Ophelia pounded on the door to the Smith family home. The light was still on, so there must be someone awake. Ajay opened the door. Ophelia leapt into his arms.
“Um…” Ajay’s eyes widened. The girl was shaking. He closed the door, and finally managed to pry her off of him and set her on the couch.
He checked his watch, trying to recover control of the situation. “It’s past one, Ophelia. And you’re soaking wet.”
Ophelia began to cry, saying something unintelligible about her home, her aunt, and a visitor.
Ajay tried as best he could to makes sense of the story. “Do I need to call the police?”
Ophelia shook her head and wiped tears and snot onto her arm.
“Okay. Then I’m going to make some hot chocolate, and you’re going to change into something dry, and then you’re going to tell me all about it.”
Ophelia sniffled loudly, and nodded. When she had liberated some of Jenny’s non-maternity pajamas from a closet and composed herself more, she recounted the ghost sighting to Ajay, who listened intently, only interrupting to prompt her for more details.
“I just never thought she had… I mean, I know what people say, but I didn’t think she could really have done it. And seeing ghosts! You’re the only one who isn’t going to think I’m crazy,” she finished. “You don’t think I’m crazy, right?”
“No, no,” Ajay flashed her a smile, “in my line of work this is pretty normal. In fact, I have a close friend who is a medium specializing in helping disturbed spirits find peace. I’m sure she can help you.”
“Do you have any friends who deal with the people who make people disturbed spirits?”
Ajay’s bravado faded, “Are you sure the ghost wasn’t just confused? Dying is very traumatic. Sometimes spirits don’t remember exactly what happened to them. How did your uncle die? Was it a situation that could have been foul play?”
“No,” Ophelia answered stiffly. “He died in the same accident that killed my parents,” her lips trembled. “Unless she killed my parents, too.”
“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” Ajay soothed, “I mean, people don’t kill their sister.”
“People don’t usually kill their spouses, either,” Ophelia responded.
Ophelia set down her hot chocolate, “Can I stay here tonight?”
Ajay shrugged, “I certainly can’t send you back to home. I’ll be up working for a while, so come get me if you need anything.”
Jenny Smith was a morning person. Only lately, it seemed like she had to remind herself of this every morning. Stumbling out of her bedroom, she longed for a cup of coffee.
“Can’t. It’s not good for the baby,” she muttered and cursed her decision to keep working even though she was nearly full term. It was only a four hour shift, and she was sitting down for most of it, but it still left her wiped out. Neither of her previous pregnancies had been this hard on her. Part of getting older, she guessed.
As she entered the kitchen, something pierced the fog of her consciousness and she did a double take. Turning around, she examined the form on her couch. Great, not only was she too exhausted for work, but she was so tired that she didn’t notice when her teenaged son was having sleepovers with his girlfriend right under her nose. But why the couch, then?
“Ophelia?” she touched the girl’s shoulder.
Ophelia snapped awake, sitting up with an instant alertness that made Jenny envious.
Jenny asked, looking the girl over. Jenny got vibes from people, and something was definitely wrong. “What are you doing here?”
Ophelia opened her mouth, then closed it. “If I get into it right now I’ll start crying.”
“It’s okay. Nobody’s dead or anything,” the weak smile she’d been managing faded. “I mean, nobody new is dead.”
“I’ll make us some toaster pastries. There's an unopened toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.”
Ophelia went into the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth.
“Yes?” Jenny called back from the kitchen.
“I really need to get out of here before Johnny finds out I’m here.”
Jenny puzzled over this new piece of information as she handed Ophelia a toaster pastry. So Ophelia hadn’t been here romancing her son? She would talk when she was ready, Jenny decided. “My car pool will be here in 20 minutes. We can drop you off at school early, it’s on the way. Does your aunt know where you are?”
Ophelia chewed the pastry, stalling while she decided on an answer. “Yes,” it wasn’t strictly a lie. Where else could she have gone? Olive had surely figured it out.
“Alright. But later you’re going to tell me why you’re sleeping on my couch.”
Petey got up leisurely, a perfect day stretched before him. He had never been too adventurous a soul, even in his younger days, and looked forward to more low key activities. Today, in particular, promised to be a fulfilling day. It was one of his days off, and he was looking forward to spending some quality time with the lawn, setting something going in the crockpot, then catching up on laundry. And, of course, he would straighten up so Jenny could just relax when she got home. Maybe he’d watch a made for TV movie while folding the laundry, he mused.
The phone interrupted his plans.
“Peter, this is Olive.”
“Hi! What can I do for you, Olive?” Petey settled uncertainly on a friendly, personal tone. He hadn’t met Johnny’s girlfriend’s guardian often, but given the closeness between their younglings, it was permissible to act more familiar. Or so it seemed to him. He wished Jenny were home. She was so much better at determining human social contexts than he was.
“Well, this is terribly embarrassing, but is Ophelia at your house? She ran off last night and didn’t come home again, and one of her teachers called, reporting her absent at school.”
“She had dinner here last night, but I’m afraid I haven’t seen her since,” Petey thought about how he would feel in her place. “Do you need help mounting a search party?”
“No, I’m sure she’ll turn up. Just give me a call if you see her.”
Petey hung up, shaking his head at Olive’s apparent lack of worry. Petey worried about all of his children constantly, even the ones he had never met. Especially the ones he had never met.
“What’s going on?” Ajay clomped down the stairs.
“Olive just called. Ophelia’s missing,” Petey told him gravely. “I hope she’s not in trouble.”
“Ophelia? Oh, she’s fine. Last I saw anyway,” Ajay headed out toward the back deck. “She showed up late last night, and I told her she could stay.”
“What? You can’t just let teenagers spend the night here. They have parents, or guardians at least! People who need to know where they are!”
Ajay sucked in a deep breath, “Normally I’d agree with you. But I’m not so sure Ophelia’s safe at home.”
Petey squinted at Ajay, who began to recount Ophelia’s story from the previous night.
Computer literacy was an easy A. Everyone knew it, and as a result it was peopled with two varieties of students: those taking mostly honors or AP classes and participating in enough extra curricular activities that they needed a “filler class”, and those students who had no challenging classes or activities and liked it that way. In short, there were the Johnnys or the Ripps.
“You seen Ophelia today?” Ripp asked, sitting in the chair next to Johnny. They were what Mr. Gavigan would call “computer buddies”, which just meant that due to budget constraints they had to share a computer.
“No,” Johnny answered sourly.
“I saw her in the hall earlier,” Ripp evaluated his friend for a reaction. “She looked pretty upset.”
“Huh,” Johnny said evenly. “Maybe she should be upset, letting a great guy like me get away.”
“You two had a fight?” Ripp turned his eyes to the computer and started typing.
“Yeah,” Johnny huffed. “Maybe I’m better off, right?”
“Are you kidding? The two of you are great together. And she’s hot. And she— oh shit, Johnny, check this out.”
“Why are you reading my housemate’s blog? Wait, is that…?”
“A shocking expose of Olive Specter’s murderous ways with an interview with her only surviving relative? Why yes, Johnny, it is.”
“Oh shit,” mouths agape, they continued to read the article.
“Well at least we know she wasn’t crying over losing your green ass,” Ripp said when they finished.
Johnny cringed, “You didn’t say she was crying. What are the chances that her aunt hasn’t seen this?”
Ripp shrugged, “If there was a news story that said someone you knew was a murderer, you’d forward it too them, right?”
“Good point. We have to go find Ophelia.”
“Okay, what class does she have now?”
Johnny balked at Ripp, “I meant during passing period.”
“The woman of your dreams is in trouble, and you want to wait until passing period?” Ripp looked at Johnny liked he’d just told him he was neutered.
“But Mr. Larson—“
“—is a push over,” Ripp finished. “You want to save her from her crazy aunt and her army of ghosts, or not? This Ajay guy says he’s going to go over there and investigate himself, so maybe you could just wait for him to check it out and make sure it’s safe…” he taunted.
Johnny stood swiftly and ran out the door. Mr. Larson and half the students looked up in surprise.
“He said he had explosive diarrhea,” Ripp addressed the class. “But don’t worry, I’m going to go make sure he’s okay. So you should probably just not follow us, and go back to your studies!” Before anyone could question him he ran down the hall after his friend.
For the first time since Tank had met her, Kendal was at a loss for words.
“I made it for you,” he offered.
She stared quizzically at it, and after a long silence spoke a single word, “Why?”
Tank shrugged, “do you like it?”
“My skin is darker than that,” she said. “And my left hand isn't gigantic. And my dress is red, not green.”
“I’m red/green colorblind,” Tank apologized. “My dad says it’s not too bad; it just means I can’t fly fighter jets.”
Kendal continued to stare at the picture. “That doesn’t look anything like me.”
“I guess I’m not a painter,” Tank said shortly.
“Or a fighter pilot,” Kendal said disdainfully.
“Yeah, I already said that,” Tank snapped. Regaining his composure, he tried to get the conversation back on track. “So, do you want to hang out after school?”
“Um… I don’t think so,” when she turned back to sneer at his painting again, Tank couldn’t take it anymore.
He stormed off, out of the classroom and down the hall, kicking a group of lockers. Served him right for taking advice on girls from Buck.
Johnny opened the door and peeked inside, holding his breath. Once he’d surveyed the area and determined it was safe, he finally exhaled. He turned back to Ripp, “She’s there. Stand guard.”
“One small step for man…” Ripp saluted Johnny as he took his first step into the girls’ bathroom.
“Hey,” Johnny smiled tentatively as Ophelia looked up at him.
“Johnny,” Ophelia wiped her eyes, “you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“Look,” he sat down on the floor next to her, cringing but then finding it wasn’t nearly as bad as he was expecting. Why couldn’t the boys’ bathroom be this nice? “I came to say I’m sorry. I was a real jerk the other day.” Ophelia threw her arms around him. “And I saw the blog.”
“The what?” Ophelia looked at him.
“Ajay’s blog entry.”
“He wrote a blog entry?”
Johnny fumbled, “yeah…”
“What did it say?”
“About you, you know, seeing a ghost, and saying Olive was a murderer…” Johnny felt like he was doing a terrible job downplaying this.
“She’s going to kill me.” Ophelia leaned back into Johnny. “You were right Johnny, I was a jerk. I trusted him and he just wanted to write an article on my fucked up family. And no one’s going to believe me… if I don’t end up in Aunt Olive’s cemetery, I’ll end up in the nut house.”
“I believe you.”
“Yeah, if you say you saw a ghost, then you saw a ghost.”
Ophelia hugged him tightly until they were interrupted by yelling from outside the bathroom.
“We should get out of here.”
“I left Ripp guarding the door,” Johnny looked to the door and a loud slamming sound echoed into the bathroom.
Still cursing his sensitive youngest brother as he walked down the deserted hall, Tank saw the last person he wanted to see right now: his other brother.
“Tank,” Ripp admonished, “playing hooky I see.”
As if Ripp weren’t playing hooky, too, Tank fumed. “What the hell are you doing hanging out by the girls’ bathroom?” he snapped at Ripp.
“It’s a great place to pick up chicks,” Ripp answered calmly. “You should try it sometime. I hear you need the help.”
Tank didn’t know how Ripp always knew what to say, but he didn’t have time to think about it. He pushed his brother hard into the lockers by the bathroom.
“Jesus Christ,” Ripp made the stupid decision of getting back up.
Tank raised his fists and started wailing on his brother, but before he’d landed more than a few punches, someone jumped him from behind, pulling him away from his brother. He couldn’t see who he was, but when he saw the hands – green hands – holding him back, he knew.
Tank tried to struggle free, watching Ripp and that punk chick he and Johnny were always hanging out with running down the hall.
He stepped backwards, throwing his weight with him, hoping to bring Johnny slamming into the lockers behind him, but the alien let go just in time.
Tank smashed into the lockers without Johnny’s body to cushion the blow. Johnny ran down the hall toward his friends.
“You better run, Smith,” Tank yelled. “This isn’t over!”
Crystal slipped the flash drive into the USB port, then glanced at the door. Lazlo’s decrypt was beginning. This was the most dangerous part of the whole operation. Would the computer catch the program, deny her access, and raise an alarm?
And suddenly she was in. She typed into the search bar “alien abductions”. The search took longer than she’d thought it would. Much longer. Crystal glanced back over at the door to the hall. People were talking as they walked by it. She forced herself to breathe slowly.
Returning her gaze to the screen, her jaw dropped. She’d never expected so many search results. Maybe she’d expected a few transcriptions of accounts from yokels who’d seen black ops planes on test runs and thought they saw aliens, but there were so many files here. And most of them seemed to be serious military investigations. She selected a group of files at random and started pulling them on to the flash drive, then scanned through more of the files while she waited for the files to transfer.
A file caught her eye. “Smith” the title said plainly. Wasn’t that Lazlo’s sister’s married name? It was a common enough name. She tried to mark it up to a coincidence, but couldn’t quite convince herself. She hit the button to copy it onto the flash drive too.
As she waited for the files to transfer she looked around the office. It was very standard military fare, souvenirs from places the General had served, the requisite plant. Only two things were strange. A model ship and WWII fighter plane, carefully hand painted and displayed.
“My son assembles them and paints them himself. He’s good, isn’t he?”
“General,” she stood and saluted.
General Grunt inspected the officer before him then sighed. “Lieutenant Vu, you appear to be in a shitstorm of trouble, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” she replied.
“And all for…” he leaned over onto the back of the chair, “alien abductions? Well, the good news is the judge will be laughing too hard to make a treason charge stick. But you’re still looking at a court-martial, and military prison. You’ve done a hell of a job throwing your life away, haven’t you?”
“Well, Lieutenant,” General Grunt circled her. “I’m going to give you a chance to erase this mess. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” Crystal raised her eyebrows in surprise.
“Then just tell me the name. Tell me who’s having the alien baby,” the General whispered. “There will be no charges, no inquiry, it’ll be like this never happened.”
Crystal twisted her lip, but said nothing.
The General pulled the flash drive out of the computer. “This is a nasty little piece of software. Whoever made this is in even more trouble than you are. This program could be considered domestic terrorism, did you know that?”
Crystal swallowed hard.
“And we will find out who made it. Maybe it’s a civilian. One of those freedom of information act hippies. How do you think they’ll hold up in military prison?” the General paused a moment to let the idea sink in. “So once more, for your freedom and theirs: Where’s the alien baby?”
Notes: So recently I had to reinstall. When I went I finished taking pictures for this chapter and started compiling them, I realized that while I had fixed the graphics settings after reinstalling, I hadn't changed the camera quality. It's fixed now, but I didn't want to go back and take new pictures. It would have made me super cranky. And when I'm super cranky I procrastinate more than I already do.