Alone in the universe.
This thought entered Chad's mind as the smoke and burning smell from Mr. Zellhoffer's firecrackers floated down the block, while the ceiling of stars above their heads seemed to move back ever more distant-- as if civilization were THERE, among those suspended dots of light, and not in this lonely far away subdivision on a forgotten rock of a planet.
"Other people have vanished, you know," Chad told Zellhoffer. "A teenage girl Jamie's age who lived on the next block ran away last fall. Her parents are still searching for her."
"Seven in all," Zellhoffer countered. "Seven people gone from this neighborhood since it opened. Not moved. Disappeared without a trace, most within the last two years, most of them young people. You'll see their faces among thousands of others at the post office or in your income tax brochure."
The three stood on the lawn aware of how encircled they were, by the land outside and the vastness of sky, their houses temporary shacks of ego erected against the giant facts of space and time.
"Where did the people go?" Jamie asked in his scared way. Zellhoffer, under the illusion of wisdom, pondered this for a moment.
"What do science and logic tell us?" Mr. Z asked. "Do they have an answer? I've been considering the location of this community. This used to be farmland, some of it, sure. But what was it before? An Indian settlement? A sacred place? Do you know that when construction people dug the foundations for these houses they found arrowheads?"
Zellhoffer turned and pointed toward the northwest, toward uninhabited stretches of land that went on seemingly forever.
"There lies the solution to the puzzle. General Custer passed this way, on his ride toward the Black Hills, and on, toward death and legend."
"Wasn't he a racist?" Chad asked. "An Indian killer?"
Oh, I don't know about that. Like all of us he was more than a stereotype. There were two George Custers, just like there are two or three Jamies, or two Chads."
Mr. Z opened another beer bottle and took a chug, looking pleased with himself. Behind the man Chad saw, to his alarm, bu unseen by Zellhoffer, a tall shadow pass across the lit front window of Z's house; a figure straight as an Indian. The curtains of the window rustled.
"Custer was an Indian himself, in spirit," Zellhoffer continued as beer spilled sloppily from his mouth and his tiny eyes sparkled. "Custer carried the blood and spirit of Germanic warriors from the Black Forest. At your age, Chad, he was too wild for anything but war. At West Point he was uncontrollable. But when the Civil War began no soldier was more fearless. The army's best horseman-- Custer rode like an Indian.
"When the war ended they didn't know what to do with him, so they sent him west. For other officers this was barren exile. Custer relished the vast expanses he could ride across.
"He was always two men. One was the official civilized Custer back at fort, at a desk writing magazine articles about his exploits, his beautiful intelligent cultured wife Libby at his side. Custer the yellow-haired star! But within the man ran unsettling undercurrents; the love of wild, of violence; an attraction for death. Always he had to get away, to escape into the unknown, into the endless plains.
"The army sent him on his final expedition because no one understood Indians better than he did. His Indian scouts loved him. He was said to have a beautiful Sioux mistress. No one else had a chance of rounding up the untamed Sioux-- no one else was fast enough, or knew how fast the Sioux moved. The other white soldiers operated in slow motion. As the final tragic battle showed, the officers in Custer's own unit weren't fast enough to keep up with him."
Zellhoffer pointed again. "The troopers of the Seventh Cavalry rode off in that direction. Hundreds of miles into empty space. Into the dreaded unknown, where civilization is left behind and the spirit world holds dominion. Toward glory and death."
The front door of the Zellhoffer house opened and Z's gawky youngest daughter Emily came bounding out, halting next to her father, almost running into Jamie.
"Daddy, Mom wants you to come inside the house now!"
The dark-haired girl adopted the stance of her mother, and indeed, Zellhoffer seemed to wilt just a bit at the tone of a direct order.
"In a moment, dear. In a moment. Er, tell your mother I'll be in directly."
Chad wasn't watching his blustery beighbor as much as his own brother. The girl affected not to be aware of Jamie, yet by doing so became hyper-aware of him, cautiously sneaking glances his way. Jamie was frozen with uncertainty, ignoring her with what Emily undoubtedly took as being cool. At thirteen she was as tall as Chad's brother. (Jamie was nearly 17 but small for his age.) If possible she was even skinnier. Chad absorbed these observations with amusement. The girl posed for a moment, then as quickly as she'd appeared, with straight hair flowing, ran back inside. The door closed, not before Chad noticed lurking behind it a tall shadow.
Mr. Zellhoffer remained fixated on thoughts of abducted neighbors and on heroic General Custer.
"One has to know the unknown-- the deep spaces of this country, and of our own souls. The dark places we seldom go to. Some set up totems against the spirits"-- he gestured toward the still-glowing painting across the street. "Others, like Custer, ride eagerly into danger. They embrace their devil. Understand Custer-- truly understand him-- and you'll understand America."
He looked at the flag waving from his house, then stiffened suddenly and put his hand over his heart. Drunken tears appeared in his eyes. Chad wondered if Mr. Z were putting them on-- but noticed Jamie stiffen as well as if falling for the comic opera. Chad looked at the waving flag, the deep purple sky behind it; he seemed to hear arising from the spaces beyond a trumpet's lonely blare.
That night Chad awoke from a hectic dream with a sense that something in the house wasn't right. His bedside clock read three o'clock. He arose to check the doors and locks.
Jamie's room was empty. The troubled kid had a habit of sleepwalking. Chad looked out the front window at the other houses on the block. The blazing lights in Barker's homestead had finally turned off. The neighborhood hummed with silence.
Chad stepped through his family's spacious, insecure house. The door to the garage was ajar. Chad entered with caution, the dirty cement floor cold against his bare feet. The garage door was wide open. Had he left it like that? Eerie night air swept inside. Their father still wasn't home-- only Chad's sportscar occupied its rightful space. A noise shuffled behind it.
Chad flipped on the garage light. Stunning brightness. He saw for a sliver of an instant a tanned, short, aged woman. Then she was gone. His imagination? A residue of his insane dream? She'd had a wild look and weathered face, was thin, almost malnourished, and wore old-fashioned clothes from another time.
Soft footsteps scampered along the side of the garage. Chad ran outside and followed their sound, toward the back, to the vast endless shadowy land behind the house as an unseen figure moved swiftly through the trees and tall weeds ahead of him.
(Next: Emily and Jamie.)