Prologue: Autumn Branches
Brother Willy Clay led a man into the chapel of the Valley Baptist Church at half past ten. It was an odd time of night to be giving a tour, but the little church's prospects were slim, so Willy figured he'd better let the man in to have a look-see as he requested. There was something familiar about the stranger, something that seemed at once comforting yet unnerving, both country-affable and city-slick. He wore a cheap suit and his hair was combed over with a bit too much grease. The oddest part was the black leather glove he wore on his right hand. The man's left hand was bare. Willy disguised his distrust and played the part of an old country preacher.
“Now, Brother—uh, what was the name again, sir?” Willy asked.
“Jones, sir. Brother Billy Jones,” the stranger answered.
“Ah yes, Brother Jones. You must forgive me, sir. I admit my mind does not retain information with quite the veracity it did only a few short years ago. But such is likely to be the case when a man reaches the ripe old age of four score and thirteen.”
“My word, sir! You do not say! I refuse to believe it. Why as I stand here tonight, I can hardly believe you are a year older than sixty!”
The man seemed genuine in his delivery, but through it Willy could sense something else—a snake oil salesman behind a curtain, feeding lines to the showman like a Southern Cyrano.
“Why I thank you, sir. I thank you kindly. However, I am all of ninety-three, believe you me. I have the sore joints and gravelly voice to prove it. Where did you say you’re from?” Willy asked.
“I don’t believe I did, sir. But I am from Missouri. Liberty, Missouri, to be precise.”
“Is that right? Liberty, Missouri! I believe I have a cousin down that way. Isn’t it a small world?”
“It surely is,” Jones said.
“I only ask because your accent sounded a bit more Kentucky. That’s where I spent part of my youth, ya see.”
“No sir, I am from Missouri, though my Aunt Ophelia lived down in Tennessee. I spent a good number of my summers down there as a boy.”
”Ah, you don't say? Which part?"
“Which part, sir?” Jones asked.
“Which part of Tennessee did she live in?”
“Oh, well, it was out in the country. But I believe I remember a town called Paris, not too far away. Yes, Paris, Tennessee.”
“Paris, you say? That’s off Lake Kentucky, isn’t it? My daddy and I used to frequent a little camp down that way. Went fishin’ over there a few times if I remember correctly. You ever fish?”
“Why yes, sir, a little. My daddy wasn’t much interested in fishing—or spending time with his family, for that matter. But I did manage to catch a few sunfish on my own.”
Brother Willy was only partly satisfied with his account. There was a deeper story to the man, but Willy wasn’t sure he wanted to know about it. He decided to politely finish up the tour and send Brother Jones on his way. If Brother Willy Clay was resigned to retire, he sure as heck wasn’t going to leave his life’s work in the care of some glad-handing hustler from who-knows-where.
“As you can see, this old place ain't much, just a tiny little chapel on the outskirts of town. Back in the day, we used to fill her up, that we did, but even full up it only fits a hundred-fifty or so—and that's with extra chairs carried up from the basement. We still have our old regulars, of course, but most Sundays we're lucky to bring in fifty."
“Oh, that is just fine by me. I just so happen to be lookin’ to take a little church and help it grow into something special. I guess you might say that is my calling. How much you thinkin’, sir?”
Jones walked to the front of the church and looked up at the pulpit which sat on a small stage three steps up. Brother Willy guessed the man was picturing himself at that pulpit, delivering a thundering sermon.
“How much?” Willy asked. “Why, that’s up to the deacons and the church board. Though I don’t imagine it’ll pay too much—a congregation this size doesn’t provide much in tithings.”
“Is there a parsonage attached?” Brother Jones asked.
“Yes, sir. Around back is the house, along with a pair of old buses to pick up kids for Sunday school. One of the buses, the purple one, might need a little TLC, as they say. We haven’t had much call for two buses in some time, but the one painted red white and blue works just fine if you know how to handle her.”
“Ah, that's no problem at all. I've got me a man who is as handy with a box o' tools as anyone you've ever seen. Old Carl will get that bus runnin' lickity-split. I must say, Brother Clay, you sure do have an excellent little church here. I'll take it!" Brother Jones exclaimed as he walked up behind the pulpit, slapping his gloved hand upon it like an auctioneer.
Willy paused for a moment, taken aback.
“Well now, sir, it's not quite as simple as that. I did say the board would have to meet you and give you an interview. Of course, you'd need to deliver a sermon or two, kind of like an audition I guess. And I'm sure they have one or two others who are interested, so they'll have to give them a go too. Why don't I give you my number and we can set something up once I talk to the deacons?”
“No sir, you got it all wrong. I'm not looking for a job; I'm seeking to buy.” Brother Jones stood there behind the pulpit with a broad smile that looked too much like Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, a film Brother Willy had seen just recently, and didn’t much care for.
Willy paused for another moment and cleared his throat. “Buy, sir?”
“Yes sir, that’s right. I want to buy this here old church. How much you want for it? Name your price.”
“Oh well, I don’t think the board is looking to sell, Brother Jones. They’re just lookin’ for a new preacher, is all. I’m sorry if someone gave you the wrong idea.”
Brother Jones leaned over the pulpit and it seemed to Willy as if the lights had dimmed ten percent. He looked up at the lights and then back at Jones. Jones’s twinkle-eyed smile had turned into a twisted smirk, and Willy got the feeling he had made a mistake in opening his door to the man.
Jones stood up and straightened his jacket. “Now, Brother Clay, I ain't used to callin' any man a liar, least of all one I don't rightly know. But I have to say I find your words downright hard to believe. You are standing there, in the house of the Lord, telling me that the board of this here shitty little church is gonna deny a name-thy-price offer from a bona fide man of faith? You will surely excuse me if I question your candor on that point.”
“Brother Jones!” Willy said, shocked by the language. “Need I remind you that you are standing in a house of God? Watch your tongue, sir!”
“Oh forgive me, sir. I sometimes let my language slip into less flowery speech when I am disappointed. Thankfully, the good Lord has seen to it that disappointment is an emotion I rarely find myself experiencing.” He took a step around the pulpit toward the edge of the stage. “You see, I already took the liberty of speaking to a few of your deacons earlier today, and they all seemed just delighted to be finally rid of this old place. I dare say I could have knocked them over with a feather, as they say. It seems none of your deacons relish the idea of trying to rebuild what you've let slip away.”
Brother Willy gasped. “What I let—now you look here, sir!”
“No! You look here, old fool. Take the money and float off into a happy retirement with what little time you have left on this earth. It’s the smart thing, I assure you. I would’ve wrapped this up with your board and sent you packing myself, but apparently there’s one little hitch in this situation. It seems you are the majority owner of this establishment—a fact you failed to mention, sir. So, I do need you to tell me your price. This is your only chance to do so. I suggest you take it. I'm afraid my terms. . .well, they just won't be pleasing to you at all.”
The man stepped down to the main floor and stood between two large altars on either side of the pulpit. Brother Willy suddenly saw a vision of dark wings stretching out behind Brother Jones, and long vines growing up the walls reaching across the sanctuary like a black rot devouring the inside of the chapel. The old preacher had always professed to seeing visions, though it had been many years since he had seen one as vivid as this. The very air had become warm and moist, and large beads of sweat prickled Willy's forehead. He took out his handkerchief and dabbed it dry as he backed away from Brother Jones.
“Foul creature!” Willy said. “I say you are as nasty as the Beast himself.”
Jones took a threatening step toward him. “You see much, old as you are, so you must understand you have no choice in this matter.”
“Vile thing! Get behind me! I say, get thee behind me! I will never acquiesce to your wishes. Though the heavens may fall, I will stay true. This church shall never be freely given to you.”
“If I am in league with the Beast, as you say, do you not fear me?”
“I have met the Beast and his minions before. You are not the first to gain entry, nor will you be the last, I am sure. I sent them away many long years ago, and I will send them away again. I stood as tall as you through the strength of my Lord, and those demons surely did quake in the light of His justice. I will do the same tonight. Though my strength fades, I will die true to my word.”
For a moment, Jones stared at the withered preacher as a lion might look upon a mouse standing on his hind feet in defiance. His smirk slowly faded.
“Very well, old man. I suppose there isn't another choice but to relieve you of your obligations myself. Sad. I so wanted to let you see just what I did with your precious church.”
Jones lifted his hand and advanced upon the tired preacher, carefully removing his leather glove one finger at a time.
It was two hours into Thursday, the 22nd of October, and Jack Davies was questioning whether he would get any sleep at all. The closet door never quite latched shut no matter how firmly Jack closed it, no matter how hard he pushed. It always came unlatched just after he lay down in bed and pulled up the covers. Sometimes a breeze would sweep through the old Davies' house, and the door would creak open an inch or two, then back. Jack would stare at the crack between the frame and the door. Some nights, like this night, someone was present—someone who was no longer living. Sometimes they would emerge from the closet, reaching out to him as he shivered under the blankets and prayed for help.
Jack tried to tell his parents about the visitors, but all it got him was uncomfortable meetings with a frumpy school psychologist and Sunday ‘rap sessions’ with his church youth pastor, neither of which helped his situation though seemed to make his parents feel better. Miraculously, Jack stopped reporting any further visions and assured his parents that he didn’t need more meetings with mental health professionals or hip, tattooed preachers. Whatever was happening, Jack was on his own.
For the past two months his sister, Anne, spent most nights sitting at the foot of his bed, comforting him as he pretended not to notice the skeletal face staring at him through his bedroom window or the little girl floating near the ceiling in the corner of his room. Unfortunately, Anne wasn't around tonight.
“Anne, Anne,” he whispered toward his bedroom door but there was no response. Part of him wanted to run to his mom, but he knew that would lead to more trouble than it was worth.
Ride it out, he told himself. They’re only ghosts.
Then he looked at the closet door—he had to. Ignoring them was not an option; the spirits would not stand for it. If he didn't acknowledge them and instead closed his eyes pretending they weren't real, they would resort to speaking to him, or God forbid, touching him, and those were horrors Jack could not allow.
Then, just as his closet door opened a full six inches revealing a decaying arm, he heard a soft melody coming from another part of the house. The sound washed over him like water from a warm bath. He felt his eyelids grow heavy, and as he finally slipped off into a peaceful sleep, Anne glided into the room singing a soft lullaby with words that seemed to be of another language, a foreign tongue Jack never understood no matter how many times he heard it. His sister stopped before him with a loving smile, turned and lifted a hand to the closet then whispered something soft. The door closed shut, the latch clicking as it fell home. And as the last glimmers of consciousness faded, and Jack's eyelids finally closed for the night, his sister leaned down and gently kissed his forehead.
Officer Mark Warren ducked under the rafters in the attic of the old three-bedroom bungalow owned by Mrs. Magherius, an elderly Armenian widow who seemed to have a new intruder break into her home every other week. She’d had a stroke eight months earlier and suffered from frequent bouts of dementia ever since. The family looked in on her daily, but even they couldn’t convince her to stop calling the police so often, reporting sightings of strange men in her cellar, a little girl in the pantry, or, as in this instance, a terrified woman in the attic.
“She was up there, officer! Right past the dress form!” the old woman shouted up to him from the bottom of the steps.
“OK, Mrs. Magherius. You just stay down there and I'll handle it, ma'am.”
One of Mark's frequent migraines was starting to creep into his vision. He'd left his medication down in the cruiser, so there would be no relief until he cleared the old woman's attic. Mark rubbed his right temple with his thumb and had to squint to get a better look around. The dress form was standing in the back corner, right where Mrs. Magherius said it would be, surrounded by various dusty and forgotten items collected over the course of the woman's long life. The vaulted ceiling allowed just enough room for a man his size to walk fully upright, and he guessed the light from the lone incandescent bulb in the center of the ceiling must have been 60 watts, if that. It barely provided enough light to see half the room.
Mark pulled out a long black flashlight and turned it on. It blinked on and off for a moment, and then went out. Mark froze where he stood, smacking the bottom of the light with the heel of his hand. His nerves were racing under his skin—he had just changed the batteries two days ago so there was no way it should be dead now. As he returned the light to its place on his belt, he heard a soft voice call to him from the back of the attic.
Looking into the shadows, and instinctively pulling out his service revolver, Mark saw what looked like a woman's shoulder with long brown hair cascading down the front, parted just enough to expose pale skin. He wiped his eyes and peered once again at the back corner. The mysterious woman was still there, her face half-hidden behind an empty bookshelf, one eye staring out at him through strands of dirty hair twinkling in the dim light. Though he could see only a part of her, the familiarity was unmistakable.
“Jennifer?” He couldn’t believe he said the name and speaking it brought tears to his eyes.
In response, the woman reached out toward him with one pleading hand and whispered in a weary voice, “Please!”
Just as Mark took a step to her, his heart drumming heavily in his chest, the woman shot behind a shelving unit as if she'd been snatched away by some unseen force. Mark immediately ran across the rickety wooden floor to the spot where he'd seen her and peered behind the bookshelf, praying she would still be there. All he found were some packing boxes and three old baskets full of discarded men's clothing.
Despite crossing back and forth throughout the attic, checking every box and under every piece of furniture, going so far as to pull on the walls and rafters searching for any sign of a secret passage, he was unable to find her.
Eventually, he lumbered down the narrow stairs to the second-floor hallway, defeated and visibly shaken. Mrs. Magherius stood there at the foot of the steps stroking a worn out stuffed cat with one arthritic hand.
“Did you find her, officer? She was over there behind the dress form looking out at me and crying. Did you see her?”
Mark considered the question for a moment. His head was aching worse than before and his hands were trembling. “Yes, ma’am. I found her. I sent her home. She'll be fine.”
“Oh, that's wonderful, Officer Warren! What a good man you are. That poor woman has cried for help almost every night. I'm so pleased you found her at last!”
Mark shivered as he continued out the front door, tears freely running down his face.
Bettie Stone was obsessively drawing obscure, abstract symbols—symbols she had never seen before. She didn't know why she drew them; she never did. That wasn't how it worked. The images usually entered her mind in the evening as she sat in her room. Whenever the images hit, she would impulsively grab a sketch pad and copy them down, sometimes for hours at a time. Of course, the images didn't always wait for her to be home in her room. Often, the impulse would strike while she was at school, or out for dinner with her parents. There was nothing she could do; she was helpless to restrain herself from the need to draw whatever entered her mind. Her parents referred to them as ‘episodes’, making her feel like some OCD freak, distancing her further from the already ambivalent kids at her stuck-up private school.
Tonight, she had a rather potent ‘episode’, one that seemed from the beginning to be more specific than usual. Then the image abruptly changed, as it sometimes did, to an actual figure. She was sketching the face and form of a girl, a girl who looked like she was a few years older than Bettie, perhaps sixteen or seventeen. The girl's features came into focus as her hand flew across the sketch pad. She held the charcoal pencil lightly to the paper, but with a firm grip at her fingertips. The girl she drew was gorgeous—long black hair with crystal blue eyes, skin as pale as virgin snow, large full lips that turned up slightly at the corners, and a hint of a cleft in her chin. When she finished, Bettie sprayed a fixative over the sketch and carefully rolled it up.
She made her way upstairs and through the living room, passing her parents who were sitting on the couch as always, frozen like two mannequins from an atomic test site. Ignoring them, Bettie reached out with her mind and sent a message to her fool of a minion.
“I’ll be right back,” she called over her shoulder as the front door closed behind her, muffling the sound of her mother cautioning her not to be out late.
“Of course not, it’s a school night,” Bettie replied sarcastically to no one but herself.
She walked through the crisp October night with a nearly-full moon hanging overhead, brightening her path down 21st Street to the woods at Sunnycrest Park. As she stepped onto the main path through the undergrowth and towering trees, Bettie spotted her servant waiting faithfully near their usual meeting place. She had only recently acquired this follower, a large older man with crazy white hair that grew out of his head like tufts of cotton candy. Bettie still didn't understand how it happened. Quite literally, he showed up out of nowhere as she was trudging home from school and pledged his undying loyalty as her faithful servant. Bettie, not being a particularly humble thirteen year old, took it all in stride and felt it was rather appropriate that someone would be at her beck and call. Perhaps she was special, she told herself.
“Hello, Miss. You called for me?”
“Of course I did, unless you have someone else who calls for you telepathically.”
Richard flinched and hastily reassured her. “Oh no! No, Miss! I would never…you are the only one. I promise!”
Bettie smiled. “I know. Anyway, I have a drawing for you.” She unrolled the sketch and handed it to him.
“Thank you, Miss. It’s wonderful. I will cherish it!”
“No, Richard, it’s not a gift. I want you to find the girl in this picture.”
Richard studied the sketch intently for a few moments. “Yes, Miss. You can count on me. But what do I do when I find her?”
“Well now, that's the exciting part.” Bettie explained a plan that had just popped into her mind, in much the same way as the images did for her drawings.
Richard grunted and nodded agreeably in the shadow-broken light of the moon.
Lara Fanning stared at her toes, frustrated that she could never find time to get a proper pedi. The rush job done a few nights ago was already chipped and in dire need of a redo. Once again, the Dawsons were not home when they said they'd be, so she was stuck babysitting far too late on a Thursday night. Fortunately, the kids had been quiet, so she finished her homework earlier than usual. Still, bedtime was calling. She had a twenty-minute drive ahead of her and a full day of classes in the morning. If this kept up, her mom was going to make her quit babysitting during the week, a consequence that would severely hamper her shopping routine. However, what was really on her mind wasn't the late parents, or the possibility of lost revenue, or even the embarrassing state of her toenails. A man was outside in the darkness, watching the Dawson home.
She crossed over to the window and saw that he was still there, standing in shadows, staring straight at her. This week she’d been watching way too much of AMC’s Fear Fest, including the poorly timed airing of When a Stranger Calls and her imagination was running wild. Fabricated spider webs and orange lights decorated yards all over the neighborhood, which typically would have made her excited for the upcoming night of parties and costumes. But tonight they only gave her the chills.
Who in the hell is that? she thought.
Just then, a motorcycle blared loudly around the corner, and Lara recognized the driver as Leo Lourogen. He drove slowly up the street looking off into the very yard where Lara had seen the man standing. Leo stopped the engine and sat there for a time, looking up and down the lane. Eventually, he kick-started his Honda and rumbled around the block, still scanning the yards on each side.
What are you doing, Leo? Lara thought as she watched him cruise around the corner until he was out of her sight. When she returned her gaze to where the peeping Tom had been standing, she found no one there. Hopefully he was frightened away by Leo.
As if on cue, the Dawson’s car finally pulled around the corner, belching dark smoke as it jostled up the road and into the driveway. Lara grabbed her things and shot out the door to meet them in front of the house.
“Heya, Lara!” Mr. Dawson yelled, apparently drunk. “How's the best little babysitter in the state of Iowa?”
Lara grimaced, knowing she would have to put up with a lingering hug and an inappropriate comment or two from one, or both of them. “Oh just fine, thanks. The kids are fed and in bed. They’ve been asleep for a few hours.”
“Oh yes, sorry, darlin’! We just totally lost track of time.” Mrs. Dawson gave her a sweaty hug that stank of cigarettes and cheap vodka.
“Yeah, Lara, we were having a bit too much fun. Here’s a little something extra for ya, OK?” Mr. Dawson broke in and gave her an uncomfortably long hug that ended with the palm of his hand ‘accidentally’ grazing her backside.
Lara took off to her car not bothering to count the money. The amount could be too much or too little when Mr. Dawson was drinking. Fortunately, from the feel of the wad of cash, it appeared he had erred on the side of too much.
“That’s what you get for touching my ass, you old perv,” she said as she started the car.
Relieved to be heading toward home and the comfort of her soft bed, Lara pulled her car away from the curb and started up the road. As she looked into her rear-view mirror, her heart skipped a beat. Standing in the middle of the street was the shadowy figure of a man watching her as she sped toward home.
Stephanie Caine kissed the boy forcefully, pulling his head back with a fistful of hair between her fingers. She swung her leg over the stick shift of the Toyota Corolla gracefully sliding herself onto his lap, pushing her butt against the steering wheel for leverage. Like most boys his age, this one had no idea how to kiss a girl, so Stephanie took control of the situation, directing his head from one side to the other, and pushing him back when he started to get sloppy and overeager. She’d been kissing boys since the fifth grade, so she could work with a boy who needed guidance as long as he had a willingness to learn. Right then, he shot his whole tongue straight into her mouth making her gag and back away. Once again, she pulled his head to the side and returned to lip-kissing.
In her periphery, Stephanie thought she saw something move outside in the trees.
“Jesus, stop yanking my head!” The boy pushed her off his lap and back to the passenger seat. “You don’t have to be so in control.”
“Oh yeah?” Stephanie asked. “I’m trying help you!”
“Help me? Who says I need help?”
"Look, Brad, it's OK. You just need more practice. That's all. Come on, don't be like that." She was losing interest already. The one thing she hated more than a bad kisser was an overly-sensitive guy.
“How would you like it if I called you a bad kisser?”
Stephanie straightened her skirt, buttoned her blouse, and grabbed her purse off the floor of the car. “I’d laugh in your face. I’m a great kisser!”
“Yeah, just ask anyone, right?”
Stephanie shot him a look of death. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You know what I'm saying. You've done it with half the guys in school.”
Moments later, Stephanie stormed down the road as Brad peeled away in his car, yelling at her out his window, “Bitch!”
“Dick!” she screamed back, as she rifled through her giant purse searching for her cell phone.
Devil’s Glen was dark, lit only by sporadically-placed street lamps, making it a perfect place to park and make out. Unfortunately, that same secluded quality made it a horrible place to be abandoned in the middle of the night. The late October wind made matters worse, given that Stephanie was wearing only a short skirt and a cardigan to protect against the weather. She struggled to hold her jacket closed with one hand while she kept her skirt from flying up with the other.
As she walked, she caught a slight movement out of the corner of her eye somewhere deeper into the trees beyond the picnic areas. When she turned to look, she saw nothing but heard footsteps crackling through the dead leaves. Not being the type of girl to run from danger, Stephanie stopped to face whoever was moving beyond her vision.
“Hello,” she called into the shadows. “Who’s out there? Whoever it is, I’m not some scared little girl. You better not try any shit!”
The footsteps stopped, but no reply came from the darkness between the trees. The wind whistled through the woods and she got the feeling that she’d better get out of the park as soon as she could. She quickened her pace almost to the point of jogging as she made her way down a steep hill toward the main road out of the park. She heard the footsteps behind her, closer now than before. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw a large dark shadow of a man barreling toward her, moving with such speed that she knew he would overtake her.
As her world went black, Stephanie thought she saw motorcycle lights in the distance, but before she could cry out for help, she felt cold hands cover her mouth and an inescapable force pulling her to the ground.
The Misadventures of Jack’s Lap
There she was, sitting right next to him, inches away from his nervous body. Sarah Kristy, the goddess of the Bettendorf High School senior class, was seventeen and in the prime of her youthful looks. Her long blondish hair flowed down her shoulders and her lilting laugh rang out above the marching band's din, accompanied by a natural flirtatiousness that drove the boys crazy—boys like Jack Davies.
Her attendance at a high school football game was something of a rarity. She was usually bored by such events and was typically more accustomed to attending college parties on Friday nights. But here she was, not only in attendance but sitting right next to Jack, though she wasn't paying attention to him or the game. She and her friends were mocking the cheerleaders below, feeling quite superior in their awkward adolescent way.
“Dude, look at her,” Randy Wall whispered into Jack’s ear.
“Shh, I know,” Jack replied, trying to keep his best friend from embarrassing him; subtlety was not one of Randy's best traits.
“She’s sitting right next to you, man!” Randy’s voice had risen a full octave, but luckily the marching band drowned it out with a rousing rendition of Wang Chung.
“No shit! I can see that!”
“Dude, she wants it.”
“Don’t embarrass me, Randy.”
“I don’t know. Something like, ‘what’s up?’” Randy tried using his best Casanova voice but it only sounded creepy.
“I will. When I get a chance,” Jack whispered back.
“NOW is your chance!”
“She’s talking to her friends. I’m not gonna interrupt her!”
Unable to continue whispering, Randy groaned, “Oh my god, you’re killing me here.”
“Here, let's switch seats and you talk to her!” Jack said.
Randy flashed a brief deer-in-the-headlights look at Jack but recovered with, “Oh no. She obviously wanted to sit next to you. She wants you! Not me.”
“Seriously, shut up and watch the game, dickhead.”
Ignoring his buddy, Randy began humming a love song, pressing his lips tightly together to produce a trumpet sound. Just as Sarah turned to see where the sound was coming from, Jack elbowed Randy in the ribs.
“Geez!” Randy whispered after Sarah turned back to her friends.
“Well, knock it off.”
“OK, OK, Jesus. But seriously, I think she wants it.”
Just then, one of the cheerleaders threw a plastic souvenir football into the stands only a few feet from where they were sitting. A throng of teenagers launched over to them and Sarah leaped backward to avoid the rush of arms and hands reaching for the ball. The momentum sent her onto Jack's lap. Her round rump, legendary among the Bettendorf High School boy population, was now sitting directly on top of him as she giggled hysterically. Sarah looked down at Jack, raising an eyebrow as if waiting for the usual smarmy pickup line. When it didn't come, she smiled sympathetically at the poor boy below her and gracefully removed herself back to her seat.
“Awwwk-warrrrrd,” one of her friends said.
Jack sat there frozen in the moment, unable to speak or move. He didn’t flinch when a second plastic football sailed over his head, and he barely noticed the mob of kids who subsequently dived behind him to snatch it up, one of them showering him with buttered popcorn. Eventually, he glanced over to Randy who was glaring at him, his mouth hanging open in a look that was either shock or fury. Jack stood up and shuffled down the aisle, retreating to the concession stand.
Within minutes, he was carefully carrying two magma-hot cups back to the bleachers. When he finally returned, Jack saw that Sarah and her friends were gone.