Halloween week in Hadley-by-Hudson. Senior year of high school. Nine in the evening. Had enough sentence fragments? My English teacher said they are a weakness of mine. But I still like them. They generate pace. You want pace? I'll give you pace. You want weird? Stick around, my friend.
The air pinching colder. Winter coming on fast, winding up to clobber us. A month from now it will be bitter, bitter, and you can feel the coming chill in the north wind. You can smell it in the rust and smoke of the colored leaves. Stock up on the Kleenex. Nostril-clogging chill. Wind the scarves tight. Get out last winter's mittens. Halloween decorations going up on doors and windows. Black cats crouching. Witches soaring on broomsticks. This is gonna get weird fast, but not the way you think.
Here's what I thought. I thought I was living in the most normal little town in America, having the most normal senior year a guy could have. First name? Jack. How's that for normal? Last name? Danielson. Pretty standard stuff, huh? Occupation? High school senior. Hobbies? Chicks, flicks, and fast cars, roughly in that order.
Oh, and I left out sports. Very important. When you're a guy in a town like Hadley with a tough public high school, it helps to be a jock. So I'm lucky that way. Six feet two. Muscles. Starting running back on the football team. Straw-colored hair, piercing blue eyes, and above-average brain power, except when I do something really stupid. Did I mention a winning smile?
Winning smile is often directed at one P. J. Peters. The "P" could have been for "pretty" as they come. Or "pert." Or "perspicacious." Look that one up in the dictionary, my friend. Sometimes "pretentious." Always "pleasing." The "J" could have been for "jousting," because we're always testing each other. Or "joker." No one could make me laugh like P.J. Or "jubilant" when she accomplished something really important.
So we're at the Hadley Diner on a night we've both accomplished something important. P.J. has won a local art contest for a pen-and-ink drawing of her great-grandmother, who is ninety-four. There were adult artists in the competition, so for a high schooler to win is pretty hot stuff.
I just rushed for three hundred and forty yards. New school record. New league record. Not a bad day's work. We defeated our archrival school. Guys are giving me high fives. Slapping me on the back. "Way to go, Jack. You the man. You the one."
Neon signs flashing out front. DINER. IF YOU'RE HUNGRY, WE'RE OPEN. Red leather seats. P.J. nestled close, reminding me not to get a swelled head. "You're still a bozo," she says.
"Mr. Bozo to you," I tell her back. "Let's have a little respect, Miss da Vinci."
A man walks by our table. Tall. Gangly. Adam's apple sticking out of throat like it wants to be plucked. He's just eaten. Heading for the door. Passes all the high school kids. Doesn't glance at us. That's curious 'cause we're making mucho noise. Maybe he doesn't like kids.
Then he turns his head and looks. Right at me. For a half second. Not at anyone else. Just me. Like he knows me. And I see his eyeballs roll around in his head. Now they look like normal eyes. Now the pupils disappear. Something flashes. Like a flashbulb. Or a computer scanner. A sudden burst of white light that turns silvery. Then the light is gone and I blink and he's gone, too.
"Did you see that?" I ask P.J.
"That guy's eyes? They just flashed."
"He was here a second ago. His eyes got weird."
"I think you'd better lay off mind-bending drugs."
Then we're out in my car, parked at the lookout. Hudson River flowing by. Big autumn moon hanging in the sky like a swollen sex gland. I'm thinking this is the night. But P.J. has other ideas. "Come on," I plead. "There'll never be a better time."
"I'm not ready."
"P.J., you're ready. And you're killing me."
"You look pretty healthy."
"Yeah, I scored four touchdowns today."
"It's fate. This is my day to score."
Wrong thing to say. Mood starting to fracture big-time. "So you're comparing my virginity to a football field?"
"No, P.J., I was just joking--"
"But you view our intimacy through a sports analogy? First base, second base, you want me to spread my legs like football goalposts? Is that it?"
"P.J., it's a beautiful night. We're seniors. I love you. The guys on the team give me all kinds of grief--"
"That we don't go all the way? You talk to them about us?"
Again, wrong thing to say. "No. Yes. Never. But--"
End of story. "Put it away. Back in your pants."
"But, P.J., there'll never be a better time."
"Put that sucker away and let's go home. There'll be lots of better times. I promise. Soon."
"Have you ever heard of blue balls? It's a medical condition. Can be terminal."
She gives me a sweet kiss on the side of the cheek. "You are such a pathetic dumb puppy."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"There. I knew you could zip it up. Let's go."
"You'll never know what I suffer."
I take her home. We kiss. Gets intense. A curtain moves. P.J.'s dad peers out. I wave. P.J. waves to him and gets out of my car. I sit there and watch her walk to her house and disappear inside as the big front door shuts.
She's so beautiful. So smart. So much fun. She'll pick her moment. Girls know about these things. They operate on instinct. Just be patient, Jack.
I drive home with my blue balls.
Dad is waiting there. And Mom. He doesn't look happy. "So I heard about the game. Congratulations."
"Thanks, Dad. It was great."
"Maybe too great," he says.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Dad paces. Mom stands still. Both look worried.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I try again. "Am I missing something here?"
"I've told you that it's not good to stand out too much," Dad says. "You show people up. Make enemies. People get jealous."
"Who's getting jealous?" I ask. "This was one of the best nights of my life. Everyone at the diner was slapping me on the back. Nobody was jealous. Everybody was happy for me. Except you." My voice getting louder. "What kind of fatherly advice are you handing out here? Fail intentionally? Don't try my best?"
Dad looks pained. Mom chimes in. "It's just better to fit in sometimes," she says. "Your father loves you, Jack. He wants what's best for you."
"And that's why he tells me not to do my best on math tests? Not to do my best on science projects? Not to set records in track? Not to score too many points in football games? It sounds like he wants what's mediocre for me."
"The thing is, it was on TV," Dad says.
"Yeah. I saw it at the diner. Local sports news. Why exactly is that a problem?"
"Exposure," Dad says. "Attracts bad elements. Did you see anything tonight?"
"What kind of anything are we talking about?"
"Anything strange," he says. "Nutty high school sports fans. Sex-crazed groupies. Whatever." He's trying to make a joke out of it. "Now that you're a big shot, you'd better keep an eye out."
"No, I didn't see anything strange," I tell him. Until I got home, that is. And my parents gave my big night the body slam. For no good reason. But I don't say this. I just think it. Then I remember. "Yeah, there was something weird."
They both look kind of interested. "I was at the diner with P.J., and this guy looked at me, and I swear for a second his eyes disappeared and something flashed. But nobody else saw it, so I must have been dreaming--"
Dad grips me by the shoulders. "Did he say anything?"
"But he looked right at you?"
"Yes? What's the big deal--"
"How tall was he?"
"Very tall. Maybe an inch taller than you."
"When you saw the flash, did it change color?"
"Kind of," I say. "White to silvery. Do you know this man? Dad, what's going on?" He's holding me tightly, freaking me out.
"We're gonna go for a drive," he tells my mom.
"Now?" I ask. "It's after eleven. Where are we going? The police? I don't get it."
"Go," Mom says. Which is weird, too. Then she hugs me. And my mom is not a touchy-feely kind of mom. "Goodbye,Jack," she whispers. For a second I think there's a tear sliding down her cheek.
"Will somebody tell me what the hell's going on?" I request.
"In the car," Dad says. And he throws on a jacket and marches out into the cold darkness, so I follow him. After all, he is my dad.