The man in the handsome silver shirt lifted his pistol until the end of the barrel seemed as large as a cannon. His voice was gruff, that of a man who had killed many times before and had no intention of stopping any time soon. “When you get to hell,” he said grimly, “tell your brother I said hi.”
He pulled the trigger, and as the deafening boom filled the room, everything went dark. Half a second passed, and then the screen lit up once more as the names of people who had contributed to this latest Lou Devereux action flick began to scroll upwards, accompanied by pounding rock music.
There were a few spots of scattered applause before the house lights came back on, allowing the audience to begin filing out of the movie theater and back to their average, ordinary, dull lives.
I, on the other hand, stood at the doorway, a smile plastered onto my face as I nodded to each person on their way out. “Hope you enjoyed the movie. Good night. Hope you enjoyed the movie. Thank you for coming. Hope you had fun. Good night.” Variations of the same meaningless platitudes rolled off my lips without conscious thought after the three months that I had held this summer job. Not that anyone was really paying that much attention to the words of some skinny little almost-seventeen year old girl with dirty blonde hair that was kept in a loose ponytail.
Yup, unlike the ruggedly handsome star that had just closed out his latest summer blockbuster, I wasn’t an action hero. Or any hero at all, unless there was someone out there who had a deadly allergy to chewing gum. I’d scraped enough of that off the back of seats this summer to be that person’s messiah.
An elbow nudged me, and I realized that I’d zoned out while the last of the audience had been leaving. The boy beside me, a year older and with two summers of this job under his belt to my one, gestured with his own broom. “Hey, Flick, you wanna start down at that end and I’ll meet you in the middle?”
Flick. That was me. Well, technically it was Felicity, Felicity Chambers. But no one ever called me that. Not since my mother, who had loved the name Felicity, had run out on my dad and me back when I was seven. Old enough to believe her when she said she’d be right back, but too young to understand what it had meant when she’d said that while shoving half a dozen suitcases into a stranger’s car.
She had disappeared entirely, and with her had gone any chance of me ever liking the name Felicity. She’d loved the name, and I didn’t want anything to ever remind me of the bitch who had made my father cry when he didn’t know I was watching. So, I’d gone by Flick since the day I went back to school after that. By this point, I was pretty sure most of my classmates thought that was my legal name.
“Sure, Pete,” I finally replied to my coworker while grabbing the nearby dustpan with my free hand. On my way down to the front of the theater, I checked the watch on my wrist. Ten minutes until nine, which meant I had that much time to finish up here before the things started getting interesting.
Not that interesting, obviously. Laramie Falls, Wyoming was, after all, one of the most boring towns on the face of the planet. Actually, the fact that my mother running out on my dad and me a decade previously was still one of the most news-worthy things that had happened in this place said a lot.
The fact that she had been the county sheriff before pulling her disappearing act, and had run off with some out-of-town guy she’d pulled over for speeding probably had something to do with that, but still.
I swept up the trash dropped by the last audience, preparing the room for the next herd of popcorn shovelers. Someone would have to do a more thorough clean later on, after the last showing, but it wouldn’t be me. This was my last shift, and I had to get out early since school started tomorrow.
That and well, to be honest, I didn’t exactly expect to keep this job beyond the next twenty minutes anyway. Not with what I had planned. Still, I did the best job I could while keeping an eye on the time.
At two minutes to nine, I dumped the last load of my dustpan and waved to Pete before stepping out of the room. Looking left and then right down the crowded theater lobby, I finally spotted what I was looking for: the tall man with the shock of bushy red hair sticking out in every direction. Almost a dozen people were gathered around, hanging on his every word as he regaled them with a story that made everyone laugh so loudly that people passing by kept turning to see what was going on.
“Cal?” I spoke up after getting close enough.
At the sound of my voice, Calvin Witson, the owner and manager of the theater, turned away from his gathered audience. His smile widened, while his gaze gave me an appraising look up and down that was just a hair too long to be comfortable. “Flick!” he boomed, still smiling. His arm gestured from the group of people he’d been amusing and then to me. “Everyone, this here is Flick’s last night with us. She’s heading back to school tomorrow. What are you, a senior this year?”
“Junior,” I replied absently, still thinking about what I was doing. I was nervous, but I tried not to let that show. I’d planned this out well enough, and the timing was just right. There was nothing to worry about. Everything was going to be just fine, as long as Scott wasn’t late.
“Eh, you could pass as a senior,” Calvin informed me with a wide grin that was probably meant to be charismatic. It certainly worked on his audience, who laughed along with him while agreeing.
Somehow, my stomach found the fortitude to avoid turning itself inside out. Forcing myself to smile, I lowered my voice to illustrate the need for privacy. “Listen, can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Oh sure, sure.” The man’s head bobbed in agreement. “Let’s chat in my office.” He excused himself from the group and strolled toward the door behind the snack bar that led to his private domain.
I trailed after him, and the two of us walked into his dingy little office that smelled like smoke and alcohol. Most of the space was taken up by an enormous desk, while an obnoxious painting of poker-playing dogs hung off of the far wall.
“So, did you decide to take me up on that offer to work weekends?” Cal asked curiously while nudging the door shut with one foot. He glanced to me as he tugged a couple of hard candies from his pocket, offering me one. When I shook him off, he popped both of them into his mouth. “We need you here.”
I’d thought about my next words carefully over the past several days. When I finally spoke, they came easily enough. “Well sure, but if I stay too much longer, you’re gonna have to tell me about the drugs.”
Pausing, Cal gave me a funny sort of look with his head cocked to the side. Voice muffled by the candy he was sucking on, he asked, “I’m sorry? What’s that about drugs?”
“You know,” I went on casually in spite of my hammering heart. “The pills you’ve been selling through the snack bar.” I forced myself to smile, though his had dropped entirely. “Took me a few weeks to work it out, but I think I’ve got it now. Someone comes in and asks for a diet root beer. When whoever’s working says we don’t have that, they ask to talk to the manager. That’s you. Then they tell you they want a diet root beer, ‘or the next best thing.’ That’s your cue to grab one of the cups, fill it up with whatever you want to give them, and drop one of those water-proof packets of pills into it. They pay you the cost of the drink and the drugs, and you pocket the extra. Smooth set-up, though pretty convoluted. You probably should’ve stuck with passing them out in the park. Or did the gross pervert society all band together and kick you out of the park for making them look bad?”
Cal’s voice had gone from welcoming to cold. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you?”
“Eh,” I shrugged. “I have my moments. This time? Nah, it wasn’t hard to figure out. You made it way too complicated. It was bound to blow up on you sometime.”
“Fuck you,” he shot back bluntly. “Who the fuck do you think you are, some kind of junior detective?”
“Reporter, actually,” I corrected him automatically. “For the school newspaper.”
“School hasn’t started yet!” he roared in disbelief, as if that was the biggest thing he had to worry about.
“A good reporter never passes up a chance for a story.” I gestured absently. “Even if she is the only one in the school that cares about the paper. But this was a little bit bigger than some school news story anyway. You sell nasty shit to teenagers, Cal. You belong in prison, and that’s where you’re going.”
“My word versus yours,” he insisted with a dirty look. “Who do you think the cops are gonna believe?”
“Probably you,” I admitted. “I mean, respected businessman, one of the richest guys in town, people love you. So yeah, they’ll probably take your word for it. If, you know, I hadn’t taken all your drugs for evidence already.”
The man shook his head with a disbelieving laugh. “Bullshit, they’re in the safe.”
“You mean the safe behind your ugly dog painting?” I nodded behind him. “The one this extra key goes to?” I dug in my pocket before waving the aforementioned key at him.
His eyes widened, and the tall man spun around. He yanked the painting aside, jammed his key into the lock, and yanked it open. Inside were stacks and stacks of both money and the little clear packets full of pills that I had mentioned. He looked long enough to see that the drugs and cash were there, then spun back to me with a snarl. “You didn’t get in here!”
“Whoops,” I replied lazily, shrugging. “Guess this is just the key to my dad’s shed. My bad. Seriously though, extra key? Does that thing even have one of those, or are you like, just that stupid?”
He stood there with his hand on the safe door, twisting in rage. Before he could speak, however, the door swung open and a uniformed man stepped inside. “Okay, I think we’ve heard enough.”
“Hi, Scott,” I waved cheerfully from where I was standing while he moved beside me. Seeing Scott Utell come in unexpectedly, Cal started to shut the safe, only for the uniformed man to bark, “Don’t move!” The hand on his holstered gun made the other man freeze, and Scott gazed right at the bags of pills and cash. “Well,” he drawled slowly, “I don’t suppose you’ll tell me what those are?”
Cal froze for a moment. His face contorted a little, reddening from anger before he shook his head rapidly while replying those few simple words, “I want my lawyer.”
“Yeah,” Scott replied. “I kind of figured that’s what you were gonna say. Turn around.” To me, while handcuffing the man, he complained, “You know, it wouldn’t kill you to call me Deputy Utell instead of Scott while I’m on duty.”
I shrugged at him. “You were my babysitter for a long time before you were a deputy, Scott.”
“Damn right I was,” he replied. “So don’t start thinking you’re hot shit now just because you helped bust this little drug scheme. I changed your diapers, little missy.”
“Yeah,” I shot back. “You were thirteen, you sucked at it. Dad’s still cleaning crap off the walls.”
“Oh my god.” That was Cal, who suddenly wasn’t in the mood for chit chat. “Would both of you just shut the fuck up and take me to the station so I can call my lawyer and get this asshole shit-canned?” To me, he added, “And speaking of which, you’re fucking–”
“Fired, yeah, I know,” I replied while looking at my watch. “But my last shift ended already. Sooo should I bring my uniform into Theodore tomorrow when I pick up my check or…”
The answer that came was a long series of curses, and I nodded. “Got it, not a good time.”
Strolling out of the sheriff’s office with my dad about an hour later once they had all the information they wanted from me, I stretched my arms up over my head and yawned. “I think this calls for ice cream, don’t you?”
“You know,” Dad started in that tone that promised all sorts of lectures, “it’s funny, but I don’t really like rewarding my only child for putting herself in danger by pissing off a drug dealer. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned.”
Sneaking a glance sideways at him before lowering my arms, I took in the sight of my father. He was a big guy, like a mountain man from the old days of the American frontier, complete with thick bushy beard and long hair. Usually his eyes were full of life and cheer (except when he was obviously thinking about my stupid coward of a mother), but today he was squinting at me.
“Scott was there,” I protested. “Nothing would’ve happened. I just had to make sure that he opened–”
“Opened the safe,” Dad finished for me. “Yeah, I know. I still don’t like it. Scott could’ve gotten someone else in there. You’re a kid. More importantly,” he added while reaching out to tug me by the arm into a hug, “you’re my kid.” Pressing me tight against his chest, my father murmured a little. “Besides, you should be doing ordinary teenager things like going on dates or screwing around with your friends.”
Yeah, that would involve hanging out with people my own age. Which I didn’t really tend to do anymore. I’d had one real close friend since Mom left, a girl named Miranda. But she moved away a few years earlier, around seventh grade. And after that, I just… getting close to people that were just going to leave felt like a losing proposition. Sure, I still talked to people at school and had people I joked around with, sat with at lunch, or did projects with. But those were just school friends. It wouldn’t matter if they left and I never saw them again.
But I didn’t want Dad to worry even more about me, so I just shrugged while returning the hug. “I like what I’m doing. Besides, it’s Wyoming, remember? Who am I gonna hang out with, some cows?”
Unfortunately, Dad knew me too well to be so easily dissuaded from the topic. “Hah,” he retorted flatly. “You and I both know there’s more to do than that. And plenty of people your own age to do it with.”
Raising an eyebrow at that, I mimed writing on my hand. “Dad says I should ‘do it’ with a bunch of people my own age, got it.”
That earned a simultaneous snort and swat to my shoulder. “You know what I meant.” He squinted at me for a second then before his face softened. “I love you, kid. And I’m proud as hell of you. Stopping that asshole from giving any more drugs to kids, the reporter in me wants to congratulate you. But the father in me… I just want you to be a teenager. Don’t grow up too fast. Hang out with people your own age, have fun, make mistakes. Go to those wild parties, just be smart about it. I just… I don’t want you to wake up someday in ten or twenty years and regret any of this.”
Biting my lip, I met his gaze for a few seconds before responding. “I’ll be okay, Dad, I promise.” And just to make him stop worrying so much, I added, “Besides, maybe someone else’ll pay attention to the school paper this year. Lots of new freshmen, you never know. I might get a partner. Or a protege. Oooh, I could do lots of stuff with a protege.”
Chuckling a little, Dad took a moment to stroke his hand over my hair. “Just think about spending more time with people under twenty, and I’ll be happy.”
Smiling up at him, I put on my most innocent face and voice. “Does that mean ice cream’s back on the table?”
Giving me a long look, Dad finally laughed under his breath. “Tell you what, you can have ice cream after I finish lecturing you about how dangerous that stunt was.”
“What, you’re not done?” I teased in spite of myself. “I thought we already had the lecture.”
“Ohhh no.” Dad shook his head. “Trust me, kid, we haven’t even started yet. Now come on, you know how I like to warm up into my lectures.”
So we walked to the car, and I listened as my father did his fatherly thing. Through it all, I smiled and made the right words at the right times.
It was okay. I knew he worried about me, even more than some might have after Mom left. But really, it was Wyoming. What danger could I possibly run into?
“You awake, sleepyhead?”
It was the next morning, and I was trying as hard as I could not to collapse into my bowl of cereal. Dad was sitting across from me, already dressed for his day at the paper. Like me, Dad was a reporter. Unlike me, he was a real one that worked for a real newspaper, instead of the dinky little school one that no one paid attention to. He’d worked at the Los Angeles paper for a long time, until he met Mom and they settled down here to have a quieter life.
Yeah, that had lasted a long time. Right up until Mom got a better offer.
“I’m good,” I replied before yawning wide. “I’ll be fine.” Smiling at him, I added, “Can’t call off sick on the first day, after all.”
Nodding, Dad straightened from the table. “You’ve got that right. Now go on. Hurry up or you’ll miss the bus.”
After glancing at my watch to see that he was right, I jumped up from the table. “Crap, crap, crap.” Ignoring the half-eaten bowl of cereal, I grabbed my jacket and bag off of the nearby chair, then checked to make sure my phone was in my pocket before rushing toward the door.
“Hey!” Dad called, and I about-faced to give him his hug. “That’s better,” he remarked before kissing the top of my head. “Go learn. And stay away from drug dealers!”
I flinched. “I guess we’re not done talking about that?” The lecture last night had actually gone on through ice cream and on a bit after we’d gotten home, which was part of the reason I was so tired. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to let me take another job for awhile. At least not one that he didn’t check over to make sure it was as safe and boring as the rest of our small town.
His gaze was serious. “Not nearly done, no. But go on now. Later we can talk about the things you’re supposed to do in those situations. Spoiler alert, they do not involve going alone into a room with the bad guy and provoking him.”
Shrugging as innocently as I could, I headed for the door while calling back, “Can’t wait for that conversation!” Then I was out the door and running to meet the bus at the corner.
I did feel bad about upsetting my father. He was pretty much my hero, and the reason I wanted to be an investigative reporter. But the fact was, he’d already lost his wife back when she ran out on him with no explanation beyond a hastily scribbled note about how sorry she was. So when it came to me, he was a lot more cautious. Too cautious, sometimes, but I still loved him.
I made it to the corner just in time, and climbed onto the crowded bus. Nodding to the few other students that greeted me, I made my way down the aisle until I found an empty seat and then collapsed into it. The bus pulled away from the corner, and I closed my eyes. I wouldn’t be able to sleep for long, I knew. The ride to the school was only about thirty minutes. Still, a cat nap was better than nothing, so I let the motion of the bus lull me to a light sleep.
Just for a few minutes…
With a sudden gasp, I jerked awake and sat up. The motion had stopped, and the bus sat still and motionless, the engine completely silent.
“What…” Pushing myself off the seat, I looked around. Every other seat was empty. I was the only one on the bus. Even the driver was gone. Did they just leave me here? Didn’t anyone notice that I didn’t get off?
Grumbling to myself about being late, I rushed to the front of the bus. The door was standing open, and I stepped down to the curb before spinning to orient myself. My first class was…
Nowhere near here. There was no school building here. Actually, there wasn’t really a building at all.
There was a door. A single, solitary pure white door that stood alone in the middle of an otherwise completely empty field. There was nothing else around for as far as I could look in every direction. Nothing except grass, weeds, the empty bus, and this door. There were no buildings, no people, and I couldn’t even see any actual road or tracks that the bus could have used to get out here. Nor were there any tracks that showed where it had come from. It was just there, as silent and still as that single door.
“Where…” I spoke aloud while turning in a slow circle to take in everything one more time. Yup, bus, field, door, me. Nothing else.
“… the hell am I?”