This is the 38th installment of my new book (launch is this week) Lost Days. I hope you’ve been reading carefully because the answer to the qualifying question is in one of the previous posts. Qualifying question for what? For your chance to win a free laptop computer. Click here to read the rules for the drawing. Basically, you read Lost Days for a chance to win a laptop! If you don’t want to read the free online version, it will be available for sale on Amazon this week!. Good luck.
I didn’t sleep a wink after Grover and I turned the lights off and settled in for the night. My brain fought with itself all night. I went from thinking the pictures were real to knowing they had to be fake and back again over and over until all my thoughts felt like racecars speeding around in my head. It was maddening. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shut it off.
I gave up trying to sleep about two in the morning. I sat up and watched Uncle Crew’s FROG from my window. He didn’t go out probably because three guys had broken into his room a couple of nights before. He was waiting for them to come back. They wouldn’t. Even I knew that. They hadn’t found what they were looking for, and there was no reason to risk getting caught looking in the same place twice.
J-Rob stepped out on the stoop at the top of the stairs a couple of times and smoked a cigarette. I drifted back to our conversation on the porch. I played every word over along with every motion he made. He had a lot of nervous ticks. Comes with being crazy I guess, but there was one that seemed out of place. A few times he would pat the pocket of his coat, the pocket that had the jump drive in it. Then it hit me. He meant for me to find that jump drive. He wanted me to see the pictures.
The natural question followed, “Why?” I thought about putting on some shoes and running outside to ask him, but I knew he would deny it.
His face glowed orange each time he took a drag from his cigarette. If he saw me watching him, he never let on. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew he loved my uncle like a soldier loves his commander or a boy loves a hero. If I had to guess why he gave me the jump drive, it was so I could help. He would never betray Uncle Crew by asking me outright, but if I volunteered, then he was off the hook.
I quickly ditched that idea. How could I possibly help? I was a kid, a test-taker still trying to make my way through Homer’s Iliad and the quadratic formula. I couldn’t help myself through high school, how could I help them… with whatever it is they were doing.
I tried one more time to lay back down in bed and fall asleep, but this time all I thought about was Joyner. I hated myself for believing that he could actually be interested in me. What a jerk I was. I felt like a complete and total fool. The horror slowly engulfed me as I realized that I would have to see him at school.
I gave up trying to sleep and quietly left the room. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I just wandered through the house aimlessly until I reached the living room. I didn’t turn on the lights, choosing instead to sit on the couch in the dark. The pale light of a half moon shined through the window. I sat and listened to the sounds of the early morning. The house settled causing barely audible pops and the wind outside whirled. It was amazing to hear nothing make so much noise. I heard a floorboard creek and almost let it pass without a thought. It suddenly dawned on me that floorboards don’t creek on their own. I became stiff. Another creek. Something out of the corner of my eye moved. I turned and saw a dark figure swaying by the fireplace. I screamed. The figure jumped and sprinted past me. I was screaming with more intensity as I realized that it was a real live person hiding in my grandparents’ living room. The man jerked the front door open and disappeared into the darkness just as granddaddy and mom came rushing down the stairs.
“What the hell…” granddaddy started to say, but stopped when he saw the front door wide open.
“Honey,” mom said running to my side.
I was a blubbering mess.
Granddaddy eased up to the door and peered outside. He shut it when he realized no one was there.
“What happened?” mom asked sitting next to me and allowing me to bury my face into her shoulder.
“A man,” I said as I sobbed.
“Man?” Granddaddy said. “In the house?”
I nodded pointing over to the fireplace. “He was over there.”
I heard the kitchen door open. Uncle Crew and J-Rob barreled into the room.
“What’s going on?” Uncle Crew asked.
“Heard some wild screaming,” J-Rob added.
Granddaddy looked at me with more concern than I have ever seen in an adult. “Hayley said she saw a man in the house. Front door was open when I came down the stairs.”
J-Rob didn’t hesitate. He ran to the door and opened it. Growling like a wildman, he jumped out onto the front porch in an attack posture. If I hadn’t been scared to tears, I would have been laughing. He stepped back inside. “Nothing. I’d say he’s halfway to Peoria by now.”
“What did he look like?” Uncle Crew asked.
I shook my head, and attempted to say that I didn’t know, but all I could manage was a series of squeaks.
“We should call the police,” mom said stroking my hair trying to calm me down.
Granddaddy grimaced. “Police have been out here enough.”
“But a man was in your house, daddy,” mom said sternly.
“I know,” granddaddy said, “And they’ll ask questions, none of which Hayley’s going to be able to answer because she didn’t get a good look at him. It’ll rouse the neighbors and just bring us attention I’d just as soon avoid.”
“Daddy, call the police,” mom demanded.
Nana Taffy came down the stairs holding Grover’s hand. “What happened?” she asked.
Granddaddy rubbed his grizzled face. “A lot of excitement. No one’s hurt…”
“A man broke into the house and daddy refuses to call the police,” mom said.
“A man?” Nana Taffy said pulling Grover in close. “Oh my. Why would he do that?”
“Who knows? Probably a drunk got lost on his way home,” granddaddy said.
“A drunk?…” You could hear the outrage in mom’s voice. “It could have been a burglar or rapist or serial killer for all we know.”
“Connie!” Nana Taffy shouted as she covered Grover’s ears.
“It was me,” Uncle Crew said.
I looked up at him astonished.
“What do you mean, it was you?” granddaddy asked. “You were in the house?”
“No,” Uncle Crew said. “They’re after me.”
“And me,” J-Rob added.
Granddaddy dropped his shoulders and shook his head. “No one’s after you boys.”
“No,” I said. “It’s true. Someone is after them.”
“Enders,” J-Rob said.
Granddaddy started to shuffle toward the stairs to go back to bed. “Sun will be up in a couple of hours. We should try to get some sleep before it’s too late…”
“They broke into my room the other night,” Uncle Crew said. He hesitated before he continued. “Hayley saw them.”
All eyes turned to me. “There were three of them.” I cast my head down feeling ashamed now for not telling them sooner.
“You saw them from your room?” mom asked.
“No,” I looked to see if Uncle Crew would step in and save me, explain what I was doing, how I was able to see the three men, but he simply nodded. “I went up to Uncle Crew’s room after he and J-Rob left the other night…”
“Why would you do that?” Granddaddy asked.
“Sh… she had her reasons,” Uncle Crew said trying to suppress a nervous facial tick. “We’ve talked about it.”
I didn’t know if he was trying to save me or keep the subject of the camera from coming up. “They broke into the FROG while I was there… I mean I wasn’t exactly in the room when they came exactly. I was hiding in the tree right outside the back window. I couldn’t see any of them.” I considered telling them about Joyner, but quickly changed my mind when J-Rob spoke again.
“Gotta be Enders,” he said.
Granddaddy turned to him and asked in a strained voice, “What’s an Ender?”
“Assassins,” J-Rob said. Uncle Crew squirmed. “Of sorts,” he continued. “They work for developers, the timber industry, oil companies, any outfit trying to get their hands on government land.”
“This isn’t the time, J-Rob,” granddaddy said.
“Tell ‘em, Crew,” J-Rob pleaded.
Uncle Crew had a look in his eyes like someone was pointing a gun at his head. “They… they clear vulnerable protected lands from endangered and at risk wildlife.”
“You mean like Bald Eagles?” mom asked.
“No,” Uncle Crew said with slightly more confidence. “Lower profile endangered species. Animals that don’t get a lot of attention except from a few animal rights groups.”
“And by vulnerable protected lands,” Nana Taffy said. “You mean what?”
“I mean those government-owned, protected lands they’re considering selling to pay down the federal debt. The Enders eliminate any evidence of endangered species from those areas and the developers make their case that there’s no reason to keep the land under protected status.”
“Why do you call them Enders?” Grover asked.
“Because,” J-Rob said, “they end entire species just to make a stinking dollar.”
“And this has to do with Bigfoot?” mom asked.
“No,” I said. “Owls.”
She looked at me ready to ask how I knew, but I didn’t give her a chance.
“That’s what Elizabeth Starling was doing in Little Grand Canyon. She was collecting evidence that an endangered species of owl used that area as its habitat.”
“They don’t just end animals,” J-Rob said sounding disturbed.
Mom jumped up. “Daddy did you hear that. The men who killed Elizabeth Starling were in this house. You have to call the police.”
Granddaddy considered her demand. “I’ve heard a lot of things here tonight. Not a lot of which I put much stock in.”
Nana Taffy said sternly, “Hank Stanton you pick up that phone and call the police. The neighbors be damned. I promise you that if I have to do it myself, you will not soon live it down, do you hear me?”
He grumbled and marched past everyone and headed for the kitchen to make the last phone call he ever wanted to make.