky, illuminating the ground surrounding it. Two figures sat before it, talking and laughing. Zeke recognized one of the voices and smiled.
Getting closer, he saw Casey plainly, sitting with a little girl with thin arms and legs, short brown hair, and a piece of chalk in her hand. Claire, the weird little thing Zeke had met earlier.
'What're you guys doing?'
Both of them turned; Casey smiled wide and hopped up to his feet. 'We're roasting marshmallows!' he exclaimed. He grabbed Zeke's hand and pulled him down to sit with them.
'I told you,' Claire said to Zeke, smiling wide.
'Told me what?'
'That we'd be here, roasting 'mallows,' she said. She brought her stick from the fire, holding two golden brown blobs. 'That one's for you.'
Zeke nodded slowly and took the marshmallow presented to him. Slightly blackened at the edges, the skin broke a little, making a ooze of melted sugar melt onto his fingers.
'She's the best marshmallow-roaster there ever was,' Casey said.
'It has to be under the moon, though. The sun burns 'em more,' she replied, now shoving the other marshmallow in her mouth.
'True, true,' Casey replied.
The conversation didn't seem to involve Zeke in any way. He sat quietly, listening to their idle chatting. Casey presented Zeke with a stick a few moments later, smiling at him. 'Roast one. They're way good,' he said.
'Aren't you glad?'
Zeke turned back to Claire, seeing her sticky-white smile. 'Glad…?'
'I helped you find Jude,' she said.
'The saint for hopeless cases,' Casey said in a scholarly voice.
'You're a hopeless case. Jude'll help you, just talk to him,' she said.
There was nothing else said. Something seemed to make sense in the nonsense, easing Zeke into the roasting routine. He found himself singing along when the two others began a rendition of 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', just as his eyes opened…
The soft morning light spread into the room, warming Zeke's face. He lay in bed, staring at the window in confusion. Why his brain dredged up all of this, he didn't know.
The fact that Zeke would be in Morro Bay in less than three hours--traffic permitting--had him packing the car at lightning speed. There wasn't much to be done; he was excited and rushing about, making sure everything was back in the car and in its proper place. Once finished, he jogged to the motel's office with his key.
The bells at the door jingled loudly as he walked in. It brought the woman in from the back room, to find Zeke approaching the desk. “All set, young man?” she asked.
“Yea,” he said, putting the key down on the desk.
“How was your stay?”
“Good, good. Let me just give you a small coupon book; we give them to all our patrons,” she said.
Zeke couldn't have cared one way or the other, but she was being nice. While she opened a drawer, he turned and leaned on the desk, sighing. Just under three hours, and he'd be home. He felt it, deep in his bones…
His eyes then fell on a small portrait, propped up on the far side of the desk. The daisies in a vase, sitting in front of it, almost obscured the image within the frame. He looked closer and raised his eyebrows, finding Claire sitting among sidewalk chalk art, a huge smile on her face. “Oh… is that your daughter?” he asked.
The woman looked up to him, and then to the picture. “Yes,” she answered in a sad voice.
“Claire?” he inquired further.
The woman stopped all movement; one hand holding the small coupon book she'd dragged out, the other stopped at the drawer. “How'd… you know her name?” she asked.
“She… told me,” Zeke answered.
“How…” the woman said, her face paling. “You couldn't--she couldn't have. She's been dead for over two years now.”
Everything seemed to freeze inside Zeke then. “Oh…” he muttered, feeling his fingers tremble.
The woman blinked, over and over again, and then slipped the book onto the desk. “Have… a good trip,” she murmured. Before Zeke could stammer a 'thanks', she turned quick and headed back into the other room.
His steps were slow as he went back outside, the sunshine beaming down and warming his back. It didn't thaw out the shiver, deep in his bones as he wondered--
Once at his car, he looked down on the pavement where Claire had been. The chalk-art was gone, leaving nothing but cracked tar to look upon.
It hadn't rained.
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