We pulled up to a moderately sized but ornately decorated house sitting on large, perfectly trimmed property speckled with intricately manicured colorful gardens. The house sat about a football field's length in front of the thick forest behind it.
Mrs. Willard joined us to the door and exchanged pleasantries with Emma's parents, and feeling comfortable, she wished us a good time and drove off after we called out our thanks for driving us.
“Come on in,” invited Emma's mother, and we obeyed.
Emma's father spoke in a gruff, low voice revealing minimal emotion, “What's your name, son?”
“David,” I responded as he seemed to be looking at me first. “Sir,” I added.
“And yours?” he looked at Harry. “I'm Harry, sir,” came the quick reply.
“Let's have a seat at the table,” Emma's father commanded.
I hadn't yet seen Emma, and glanced around while following her parents to the dining room table. I was midway between sitting and standing when I caught sight of the girls entering the room. They were lookers, both of them, but it was Emma's radiance that made me suddenly stand up very straight. Julie wore an annoyed expression and averted her eyes to avoid us, while Emma beamed at us with a warm and dazzling smile.
“I'm glad you could come!” she exclaimed at us.
Soon we were all seated and Mrs. Gaston, as I later learned she was named, began serving us green salad and soft crusty bread and butter. She seemed somewhat anxious and uptight and occasionally jabbered inaudibly to herself, set off by Mr. Gaston's calm, controlling presence that made me slightly nervous.
Mr. Gaston looked at us and spoke slowly and clearly with no intonation in his voice, “What do you boys do around here in the summertime?”
“We help our dads with fishing and we fish off the pier. Sometimes we go out on the water with them. We ride our bikes. We play baseball.” I couldn't at that time think of much else we did that I felt was worth mentioning.
“Will you be going to class with Emma in the fall?” Mrs. Gaston asked us.
“We'll be starting seventh grade, since we both have birthdays before the new year,” I told her.
“So you will be joining our Emma. It will be nice if she knows some students in her class!” she said with excitement that sounded a little forced, before getting up to clang around in the kitchen.
“Mr. Thatcher is tough but good. We all like him,” said Harry.
“I'll be in eighth grade,” inserted Julie, dripping with condescension, barely glancing our way as she spoke, then popped a cherry tomato off the tip of her fork with her lips and chewed it in a snootier way than I previously knew existed.
Mr. Gaston got up and joined his wife in the kitchen. We could hear that they were talking in muted tones with each other, but couldn't hear any content.
“You're only one grade above us,” said Harry defensively.
“I've been to better schools than you have ever heard of here in your quaint little hick town,” Julie said. “Schools where the boys don't wander around barefoot and covered in fish guts. We also have boys that don't look like little kids. But what can you expect in the boondocks? We are stuck here for awhile and I suppose we will just have to make do.”
“What, you think you're smarter than us?” Harry demanded.
Julie's face for the first time broke into laughter, but since it was at us, it didn't come across as warmth.
“Okay, show us how smart you are,” I challenged.
“Ask me anything you know,” she retorted.
“Name all the American presidents in order,” I said, since it was one thing I could do that most other kids couldn't.
She didn't miss a beat.
“Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison, Cleveland, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford.”
I was surprised into silence.
“Anything else, little dumb kid?”
I was taken aback. I wanted to wipe that smug look off her face that would have been pretty if it didn't belong to such a rude person.
“Yeah,” I answered before thinking too much. “You might be smart, but like most smart girls, you're ugly and fat. You've come to the right town. We have lots of pigs and cows here. You'll fit right in.”
That seemed to do it. She had a horrified look, got up from the table, and although she tried to hold back, I could hear her burst into tears past the doorway. She continued and went right out the door, sobbing. My brief instant of satisfaction was quickly replaced by the realization that our beautiful Emma did not look at all pleased.
Emma gave me a look that made me feel almost as bad as Julie. She looked directly at me with those bright brown eyes and the disappointed look shot me in the heart.
She looked down at the table, then raised her eyes to meet mine. She spoke softly and quietly.
“Julie's mom left her and her dad to go be with another man and never even called her since then. And Julie's dad killed himself the day after we met.” She watched my face as her words sunk in.
She got up and went out the front door after Julie.
Mr. and Mrs. Gaston returned carrying platters of pork, green beans, and mashed potatoes, but that tasty-sounding dinner would never be eaten, not by us, not that night.
Emma's parents looked at the table, then at each other, then at us, looking puzzled.
“They went outside,” Harry stated.
It was already getting dark outside.
We waited, feeling awkward, for some time, while nothing was said. Mr. Gaston opened the front door and stepped outside, looked around, then re-entered the house. Mrs. Gaston did the same thing, and also peered through all the windows. The wind whipped the lighter tree branches softly and repeatedly against the side of the house.
“Do you know why they went outside?” Mr. Gaston asked.
“Julie got upset and left. Emma followed.” I answered.
“How long have they been gone?” he asked.
“I would guess by now, about ten minutes,” I said.
Presently, a distant rumbling heralded an oncoming storm.
“We better go out and look for them,” Mr. Gaston said, and began putting on his outdoor gear. Mrs. Gaston did the same.
“I can help,” I said, moving towards the door. Harry got up and said he would join too.
Mr. Gaston gave each of us a hand-held electric torch after testing each for function as well as a jacket to borrow, and went out the door with Mrs. Gaston following close behind. We, too, followed, and started wandering around in the unfamiliar and darkened surroundings, and copied Emma's parents in calling Emma's and Julie's names.
I began to feel raindrops. We hastened our pace, and decided to split up to cover more ground.
I walked for what felt like a very long time in the wind, darkness, and rain. I could no longer hear the others calling Emma and Julie, but I continued my own calls. I don't know how much time went by. My voice had become hoarse, my clothes had become drenched, the light from my flashlight was starting to look dimmer, and I was completely lost with darkness and trees in every direction.
I started to feel like it would be wise to start heading back towards the house, and turned in my tracks to go back the way I'd just come. When I looked in the direction I'd just come from, none of the possible paths looked at all familiar. I looked up to see if the stars would be any use, but with the tree cover, wind, and rain, they were not visible tonight.
The feeling of being uncomfortable was growing. I was wet and cold and hungry and lost, and still much more child than man.
I sporadically called out the girls' names now, and occasionally things like, “I'm over here! Is anyone there?”
It felt like I had been wandering around in the storm for hours now. I was worried about my parents being worried about me. I had some visions of them coming to rescue me from this dark wood and wrapping me up in blankets and giving me dry clothes and warm food to eat.
While I was warming up in my imagination, I tripped over a root sticking out of the ground and landed painfully on the muddy ground, scraping my face on a small tree along the way. My flashlight came out of my hand in the process and hit the ground. In the split second before the beam shut off on impact, I thought I saw something white and red about 30 feet away illuminated by the beam. I crawled around feeling for the flashlight and eventually felt its shape in my searching hand.
I flicked the button several times, but it didn't light up. I tried to shield the flashlight from the rain with my body as I unscrewed the top slowly. I adjusted the batteries inside the chamber and screwed the lid back on. I pressed the button. It came on dimly. I slowly pointed my light in the direction where I thought I'd caught a glimpse of something unusual.
As my beam of light travelled across trees and branches and more trees and branches and mud, suddenly it came over a sight that made my hand start to shake. My blood seemed to halt in my veins. I tried to yell but I couldn't move or make a sound. I stood there, paralyzed, unable to grasp what I was seeing. Time seemed to both stand still and race swiftly all at once. I felt like a large gray cloud was nearly suffocating my conscious mind.
It was not on that day or the next when I would fully understand what I was seeing, and what was assumed by many about my involvement in the death of Julie Gaston.