‘Stang: Spring 1980 • The Rambler: Summer 1980 • Torgus the Angel • The Factory: Summer 1981 • Daath the Angel
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
‘Stang: Spring 1980
The Kelvins got the wrecked Mustang, and all that fall and winter, we’d bike over to Rusty’s auto shop after school, where the beat-up old coupe was slowly transforming into the classic, chromed-out, cherry-red ‘Stang Uncle Deek had always said it would be, someday when he got the money.
Now, the snows were turning to rain, and whispers of spring were in the air as we parked our bikes outside and slipped through the side door to the bay containing Uncle Deek’s car. “Wish he could see it,” Marissa said.
“Slicker’n owl shit, as my dearly departed brother would’ve said.” Rusty’s voice came from directly behind us, making me jump. Marissa’s father came around to stand in front of the car, admiring his work. “She’s a showgirl now. Lucky break for her, I guess.”
“Don’t talk about him that way!” Marissa burst out. “And he was gonna fix it up just like that, he told me!”
Eric Kelvin turned to regard his daughter. She was trembling, clearly wanting to say more but not daring. As with her uncle, their eyes met, speaking volumes, but with no trace of warmth. Then, her father smiled. “Want it?”
She said nothing.
He stepped away from the Mustang with a grand sweep of his arm. “It’s yours! I am dead serious.”
Marissa had turned to stone.
“Why so sad? It’s your lucky day! You can have your dear old uncle’s ‘Stang, to remember him by forever and ever. Long as you’ve got fifty grand on you, that is.”
Her face went white. “You’re selling it?!”
He laughed. “What’d you think? I spent the last few months plus a shitload of money restoring her, all for nothing?”
“It’s not nothing! It’s all that’s left of him!”
His expression hardened. “I’ve got work to do. Run on home, now…little girl.”
We watched him walk away. “I wish it was you, not him,” Marissa said softly.
The bottle of Single Barrel is still in my possession—has been since that same night, when we snuck back into the shop. When we popped that secret compartment in the driver’s side door, it was right there, unbroken and three quarters full. How that was even possible, I couldn’t say. What I believe, though: It was there because Marissa needed it to be.
Every summer on the anniversary of the crash, we’d raise a toast to Uncle Deek. Careful to avoid doing anything that might be construed as a rain dance. She swore when we finally got away from here, we were going to find that cherry-red ‘Stang and buy it back. The license plate? DMSDAY, of course.
After the spring of our senior year, I would raise that glass alone, the date now April twelfth: the day Marissa would disappear without a trace.
I thought of all the promises we’d made ourselves, of weathermen and angels, as I served plates of spaghetti, chopped steaks, and pancakes, searching, as always, every face. Two happy drunks, simultaneously proposing marriage to me on sight; a busload of giggling teens waving their pompoms in my face; clans and families, happy, sad, drunk, sober; looking up as I introduced myself and whipped another bottle of ketchup out of my pocket—hey presto!
In all the thousands of faces I’d searched over the years, none contained a clue of what had happened to her, of where she had gone, or why she’d never tried to contact me. It never stopped me from looking, the why, the where, the how, fusing into a singular, opaque interrogative, a locket that never came off, its contents turning slowly into dust.
The Rambler: Summer 1980
When the doorbell rang, something inside me willed Dad not to answer it. When he did, there stood Eric Kelvin and his girlfriend, Shonna or Donna. Behind them, Jake and Ernie chased one another around the yard, yipping with delight. Dad invited them inside. Marissa was standing on the bottom step, unmoving, her midnight eyes fixed on me. Her father turned. “M, get in here, now. You know what we’re here for.”
But Shonna or Donna interrupted. “Let her stay out there if that’s how she’s going to be.” To me: “You girls go on and play somewhere while we have a talk with your dad.”
I was almost afraid to go to her. Whatever they were here for, it wasn’t good. The door shut behind me, leaving us alone. I slowly descended to the bottom step and waited for her to speak. “Rusty got a new job.” Her lips thin, barely moving. “It’s in Grand Island. We’re moving tomorrow.” I opened my mouth, but had no words, the reality of what it meant descending over me. “They brought me over here to—to…”
We stared at each other. I could hear the dogs in the backyard, still playing but growing winded. Soon, they’d be lolling in the grass, snapping lazily at one another. Far off to the west, thunder rumbled, and I wished we could fly away. “Storm’s coming,” I said.
Without another word, we jumped on our bikes and shot away from there, pedaling like never before, down Cotner, up South, past the old ball field and the elevators. The red sun was swallowed up by the rising wall of cloud, and jets of lightning etched the sky. By now, they would’ve realized we were gone. Marissa had never told her father about the old service road, about the canyon north of Pioneers Park where we pretended to be plane-crash orphans, raised by wolves.
But Dad knew. And sure enough, when I looked back, two pairs of headlights had veered off South Street, dust kicking up as the pavement ran out by the elevators. Marissa saw them too, and we doubled down, standing on the pedals, streaking towards waiting darkness, skidding at the T where the gravel went to dirt, dumping our bikes in the ditch at the foot of the old white picket sign and clambering through the barbwire fence.
A cold wind rose to meet us as we raced along the ridge above the canyon, farther than we’d ever been before, the horn blasts up on the road now faint and distant. Heedless of unseen bluffs or sinkholes, we plunged down the slope and across a long-dry pond bed, and then Marissa stopped short and I nearly blundered right into her.
We stood there for a heartbeat, looking at the old hulk of a car, fender-deep in the whispering grass, lightning streaking across the windshield. In that brief flash, the word “Rambler” was just visible in front of the rusty mirror. I knew what she was thinking; I had the same thought. Just as quickly, we discarded the thought and raced on. Our last moments together would not be spent hiding like mice.
Seconds later, we were laboring up the steep face of the hill that rose high to the west of the pond bed, dodging the sharp blades of yucca plants, grabbing fistfuls of buffalo grass to pull ourselves up faster. Far behind to the east, a horn sounded again, and angry voices shouted. By the time we crested the hill, my lungs were on fire. The chilly, ozone-laden air became a gale, almost knocking us down, and a jagged bolt of lightning discharged somewhere beyond the western hills, blinding me for a second, immediately followed by walloping thunder.
“Toreee…” The voice was barely audible. “…lightning!”
We stopped there, on the hilltop. The dark and magical realm where I’d imagined we could escape was beyond reach, nothing but a longed-for dream. I turned my face up to the seething sky and wished without words. When violet branches of lightning twisted out in all directions, I didn’t blink, concentrating on the giant silhouette spanning the entire pasture, undulating across the heavens with slow and serpentine elegance. I wish you would come and take us away.
Marissa, her hair flying, looked not to the sky but to my face instead, knowing what I saw even if she could not. Believing. My father’s voice came again, even fainter, ragged and desperate.
“This’ll always be ours,” Marissa said, and the next lightning flash revealed dark veils of rain sweeping towards us across the fields to the west. “We’ll never forget.”
“Nobody can ever take it away,” I answered.
Then we turned and ran back the way we’d come, hurrying for my father’s sake. As we crossed the pond bed, lightning reflected on the tarnished chrome of the old Rambler. When we straggled up to the pasture fence at last, a door slammed. We climbed through the barbwire and started across the ditch. Our bikes were already gone, tossed into the back of Rusty’s truck.
“Get your ass inside.” Rusty grabbed Marissa by the arm, marched her over to the pickup, and shoved her in. Without another word, they sped away.
I got into the car. Dad turned the key, and we headed back up the road in silence. It felt like the world was ending, like tomorrow there’d be nothing left, and that was good because then I wouldn’t be there to think or feel anything.
At Cotner Street, Dad finally spoke. “I’m very disappointed in you.” He’d never sounded like this before. I’d never felt like this before. Helpless, small. “What you did was very dangerous.”
“We weren’t going to get struck,” I said. “I know, because—”
“I’m not talking about that.” His quiet anger stunned me into silence. “I’m talking about what your best friend is going to go through now because of what you have done.”
In the morning, the sky was bright and blue. Downstairs, the television was on. I crept to the stairs and sat half-way down. Ordinarily, Dad would be away at the hospital by now. He rarely hired a babysitter anymore, now that I was big enough to cook for myself. Instead, he simply called home periodically to make sure I hadn’t run off to join the circus, as he put it. But this morning I could see him standing there in the living room, a cup in his hand. Sensing me there, he looked up, and tears shown in his eyes. “C’mon down, Pooky.” His smile was gentle and sad.
Together we watched footage of what was left of Grand Island as news reports came in of the tornadoes, seven in all, that had struck last night. Lives had been lost, businesses and homes destroyed.
My only thought, at the age of eight: I hope it got their new house. I hope it got his new job. The shame of such thoughts would not occur to me for several more years. When we learned Marissa’s dad had indeed been forced to stay here in Lincoln and the move cancelled, I was over the moon.
My celebration was short-lived. When I called Marissa’s house, Shonna or Donna told me she was grounded. Nearly two weeks went by before I was finally allowed to invite her over. She was skinnier than ever, her hair chopped into ragged hanks. “What happened to your hand?” I asked, pointing. The skin on her right hand between the thumb and forefinger was pink and raw-looking.
“Nothing.” Her face was closed, no expression.
Jake came bounding out to greet her, then stopped, looking around, tail wagging.
“Where’s Ernie?” I asked then.
“He got killed. By a gun.” She shrugged. “We’re not supposed to ever go down in the pasture again.”
“He’s gone, okay?” The dead look in her eyes was replaced by something else, something frightening. Then she looked away. “I’ll tell you later.” But she didn’t. As we biked away, Jake followed us for a few blocks. Then he turned around and went home.
Twenty minutes later, we were standing beside the old Rambler in the whispering grass. I put a hand on the rusty fender. What was left of the oxidized tan paint was warm from the sun. “Think it’s locked?”
Marissa jerked the handle on the driver’s side and the door creaked open, shedding flakes of rust. She grinned at me, but her eyes were still coal. “I’m driving!” It was the first of countless voyages through space, through time, beneath the sea, through the center of the earth.
Gradually, my friend would return, though she was cold after that. Hard. The Rambler would become our spaceship, our fort, our Mustang—and, as years went by, our hideaway from Marissa’s dad. The place where we’d escape with stolen beer, or the occasional joint out of Rusty’s stash, to fantasize about the things we’d do once we got out of this town, of what life would be like if we were the benevolent rulers of the universe. I would only smoke a little weed because it was getting away with something, another secret I had with Marissa. And Marissa only did it because she loved stealing Rusty’s weed.
From that day in 1980 onward, she would keep her hair all hacked up, just like Rusty had done to punish her, from grade school all the way up through twelfth. Whenever it started to grow out, she’d chop it back into jagged chunks, with tufts hanging down in front of her ears, spikes sticking out in back.
A few years later, half-way through a twelve-pack, I touched the scar on Marissa’s hand. “You ever gonna tell me how you got this?”
She started to pull her hand away, then let it rest beside mine. We both stared down at it for a long time. “Rusty’s Glock,” she finally said. “Burned my hand on the barrel.”
I didn’t need a picture to understand the rest—him, punishing her by shooting her little dog. Her, trying to grab the gun from him. He’d probably been drunk, so it had taken many shots before Ernie was dead, which would have made that barrel very hot.
By then, I was old enough to feel ashamed of some of the things I wished for. It didn’t stop me from wishing them, all the same.
Torgus the Angel
We never mean to take away innocent lives. The fact that we are, each one of us, surrounded by our own atmosphere, which in turn causes massive disturbances in the Earth’s, makes our magic sadly, sometimes tragically, imprecise.
But when You said You wanted us to come and take You away, well, we came. Almost. It was only the second time You’d ever called out to us. Little Speaker, we cannot say no to You.
But after Grand Island, we concluded we must carefully parse Your future communications and not act on our first parental impulse, however gripping. Edward must at some point be held accountable for his egregious and deliberate neglect.
The Factory: Summer 1981
No fun-haters were going to stop us from going down into that pasture, least of all Rusty. We’d go every chance we got. When we weren’t chasing UPS trucks, that is.
I was over at Marissa’s, watching our favorite show, as usual. I’d packed my detective gear so we could head out as soon as The Kids from C.A.P.E.R. ended, to continue our crusade on crime. The Kids were standing at the edge of City Park, watching the ominous descent of small flying saucers (actually Frisbees; the show had a very small budget). The vessels landed, dotting the grass where children were playing, dogs were barking, and adults were sunbathing or strolling hand-in-hand. Bugs, the Strong One, elbowed P.T., the Cool One. Their eyes widened and the picture zoomed in on the sinister hot dogs riding on top, three to a Frisbee.
It was “The Invasion of the Frankfurter Snatchers”—the one episode I remember more clearly than any other.
People began to notice the aliens disguised as an innocent snack. “Hey, look! Hot dogs!” People started eating them.
“We’ve got to stop this!” I said in unison with Doc, the Smart One.
“It’s too late!” Marissa replied along with Doomsday, the Cute One.
In a trancelike state, increasing numbers of civilians took up the alien battle cry: “We are wieners! Wieners are winners!”
Marissa and I chanted along with them.
The television went dark, and I jumped at the loud clatter as the remote was tossed onto an end table. Marissa’s father came around the couch and stood with his back to the TV, looking down at us.
“You’ve been down in that pasture again.” It wasn’t a question. I averted my eyes from his pale blue gaze. Marissa stared back, silent. “Someone from the shop saw the two of you, biking away from there—shirtless, like a couple goddamn boys.” His words, though spoken softly, felt like spears in my chest. “You know what happens to girls like that?” His voice rose in increments, shaking a little. “Look at me—both of you. You keep your fucking shirts on. And M, if I ever catch you in that pasture, that’s it—you’ll never see each other again except at school.” Rusty was silent a few seconds, letting it sink in. “You’re not boys.” His face twisted into a sneer. “And you’re not the fucking Kids from Caper.”
After he’d slammed out of the house, Marissa turned to me, pale with fury. “You can do things. You know when it’s gonna storm. You can see angels. Why can’t you make Uncle Deek come back? Why can’t you make him just…disappear?” She ran out the backdoor, grabbed her bike, and was speeding away before I was even off the couch.
Marissa was tough, and I wanted to be like her. She could go for miles—and she did, when her anger was too great to contain, when she needed to exhaust herself. Sweat poured down my face as I labored to keep her in sight. Then—
Just ahead of her, a UPS truck swung out into the street—and made a left turn. A left turn. Marissa screeched to a stop and looked back at me, eyes wide. Because, as everybody knows, the UPS has a right-turn-only policy. Marissa took off like a rocket, and with a burst of newfound energy, I followed at top speed, both of us forgetting about Rusty, intent on catching another glimpse of the rogue left-turning truck.
We’d now left the familiar neighborhoods we normally covered on our beat, and I was starting to worry about finding our way back home. We’d come up 48th and were just hitting Magnolia Boulevard when Marissa slammed on her brakes, gravel flying, causing me to skid up against a high cement wall to avoid her. Panting, I let my bike fall as black dots swam across my vision and I bent, holding my knees and trying not to be sick. “What the heck, Doomsday,” I wheezed.
Still on her bike, Marissa slid up alongside the warehouse wall I’d crashed into. “Doc.”
On the north side of Magnolia Boulevard, shrouded behind densely planted trees, sat a huge, sprawling building with brick walls in an odd shade of pink. The UPS truck was backed up to a loading dock. The driver had just hopped down from the bay and was coming around the side of his truck. We both saw. Impenetrable black shades. Black leather gloves. Wide-brimmed cap overshadowing a thick unibrow. We looked at each other, mouths agape.
Marissa kicked away from the wall, towards the street curb. “Hey! Mister UPS—”
But the truck was already easing out of the parking lot. It headed north on 48th, which had a big NO OUTLET sign at the Magnolia intersection, made a hard left, and disappeared. A second later, there came a soft boom, like a fighter jet had just passed over.
Marissa made an inarticulate sound in her throat, her tires striking the street, then jumping the median. A Jeep narrowly missed her, horn blaring. I followed her as she hit the corner at 48th. But north of Magnolia, there were only fields and meadows. There weren’t even any tire tracks leaving the road.
At last, we turned back the way we’d come. When we got to the driveway of the pink building, we both turned at the same time. It was Saturday, and there were no cars in the lot. But did it feel empty? Not by a long shot. The lot, the building, the trees, had a stillness, a breathlessness. A watchfulness. “What is this?” I whispered.
“One of those places where people work,” Marissa answered.
We stopped at the loading docks and crept up to listen at the scrolling doors, but no sound issued from within.
Several huge trees overshadowed the northeast corner of the building. At that corner sat a stone monument sign, overgrown with years of tangled weeds and vines.
Together we pulled down the worst of the vegetation covering the stone. Amid some weird, crooked numbers and symbols were four tall letters: NFMA. Nothing more. We looked at each other. “What’s it stand for?” Marissa whispered.
“How should I know?”
“You’re the one that knows words and stuff!”
“The Nebraska…Fart Mongers…Association,” I offered. The strangeness of this day was starting to wear on my brain. Marissa was still in some cold, dark place. It suddenly felt very important to bring her back from there. To my relief, she giggled.
“Gnomes Fucking Monkeys Anally. No, wait! Nasty Finger Mixing Appetizers!”
“Naked Fleas Masturbating Asians!” In another moment, we were both rolling about on the grass, howling. “Nerds Fiddling—”
Our laughter suddenly died. That feeling of being watched had doubled in intensity. I looked at Marissa. Her eyes were huge. Slowly, we rose into a crouching position and peered over the top of the sign. Only the black windows of the building stared back. Nothing more. I whispered: “We should get out of here.”
But Marissa bent closer to the sign, frowning. She started pulling away more weeds, then used the heel of her sneaker to scrape at the moss caked around the sign’s base.
“What’re you doing?” I scanned the empty lot. “What if somebody comes?”
“Let ’em,” she replied. “We’re doing them a favor, cleaning it off.” We both leaned closer to look at what she had uncovered. Nearly obliterated by years of weather and corrosion were four words carved into the base: The secret is safe.
Marissa took off her backpack and pulled out our detective log and a pen. Painstakingly, she copied the sign, sketching its shape and then drawing in the unexplained initials and four cryptic words.
“What, I’m almost done.”
“We need to go.” I was staring at the building. As I watched, the shadows there deepened, as if night had fallen there, and what had looked like an oddly pink building now seemed like something far older. Far more aware.
Marissa rose at last, looking across the parking lot into the growing darkness, and I could tell she was seeing it, too. Together we backed slowly towards where our bikes lay. Then we tore the hell out of there. When we reached the south side of Magnolia, breathing hard, Marissa stopped and turned to me. “This is mine and yours. No one else can know.” We looked back at the sprawling building. The lawn and surrounding parking lot were now barred by the thick, twisting trunks of the trees.
We biked to my house, not saying much. “You two look thirsty,” Dad said as we slammed through the back screen door. “Solve any mysteries today?”
We looked at each other as he turned to rummage in the fridge. Dad knew we loved The Kids from C.A.P.E.R., and that we played superhero detectives, and he’d always pretty much given me free rein. But we’d never told him about the UPS Game, or how far and wide the Game sometimes took us.
“We’ve been helping the FBI,” I said. Marissa punched me in the arm, and I punched her right back.
“The FBI, huh?” Dad straightened at last and walked over to the kitchen table with three cold cans of Barq’s root beer. I suddenly realized how thirsty I was, after pedaling for miles in the sun. “Sounds like dangerous work.” He opened the cans and sat at the table. “I’m glad we have a couple brave detectives like you on the job, keeping our city safe.”
Marissa was looking at him sharply, and I knew she was afraid we were the butt of some joke. But I knew my dad better than that. “Oh—been meaning to bring this up.” He got up and went out of the room. He returned with a stack of notepads. I squirmed.
“I’ve changed the design on my notebooks,” Dad continued, leaving the stack on the table, picking up his soda can, and walking away again. “I no longer need these old ones. Thought you might like to use them for your work.” We looked at each other guiltily. It seemed our secret raiding expeditions of his den had not gone unnoticed.
In my father’s den was a heavy wood desk he’d inherited when the hospital was replacing some of its office furniture. The three left drawers, middle drawer, and upper two right drawers were filled with Dad’s letterhead notebooks, pens, bill stubs, that kind of thing. The bottom right drawer would not open. Dad said it had come that way, without a key. Funny, it didn’t seem to have a lock, either.
To the right of the desk sat his bookcase, which held many of his old college biology and anatomy texts from UNL, as well as bound compendiums of Scientific American. The bottom two rows were taken up by record albums, mostly from the sixties and seventies. I sometimes found Marissa sprawled on the floor in there, listening to Greywood’s masterwork Now You See Us and staring at its cover, which was dark, with lightning bugs. Dad never seemed to mind.
After that day, we’d bike through the parking lot of NFMA after school sometimes, daring each other to ride up on the lawn, next to the black panes of the windows. We’d stay there as long as we dared, feeling cold, scared by whatever presence we’d drawn near to. Feeling dangerous and free. It was a game, but a serious game. Even when the parking lot was filled with cars, there was still an eerie silence over the whole place. When we got older, we would cruise through there late after work in my Buick. Occasionally, we would see UPS trucks coming and going in the dead of night. When we tried to follow them, they always disappeared.
Later, I would wonder how many times she went there alone.
Daath the Angel
The secret is safe. Now, that’s a yuck. And if we were actually conversing with You right now, as we ought to be, things wouldn’t have gotten this far out of whack. Your dear old dad has, as he well knows, the blood of Your world on his hands. No key for the desk drawer, my iron-plated ass.
That feeling of being watched, okay, back in ’81? And every time after, when You dared to creep up to that weird pink building? You bet Your ass You were being watched. The Nebraska Foundation for Magical Arts isn’t just some building “where people work.” The NFMA felt You, heard You. Knew You. Finally, it would have said, had it a voice of its own. At last—the Speaker has come.
And You felt it, too. You—and Doomsday, whose being You altered in the garden. After that first day, neither one of You could stay away for long, could You?
And did she go there alone, long after You’d gone home? Long after most of the city slept? Long after Rusty, that pillar of fatherhood, left her alone and broken in her bed, and nothing moved in the silent parking lot just north of Magnolia?
We’ll leave that for You, Tori Marshall. One day, You just may ask her Yourself.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.