The air was that perfect balance between crisp and humid; cool enough to make you think you might need a jacket, but not just yet. The night sung with cicadas and crickets, the constant chirping chorus of background music that set off everything that happened after dusk this time of year in Pleasant.
Population 452, the town was located conveniently at the crossroads of what had promised to be two major highways; the dilapidated facades on Main Street testament to promises of the past long since left unfilled. Despite the lack of following through on the American Dream, Pleasant had done its best to support the few folks who doggedly remained to build it into home. The surrounding land was fertile, and farms had sprung up in small areas between the rolling hills that dominated most of the countryside. Timber was plentiful, and as the loggers did their work the ranchers followed behind, hay and sorghum and cattle whipping by in the view of the drivers on the highway, evidence of lives and livelihoods. The town sported a general store and the co-op gas station and garage, and as such was still where most people came to get what they needed. Some years back, Mabel and Clint Harris had bought the old bait store and hunting supply from Frank Kimmel, spending some money they had and some they didn’t on an old restaurant gas range and deep fryer. They furnished the rest of the space with the odd card table and folding chair. Over the years they’d replaced these with matched sets of tables and chairs as the place became a popular gathering point, but Mabel refused to replace the original red and white checked tablecloths, citing a mixture of monetary efficiency and nostalgia any time Clint brought it up. The faded squares, once crisp and happy, seemed to embody the weariness of the rest of the building more effectively than even the rusting wagon wheels and ancient plowshares that decorated the outside. The restaurant was never more than a place to stop on the way to somewhere else; local kids worked there while waiting to take over the farm, people who claimed Pleasant as their home town gathered there on the way home, and the occasional traveler stopped in to eat on their way wherever. Tonight there was a party at Mabel and Clint’s, at least until the party moved on too.
Over the singing cicadas, the voices carried muted through the doorway, occasional bursts of laughter punctuating the dull scraping of chairs against the linoleum floor. Massive mylar balloons in the shape of one and a six floated past the lit window, the figures inside waiving their arms to bat them along the long table. The regulars on the other side of the closed door to the main dining room spoke to each other in low tones, glancing towards the door as it opened, servers carrying in trays of slow-cooker pork shoulder and sweet barbecue sauce. Each time the door swung open the energy of youth spilled out, the loud voices of the teenagers carrying their laughter and exuberance to wash over the quiet patrons in the main dining room who hunched their shoulders against the onslaught like fishermen against a rising storm.
Eventually the gale of happiness and hormones reached a fever pitch and spilled out of the doors to the parking lot, each knot of kids bursting out into the silence of the night and immediately retreating to hushed tones as they became aware of the sharp contrast their voices painted on the quiet dark. Now the loudest sound was the crunching of gravel underfoot, boys and girls separated into little circles standing by their respective vehicles; sedans for the girls, pickup trucks for the boys. The occasional messenger flitted across the divide amongst the sexes like the chemicals between neurons. Negotiations were made, messages passed. Cars began to depart, first in pairs and trios, then singly. Finally the last two groups merged, the boys trying to stand casually and the girls with crossed arms and single legs locked in what they believed was a graceful line. The discussion on where to go and what to do wandered, then finally someone consulted a phone. The drive-in, reopened for a Halloween double feature in Conradville, was floated as the destination. Other ideas were tossed around, narrowed down. Votes were made and tallied. The results in, a few dissenters emerged and were convinced or shouted down. David lingered near the edge of the group, speaking up only when necessary. He voted for the movies, the title the least important thing. He could stream The Lost Boys or The Shining any time he wanted, but this could be his chance to sit next to Nancy Williams for maybe the better part of three hours, packed into the back of the bench-seated pickup thigh-to-thigh. Maybe luck would be with him and he could even put his arm around her. He could see it now, her head resting against his shoulder as she leaned over to get a better view of the screen, sharing a bucket of popcorn. This was the night when it might happen. It was about as far as he could think, but he knew that if she accepted his arm, then they were officially dating, and that was pretty cool.
He waited until who was riding with who came up, counting seats. He stood next to Duncan, who had rebuilt the hulking black pickup they stood beside with his dad earlier that summer. Duncan’s girlfriend was Cathy Ringwald, who was best friends with Nancy’s friend Karen, and seeing as how they had all rode together David figured if stood with Duncan he’d probably be in the right car. The other cars departed, then finally they were getting in. Jackpot. David’s awkward smile to Nancy was accompanied by a quick glance and then eyes down. She returned it, then buckled the seat belt, her eyes forward. David’s whole body felt electric, sitting as close to the door as he could so Nancy didn’t think he was crowding her. As they drove, the conversation turned to Halloween; costumes and a party and the school dance and who was going with who. David followed along, slowly relaxing until he felt his knees brush against Nancy’s there in the dark of the back seat. He froze, and while she didn’t immediately pull away, she didn’t exactly lean in either. What did that mean? Did she want him to move his leg? Which direction though? Did she even notice? The pickup barreled on, the road more and more twisty as the approached the neighboring town. Finally, the three in the back were shoulder to shoulder as Duncan’s pickup swayed at each turn, alternately pressed right then left and right again. It became a game, seeing who was going to smash who against the door the hardest. David didn’t push too hard at first, afraid of hurting the object of his affections. She had no such compunctions, and at the first opportunity attempted to flatten him bodily against the door, the breath leaving his lungs as much with surprise at her ferocity as with the force of her gesture. He laughed and grinned towards her, her eyes forward but her broad smile and laughter art to his eyes and music to his ears. They continued the game until finally Duncan hammered on the brakes, throwing them all against their seat belts, laughing and swearing and giddy with happiness and hormones.
It seemed an instant and they were parked, the tiny speaker and wire clamped to Duncan’s door as the previews played. David checked his phone to see when it would start, but was greeted with only the small unhappy cloud of disconnected service. He asked the car and someone mentioned eight o’clock. He glanced down at his watch, hoping it was soon. Still fifteen minutes to go. He slipped his phone back into his pocket, turning his attention back to the conversation. As soon as one of the girls mentioned the time-honored tradition of popcorn and movies he knew he might as well get it over with. The last thing he wanted to do was leave the warm car, the heady scent of Nancy’s perfume and the heat of where their bodies pressed together, but it was going to be him. Girls don’t pay and Duncan drove, so the math was pretty clearcut. Telling no one in particular he was happy to come back with a few buckets, he popped open the door and was slapped with the bracing October night. He shut the door gently, noting the parking spot next to the light. It would be easy to find again; a gleaming 1957 Chevy Bel Aire convertible was beside them, glowing a dull sea foam green in the pool of light coming off the pole. The chrome trim seemed molten, quicksilver. The car was pretty rare around these parts, even more so in what looked like perfect condition. Guess they let it out of the garage every once in a while. No one in Pleasant could afford to buy a classic like that so it probably belonged to one of the old folks. Maybe someone’s dad had been in a giving mood that night.
He walked back through the lot between the cars and pickups, towards the concession stand, the smell of butter and popcorn pulling him in with an invisible and inevitable hook. He arrived at the kiosk and was surprised to find only two other people; the concession stand was manned only by a small sign that read Be Back Real Soon, just to the left of several bags of freshly filled popcorn sitting idly on the countertop. David looked to the other two on his side of the counter. The boy wore a white shirt and jeans with polished black shoes, a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve. David assumed the girl with him was his date, as she was dressed to match, poodle skirt and cardigan. The spoke to each other in low tones, the girl’s hand resting lightly on the boy’s chest. David pulled his phone from his pocket, the large X at the top corner showing him still out of signal. Finally the two grew impatient and helped themselves to a bag of popcorn. The boy looked over the edge of the counter, presumably for a tip jar, but finding nothing turned and took the girl’s arm to go. David’s eyes met with the other boy’s as they both turned by him.
“That your Bel Aire over there?” David asked him, and the boy nodded back.
“Pretty sweet, huh?” He gestured with the popcorn bag to the girl, and she removed a kernel and threw it into the air, moving her mouth under it a little too slow as it bounced off her cheek and onto the ground.
“I like your costumes too,” David said, chin lifting slightly.
The boy raised an eyebrow at him skeptically and laughed as he and the girl brushed by. “Yeah, OK. You too.” The girl tittered and slapped his chest. She smiled at David, conciliatory.
“Better get back, movie’s about to start.” David frowned, turning back to his popcorn on the counter.
He waited a few more minutes, but no attendant returned to preside over the popcorn. Shrugging to himself, he walked up to the counter and the remaining brightly colored bags. He picked up two of them and made his way back to the pickup, weaving past the parked cars and the Bel Aire. He tapped on the glass and Nancy opened the door for him, his hands encumbered by popcorn. He climbed back up, and the five waited in the pickup, passing the bags of salt and crunch back and forth. David hadn’t realized popcorn could be that good. It nearly melted in his mouth, buttery and salty and the crunch loud in his head but fading quickly. They talked, the bravado of the boys crashing across the girls who maintained carefully unimpressed faces at every boast. David joined in halfheartedly, trying to recapture something of the easily flowing companionship of the drive down. His awkwardness and racing pulse seemed to evaporate with each bite of the popcorn. Eventually they found themselves all laughing and joking once again in the night, the air now sharper with chill. They rolled the windows up. Nancy moved over slightly, and David stretched his arms up to the roof, casually dropping one across the top of the seats. Nancy said nothing, but shifted slightly to lean back into him. His heart nearly stopped, and he realized he had stopped breathing; he forced his chest to rise again calm and steady, his eyes fixed on the screen showing a woman in a poodle skirt removing a roasting pan from the oven. The image didn’t even register; Nancy was leaning into him and he had his arm around her and the movie was going to start soon. David thought this moment was perfect, Nancy was perfect; he closed his eyes and breathed in, the smell of her hair and the warmth of her body against his and her leg pressed up against his thigh and all the little things, trying to implant this memory indelibly, every nook and cranny and nuance of it. He found himself holding his breath again, his body electric with the wish that the moment could last forever.
The perfect instant was shattered by a balled up empty bag of popcorn. The two in the front seat laughed, and he laughed with them, completely uncaring because the moment was still perfect. Nothing could change it now. Duncan handed him some money and told him the price of gas was popcorn duty. He grinned and threw the empty bag back at Duncan. Nancy leaned forward to return the use of his arm, smiling as she smoothed a curl of hair back behind her ear. His smile grew wider, elated, then turned to open the door.
Back at the concession stand. There was another boy there waiting for the attendant, the reassuring sign still in place. The other boy’s costume had little lights embedded in it, flickering and moving down the seams of his short cut jacket like lines of glowing ants. As David moved to the counter and the waiting bags of popcorn, the other cupped the palm of one hand in the other, his thumb tapping repeatedly at his palm. David asked him if he was ok. The boy looked up at him, frowning. “Yeah its just there’s no reception here. Must have lost a relay or something.” David nodded but must have looked confused. The boy regarded him for a moment. “I mean you have a phone right?” David nodded more directly, understanding. “Yeah, but I don’t have a signal either.” David slapped a few bills down on the counter and took a handful of the popcorn in his mouth. Even though they’d eaten the other two bags, he was still hungry. He began to turn back towards his parking spot. Nancy was waiting for him back at the pickup; maybe she’d let him put her arm around him. He checked his watch; still fifteen minutes until show time. He tossed a piece of popcorn into the air, catching it perfectly in his open mouth. He spoke to the other boy around the popcorn as he turned to walk back.
“Better get back, movie’s about to start.”
The state trooper held his hat in one hand, his face dipped to the steaming cup of coffee as gently blew ripples across its surface. He sipped gingerly and made an appreciative noise across the table. He set his hat on the worn plush of the sofa and cupped one hand around the mug. The fingers of his other hand danced around the rim as if to draw attention away from the fact that he hadn’t answered the question.
“Look, ma’am, please understand that we feel for you. If there was more to do, we would do it. You got my word on that.” The woman’s hand closed around her husband’s, knuckles white in pale light that filtered through the picture window.
“But you said you could find them. I just want him back.”
“Ma’am, I always told you it was possible. Not certain.” He sighed. “If they’d gone off the road somewhere, we would know by now. But we are past the first window. We gotta call off the emergency services, but that doesn’t mean we’re giving up.” He ran his hand through his thinning brown hair, widow’s peak momentarily highlighted as he pulled the loose curls straight. “And I know you don’t want to hear this either but… Thing is, sometimes kids run off.”
“I know my son, Officer. He’s not one to be out all night, let alone run off. He’s going to college. Alabama State.” Her grip on her voice cracked. “You have to find him.”
The trooper set his coffee cup down on the table and set both hands on his knees, eyes on the round white ceramic. He took a deep breath and folded them in his lap.
“Please. I know this is hard to hear. But I did the looking, I did the research. While the teams were out along the roads and running the dogs, looked for anything else that could explain it.” He paused for breath and the woman across the table opened her mouth to speak. He held up one palm beseechingly. “Please, I know. I know. But kids run away from this town. It’s happened before, missing persons reports popping up every few years or so. They run off, only explanation.” His hand moved towards his head again and stopped. He picked up his hat. “I know you live here and this is home. But Pleasant ain’t the kind of town that you want to spend your whole life in as a youngster. You say your boy was going to college. Most kids get out after they graduate high school, but some can’t wait that long. All I can tell you is that we will keep the case open and keep looking, and the minute we know or hear something we’ll call you.” He made a point to look her in the eyes. “I promise you that. But I can’t promise you when that’ll be.”
A long pause. The husband spoke. “All right, Frank. I… We understand.” His lips barely moved. The trooper got up, coffee still steaming on the table, and they followed him to the door. His partner waited for him, leaning on the hood of the car.
“That didn’t take long.”
“No. No I figured it wouldn’t. Last one, too.” He sighed.
“Yeah. What is it with these little towns anyways? They always plan this shit to happen at the same time?”
The trooper gave a wry smile to his partner. “Listen city-slicker, these towns ain’t really that far apart for the country. Everyone knows everyone else. They probably had this planned, gonna go live in some commune in California or whatever.”
“Commune in California? Jesus you’re old. This isn’t the 60s.” The partner grinned.
“Shut up and get in. Time to hang it up for the day.”
The black and white cruiser’s tires crunched on the gravel of the driveway as the car pulled around, rubber finding purchase on pavement as the sound of the engine faded, along with the car and the two men in it, into the distance. Pleasant watched them go, steadfast and immutable there between the highways and in the seams between the hills.
This story first appeared in N.T. Narabutovskih
Edited by Marie Ginga
N.T. Narbutovskih is a bestselling author and writes in the tech and security fields. His work has appeared in Metastellar, Air and Space Power Journal and Over the Horizon Journal for both fiction and non-fiction, and he has spoken on leadership and geopolitics at the USAF Squadron Officer School and NavyCON. His first book, Steel in the Blood, has received rave reviews and is available now wherever books are sold. Join his mailing list for exclusive early access and an opportunity to pre-order his next book at Narbutov.com.