Better To Know

A sudden crash and thump above her made Marge jump up, her book falling on the floor. "What was that?" she called.

"Sorry, Gran," the muffled reply floated back.

Sighing, she picked up the book and flipped the pages listlessly. Giving up on finding her place and losing interest, she tossed it onto the coffee table. A rangy woman with gray eyes and skin that had spent too much time working outdoors; there was something resigned in her expression that spoke of someone who had given up on dreams long ago. 

Her eyes landing on the pile of colorful backpacks by the door and she whispered, "Give me wisdom." In a series of flashes, the memories streamed through her mind; each a distinct still. Standing with the children to wave goodbye to her son and daughter-in-law as they drove to the airport, the news anchor announcing the flight number of the plane lost in transit to Tokyo, and, finally, the children's faces crumpling under the pressure of grief they could neither comprehend nor express. Now, as the world grappled with the fifth disappearance of a commercial flight to Asia in three years, she and her family dealt with the very personal consequences.

Tromping boots on the porch brought her back to the present as her husband pushed open the door. "Well?"

Henry grunted acknowledgement while kicking off the mud-encrusted boots. Joining her in the living room, he fell into his chair. "I've got them in the shed. Good thing we baled the corn stalks or they'd be hip deep in muck. Need to go back out later and check on Lenore; something not quite right. Still raining, but it's starting to freeze."

Marge snorted at his fanciful naming of the cattle. 'The Long-limbed Lenore' was a charolais about to have her first calf. "You had better eat then."

Holding out his hand to stop her, he gestured to the t.v., "Any word?"

Her expression softened, "No, either nobody knows or they won't admit anything."

Slumping back, he closed his eyes and nodded as she went to call the children down.

"Damn it!" Ridley slammed a stack of files down on his desk and threw himself into his chair.

Accustomed to his outbursts, the other four young men either ignored him or glanced up briefly before returning to their monitors. Eventually, Mark hung up his phone and swiveled languidly to ask, "Why do you even bother? We were all hired to feed this all-consuming, monstrous media corporation and you don't see us railing against the injustice. Just do your job and spend your evenings devising elaborate plans to do away with the boss; like everyone else."

Ridley flushed. "But this is important; if I can just get him to listen. Let me show you..."

"No, Ridley." Mark said firmly. "Davis and I have tickets to a show tonight. I'm not getting caught up in one of your convoluted conspiracies."

Looking around hopefully at the others, Ridley deflated. Mark was really the only one who tolerated his rants. Turning back to his computer, he scoured the internet for more 'proof' for his boss. Later, after being vaguely aware of people shutting down and leaving, he muttered to himself, "If they won't send me to Africa, I've got to get more here. Where...who...why...Iowa! Those kids."

"What kids?"

Ridley jerked; sending a cascade of files flying off his desk. "Scott! Oh, nobody, never mind. Just thinking out loud." He leaned unconsciously away from the looming figure. Scott was the polar opposite to himself; slow moving and massive as a glacier, giving the impression that nothing could stop him once his course was set. Now he was frowning.

"What kids, Ridley?"

Suddenly caught up in the need to tell someone, Ridley explained.

Over an hour later, Scott was still frowning. "So, you've linked empty African villages to the missing planes. And, since you're at a dead-end, you want to ask the kids whose parents went missing what they know about it? You think they're getting messages from the dead? Or maybe there's a secret place to meet the aliens who abducted them? Or, I don't know, the kids are terrorists and bombed the plane for the insurance money?"

Ridley's mouth opened and closed, but no sound emerged.

"No. I don't care what other leads you follow, but you leave those kids alone." Watching the desperation war with shame on his co-worker's face, Scott sighed, "Listen, I don't have plans this weekend. How about I help you dig through the passenger lists and look for connections?"

Ridley spun his chair around. "Yes! I started with the villages and couldn't find any commonalities, but there's a lot more scope with international travelers. We have to figure this out before the next phase begins."

"What do you mean: next phase?"

"Didn't I say?" Ridley replied distractedly. "There were five villages in three years, then five planes in three years. If the schedule doesn't change, the next event will be in about two months."

"What event?"

"I have no idea."

Stacy watched a pebble skitter away from her shoe as she tuned out the noise of five-year-old Beth telling Randy about her day. At fourteen, Stacy found selective hearing to be quite useful; whether it was ignoring her siblings or pretending she didn't hear the whispers in the school halls. It didn't help that moving in with their grandparents put them in a different school and all those students knew that her parents were missing. Gran had told them it was okay to take more time off if they needed it but Stacy hated the prickly feeling that they were all waiting for more bad news. At least school kept her busy.

The other two had pulled out in front of her and Randy was urging them to walk faster. A recent growth spurt resulted in his head looking too large on his nine-year-old frame and left him constantly hungry. Waving him on, she watched as he took Beth's hand and convinced her to trot a little faster; hurrying towards whatever snack would be waiting at the farmhouse.

Upon reaching the yard, Stacy frowned at the sight of an out-of-state car. It seemed as if they had been bombarded with strangers pushing into their lives; pressuring them to say whatever the other people needed to hear. Inside, she saw two men in the kitchen talking to her grandparents. Ducking into the living room where Randy and Beth were eating peanut butter and apple slices while watching cartoons, Stacy hissed, "Who are those guys?"

"I dunno," Randy shrugged. "They didn't talk when I was in there."

Quietly moving closer to the adults, she studied the men. Their clothes ruled out government or airline representatives and the social workers always sent at least one woman. While they could be from an insurance company, Stacy couldn't shake the feeling that they were something new. She shifted closer trying to hear what the smaller, intense man was saying. Then, the big man nudged him and nodded towards Stacy. Suddenly, everyone was staring at her.

After the men were swiftly sent on their way, Stacy confronted her grandparents, "Who were they? And what were you talking about that you didn't want me to hear?"

Watching their silent communication gave her a pang as it reminded her of so many similar interactions between her parents. Quickly, they came to an agreement and motioned her to join them at the kitchen table. Her gran leaned forward, "They were reporters who have been trying to make sense of everything. They came here because your parents bought their plane tickets the day before the flight instead of weeks earlier like the other passengers and they've been looking into any clue as to what was unusual about that plane."

Stacy slumped back in her chair, "It didn't help, did it? Knowing it was a business crisis that took them to Tokyo first instead of going straight to Australia?" She blinked back tears at her gran's shaking head. "Will they tell us if they find anything? Even if it's bad..."

She allowed herself to be pulled into a hug while Gran said, "Yes, they said they would and left their numbers in case we learn anything that would help."

The following weeks slid past uneventfully for the family while Ridley and Scott were reprimanded for neglecting their jobs. Keeping their heads down and hard at work left them no time for hunting mysteries, but they were both keenly aware that the next event was drawing close.

At 5:00 a.m. Ridley was already at his desk behind a line of empty Coke cans. Actually, he was still at his desk because he had stayed all night. This was the anniversary of the first missing airplane; because there weren't exact dates known for the disappearing villages, he had to rely on conjecture for how precise the timeline might be.

A twitter alert gave the first notice that something might be happening. With one hand he called Scott while the other clicked between sites. "Wha?" the voice on the phone was sleep-blurred. "Damn it, Ridley! I only got to sleep two hours ago."

"Something's happening. If this is it, we've got witnesses!"

"What? Where?" Scott sounded wide awake now.

"Saint Thomas. That's in..."

"I know where fucking Saint Thomas is, Ridley!" Scott barked in an uncharacteristic display of temper. "What happened?"

"The reports are coming from a cruise ship that was approaching the island; visuals show a blinding flash of light. Hold on, the first videos are being posted." The silence lasted a few minutes, while Scott pulled on yesterday's discarded clothes. "Weird."

"Talk to me."

"Ok, the audio is working because I can hear the passenger reactions, but no sound from whatever that was on the island and no sign of any wind or pressure changes."

"Describe the light again."

"White with a yellow tinge. Sort of pulsing. Lasts 27 seconds." There was another pause, "Scott, everything is gone. It's like the island was scoured down to rock. No debris or trees, even the sand is gone."

"That's thousands of people."

"50,000 plus visitors."

"What is this???"

"Wow! You must be so freaked out."

Stacy glared at the boy leaning against her locker, "What are you talking about? And move!"

"St. Thomas, of course! Seriously, what do you know? Has the government told you anything? There has to be more than they're releasing to the press."

"Do you ever make sense? What would I know about an exploding island?" 

The boy's eyes goggled incredulously, "Whoa! How could you be the last to know? I was sure they'd be talking to you because, you know, your parents and everything. Damn! Don't you go online? Everyone knows about the invasion. It's all anyone's talked about for the last two days."

Stacy felt sick. "Who? Who is invading? Did they shoot down my parents' plane?"

"Who? The aliens, of course. Who else could wipe out an island without nuclear weapons?"

Mouth dropping open, Stacy fought down an almost overpowering urge to punch him. "Are you on drugs or just crazy? Never mind! Forget it! Just stay away from me." Shoving him out of her way, she slammed her locker shut and ran down the hall; just ducking into her classroom before the bell rang. The teacher's voice was a meaningless buzz like a fly knocking futilely against the whirling thoughts in Stacy's head.

At the end of the hour, ignoring the stream of students heading to lunch, she made her way to the school library and logged onto a computer. Online she found that the crazy kid was right; while all the mainstream media sites toed the line of acceptable press releases, everywhere else was ranting about the impossible events on St. Thomas.

That evening, Stacy tapped the reporter's card against her textbook and argued with herself about making the call. Would they laugh at her for asking about aliens? If they knew anything, why tell her anyway? Finally, with an angry toss of her head, she made the call.

Scott ended the call with a frown. It had been frustrating not being able to answer any of the young girl's questions. The truth was, the government had shut down any outside investigation into the island and wasn't talking about anything they found. Ridley had almost been arrested for resisting when men came to take all his research into the events, but Scott had been able to restrain him. Fortunately, Ridley's obsession meant he was able to remember most of the lost information; most importantly, the timeline. In seven months the next event would happen and they would learn if it would be another island or perhaps a random location.

Based on the previous tendency of the events to remain focused on a region, Scott tended to agree with Ridley that the Caribbean Islands were all in grave danger and should be evacuated. Online, there were others who had reached the same conclusion, but didn't know about the deadline. 

"Mr. Turner, I'm waiting for your explanation." The monotone voice had Ridley on the verge of thumping his head against the table.

Gritting his teeth and holding back his temper, he said in the most level tone he could manage, "I've explained it a dozen times already. Why don't you watch the other interrogations?"

"Interview, Mr. Turner; this is an interview, not an interrogation." The nondescript man opposite Ridley straightened the files that hadn't been opened and clasped his hands together. "Forget the other interviews. Concentrate on my questions."

"Okay, fine, whatever. I'm an investigative journalist..." 

"Actually, your job is to search the internet for low-level celebrity gossip," the other man interrupted.

"Well, I trained as an investigative journalist and as soon as I get a break, that's what I'll be doing. That's why I keep notes on mysteries I hear about, so I can investigate. I had a file on missing planes." He paused to level a bitter glare across the table. "You should know since you've got all my files. Anyway, when I narrowed what I was looking at to planes completely missing from Asia, I noticed the pattern. Going backwards from the first one didn't reveal any others, but at the right time was a report of a vanishing village. I just followed the hunch to the rest."

This time the interview didn't mirror the previous ones as Ridley expected when his questioner leaned back and looked thoughtful instead of firing more questions. "Why didn't you alert the authorities?"

Ridley's mouth dropped open. "But I did! Or I tried. I told my editor repeatedly. I contacted Homeland Security every week. Of course they didn't take me seriously; all I could say was that something, somewhere was probably going to disappear on this date."

Leaning forward, the agent said grimly, "Well, we're listening now."

Hours later, Ridley slumped wearily back in his chair. The agent had taken him back through each step of his research, including the lines he had followed and abandoned as either not related or dead ends. The determination to understand everything Ridley knew and how he had learned it was frightening in intensity. 

The months had passed all too quickly and Ridley leaned forward anxiously; trying to watch each scene on the wall of screens at once. Although he had calculated the original schedule of events, it had been independently confirmed by multiple researchers. Now, he waited with the others who had been conscripted by the government to deal with the situation.

When the connection between the islands and missing planes went viral online, it hadn't taken long before the world figured out when the next event would occur. The U.S. government opted to take decisive action rather than appear weak or ineffectual; thus, the evacuation of all people from the islands was ordered. 

Each screen focused on a different view of the Virgin Islands; some from ships stationed off-shore and others from cameras located at key points on the islands. The emptiness was eerie except for the occasional flash of a tropical bird or stray dog. Ridley knew other rooms staffed by scientists were monitoring equipment designed to provide as much data as possible on the event as it occurred.

A wordless cry sounded as a handful of screens flashed with a brilliant light. As the flash faded from view, the now barren island that moments before had been filled with beaches, trees and buildings came into focus. "Saint Croix," whispered Ridley, desperately reminding himself that tens of thousands of lives had been saved.

"Mr. Turner, please turn your attention to the internet. I would be most interested if anyone had prior knowledge of which island would be affected." Ridley nodded acknowledgement; while he now investigated mysteries for the agency instead of himself, today had amply demonstrated how needed his work was.

It wasn't until days later that information leaked through from the scientists; the details were far beyond Ridley's understanding, but the gist of it was that nothing had been destroyed on the island. Instead, everything missing had been removed. The wildest rumors suggested that they would be able to reverse the process.

"Agent Halley, if anyone knew which island would be targeted, they weren't talking about it online. Of course, some guessed Saint Croix, but statistically no more than would be expected given name recognition and proximity to Saint Thomas. In fact, Tortola was the front runner." Ridley was somewhat surprised to be giving his report in person, having provided daily summaries of his findings.

"Very well, Mr. Turner. I have a new set of parameters for you search. For you to be effective, I will read you in to highly classified information. I trust you understand the implications." The agent's flat stare was completely expressionless, and absolutely terrifying.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

imagine a man, thin, in a black suit with a white shirt, smoking a cigerette,

" Submitted for your approval. a Island disappears with no trace, " It all makes sense, in the Twilight Zone"