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Eve of destruction, p.2
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       Eve of Destruction, p.2

           Patrick Carman
 
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  Ben Dugan went so far as to back up and bump into me before stopping cold.

  “This is starting to feel like a bad idea,” he said. “Why the hell are we even here?”

  “Because Mrs. Goring wants to see us,” I said.

  “What about Rainsford? Is he here, too?” Ben asked.

  This was the tough part. There was a huge secret about Rainsford only I among the group knew. I hadn’t even told Marisa.

  “Let’s get it over with,” Connor said, manning up as he always did. “I’m hungry. Maybe she’s got some Mrs. Goring Spaghetti in there waiting for us.”

  Connor started into the clearing, then looked back at us like we were a bunch of lowly players required to follow him. Kate rolled her eyes but trudged off, giving in to the inevitable, and that started an exodus from the foot of the trail to the entrance of the fort.

  The guys took turns knocking on the locked door, but no one answered.

  “Where’d she say she’d be?” asked Alex. He was settling into the adventure even as he kept looking around like someone was watching us.

  I shrugged, I didn’t know. Everyone was staring at me like I was insane.

  “Maybe we should leave,” I suggested. It felt like there was still a chance to get everyone out safely before Mrs. Goring showed up with a shotgun and guided us all into a fear chamber in the basement of the concrete building. My mind was starting to fill with bad possibilities.

  Kate laughed unkindly and started marching for the second of two structures on the property,1 the Bunker. “You talked us into this, Will. This was your thing, not ours.”

  She rubbed her temples as she stormed off, and I felt sad for her. The headaches hadn’t stopped. They probably never would.

  Marisa followed after Kate, but all four of us guys stayed put. It felt like we weren’t really being invited to go knock on the Bunker door, like we better stay right where we were and keep our mouths shut.

  “Dang, Will. What were you thinking?” said Connor. “Dragging us all the way out here for what?”

  “Yeah, what gives?” asked Alex.

  Ben just stared off into the woods like he wished he was home.

  “All I know is I got a letter and it said she’d be here. It said she was sick or dying or something. She wanted to see us, that’s it. End of story.”

  They already knew everything I was saying, I’d told them about ten times each. But it didn’t matter. We’d spent half the day getting down here, and the place was looking deserted as Kate and Marisa came back.

  “Nobody home,” said Marisa.

  “Unless she’s already dead.”

  Kate had said the thing I was wondering, and looking at the faces staring back at me, it seemed like everyone else was thinking the same thing, too.

  “No way I’m climbing through some window looking for a dead body,” said Ben. “Forget it. I’m outta here.”

  He started walking away, but Connor grabbed him by the arm.

  “Let’s at least jump in the pond while we’re down here. It’ll take like ten minutes.”

  More likely Connor was thinking about how much work it would be hiking out of the ravine and back to the cars and hoped for a little more time to rest. His dizzy spells were always a lot worse when he exerted himself.2

  “It might feel good to get wet before we go,” said Marisa, smiling awkwardly at the group. “It is hot out here.”

  “And it’s a hell of a hike out,” Connor added, which seemed to bring everyone halfheartedly into alignment with the idea of cooling off first.

  It was agreed we’d forgo searching for a dead version of Mrs. Goring and dare each other to leap into the freezing pond instead. This seemed to chipper everyone up the farther we got away from Fort Eden on a grassy path in the woods. I remembered my first walk with Marisa down the same trail and felt a swell of emotion, taking her hand as she leaned into me.

  “I remember, too,” she whispered, close and warm.

  I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but something struck me then as I looked above and saw a crow staring angrily down at me.

  This whole situation could have gone terribly wrong.

  I might have had to tell them the truth.

  What had I been thinking, dragging them all out here in the first place?

  No sooner had I processed this thought and squeezed Marisa’s hand tighter, than I noticed everyone had turned in my direction on the path. They’d arrived at the clearing before the pond and stopped short, still and quiet, as if a rare creature was up ahead and they might scare it off.

  It was certainly rare, what they saw, but it was no wild animal.

  As I stepped past Connor and Kate and the rest, my eyes settled on a figure standing at the dock. She was staring out over the still, glassy water, her shock of hair a brilliant white in the sunlight.

  Mrs. Goring was not dead after all.

  She turned to us without smiling; her dark eyes the only moving things against the granite stillness of her face. At length, Mrs. Goring moved a few steps closer.

  “My god you’re loud,” she said unapologetically, as if it was our fault we hadn’t searched where she was standing sooner. “Like a herd of elephants.”

  Mrs. Goring’s gaze landed on me, and I felt the full force of her will like a blast of hot wind in my face. She was searching my expression, trying to read my thoughts.

  You didn’t tell them, did you? Not even Marisa.

  No, Mrs. Goring, I didn’t tell them. Not even Marisa. It’s not exactly easy stuff to tell if you don’t have to.

  Mrs. Goring lost interest in staring at my face as she walked toward us. She wore the same clumsy boots, half tied, with the heavy heels clubbing the dock with each step; the same flannel shirt even in the blistering heat. And she was annoyed at our presence, like we’d invaded her privacy.

  “I told Cynthia to have you here early,” she continued. “It’s noon.”

  Nobody answered, but everyone else had to be thinking the same thing I was: you invited us up here. We drove two hours and hiked down into a ravine on the hottest day of the summer. Nice to see you, too.

  But no one was about to say what they really felt, not even Kate or Connor. Mrs. Goring had that effect on people.

  “Let me take a wild guess. You haven’t eaten since breakfast and now you expect me to feed you.”

  Connor started to open his mouth, but Marisa cut him off.

  “We’re fine. You don’t need to cook for us. We just came to say hi and see how you were doing.”

  “Sure you did,” Mrs. Goring snapped, and I wished I’d had the courage to tell her to shut up and leave Marisa alone. But I didn’t.

  “There are things I need to tell you, and quick,” she went on, pointing her chin toward me. “Me and him, we both have information, don’t we, Will Besting?”

  She said it like she was almost enjoying the fact that I’d withheld certain important facts she and I both knew. She had been right about me, or so she thought.

  I was a coward.

  Mrs. Goring took one more look at us and let out a large, impatient sigh.

  “Come on, I’ve got pancakes and a jar of peanut butter at the Bunker. That’s all you’re getting.”

  She moved toward us, and we broke apart like crepe paper so she didn’t have to slow down. She was fast, four or five steps away before any of us tacitly agreed to eat her food by marching in line behind her.

  “I didn’t think you’d all come,” she said, turning and staring at Ben Dugan without stopping. “Especially him.”

  Ben didn’t take the implication that he was weak or spineless without firing back.

  “You walk pretty fast for someone who’s supposed to be on her deathbed.”

  Mrs. Goring cackled, sending a crow flying off a nearby branch, screeching back at her.

  “We’re all dying, Ben Dugan. Some of us a lot faster than others.”

  No one else tried going toe to toe with Mrs. Goring after that, and a
heavy silence fell among us. When we reached the fort, Mrs. Goring unlocked the door, pushing it open.

  “You know the drill. Wait at the table, I’ll bring the pancakes.”

  She started to walk away as we gathered like a flock of birds at the foot of the stairs leading up to the door. As I stared off toward her makeshift house I thought I saw a figure move near the front window. But the wind was blowing through the trees, casting long shadows over the Bunker and Fort Eden, playing tricks with my eyes.

  “If you’re not dying, then why are we here?” Kate asked Mrs. Goring. She had a genuine look of curiosity on her face as Mrs. Goring stared coldly at me.

  “Ask him,” she said, and then she was moving toward the Bunker, the only other building on the property.

  Everyone stared at me, and I felt the weight of my Recorder in my back pocket.

  I knew there was something on the device I should have shown them before we left. I’d thought maybe Mrs. Goring really was dying, that my secret could stay hidden.

  But I had been wrong.

  Looking at Marisa and knowing what this might do to us, I wished Mrs. Goring would drop dead right there in the woods.

  “It’s my Recorder,” I said. “I record things with it.”3

  I sounded about as dumb as I looked, but it didn’t change the fact that I was making everyone nervous.

  “What kinds of things have you recorded?” asked Alex. He’d been fairly aloof up until then, but sitting around the table in a tight circle with the rest of us he was suddenly alert.

  I pushed a button on my Recorder, a device that had the look and feel of a first-generation digital music player.

  “I just recorded you talking, so there’s that.”

  “And it records video, too. Right, Will?” Marisa said. She knew all about it, just not all the stuff that was hidden inside, buried behind passwords.

  “Why do I get the feeling you’ve got recordings of me on there?” asked Kate. It wasn’t so much a question as a statement: if you did that, I’m going to tell Connor to kick your ass.

  “Look, you guys . . .” I was getting an old familiar feeling of wanting to be alone. Under the table I took Marisa’s hand, partly because it was a comfort, but also because I had a bad feeling it might be the last time I’d ever get to do it. Mrs. Goring was going to be back any minute. I was cornered, trapped, unprepared.

  Better I tell them than have Mrs. Goring do the dirty work for me. It would only be worse.

  “Just tell us, Will,” said Marisa, squeezing my hand. “It can’t be that bad.”

  Oh yes it can, I thought.

  “Before I came here, before we all came here,” I began, glancing between all the eyes staring back at me curiously. “I was afraid to be near anyone. You guys know that, right? You know I couldn’t come in here. I was a different person back then.”

  This was all true. I’d had an acute fear—we’d all had one.

  The fears were these:

  Will Besting (that was me): Fear of being with people my own age

  Marisa Sorrento: Fear of being kidnapped

  Ben Dugan: Fear of bugs, spiders, centipedes

  Kate Hollander: Fear of doctors, hospitals, clinics

  Alex Hersh: Fear of dogs

  Conner Bloom: Fear of falling

  Avery Varone: Fear of death

  And everyone had been cured. Totally cured, the fears wiped away entirely.

  But there had been a cost, something I knew that they didn’t.

  I repeated what I’d said, looking back at them as they sat there trying to figure out where this was all going.

  “I was different back then. I’m not that person anymore.”

  “None of us are the same as we were before we came here, Will,” said Ben, and I felt like he was trying to understand. “Why does that matter?”

  “If you had been like me, wouldn’t you have wanted to know?”

  “Know what?” asked Ben.

  “If you were afraid of being around a lot of people, wouldn’t you have done everything you could to know what you were getting yourself into?”

  “God, Will, just spill it already.” Kate was running low on patience as she popped two Tylenol in her mouth and choked them down with no water.

  “I know what Will is trying to tell you,” Marisa said. She had moved her hand to my forearm, gripping it tightly like she, too, was about to be on the wrong side of the group.

  “No, Marisa, it’s more than that,” I said, staring into her eyes as my own started to pool with fear. My voice was shaking when I told them the first of what I needed to say.

  “I knew about you all. Before this place. I knew.”

  It was not the revelation that would ruin everything. No, that part would be much worse.

  They stared back at me, unsure of what I meant, so I went on.

  “We all had the same doctor—”

  “Wait a second,” said Kate, leaning forward with her sharp elbows on the table. She had a kind of beauty that was at its most powerful when she was furious. Connor and Ben couldn’t take their eyes off her. “Are you telling us you took that thing in there and recorded our sessions?”

  “Like with a remote control from the sidewalk or what?” asked Alex, who seemed thoroughly confused.

  I explained what I’d really done, which unfortunately sounded a little bit worse than what Kate had guessed.

  “Dr. Stevens recorded all of us, every session. I just figured out the password on her computer and uploaded them all to my Recorder.”

  “Harsh,” said Ben. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. “So you listened to all my private sessions?”

  “No, only a few.”

  “Face it, you’re not that interesting, bro,” said Connor, which loosened everyone up at least a little. But what he said next made me his fan for life. “Come on, you guys, be real. If you’d have thought of it and had the guts to do it and had the brains to pull it off, you’d have done the same thing.”

  Everyone sort of looked at the table, even Kate seemed to lose some of her steam as her attractiveness scaled back from an 11 out of 10 to a 9.7.

  “And I for one am glad Will has that stuff,” said Marisa, coming to my defense for what I was sure would be the last time ever. “Dr. Stevens wouldn’t have given those files to us. Now we can get them from Will if we ever want to go back and remember what freaks we all were.”

  There was nervous laughter as she stared up at me with those endlessly deep brown eyes, and I knew what she was feeling: proud. Proud that I’d told my secret.

  Now to obliterate all hope of ever having a girlfriend again.

  “There’s more,” I said, and even then, right then, I saw something in Marisa’s eyes change.

  Wait, what do you mean, more? What didn’t you tell me?

  Oh, nothing much, only a secret the size of Texas, I thought.

  “Come on, Will, get it all out,” said Connor, who seemed to think anything from the past was fair game, harmless, not a huge deal. I was starting to see that this was really what it was all about for him: making a molehill out of a mountain. If he downplayed the situation, none of it would mean anything.

  Sorry, Connor. No one would be happier than me if that were true.

  I was just about to spill the beans when the side door leading down to the Bunker basement flew open and a metal cart rolled into the room. A flash of memories washed over me at the sound of the wobbly wheel on the cart as she pushed it toward us.

  The bomb shelter, the monitors, the cures.

  The hypnotic, whispering voice of Rainsford.

  Keith, my dead brother, in his lime green baseball cap.

  That son of a bitch Davis and his flash of teeth when he smiled.

  Avery. Where was Avery?

  “Move it or lose it!” Mrs. Goring screamed as she shoved the cart toward us. Ben and Alex had to push back in their chairs in order to miss being clobbered, and the cart bashed against the table, upsetting a plastic jar of peanut but
ter that rolled off the cart and onto the floor.

  “Someone pick that up,” Mrs. Goring said. “And plug this in. I assume Mr. Besting has failed to get to the point and it will be up to me.”

  There were several things on the cart besides the empty space where the jar of peanut butter had been (a jar I was more than happy to go in search of so the attention would be off me for a few seconds). On the cart sat seven or eight gigantic pancakes stacked on a single plate, a small pile of butter knives, and a computer monitor. The monitor was attached to a dusty old computer sitting on the bottom shelf of the cart, from which a cord dangled like a tail.

  “You,” she said, pointing at me as I returned to my seat, peanut butter jar in hand. “Plug this stupid thing in. You had your chance.”

  Part of me was incredibly bummed out by this turn of events, but another part was glad not to have to do the deed myself. This way, I could blame it on her. She’d made me stay quiet against my will. As I plugged in the computer and listened to it whirl to life, I put this plan into play.

  Whatever she tells them, just remember: she made me keep it secret.

  Mrs. Goring picked up the plate of Frisbee-size pancakes and dropped it with a crash on the table. She grabbed all the butter knives with one hand and sort of punched Ben Dugan in the shoulder with her balled-up fist of metal. He took this to mean he should pass out the knives and began doing so.

  She gazed at Marisa long and hard. “You knew he was a coward when you kissed him. Don’t act so surprised.”

  The only person brave enough or hungry enough to actually start pasting peanut butter on a giant cold pancake was Connor Bloom. The rest of us just sat there staring as the monitor flashed to life, first with a pale green sort of light, then more brightly with a bluish twang of fuzz. Mrs. Goring began fumbling with the keys on the computer keyboard, looking at the monitor like she was staring into a fogged mirror trying to make out her own face.

  “If you haven’t taken a pancake by the time I start this show, you won’t get one,” she said, not looking at anyone. “And it may be a while before you eat again.”

  What was that supposed to mean? I thought as I watched every single person take a floppy pancake off the plate. I picked one up, too. It felt like something cold and dead draped across my hand.

 
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