ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter Sixteen)

Chip Haynes

CHAPTER SIXTEEN- Long distance run around.

Monday morning reared its ugly head as it always does, entirely too early to be polite. Ray Meadows had managed to accumulate nearly twelve hours of sleep and was reasonably able to face the day, even if it was Monday. Barbara Meadows, with somewhat less sleep, was still able to see her husband off to work. Maybe a nap later. That sounded nice.
As the week trudged on, Ray knew he'd have to call Gilbert Lawrence. Over and over in his mind he planned this sneak attack. What would he say? How would he phrase it? Ray really didn't want to lie. But right now the truth seemed a little, well, inadequate for the job. What did Ray want to know? He wanted to know if S. Vaan of Lyndon, Illinois was the person Gilbert had been referring to as the one that ran from his family because of the climbers. Yes, that was it. But Ray wasn't supposed to know the guy's name- or the town. This was going to take a big leap of faith. A bluff. Ray would have to act as though he already knew the truth he was searching for. Ray was great at practical jokes, but lousy at poker. He always had a hard time keeping a straight face. Lucky for Ray there was no videophone connection. It would have been his undoing. By Thursday night, he had a plan. He had gone over his lie- and it really wasn't a lie, exactly. He had gone over what he was going to say: The big lead-in. His opening remark would either make or break his relationship with Gilbert Lawrence. If he screwed up, he was probably going to be on his own in this climber thing, short of going to England and searching for Arthur Crutchfield.
Nine o'clock Thursday night found Ray Meadows upstairs in his computer room. He had told Barbara to just stay downstairs and please watch TV. It was hard enough to do this without a witness. He had no idea what he'd say after that opening line. Might go well, might hit the wall. One line, one chance, no Plan B. He turned on the computer and pulled up the climber web site that Gilbert Lawrence was operating. Pad and pencil ready, title page on screen. Ray picked up the phone and tapped out the number on the screen. One ringy-dingy. Two ringy-dingies. Click. Someone picked up the receiver on the other end. It's Showtime!
"Lawrence here."
"Ah, Gil- this is Ray Meadows. How you doing?"
Oh, man, Ray- you already sound suspicious. Hope you never try leading a life of crime. There's no way you're going to pull this one off. He probably already knows that you're up to something. He's got to.
"Oh, hi Ray. What's up?"
Ok, Ray, time to drop The Big One:
"Not much. Just went over to Lyndon last weekend to see Vaan."
Bright flash- Ka-Boom- Debris everywhere. Did it work? Seemed like a mighty long silence on the other end. Was Gilbert still there? Or did he just hang up?
"So you saw Steve?"
Victory! YEESSS! Ok Ray, stay cool. You've almost pulled this off. Don't blow it now. Not yet. Hang in there.
"Wasn't there."
"Figures. Probably out in the woods."
"Still looking?"
"Yeah, still looking."
"I would think he's seen enough."
"You would think. What about you?"
"Nothing new to report here. More questions than answers."
"There's always more questions than answers. Always."
"Read about Crutchfield. He had quite a time in the war."
"That must have been something to go through, even without the climbers."
"You said he's still living near London?"
"Yes, a little place to the northeast. Why?"
"I was thinking about maybe a European vacation. Think he's up for a visitor?"
"Are you serious?"
"Maybe. What condition is he in?"
"I don't know. He will be seventy next year."
"So I'll bring him a present. What do you think?"
"Presents are always good, birthday or not."
"Have you actually spoke to him lately?"
"Never."
"NEVER??"
"He doesn't think much of telephones. Doesn't trust them."
"So?"
"So I write to him and sometimes he answers."
"And sometimes not?"
"And sometimes not. He's a very private guy after all he's been through."
"So maybe I shouldn't go visit him?"
"Well, if you do, you're going to have to be careful how you go about it."
"What do you mean?"
"Ok, it's like this: When I just wrote him letters to tell him what we were doing over here, I wouldn't get a response. If I sent him something- a present of some kind- to celebrate a particularly important sighting or find, I would get a letter back from him."
"So unless you had big news, there was no news in return."
"Even if I had to make it up."
Bright flash- Ka-Boom- Debris everywhere. Ray felt like the cable just snapped on the elevator. One long endless drop to the bottom. Whoooosh. Even if he had to make it up. Oh boy. Great. Now what? Be brave, Ray. Go for the brass ring.
"Which brings me to another question."
"Yeah?"
"How do you know if you're getting true information from the people that contact you? They could all be making it up."
"Not all."
"Ok, how do you tell?"
"Trade secret: Enthusiasm."
"Pardon me? Enthusiasm?"
"You can kind of tell by how excited the person is."
"If they're really hyped- then what?"
"They're probably lying."
"Ah- I see. No, I don't."
"Ok, some kid calls me up ten, maybe eleven o'clock at night whooping and yelling that he just saw something on his roof. It was big and blue and had claws and wings. The eyes glowed in the dark. I can hear three more kids in the background and they're all screaming and laughing. What do you think?"
"I'd say he was goofing on you."
"Ok, very good. Now, case number two: Someone calls me early in the evening. They're quiet, almost shy. They saw something the night before and have been thinking about it all day. Didn't get a good look at it and not sure what it was. Could I help? See the difference?"
"Reluctant interest versus blind drunk enthusiasm."
"He who says does not know. He who knows does not say."
"Confucius?"
"Better: Lao Tse."
"You don't say."
"Very funny. What are you going to do now, Ray?"
"Well, I'd really like to talk to Mister Vaan at least once before I go heading across the big pond. What are my chances of catching him at home?"
"Better than the chances of getting Arthur Crutchfield to answer the phone, I'd guess. You might try calling him."
"Arthur Crutchfield?"
"Steve Vaan."
"And say what?"
"What were you going to say if you met him face to face?"
"Oh, I don't know. How about, 'Seen any good climbers lately'?"
"That should go over real good. Better work on your approach. I think he'd go screaming in to the woods on that on."
"Too direct?"
"Oh, yeah. Remember, this guy fled his family and a reserved room in the Hotel Silly. I don't think he's dangerous, but you don't want to corner him or confront him."
"Ok, I'll take it easy."
"He could probably use a friend, living alone in that small town."
"I hadn't planned to move there."
"Hmmm."
Ray didn't like that 'Hmmm'. Didn't like it at all. But he had that one other question that had been bugging him. He had to ask.
"One last thing, Gil."
"What's that?"
"Why no bodies?"
"Huh? What do you mean nobodies? I'm somebody."
"No, no. No bodies. If climbers die, why don't people find their bodies as they would any other animal in the woods?"
"These things aren't like any other animal in the woods."
"Well, ok, you're right, but-"
"Look Ray, it's a good question. There's just a lot we still don't know. Little things. Like what they are and where they came from, really."
"What do you mean, 'Where they came from? Like Africa? Asia?"
"I think we can safely rule out the major continents on this planet."
"Whoa, there, Gil. What are you saying?"
"I'm just saying that one of the theories is Off Planet Life Form."
"And it sounds to me like you said that with a straight face."
"Yeah, I did. But I'm not convinced."
"So where do you think they're from?"
"I have no idea. If they're terra indigenous, they should have died out completely by now. If they aren't, where are they coming from? How do they get here? Why are they here at all?"
"Ok, whoa. One thing at a time. You're saying that if they are something that occurs naturally, they should all be dead? Why?"
"Because there's a minimum survival threshold for every species. Below a certain number they can't reproduce fast enough to survive. Extinction. But these things have been around on several continents and a couple of big islands for at least fifty years. Only in very small numbers. Numbers too small to ensure survival in any other species. If climbers were anything else, they'd be dead and gone long ago."
"Meaning what?"
"Meaning either they live very long lives or their number is being replenished from outside the ecosystem."
"Someone's dropping off their unwanted pets? Seems a bit of a drive."
"To us, maybe. And maybe they aren't pets. Maybe they're pests."
"So why not just shoot them and save the travel time?"
"Ray, did you every have a bird get in your house?"
"Yeah, once or twice."
"You shoot it?"
"No, of course not. That would be- oh. I see your point."
"Thought you might. Where ever these things are coming from must be a very interesting place indeed."
"Gilbert, you think they are still coming?"
"No. I don't know. I'm not really convinced that they're an off planet species. They're just weird."
"Yeah, they are that. Why are we chasing them?"
"Fatal human inquisitiveness."
"Great. I chase, therefore I am."
"No, more like: I am, therefore I chase."
"What happens when we catch?"
"Hey- I warned you once: Don't touch one. They're electric."
"Yeah, I remember. But didn't this Vaan guy touch one?"
"He grabbed one by the arm. Biggest mistake of his life."
"But he's still alive, right?"
"Oh, yeah. No doubt. He might even be back to sleeping nights, but I doubt it. I'll bet he stays up late, 'til maybe two or three in the morning, then sleeps in late each day. Probably doesn't get up before noon. He got quite a charge."
"So these things pack a wallop?"
"Like moray eels with legs. I'll say it again: Do not touch one. You've got to train yourself to never reach out in panic, fear or surprise. You can chase these things, but if they catch you the game changes."
"But you said they were harmless!"
"Mostly harmless. Steve didn't mean to catch it. He woke up, it was there, and he reached out. Zap City."
"And now he's a creature of the night?"
"No, no. That sounds too spooky-kooky. It just shook him up. Reset his internal clock, I guess. Then it didn't help that no one in his family ever saw a climber."
"They thought he was joking?"
"Joking is too nice a word for it. They thought he was clinically insane."
"But didn't he have any evidence?"
"Like what? A tail feather?"
"Oh, I don't know. A footprint- a bit of nail or claw, maybe a smeared print across a window?"
"Yeah, right. Doesn't happen. These things live in the trees, remember?"
"That's it? They stay in the trees?"
"Yep."
Ray felt that he was way ahead of the game. He had learned all he wanted to about the man in Lyndon for now. More importantly, he had learned that there were some serious limits to Gilbert Lawrence's knowledge on the subject. Ray wasn't interested in theory. Theory was just fiction to him. He wanted cold, hard facts. He just had no idea why. Fatal human inquisitiveness? Shouldn't that be feline? Curiosity killed the cat. Ray Meadows was hoping he'd fare somewhat better than a dead house cat.
With his questions answered and the conversation ended, Ray hung up the phone and looked at the notes he had taken. Steve Vaan. A name to go with the number. No idea who this person was. How old? What did they look like? Not a clue. Ray felt he knew more about climbers than he did this fellow man. And what more had he learned about the elusive climbers from Gilbert Lawrence? His notes revealed nothing of substance. Theories. Fiction. Gilbert's ideas, nothing more. Ray knew now that he was already ahead of Gil. He had a footprint, at least. The footprint- That could be the key to opening the door to Steve Vaan over in Lyndon, Illinois. Sort of an awkward calling card, but it just might be the right one for the calling. Maybe Ray was the only person to see one of these things out of a tree. Think, Ray: What have you seen? And where? One on the neighbor's roof. Definitely. And one in the back yard, on the ground. No doubt about that one, he had a cast of a footprint to prove it. And- where else? On the front porch? That scrape a while back looked suspicious and- did he see one there at the front window the other night? That night last weekend when he slept on the couch? Barbara had said something about the front window being smeared. He something been watching him sleep? Geez- that was too creepy to think about. These things were supposed to be shy and elusive. Not a pack of alien peeping toms. Too weird. Ray closed up shop in the computer room and headed downstairs. Early night- work tomorrow.
Barbara was watching the end of a movie that had started at eight. It took Ray about five seconds and one line of dialogue to play "Name That Flick". He got it right and was a happy camper. Ray joined his wife on the couch for the end of the movie. No need to rush back upstairs. Everything he wanted was right here. And the kitchen was just down the hall. Can't beat that. The ten o'clock news offered the usual range of misery- planes falling out of the sky, random acts of violence and the same old same old in foreign countries with odd sounding names. Ray thought for a minute it would be funny if the news were a rerun. They could make about fifty different shows and just run them over and over. It wouldn't matter, the news always seemed the same. How could you tell? Maybe they already did. The sports had to be current, he knew that. And the weather. Then again, as often as the weatherman was right, maybe his idea wasn't so crazy after all. Record all the news shows in advance and just run them. Who would know?
They watched the news right up to the last crazy story about some artsy couple with a yard full of bowling balls and turned the TV off. Automatically, both Ray and Barbara went into their nightly routine: Ray checked the front door while Barbara went through the kitchen, checking the back door and making sure everything was turned off. Ray had the light on over the stairs by the time she came back through and turned out the living room light. They always paused there for a moment, just to look and listen and make sure all was quiet on the downstairs front. It was. Up the stairs and down the hall, they were headed for bed. Both took their turns between the clothes closets and the bathroom. By a quarter of eleven, all was quiet on the upstairs front as well. Well, maybe not quiet, but at least it was dark. Barbara still wanted to know how Ray did with that phone call.
"How'd it go with Gilbert Lawrence?"
"Too good."
"How could it be too good?"
"We were right about Vaan. He's our guy. First name Steve."
"And?"
"And when it comes to additional factual information, that was about all Gilbert could add to the pot."
"Meaning?"
"Meaning we're ahead of the wave. We know more than the experts."
"Doesn't that make us the experts now?"
"Only if we're fool enough to say so."
"And we aren't?"
"No. Not yet. Maybe not ever."
"Ok, I'll bite: Why not?"
"These things are just too weird, these climbers. And the people that have seen them are getting weirder still."
"Present company excepted, of course."
"I'm not so sure."
"What?"
"I'm just worried about it all. These guys sound like a bunch of kooks. I guess they mean well, and they seem mostly harmless but…"
"But what?"
"But what a bunch of weirdoes! I don't want to be like that."
"You aren't like that."
"I'm not?"
"No, you're far worse!"
That was all Barbara needed to do to ease Ray's mind on the subject. Of course he wasn't a weirdo. He was still good ol' Ray, the practical joker. Ray Meadows, the electronic communications specialist for the Granville Corporation. Ray, who never went outside unless he absolutely had to. Nothing weird about good old Ray. As far as he could tell. She was right. They weren't them. Not yet, and hopefully not ever. He could sleep easy tonight. He wasn't weird yet. But still, he couldn't help wondering: What did happen to those climbers when they died?
Friday came and went, followed by one perfect summer weekend. Barbara worked on her tan in the yard while Ray worked on his pale in the house. Halfway through the following week, Barbara wondered if Ray had given up on that guy in Lyndon and climbers in general. Not a word was spoken, no mention made. Ray was just good old Ray- pre-climber Ray. No looking out the window at night, no staying up late. Ray even avoided the 'Net. No surfing for this Ray. The subject of climbers never came up. Barbara knew her husband, though. The subject was still there, just below the surface. What was Ray up to? He didn't appear to be gathering any more information on the subject. He wasn't even looking. Time for a new hobby? Maybe it was. This climber thing had gone on for a couple of months now and they really weren't any closer to an answer. They were, however, very close to July.
With the Fourth of July falling on a Tuesday, the first weekend in July had all the makings of Almost-A-Holiday. People were making plans to picnic and party and it was a pretty sure bet that every lake in the Midwest was going to be packed with boats (and fireworks) for those two days. Ray wasn't a boat kind of guy. He really wasn't even a picnic kind of guy. The Bar-B-Que out back was about the limit of his outdoor adventure tolerance. Which was fine with Barbara. She never had to worry about Ray. Where was he? Was he alright? He was probably somewhere in the house, and he was just fine. With dinner on the table for last time in June, Barbara Meadows was faced with the less than daunting task of finding her husband- somewhere in that house. She tried upstairs- no Ray in the computer room. The TV hadn't been on, but was he asleep on the couch and she missed seeing him as she went past? Back downstairs and in to the living room- no Ray. Ok, two floors down, one to go. Off to the basement.
She opened the door to the cellar steps and heard- talking? Ray? Hello? Who's down there with him? She didn't remember hearing the doorbell or anyone coming in. She was sure he had been alone, but- wait a minute. All she heard was Ray talking. On the telephone. No problem-o. Probably gabbing with someone about his project on the workbench. Except the last time she checked, there was no project on the workbench. Dinner was getting cold. Time to pry him loose for chow. Shouldn't be too hard. Barbara headed down the wooden stairs, making no effort to be quiet. Ray hated been surprised like that. Clomp- clomp- clomp- no surprises here, Ray. It's your wife, time for dinner.
Ray was on the phone, she was right. Phone in one hand, that climber footprint cast in the other. Looks like maybe that subject wasn't dead after all. Ray had been examining the cast under his diopter lamp. Neat little item, that: A magnifying glass surrounded by a circular fluorescent light bulb. Absolutely the best thing to see things. Little teenie things. Things you otherwise would never get to see. There was a white sheet spread over the workbench and the lamp was over the sheet. Hey- Was that one of her good sheets? The plaster cast was in Ray's hand as he talked on the phone but- what was he doing with that sheet? And dinner isn't getting any warmer. Maybe the conversation was winding down. Ray motioned to his wife that he'd only be a minute.
"Ok, great. We'll see you Saturday."
"No problem at all. Bye. And thanks again."
Ray put the phone down and smiled that sheepish 'Now I've done it' smile. Uh-oh, Barbara. He's up to something and there's a good chance you won't like it. And what about that sheet?
"Ok, Sparky, what gives?"
"Weeeell, how about a little road trip Saturday? You'll get to eat at a great little restaurant."
"Keep talking."
"That was Steve Vaan in Lyndon."
"Wow."
""Yeah. Wow. Nice guy, I guess. Didn't sound like the nut case Gilbert described."
"Over the phone, at least."
"Yeah, over the phone. Anyway, I called him to say that we had this footprint and maybe he could identify it for us. I described it and he wants to see it."
"Ok, now tell me about the sheet."
"Oh- this old thing?"
"It had better be."
"It is. What sort of husband do you take me for?"
"The sort that would use a good clean sheet on his workbench. Was I wrong?"
"This time, yes."
"You were just lucky. Come on, dinner's getting cold."
Up the stairs and off in the kitchen, dinner was waiting. Sitting down at the kitchen table, Ray recounted his conversation with Mister Vaan. It apparently had gone well and ended with an invitation to visit Lyndon. Lacking a car of his own, Steve was not likely to be leaving Lyndon any time soon. Except on foot.
"So what did you tell him?"
"The truth."
"Which would be- what?"
"That I had spoken with Gilbert Lawrence and figured out where he was by all the sightings on the map on the web site."
"And just how did you say you got his name and number?"
"That was the easy part. He called me."
"Come again?"
"You heard me. He called. Didn't you hear the phone ring?"
"I guess not. How'd he get our number?"
"Gilbert Lawrence, of course."
"So it worked out."
"Yeah, I guess. Gilbert must have told him that I was trying to find him. But Vaan thinks Gil told us about him, and Gil thinks Vaan must have contacted us directly. As long as they don't figure out how I tricked Gil into confirming what we had found on our little spy run, we're ok."
"Do you think they'll figure it out?"
" I don't know. Hope not. Want to go back out there this weekend?"
"That depends."
"On?"
"The Weather Channel. Don't leave home without it."
"Isn't that American Express?"
"Ok, two things you don't leave home without."
"So we'll keep an eye on the weather, and if it looks good, we go?"
"Are you buying me lunch at the Forty-Five Cafe?"
"You betcha."
"Then we're going."
The Weather Channel was eyed extensively over the next twenty-four hours. No major fronts, no big storms. Just the usual summer stuff. A thunderstorm here, some clouds there. Easy weather. Since it was just a day trip, as was the last one no one knew about, there was nothing to pack and no great preparations required. The plaster cast did get wrapped in a towel and the towel was put in a cooler that fit on the floor between the front and back seats. Pretty safe there. It couldn't slide around and nothing would hit it. They were ready. Ray decided that he didn't need to call Gilbert Lawrence. Between Ray and Steve, they had entirely too much knowledge already. Gilbert was now running a distant third. Fourth if they counted Arthur Crutchfield. That would have to be one topic for discussion.
As before, the Meadows got an early start to get out of town before the traffic got bad. Or in this case, before it got worse. Since it was so close to a holiday, most folks were treating it like one. By nine o'clock, any road leading toward a body of water big enough to float a boat was jam packed. The Interstate, which they took this time out to start with, was all RV's and bass boats. It looked like a mobile recreational vehicle show. In a way, it was. With just the car, and no boat on a trailer or the roof, Ray was moving through the big metal soup like a whippet through a herd of buffalo. They weren't in a hurry, but they sure weren't slowing down much. Hope, Seymour and Scottsburg went buy in blurs of boats and big rigs. They made their turn onto the bypass at Sellersburg, dodging an overturned boat in the median that looked like someone had left in a hurry that morning and never got around to actually tying it down to the trailer. Whoopsie. The grassy strip between the lanes looked like someone was having a garage sale. If you needed fishing gear, coolers or life jackets, this was your sale. Plenty to choose from. Ray made the connection to I-64 without incident at New Albany and pushed west. Past Corydon, the holiday traffic eased off. No water out here. Everybody was headed south to the river. Over an hour later- an hour of straight drive-to-the-horizon boredom, Ray went for the exit ramp just across the Illinois state line. Big difference on that stretch this time. It wasn't nearly so boring with ice storms and the threat of tornadoes. But this was better.
As last time, Grayville was the gas stop. At least this time they weren't running on empty, but better safe than stranded. Ray filled up the tank while Barbara waited in the car. They knew how far they were from lunch, so no snacks required. A quick stop, a fill up and they were gone. Catch you on the flip side. From Grayville, the Meadows followed their previous route down the back roads to Harrisburg. The Forty-five Cafe was waiting for them and the waitress even remembered them. Always a good sign.
"Welcome back folks, where you headed today?"
Ray couldn't resist teasing just a little.
"Would you believe back to Lyndon?"
"No, I wouldn't. Why on earth would you want to go back there?"
Barbara felt she had to defend it.
"It's not that bad. I've seen worse towns to visit."
"Well, I guess so. But it sure seems like a long drive for a short town."
Time for Ray's Big Mistake. People screw up from time to time in a conversation. It was Ray's turn now.
"I have to admit, we do have a friend there."
"You should have said so. Who you know?"
"A fellow named Steve Vaan lives there."
"Vaan? Vaan. I've heard that name. My brother's mentioned- oh."
Both Ray and Barbara could read the waitress's face like a billboard. It was a public service announcement warning them about something. Vaan? Ray tried to soften the blow.
"Look, to tell you the truth, we've never met the guy. We have a mutual friend. Why the face? What's your brother say about this guy?"
The waitress was clearly flustered. She didn't know what to say, so she refilled the ice tea glasses and left. Barbara and Ray continued to eat their lunch, determined to order dessert if need be to find out more. It was a tough price to pay, but they were willing to go the distance. By the time the two Mississippi Mud Pies were little more than small swirls of chocolate on a couple of empty plates, the waitress was ready to tell them more.
"Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said anything. I'm sure he's a nice man."
Ray was intrigued, but not actually worried. Maybe they should turn around right now and just phone this guy and plead car trouble. Easy enough to do. Wouldn't be the first time.
"I'm not so sure, I've never met him- Just spoke to him on the phone. I understand he must sort of keep to himself."
"Yes, I suppose he does. I believe he's the only outsider in Lyndon, you know. Everybody else is somebody's family through birth or marriage."
"Is that all that makes him stand out."
"Not according to my brother."
"Go on."
"Oh, I don't know what to say."
Ray had one last card to play, but it should do the trick.
"Well, it's your tip on the line here."
"Don't you threaten me, young man."
"No threat, just fact. What is it about this guy? Do we even want to meet him?"
"He doesn't come out much in daylight. Some folks there say he only comes out at night, but I know that's not true. He does seem to stay up late and sleep in an awful lot."
"That much I knew. What's the big deal?"
"It's just a little farming town. Most folks there are up at dawn and working hard. He sleeps in. No job. How's he do that? He doesn't have to work, he only comes out at night and he lives in a town where nobody knows him. Doesn't that sound a bit strange to you?"
Ray looked at Barbara- Barbara looked at Ray. They both smiled and tried hard not to laugh. If that was all that was odd about this guy, there was nothing odd about this guy. Each of them could come up with a hundred good reasons for Vaan's behavior in a big city, and not one of them was odd. But this was a small town, and people will talk. Ray tried to be reasonable.
"I guess he's independently wealthy. Maybe some single farm girl's missing her big chance here."
"With the Vaan-pire?"
"Excuse me?"
"That's what they call him. The Vaan-pire. Except he doesn't wear black or anything. Just sleeps late. I guess that's not a crime."
"Not the last time I checked, but then we live in Indiana."
"You come all the way over here from Indiana just to go to Lyndon?"
"Things are pretty slow in Indiana these days."
"I guess they are."
Ray decided to not press his luck any further with the waitress and left a generous tip. If nothing else, they would be assured the very best of service on their next stop at the Forty-Five Cafe. Back out in the car, the Meadows were faced with nothing but back roads from Harrisburg to Lyndon. Slow going but great scenery. There were clouds this time, but puffy white ones. No rain today, thank you. Maybe tomorrow. Ray marveled over the way information travelled in rural areas. The waitress probably couldn't name the Vice President of the United States, but she knew all about some guy in the next county who slept late. What were they headed for in Lyndon? They were about to find out.
It was almost two o'clock when they once again rolled into beautiful Lyndon, Illinois. Traffic was heavier than their last visit, but still mostly Ford pick-ups and a few stake bed farm trucks. Even a tractor or two could be seen pressed into service for errand duty, trundling down the street. Nothing runs (errands) like a Deere. Ray made the right turn before the motel that would take them to the garage apartment Barbara had spotted on their last trip. An easy find this time. They went right to it and pulled into the drive. Engine off, deep breath- Here we go. Both Ray and Barbara started to roll up the windows- pure force of habit- when Ray said forget it. They didn't have to go through that in this town. Leave the windows down and the doors unlocked. What could happen? Ray looked up at the apartment and couldn't help but notice- the windows were shut and the blinds were drawn. Maybe not such a good sign. Leave the windows down anyway. Ray reached through the open back window, opened the cooler and brought out the plaster cast still wrapped in the towel. They made their way around their car, down the stone walk and up the stairs alongside the garage. Ray noticed that the back bottom floor was storage for farm equipment. No charcoal grills or lawn chairs, no kiddie pools and no bicycles. This was not suburbia. The entire second floor was one good sized apartment. If Mister Vaan lived alone, he had plenty of room. At the top of the stairs, they hesitated for only a moment. If he was in there, he must have heard them coming up the stairs. Ray reached out and knocked as politely as he could on the screen door. The moment of truth was at hand.
Seconds passed. Maybe he wasn't home. Gone out. Busy, back soon. Ray was about to turn and leave when he heard the unmistakable sound of a deadbolt being opened. Then another. Maybe this wasn't such a nice town after all. He turned back toward the door in time to see it swing open. Standing behind the screen door was one Steve Vaan, exile on Wayland Street.
If first impressions are important, nobody seemed to be making one. Vaan was the most nondescript sort of guy either of them had ever seen. Maybe in his late thirties- maybe in his early forties. Tough to tell. Tall, somewhat thin with black hair. The only impression he made wasn't him, exactly. It was his choice of attire. Pajamas with cowboys and horses all over them. If second impressions were important, this guy was hilarious. He unlocked the screen door for them.
"Just got up, come on in. You must be Ray."
"Yeah. This is my wife, Barbara."
"Hi."
"Hi."
Inside the apartment the blinds were all drawn, keeping it was quite dark. Vaan went around opening the shades that didn't face the street. Light began to flood the apartment. Ray had been right. It was big. A family of four could live up here comfortably. A single person could get lost. Ray looked around the front room they were in and saw how the problem of an oversized apartment had been solved: This guy was living in just this one room. Everything he needed was right here. He had made it a one-room studio apartment with tremendous storage in back. Not that he seemed to have anything to store, if this room was any indication. Comfortable, functional, but sparse.
"Please, sit down. I've got coffee brewing and I'll just be a minute."
The Meadows sat on the only two chairs in the room. Barbara was on the easy chair in front of a small portable TV and Ray ended up, as he always seemed to, in front of the computer on one of those kneeling chairs with no back. It was a weird sensation, but he had tried one before. At least he didn't topple right over. In a few short minutes, Mister Vaan reappeared in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. How ever long he had lived out here had not yet affected his clothing. He looked not the least bit countrified. Ray smiled at the black T-shirt. Did Vaan know about his nick-name?
"So, Ray- Seen any good climbers lately?"
Ray was caught as off-guard as he had thought this guy would have been. Obviously, Gilbert Lawrence was further out of the loop than he had suspected. No paranoia here, except what Ray brought with him.
"To tell you the truth, Mister Vaan, I haven't seen one in about a month. I think."
"Please- call me Steve. 'Mister Vaan' sounds like my father."
"Ok, Steve. The last one I saw I'm not sure I saw. May have dreamt it."
"Yeah, that happens. I just write those off the next morning."
Barbara didn't want this to be two guys talking. She wasn't along just for the ride and a great lunch.
"I understand you've even seen them out here?"
"Oh, yeah. I guess they're not really tied to human population centers. Just big old trees."
"So you choose this town because of the trees around it?"
Steve laughed out loud. Obviously not.
"Would you believe I threw a dart at a map of the U.S.? I had to make a completely random choice. One that no one else could second-guess and figure out. This is where it hit. I was aiming for Chicago."
Ray looked out the windows, those that were open. The front windows were still closed.
"Did you make a good throw? How do you like it here?"
"It's ok. I miss the convenience of a larger city. A movie theater would be nice. Nothing happens here after about six o'clock in the evening."
"So why not move to a bigger city?"
"I'd really be too tempted to do something traceable. Living here, I'm nearly invisible. Chicago wouldn't have worked in the long run."
"Uh, Steve? I can see you just fine. What do you mean?"
"Ok, you're right. I'm not physically invisible. Although that would be a plus. What I mean is, living here I leave no electronic trail. No credit cards, no ATM card. Everything's cash- not even a checkbook. All the utilities are in the landlord's name and I don't own a car. All that makes for one other big advantage."
"What's that?"
"No junk mail."
"You mean to tell me that NOBODY knows you're here?"
"I never said that. It's just that I'm very hard to find."
Barbara had to blurt out the obvious.
"We found you."
"You did? I thought Gil told you."
Nice going, Barb- now it's up to Ray to run damage control. Go for it, Ray.
"All Gil would say is that you had moved to a small town, but you were still sending in reports. All I had to do was study that sightings map on his web page. You are not invisible there. This place sticks out big time."
"Yeah, but you knew the address and my name and everything."
"Ok, you've caught us. We drove out here a while back. The weekend that big storm system rolled through. All we knew was that you were here and probably living alone."
"Hey, I'm not the only single guy in Lyndon. Hard to believe but true."
"Yeah, but you're the only Vaan in the book."
"Oh, yeah. I knew I should have got an unlisted number."
"Or changed your name."
"First job next week: Change the phone."
"And maybe take your name off the mailbox?"
"That, too?"
"Where do you think we got your address?"
"You just drove by?"
"Well, yes. Yes we did."
"Oh, boy. I'm not nearly as sneaky as I thought."
"You might be invisible to the commercial electronic community, but around here, you stand out."
"Tell me about it. You know what they call me here?"
Ray lied.
"No, what?"
"Vaan-pire. They all think I'm some sort of weird night stalker."
"So you’re telling us you don't get invited to every hoe-down in town?"
"No, not every one of them. Some people are real nice, though. I guess it's like any place else."
"You've pretty much settled in here, then?"
"I wouldn't say that. Been here five years, though."
"Five years? Gilbert never mentioned that."
"Yeah. It was tough at first. About six months of getting used to being nowhere and doing nothing."
"So what do you do?"
"Nothing."
"No, seriously."
"You're right. I actually do nothing as a joke. Seriously, I sleep, eat, walk and surf."
"The surf is good in Lyndon?"
Steve pointed to the computer equipment next to Ray.
"The surf's good anywhere if you've got the right board."
"The 'Net!"
"Yes, the net. My window on the rest of the world."
"So how do you keep from being traced back to here?"
"The link is in a fictitious name and I never leave the modem on unless I'm right there running it. It's a free standing system except when I want to surf. The only foolproof firewall."
"That's true. But I do have to ask: How do you make a living out here without drawing attention to yourself?"
"Good question and I'll let you in on the big secret: It helps to have a lawyer in the big city."
"That's no big secret, just a good idea no matter who you are."
"True. But it this case, it's my college roommate, Mark Stewart. He's sworn to secrecy. Mark handles my business affairs and keeps the records sealed, using another fictitious name for the files. Hopefully it's foolproof."
"You aren't worried about him turning you over to your family?"
"Not a chance. You've heard the phrase 'Blood is thicker than water'?"
"Yeah?"
"Well, college roommates are thicker than blood. I can trust Mark because he's not family.""
"Now he sends you money to keep you going?"
"Yeah, we set a trust fund. It's more than I need out here and my family doesn't even know about it. Living is easy and cheap when there's nothing to do but buy food and nowhere to dine out."
"I guess you're right. But you must be bored out of your mind here."
"I was at first. Like I said, those first six months were horrible. You can only re-arrange this apartment so many times. Then I got a USGS map of the area and started walking to see what was out there."
"That's when you started seeing the climbers out here?"
"Yeah. But not right away. I was trying to keep a low profile and look normal. It's just tough to get up at the crack of dawn like every other farmer when you don't have a farm. No reason. So I went back to sleeping late."
"And you started seeing them when you went walking at night?"
"Oh, yeah. Didn't take long after that. Nobody out here walks at night, so the climbers here weren't used to seeing anyone out after sundown."
"Except you."
"Except me. The Vaan-pire. Wooooooo."
Ray unwrapped the plaster cast and handed it to Steve.
"Maybe you'd like to have a look at this and tell me if it's what I think it is."
Steve took the cast and turned it over in his hands. He looked at it from every angle, close up and at arm's length. He was one big smile.
"You got one. I don't believe it. Amazing."
Barbara knew when to take the credit. Like now.
"I found the print in my flower bed by the back fence. I wasn't sure what it was until Ray looked at it."
"Seems to match the damaged shingle I've got."
"The what?"
"Oh. One of these climbers must have lost its footing and slid across our roof last Spring. It hit one shingle hard and ripped it loose. Left a nasty three-pronged gouge in the piece I found on the ground."
"So you've got this print AND a torn shingle that's been clawed?"
"That's about the size of it."
"And how many times did you say you've actually see them?"
"Two for sure. One at a distance and one fairly close. Maybe a couple other times they were close by but out of sight."
"Hmmm."
"Hmmm good or hmmm bad?"
"Hmmm be careful."
"Are they dangerous?"
"No, I'm living out here for fun."
"I'm sorry. That came out wrong. I mean, aside from their ability to disrupt your life and mess with your head, do the pose a physical threat?"
"They won't eat you, if that's what you mean. Just don't get too close to them. Don't let one get too close to you."
"They carry a charge, don't they?"
"They're walking stun guns."
"So I've heard. Gilbert mentioned it."
"Did he tell you what happened to me?"
"Only that- let me think here- That you woke up outside to find one next to you and you reached out to touch it."
"Oh, I touched it all right. And it touched me. Big time."
"You got a shock?"
"You could say that."
"What happened?"
"It was just as Gilbert told you. I had fallen asleep in a lawn chair under a tree in the back yard. When I woke up, it was dark. And there was this thing in the tree right above my head."
"So you grabbed it?"
"So I grabbed it. At first, I thought it was a kid playing some sort of joke on me. But right before I actually touched it, I knew what it was. I just couldn't resist the opportunity to touch it. So I clamped down hard on its forearm."
"And?"
"And got an amazing sensation. My hand went numb, then my arm. In the space of about three seconds, my whole body wasn't there. Totally numb but wide awake. Talk about feeling invisible. I couldn't move."
"With your hand clamped around this climber?"
"Yes. The look on its face must have matched the terror on my own. It was like some sort of cat- every hair of its short fur stood on end. It almost glowed."
"How did it break free of your grip?"
"I have no idea. My body was so numb I couldn't feel it- couldn't feel my hand gripping it. Just all of a sudden I knew it was free. An instant later, it bolted and was gone. I couldn't even turn my head to see where it went."
"You just sat there?"
"I could have been floating above the earth for all I knew. I couldn't feel the chair beneath me. All I could do was stare."
"How long did that effect last?"
"Tough to say. I don't know how long I just sat there. Finally, my wife came out to see if I was going to sleep out there all night. By then I was able to move my head, my legs and the arm that hadn't gripped the thing. My left arm just hung there, still numb."
"What did you do?"
"What could I do? I staggered into the house and sat up all night trying to figure out what happened."
"You couldn't sleep?"
"Oh, no. No way. I was wired. My head was buzzing. Once the numbness wore off, I was absolutely wide awake."
"What about the climber?"
"I don't know. I'd like to think it went back up into the tree and fell asleep. Maybe now it couldn't stay awake nights and slept. Never saw one that close again."
"But you still saw them?"
"At a safe distance, I made sure of that."
Ray knew better than to pursue the subject past that event. He didn't want to get into what happened after that. Instead, he turned the conversation toward life in a small town versus life in the big city. A reasonably safe subject. They compared the pros and cons of both as the afternoon went on. The breeze through the open side windows brought in the scent of the fields at the edge town and the occasional sound of a car or truck rolling by. A lazy afternoon. At least the weather was holding out. It was Barbara who finally turned the conversation back to the reason that they were there: climbers.
"Steve, you mean to tell me that no one in this town has seen climbers other than yourself?"
"I wouldn't say that. Maybe some one else has. But if they had they're not talking, and neither am I."
"So they don't really know why you're here?"
"I think they think I'm writing a book. At least, that's the impression I've tried to make. The reclusive writer. It's only slightly better received than the truth."
"And no one here has seen anything in those trees?"
"Just possums, raccoons and squirrels. They eat the squirrels."
"You are joking."
"Wish I was."
"Taste like chicken?"
"Oh, yeah. If the chicken had been living on a diet of axle grease."
"Now the locals think you're writer, here working on your latest novel?"
"Something like that. Of course, not everybody believes it. Still, I guess it has worked out ok."
"None of that country-bumpkin harassment we hear so much about?"
"I don't know. I've had the mail box bashed in a couple of times and the tree out front was toilet papered once a year ago. I guess no more so than would be expected."
"Don't they wonder where your books are, if you're a writer?"
"Barbara, this may come as a shock to you, but these people are not voracious readers. You know they still get GRIT out here?"
"What grit? Like dirt?"
"It's a newspaper just for rural America. Sold door-to-door. I buy it- I try to fit in. It's sort of like USA Today for the agricultural crowd. The weekly news a month later."
"Ok."
"Hey, it's all we've got out here. I can't exactly subscribe to a bunch of magazines. I do most of my reading on-line."
"And the climbers?"
"Let them buy their own copy."
"No, I mean, what do you see happening with the climbers?"
"Here?"
"Anywhere. Everywhere."
"I don't know. There's never any mention of them on the wire services. No books, no articles. It's as though they don't exist at all for the general public."
"Would you want to change that?"
"You know what it got Arthur Crutchfield? What it almost got me?"
"Yes, I know. But what if we had proof?"
"Such as?"
Ray knew he was going to regret this before he ever said it. He said it anyway.
"What if we had one?"
Steve jumped to his feet. It was more than he could take.
"Are you crazy? Capture one? Why? How?"
"I don't know. It just seems like something we should do."
"Have you consulted the climbers on this matter? They may have a decidedly different view of the subject."
"I'm sure they would. What about your view?"
"Not me. No way. Been there, done that. Won't make that mistake again."
"Ok. What else can we do?"
Barbara thought Ray could use a little support here, and she was willing to offer as little as anyone.
"Ray's right, Steve. You two are at an impasse with the rest of the world. You can either go on the rest of your lives ignoring the climbers' existence or work toward trying to prove to the world- "
"That we're not crazy?"
"That's a bit harsh."
"But that's what you were going to say, wasn't it?"
Barbara had to think fast. No, that wasn't it.
"I was going to say 'prove to the world that climbers exist'. Find out what they are, where they came from and what they're doing here."
“Look, Barbara, I appreciate your concern and all, but I'm just happy to be walking around free, even if I am in hiding. Arthur feels the same way. We don't need any more trauma in our lives."
Ray picked up on the implication.
"You mean Arthur Crutchfield?"
"Yes."
"You've spoken with him?"
"Oh, yes. We talk at least once a month. He's very witty. You know, I think he's going to be seventy next year. Why do you ask?"
"Because Gilbert Lawrence has led me to believe that Crutchfield wouldn't talk on the phone."
"Not to Gilbert Lawrence, he wouldn't."
"But you?"
"Me, you, anyone but Gilbert."
"So he doesn't care for Gil?"
"That's one way to put it. Ray, I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but Gilbert Lawrence is a very creative kid. When it comes to climbers, he's made up everything he knows. Living a lie. His web site is almost pure fiction. He's never seen a climber and never met anyone that has. We've talked over the phone, that's it. I'm sure he's an ok guy, but I don't trust him as far as I can throw this building."
"But, you!"
"But me what? I may be the only real source of information that boy has. I sent him a sketch of a climber that he doctored up and put on his site. That national map? I'd say only about one percent of those little blue dots are real sightings. The rest are all wannabees."
"Boy? How old is this guy?"
"Gilbert? I'd say fourteen. Maybe sixteen tops."
"Geez."
"Don't worry about it. Electronically, everyone looks older."
Ray's world was spinning, not quite out of control. Not yet, anyway.
"Ok- Gilbert Lawrence is just some kid who's made this whole thing up."
"Not quite. Just his part."
"Alright, his part. What about the rest of the information on his web site?"
"I don't know. I'd be willing to bet that most of it was made up between him and his friends."
"The sightings map?"
"He got the states right."
"The drawing?"
"Is mine- heavily doctored."
"Arthur Crutchfield?"
"Is real. Very real. Nice guy."
"Who hates Gilbert Lawrence?"
"Not without reason. Look at it from Arthur's point of view: Here he is, seventy years old. Spent the last fifty years of his life fighting persecution and confinement because he dared to say he saw something in the trees. Then some jerk kid comes along and turns his whole life into a role playing game. Wouldn't you be annoyed? Just a little?"
"Yeah, I guess I would. But what about the Crutchfield web site? That must be Gilbert's brother or something. Is that all a lie as well?"
"Hardly. The Crutchfield site is real. Every word of it is as true as it can be. I verified every date, every address, every situation and event. I guess I am a writer after all. I just don't write fiction."
"That's you??"
"Afraid so."
"But the name- Lawrence. Something Lawrence. I thought it was Gilbert's brother!"
"George Lawrence? I made it up. It must be driving Gilbert crazy."
"He doesn't know it's you?"
"Not at all. No way. My web site is under an assumed name. In another state. I do know that right now, Gilbert Lawrence is trying desperately to find someone who doesn't exist in Petaluma, California. Someone he thinks is using his name and good reputation: George Lawrence."
"Who is you, running your modem output through the wires to another modem hooked to a web site on the West coast. With a fake name calculated to annoy the annoyer."
"By Jove, I think he's got it!"
"You're good. If I were wearing a hat, I'd take it off to you."
"And you won't tell?"
"Not a chance. Even if he is my son."
"YOUR WHAT???"
"Made you look!"
The Meadows' first meeting with Steve Vaan, currently of Lyndon, Illinois went well. Steve seemed like a level-headed sort of guy. The fact that he had to flee impending psychiatric confinement at the hands of his family made both Ray and Barbara wonder about the rest of the Vaans, where ever they were. Steve never mentioned them, or his previous home. They never asked and the afternoon went well. Mister Vaan agreed with the Meadows that the plaster cast had to be of a climber's footprint. He had certainly got a closer look at one than Ray had so far. Steve walked back out to the car with them to see them off after five o'clock. Looking considerably more wide awake than he did when he answered the door, Steve was ready for his day to begin. As he slid in behind the driver's seat, Ray had an inspiration.
"Say, Steve, why don't you join us for dinner?"
"Well, ok. If you don't mind."
"Not at all."
"There aren't too many restaurants around here worth the effort, though."
"Don't worry about that. I know just where to go."
Barbara couldn't resist:
"People are forever telling him."
Steve climbed in the back seat and found himself right next to the cooler holding the wrapped plaster footprint cast. It was a big car, and there was plenty of room.
"Ok, where we headed?"
"How about the Forty-Five Cafe over in Harrisburg?"
"A western bar?"
"Not quite."
The route back to Harrisburg from Lyndon was not the one Ray and Barbara had been taking. Steve knew all the back back roads and was able to show them the truly roundabout route from Lyndon to Harrisburg. They got to see some beautiful countryside, but more importantly: They saw some very impressive stands of old oaks. There were trees out there that made the tree by the Meadows' house look like a bush. Huge, towering ancient oak trees with limbs spread out over an acre. None of them had to point out the obvious: This was climber territory. They had to be there. Now Ray understood why Lyndon stood out on that sightings map: The trees.
Steve kept them on paved roads between the two towns. Had they been in something a little more rugged, he could have shown them the larger stands up close and personal. But they weren't, and dinner awaited. It was six o'clock when they pulled into the restaurant parking lot in Harrisburg. Used to seeing the lot nearly empty at mid-day, Ray was surprised to find it was almost full. And half the machines out there were trucks pulling bass boats. Looks like maybe the fish had not been biting today. Ray parked the car and they headed for that screen door. The sounds of fishermen telling loud lies reached their ears before they reached the door. Maybe they're biting in here.
This was more like what they were used to. A busy restaurant full of noise. People walking around- waitresses running around, and the sounds of glasses and silverware filling in the blanks spots between the talk. It was a different woman who showed them to their table toward the back of the restaurant. It had been a good day for fishing in spite of it being a bad day for catching. Ray, Barbara and Steve were happy to just sit back and watch the show. None of them would have been a bit surprised to see someone slap a five pound largemouth bass across a table to show off the catch of the day. As far as they could tell, no one did. Steve clearly missed the romp and roar of a big room full of people. He was, after all, a city boy. All three were so caught up in the hubbub, Bub, that none of them saw their waitress approach until she was right there asking them what they wanted to drink. The waitress they recognized. Her brother, she had said, lived in Lyndon.
"Welcome back, folks, looks like you made it for dinner- and you brought a friend. What can I get you to drink?"
Ray took over. Time to have just a little fun.
"We'll have two ice teas here. This is our friend Steve Vaan from Lyndon. What'll it be, Steve? Big glass of blood?"
Steve caught the implication immediately. No bumpkin here. He went for his best Bela.
"Yaazz, tank yew. Bluud. Must haff bluud."
As quick as it showed up, the accent was gone, replaced with a charming smile
"Coffee please, black."
The waitress put two and two together, rechecked her sums twice and still came up with an odd number. Steve Vaan. Lyndon. Vaan? Then this must be- Oh, my.
"Uh- Yes, sir. Right away. Be right back."
Barbara saw that she was going to have to play den mother for these two before it got out of hand. If it hadn't already.
"Alright, you two- Was that really necessary?"
Two sheepish smiles showed her that they were sorry for what they had done. Not. Ray was the first to (almost) apologize.
"My fault. I couldn't resist."
"Resist, resist."
Steve had to jump in and defend.
"You don't know how hard it is to not play to their fears in that little town. I could have had my brother send me a black cape or fake fangs and really emptied the place."
"Your restraint is admirable."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
Ray, prankster that he was, was still curious.
"So what do you do at Halloween?"
"Oh, the temptation. You have no idea."
"That's the problem, Steve. Ray does have ideas. Don't egg him on."
"I started out keeping a low profile because my family was looking for me. Even several thousand miles away, I knew they were looking. So I laid low. Didn't go out much, just stayed up there and read books. Certainly didn't go out looking for more climbers. In retrospect, that was worse in the long run."
"People's imagination being what it is?"
"Exactly. I was the recluse. The hidden man. I only came out at night. Wore black and slept hanging upside down. Hide your children, he eats dogs."
"How nice. People are so kind everywhere."
"Look, it was my fault. I should have gone out more. I just didn't see any place to go. So I stayed in."
"Even now?"
"No, now I do try to get out and meet and greet. Get some exercise."
Barbara thought about Steve's situation. Nothing like being an outcast cast out.
"How do people treat you in Lyndon?"
"No different than any other town. Some folks are real nice and some won't give you the time of day."
"So what do you do?"
"I wear a watch."
The waitress, in spite of her better judgment, was back with the drinks- two ice teas and one black coffee. No blood, but she finally brought out her sense of humor.
"Ok, here we go- two teas, one coffee and sorry, sir, fresh out of blood."
"That's ok, it's still daylight anyway."
"Were you folks ready to order?"
"I could eat a horse."
"Sorry, sir. Fresh out of horse. Would cow be ok?"
"A round of cows for everyone, if you please."
With dinner ordered and something to drink, conversation at the table slacked off somewhat. Conversations at the other tables were also winding down as food was being served and mouths were being filled. Tough to talk with your mouth full. Stuff goes everywhere.
Dinner came and went without much delay on anyone's part. The cow was good. By seven-thirty dinner was a recent memory and the restaurant was fast emptying out of fishermen and city types. Dessert was put on hold for another time, as everyone was stuffed with beef. Ray deftly snagged the check and took care of business as they headed for the door. It was a good dinner, but they still had to return Steve to his humble abode before they could head for home. It looked like a little night driving was in the cards. If either Ray or Barbara had any apprehension about driving through the countryside at night, neither was about to let the other one know. Just a nice drive in the country. Climber country. Almost night time. Not a problem. Really. Ray made small talk as they left the restaurant and had the car on the main road (such as it was) to Lyndon before Steve could argue. Steve did not argue. Maybe those back roads were better taken in daylight. A quick thirty minutes on the road put them back in that driveway in Lyndon. The sun was close to setting and they had miles to go before they slept.
Ray and Barbara made their good-byes as Steve got out and headed for the stairs along side the building. There was no doubt that they'd be in touch. Steve Vaan may be their only real contact and source of information regarding climbers now. Not that Gilbert Lawrence had been any true fountain of wisdom, apparently. It was after eight when Ray backed the car out of Steve's driveway. Steve stood at the top of the stairs, waving them off with a smile. The sun was down before the left Lyndon. Barbara thought it was odd that Ray was headed west out of town, toward Marion and away from Harrisburg (and home) to the east.
"Pardon moi, O Fearless Leader, but aren't we headed the wrong way?"
"Maybe. Who wants to know?"
"I do. Really. Where are we going?"
"West. To the Interstate. It's dark, we're low on gas and I'm not going to play any silly reindeer games trying to nurse this sled home on empty. A quick dash over to Marion, top off the tank and we'll head up I-57 to pick up 64 to the north. Might even be quicker. How's that sound?"
"Sounds better than taking those spooky back roads in the dark, even with a full tank."
"You, too, huh?"
"Oh, yeah. If climbers had a smell, I think I smelled them back there."
"That's an interesting thought. I don't remember any particular odor."
"Maybe you weren't close enough."
"Maybe it had just taken a shower."
"Just drive."
"Yes, Ma'am."
The Meadows made it to Marion with a quarter tank to spare. An easy drive. Ray picked the most brightly lit gas station by the Interstate and topped off the tank. He took a bit longer to squeeze the last drop in and pack it in place. They could make it all the way home now non-stop. Stuffed as they were with that dinner, there was no need for either additional food or drink. A simple gas stop and they were on their way. Up the on ramp and into the night. Northbound with a vengeance, Ray found the oldies station on the FM. Life was good.
With the windows down and the night time air rushing through, Ray made short work of their northbound jaunt to I-64. A sweeping right-hand ramp, and they didn't even have to slow down to head east on 64 toward the state line. And Ray was right: They had actually saved a few minutes by going the long way around on the faster road. For once, there was no stop needed at Grayville. Just a whoosh as they went by on the overpass, and a quick look down to what had become their usual gas stop at the mid-point of the trip.
Cruising at seventy on a Saturday night was no guarantee you would have the road to yourself. Matter of fact, Ray could have had it pressed to ninety and a few cars would have still barreled on by. Everybody had to be somewhere five minutes ago. Somewhere on that long straight stretch in Indiana, before they made that turn to the north on I-65, an old pick-up went past at speeds Ray didn't think old pick-ups could reach. Ray looked at his watch- it was a quarter of ten. Without thinking about, he let his speed drop to sixty. No one should be in that big of a hurry. And that smell. Stale beer? Could he actually have smelled that as the truck went past? It even shook Barbara out of her road trance.
"He was in a hurry."
"Nobody should be in that big of a hurry."
"Where do you suppose he's headed?"
"Late for an accident, I guess."
"At least he was alone."
"I've got a bad feeling we haven't seen the last of that one."
Both Ray and Barbara tried to peer into the darkness ahead of the car. There are no street lights along a rural Interstate- it got dark out there at night. That truck was already miles ahead, dim red tail lights showing at the top of each rise. In a few minutes of silent running, they couldn't see him at all. The radio played that other forgotten song. Ray didn't bother to boost the car's speed back up. Sixty was just fine. They'd get there. Let the loony go.
Somewhere west of Croydon, Ray saw skid marks in the fast lane. He could smell the burnt tire rubber as they crested a rise and- no more tire marks. Hmm. No big deal- Whoops, there they were again. Tire marks in the fast lane and that smell of burnt rubber. Stronger this time. Heavier marks. The marks swirled and pirouetted across the lanes and under them, then off the road to the right. And then they were gone. They had passed all that in less than five seconds at sixty. Saw nothing. No lights, no wreck, nobody standing around gawking. Nothing happening here. Ray's right foot never flinched. So he was wrong. They wouldn't see that truck again. Actually, nobody would see that truck until mid-morning Sunday, the next day. The funeral wouldn't be until the following Thursday.
The driver of that truck, alone before, was certainly more alone now. Had either Ray or Barbara seen those tire marks for what they were, they might have stopped. Even without stopping or realizing what he had just driven past, one thing never crossed their minds: Why were those tire marks there- on a perfectly good straight road in the middle of pretty much nowhere? Sure, ol' Billy-Bob was hauling like a bat out of Toledo, but- what made him lock ‘em up like that? In Daylight, Ray might have seen the two stands of huge old growth oaks: One on either side of the Interstate and right where the skid marks started. What did that truck driver see that made him hit the brakes so hard? Take a guess.
This trip home was a far cry from their previous mad dash in the midst of the storms. A balmy Saturday night and all the good radio stations were dialed in. Mike Harvey was in fine form. Hard to believe he was all the down in equally balmy Orlando, Florida. Sounded like they could look out the car window and see him. Nothing like a nationally syndicated radio show going out to all the high-powered FM stations in America. You could be everywhere at once, and nowhere at all. Ray's judicious drop in speed back there did cost them time. They rolled into their driveway, safe and sound, about midnight. A definite sleep-in Sunday. You don't even have to ask.

To Be Continued...
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Copyright 1996,2010, Chip Haynes

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