This is the first draft of a science fiction novel I've penned named "Hollis Whittaker." There are succeeding drafts underway, with both storyline, chapter order and grammatical changes, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to contact me about them. I'd love to hear what you think, even if it's critical.


Hollis Whittaker

Chapters 6-10

VI


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hollis was overlooking the stream in the spot he’d claimed as his own. He sat on the ground resting his back on the massive oak, the latest issue of Lurkin’s Realm in his grasp. It was the series that introduced Kaos, King of the Orcs, to the world. The boy figured the comic books were a future valuable commodity, so when he wasn’t reading them, he stowed them in plastic sheaths in the upper drawer of his bureau. But the first read-through was always the most exciting and he used his secluded domain to fully immerse himself in it. He’d read through it twice to make sure he noticed everything.

Hollis surveyed his kingdom, pulling his knees up to his chest, Lurkin’s Realm nestled against his corduroys. Dusk was nearing and the autumn air was cool and moist from the rainfall the night before. Wet leaves had a far stronger smell than dry ones.

He knew the forest well now, having explored new sections whenever he came out. Despite the benefits of some of the other spots—like better vantage points and natural defenses—his initial instinct to make the oak by the stream his seat of power was a good one. The energy was right.

A rustling in the soggy leaves caught his ear and he shot an eye to the right a few yards away. It was a gray squirrel foraging around the ground. The creature stopped and started in short bursts, sticking its head under the leaves before scurrying another few feet. Every once in awhile, it sat on its haunches and scrutinized its surroundings, but didn’t seem to notice Hollis. That was fine with the boy; he’d been taught the interplay of wildlife and the environment and he wanted his kingdom to be healthy. This animal was simply one of his subjects. The squirrel entertained Hollis for a few minutes, eventually running too far away to care about.

Hollis rose to his feet, stretching his arms above his head. He pulled a crumpled up piece of plastic wrapping from his front pocket, shook it out and slotted the comic into it, then he withdrew from his sanctuary, trodding the pathless route home.

The back yard was speckled in dead leaves, with more of them trickling off the trees as the boy made his way to the kitchen door. He could hear his mother talking on her cellphone when he entered. His father sat at the table silent, listening to the conversation.

“He just walked in,” she said, her eyes bright and wide. “I’ll put him on.”

Hollis figured it wasn’t any of his friends because his mother wouldn’t have seemed quite so excited about any of them. Probably his grandparents.

She brought the phone down to her chest and spoke softly to her son. “Do you remember going to Mr. West’s room with us, honey? Remember the man we met there, Mr. Ayala?”

He nodded.

“He has something he wants to tell you.” She held out the phone and Hollis took it without thinking. “Hello?”

“Hello there Hollis. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Mr. West’s friend, Teo. We met a few weeks ago after school.”

“I remember.”

“Let me tell you, my friend, you’ve made some people very happy. Do you remember the corrections you made in that science book, when you put in some planets that weren’t in the illustration?”

“Yeah?”

“Well I had a friend point a very powerful telescope where you thought our missing planet was, and do you know what?”

“What?”

“It’s there, Hollis. I don’t know how you did it, but it’s there.”

The scientist seemed more enthused than Hollis imagined he should be. “Cool.”

“Would you like to see a picture of it?”

“Sure, that’d be awesome.”

“I tell you what, I’m going to bring it over right now, if that’s all right.”

The boy pulled the phone from his ear and spoke to his mother. “He wants to bring a picture over.”

“That’s fine, dear.”

“Okay,” Hollis said to Mr. Ayala.

After handing the phone back to his mother, Hollis brought the comic book to his room, pulling the bureau drawer open and placing the latest copy inside. He had the entire series there, each wrapped in cellophane. He fanned through the six other issues, going back chronologically toward the bottom of the drawer, where the original was. He removed the first issue from its plastic and sat on his bed, thumbing through the pages. The illustrations seemed so different from the rest of the series and Kaos wasn’t even in the publications back then. He hadn’t appeared until the third. But it was still worth having the early editions for their historical value.

He tumbled back and read through the first few pages, his legs dangling off the bed, alternately kicking each one into the air. After what didn’t seem like long enough, his mother knocked on his door and peeked her head in. “Honey, Mr. Ayala’s here.”

The boy followed his mother to the kitchen where his father was seated with the scientist, looking at the photo the man had brought. Hollis and his mother took seats at the table and his father handed the picture to him.

“Do you like it?” Mr. Ayala asked.

Hollis shrugged his shoulders. “It’s okay.” The picture didn’t impress the fifth grader all that much. The planet appeared to be little more than a pinprick. The only reason it stood out from the countless stars around it was a circle around it drawn with a pen.

“I know it doesn’t look like much,” Teo said as the photo made the rounds, “but this is a big discovery. Do you know how many people have discovered planets in our solar system?”

The boy shook his head.

“Three. That’s it. You’re about to get your name added to a very short list. What do you think of that?”

“Good, I guess.”

“Honey,” his mother said, “that’s more than good, that’s amazing!”

Mr. Ayala focused on Lonnie and Graham. “Listen, I’d like to call the friend who found the planet and have him come talk to Hollis. He’s the one who should be writing up the discovery. I’m a little out of my element with astronomy.”

Hollis’ parents nodded. “Yes, of course,” Lonnie said.

“Great,” Mr. Ayala replied. “His name’s Niels Odden. He works near Cape Town in South Africa at the SALT. That’s the South African Large Telescope. So it’s going to take him a few days to get here.”

“You hear that champ?” Graham asked his son. “There’s a man coming from South Africa to meet you.”

“How far’s that?”

Mr. Ayala let out a belly laugh and leaned back in his chair, eyeing the boy.

“It’s on a whole other continent,” Lonnie said.

“I was down there once,” said Mr. Ayala. “It’s a good fourteen, fifteen hours without stopping. I’ll call him when I get home. My guess is he’ll be here in a couple days.”

• • • • •

All eyes were on Hollis when he was called into the kitchen, the two scientists sitting opposite his parents at the table. Each of the adults had a cup of coffee and there was a laptop opened in front of the stranger.

Niels Odden was a diminutive man with a beard, wire-rimmed glasses and a tangled curly mop of hair. For some reason, Hollis kept expecting scientists to come wrapped in lab coats and ties, but like Mr. Ayala, Niels didn’t fit the bill. He wore faded blue jeans, a frumpy sweatshirt and dirty, shredded sneakers. About the age of Hollis’ parents and soft spoken, he lacked the presence of Mr. Ayala.

“There he is,” said Mr. Ayala as he shook hands with the boy, Hollis’ arm flopping like a slinky. “This is Niels Odden.”

The stranger shook hands with Hollis, stretching in front of Mr. Ayala. “Hello Hollis, I’m thrilled to be meeting you.” The new scientist had a thick Scandinavian accent that took the boy a second to process. “You want to check this out?” Niels turned his computer toward Hollis. It showed several photos one after another with a small dot of light moving across the image. “That’s your planet, Hollis. And it’s traveling along the orbit you predicted.”

“Cool,” Hollis replied unruffled.

“That is cool, isn’t it?” Niels turned the screen back toward himself again and studied it. “Hollis, I came here to talk to you about this planet and to try to figure out how you knew it was there.”

The fifth grader didn’t have an answer for him, but he also thought both scientists were weird enough that he liked them. “I don’t know. It just felt like there should be one there.” He sat down at the head of the table.

“And you’ve never studied the planets, the solar system?” Niels asked in his barely comprehensible English.

“I guess I’ve studied them in school.”

“Where do you think you’ve gotten your ideas from, mostly the textbooks in class, or maybe on the Internet?”

“Just in school. I don’t really care about the planets or anything.”

“You’ve never stopped on a television show about them, maybe?”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

“I catch him watching educational shows once in awhile,” Graham said.

“Okay, okay, that’s something. Now tell me,” Niels said, “you don’t have a telescope of any kind?”

Hollis shook his head and Niels turned to Graham and Lonnie for confirmation.

“No,” Lonnie said. “Well he’s never shown any interest so it didn’t even dawn on us.”

“Mm hmm,” said Niels. “I’m going to tell you that I’ve been scratching my head ever since I saw the planet and I want to . . .” he looked at Mr. Ayala, “attribute?”
Teo nodded.

“I want to attribute Hollis’ discovery to luck, but there is just no way he predicted the planet’s location and trajectory based on a guess. For one thing, the orbit is far too abnormal. And so I continue to scratch my head.” Niels fell silent for a moment, inspecting the laptop’s screen before focusing again on Hollis’ parents. “Now, Teo says that Hollis has been doing well in school, perhaps better than he has before.”

Graham and Lonnie nodded. “Yes, but only in math and science,” Lonnie said.

“Interesting,” Niels replied. “The rest of his studies, he’s . . . you would say normal?”

“Normal for what he’s always been,” Graham said. “He’s about average in the rest of his classes.”

“Mm hmm. And when did his sudden burst of creativity start?”

“Three or four weeks ago,” said Graham. “Then a week or so after that, Dan West asked us to come in.”

“And was there anything preceding this, some sort of trauma or injury . . . um . . . an emotional jolt or . . . I don’t know, anything?”

“Well, we only moved into the area in August,” said Lonnie. “And that’s been a big adjustment for him.”

“And for the two of you as well.”

Graham and Lonnie nodded.

“You know what?” said Niels leaning back in his chair with a smile of resignation. “I am not a psychologist. Maybe I could take a look in his room to see if he has any books or materials that may have given him some insight. Would that be okay?”

“Sure,” Lonnie responded.

“And then Hollis, you and I can just talk for a little while at the table here to see if I can pry any more out of you. Does that sound all right?”
Hollis’ reply was less than enthusiastic. “Okay.”

“Yes? It’s not bad, Hollis, trust me. You could be the youngest person to ever have his name on an article in The Astronomical Journal. And you can help to pick out a name for the planet. That might be more fun for you. In a few years people will be talking about this planet and you can tell them that you discovered and named it.”

Hollis shrugged. “Okay.”

“And after we publish it, people will want you to be on television. You will become famous.”

The boy sat up in his chair. “Really?”

“Oh yes.”

A smile spread across Hollis’ face and his eyes focused in the distance. “Cool.”



VII

Hollis and Kirby were mid conversation when they left school and neither boy noticed as they neared Hollis’ street that they had been walking their bikes instead of riding them. They had become more engrossed in each other’s company over the last couple months. Kirby was a huge PlayStation fan and couldn’t believe that Hollis had only ever played Xbox. Weeks earlier he had introduced Hollis to the gaming system he had set up in his bedroom.

“You should call it Corvo,” Kirby suggested, referring to possible planet names.

“What’s that?”

“Corvo, you numbass. Corvo Attano, from Dishonored. You played the frickin’ game two days ago.”

“Oh yeah, he was cool,” replied Hollis.

There was a threat of rain from an overcast sky as they strode along the cement sidewalks, a cool breeze blowing behind them. Hollis made sure not to step on the cracks between the concrete slabs, though he didn’t let his friend in on his custom. He’d gotten in the habit when he was in first grade because of the old rhyme, “step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” He realized it was childish, but he’d always been a bit superstitious.

“I don’t know,” said Hollis. “I’m still leaning toward Hollis.”

“Don’t name it after yourself. Everybody will think you’re stuck up.”

Hollis was silent for a moment. “Okay, what about Lonnie?”

“Lonnie? You mean like your mother? Lonnie the Planet? Are you frickin’ kidding me?”

“Well, I don’t know.”

The boys turned the corner onto Hollis’ street and crossed over to the other side. They popped the bikes over the curbing and Kirby straddled the seat, his feet mostly floating above the cement, gliding him along slowly. “You know what you should call it?”

“Kirby?”

“No man, cut it out,” Kirby replied. “Gator.”

“You mean like an alligator?”

“No, it’s my lucky charm.” Kirby stopped the bike and reached into his front pocket, pulling out a rabbit’s foot keychain. He handed it to Hollis.

“You call a rabbit’s foot Gator?” Hollis rubbed it between his fingers. It was filthy and missing bits of fur, but it was still silky soft.

“I don’t know. My father gave it to me. He had it since he was a kid and that’s what he used to call it.”

Hollis handed the item back. “Well, why would I call it after your lucky charm?”

“I don’t give a crap. Do you got one?”

Hollis pulled the medallion out of his back pocket and handed it to his friend.

“This is your lucky charm?” Kirby examined both sides.

“Yeah.”

“It’s cool. What is it, metal or stone? Where’d you get it?”

“I found it in the woods.”

“Awesome. So what do you call it?”

“I don’t have a name for it.”

“So what is it?” Kirby handed the object back to Hollis.

“I don’t know. A medal?”

“It looks cool. You should have it checked out.”

“Checked out for what?”

“To see if it’s worth anything, numbass. God, you got a lot to learn.”

Hollis nodded. “Okay, maybe,” he said as he shrugged his backpack higher onto his shoulders. He knew most of the neighbors by now, or at least their names. An African American couple Mr. and Mrs. Owens, maybe his parents’ age, owned the house they were in front of. The white paint on the picket fence was chipping off, but otherwise the front yard was impeccably kept.

The same couldn’t be said for the home on the right that the boys were approaching, with its ten-foot overgrown hedgerows and lawn badly in need of a mowing. A divorced computer engineer lived there, but didn’t bother too much with the yard work and that irritated some of the neighbors.

“So what do you think about Corvo?” Kirby asked.

Hollis grimaced.

“What’s wrong with Corvo?”

“I don’t even own the game.”

“Yeah, but I do and he’s awesome.”

“What do you think about Kaos?” asked Hollis. “He’s pretty bad.”

“Kaos, from Lurkin’s Realm?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know. He’s pretty cool, I guess.” Kirby held out his hand to swat the computer engineer’s hedges as the fifth graders made their way by. “Hey, you want to sleep over?”

“I slept over last time,” said Hollis.

“Okay, I’ll sleep over your house.”

“Awesome. We can check with my mom.”

• • • • •


Hollis could sense his mother watching from the living room entrance and he knew what was coming. He and Kirby were sitting on the floor in front of the sofa playing an online third-person shooter video game with a team that was depending on them.

“Boys, it’s time for bed.”

Hollis’ shoulders drooped, but he kept playing. Ignoring her usually gained him a valuable moment.

“Hollis and Kirby.”

“What?” Hollis grumbled.

“You know what, mister. It’s time for bed.”

“We’re almost done.”

“I’ve heard that before. Honestly, it’s past your bedtime.”

The boys chose silence and continued playing and within seconds Lonnie was lumbering two feet away, just inside their peripheral vision. “I’m going to just turn it off,” she said. “I don’t know if it saves it when you do that.”

“No!” Hollis cried.

Kirby sensed the impending doom. “Aw man!”

“Five seconds,” she said.

Hollis paused the game and the boys looked up at her. “You can play again tomorrow,” she said. “But I need you both in bed now.”

Lonnie retreated as the boys rose, disgruntled and shut everything down. They walked their emptied cereal bowls to the kitchen, where Hollis’ parents had the television tuned in to Comedy Central. “Does this mean we get to sit on the sofa,” Graham asked the boys.

“We could always put the Xbox in my room,” said Hollis.

“Not a chance little man,” Lonnie replied. “You two wouldn’t get any sleep.”

In Hollis’ room, the boys emptied their pockets, preparing for the nighttime clothing change. The medallion thudded onto the cedar bureau with a satisfying heft for its size. Kirby snatched up the silvery object and scrutinized it. He ran his thumb along the smooth lines and bumps on both sides. They felt like waves. Then he examined the rusted metal band around its rim.

“You oughta turn this into a necklace,” Kirby said.

Hollis already had his shirt off. “What do you mean, like a girl?”

“No man, like Kanye or 50 Cent. You gonna call them girls?”

“Oh. Oh yeah,” Hollis replied.

“All you gotta do is run a string through this little loop here. Looks like that’s what it used to be anyway.”

Hollis took the pendant from Kirby and checked out the rim. “Yeah, I thought about that, but I figured my mother wears necklaces. I didn’t think about Kanye and 50 Cent.”

“Exactly. You got any string around here?”

Hollis handed the item back to Kirby and snuck out to the living room again where one of the family’s many junk drawers was sure to have a ball of twine. He returned with a black shoelace, which he handed to Kirby.

“Cool,” said Kirby, looping the lace through the slot on the metal band. He tied the ends up and handed the medallion to Hollis, who hung it around his shirtless neck.

“What do you think?” asked Hollis.

“I think your ice cream gut aside, you look just a hair cooler.”

Hollis checked himself out in the reflection from his TV on top of the bureau and nodded his approval. Then he threw on a sweatshirt, ensuring that the pendant was on display.

Kirby grabbed a couple blankets from the closet and threw them on the ground. “Toss me a pillow,” he said.

Hollis leapt onto the bed and threw a pillow down to his friend lying on the floor. Then he buried himself under the blankets, pulling the top over his head. He closed his eyes and breathed in the fabric softener off the freshly cleaned sheets. He thought his mother was a little weird washing his beddings so often.
“These blankets smell awesome,” Kirby said from his makeshift bed.

“I was just thinking that my mom washes them too much.”

“You’re numb.”

After a moment’s silence, Hollis cracked his eyes. They had grown accustomed to the darkness. His mind wandered to the shooter game he and Kirby had been playing when his mother interrupted them for bed. He was better than his friend at the game, maybe because he was more used to the Xbox.

As he ran through that evening’s gaming mistakes, a faint metallic blue glow caught his eye. He lifted the covers around his chest. The glow was emanating from his medallion. It was faint enough that if his eyes hadn’t grown used to the lack of light, he probably wouldn’t even have noticed. But with his more sensitive vision, it was clear. “Hey, come check this out,” he said.

“Check what out?” replied Kirby.

“My good luck charm is glowing.”

Kirby threw off the blanket and climbed under the covers with his friend.

“Can you see that?” Hollis asked.

It took a second for Kirby to notice. “Oh yeah. Cool.”

“What do you think, it’s radioactive or something?”

“No,” said Kirby. “I’ve seen watches and all sorts of stuff that glows in the dark. That doesn’t mean it’s radioactive. But I’ll tell you one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s cooler than my rabbits’ foot.”



VIII


The Whittaker’s asphalt driveway was lined with scrawny juniper shrubs and one in particular was browning along its side. Weeks before, Hollis had crashed his bicycle into it in a risky move that was intended to impress the kids across the street. He had misjudged the height of the handlebars and consequently he and the bike landed squarely on top of the bush, splitting one of the main branches from the other.

It was one of the rare times he’d been wearing his helmet. Town ordinances required anyone under 16 years to wear helmets whenever they were riding bikes, but Hollis, like many of the other kids in the area, tried to get away without one when he could. His mother had seen him doing stunts and told him to put the helmet on minutes before the big accident. Now, he only hoped his parents wouldn’t notice the dead bush by the driveway, or in the least, that they wouldn’t connect the dots and hold him responsible.

Once again, helmets were safely stowed next to the garage door where they were sure not to get scratched, while Hollis and Kirby circled the driveway on their BMXs, each pulling his entire bike up with full ferocity, trying to lift the contraption off the ground. Kirby was making strides, but Hollis was only able to lift the front wheel a few inches. He didn’t figure a wheelie was as cool as a bunny hop, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Their conversation had passed squarely away from the task at hand onto the best kind of pet to own. For Hollis, nothing could beat a dog, but Kirby’s taste for companions ranged a little farther out of the norm.

“I don’t know,” said Kirby. “I’m stuck between a boa constrictor and a bearded dragon.”

“What the heck’s that?” asked Hollis.

Kirby’s mind was still spinning. “Or a falcon.”

“Nobody has falcons as pets.”

“Yes they do, numbass. That’s how come they have hoods for them and arm protection.”

“What’s a bearded dragon?”

“It’s a lizard.”

“What are you gonna do with a lizard?” Hollis stopped his bike, clapped his hands and whistled toward a non-existent lizard in the middle of the driveway. “Come on, Lenny!” He whistled again. “Come on boy! I got you a bag of flies.”

Kirby started to chuckle.

“Come on boy,” Hollis continued. “Roll over. That’s a good boy.”

“That’s totally what I’d do, dude,” said Kirby, which made Hollis break out in laughter. “And I’d call him Lenny too. Lenny the lizard.”

An old pine green Volkswagen Passat, which had been approaching from down the road, pulled into the driveway, black exhaust spewing from its rear and a radio voice too muffled to discern coming from behind the windows. The sides of the car were rusted along the bottom and the antenna on top was snapped in half. The jalopy groaned to a halt well short of the boys, ticking as its engine cooled down. The radio fell silent and Teo Ayala rolled out of the driver’s seat with a padded envelope in hand.

“Hey Hollis,” he said, holding up the envelope and moving toward the boys. “You know what I have here?”

“I don’t know,” Hollis replied.

“This, my friend, is the very first article on your planet. This journal won’t even be published until tomorrow, but you get an advanced copy.”

“Cool.”

Teo handed the envelope to Hollis, who struggled a bit to tear it open. The boy pulled out the magazine, whose cover was an illustration of the newly discovered planet, with inset photos of Hollis and Niels Odden. Across the middle were three words, “Planet 9 Found.” The subtext read, “Fifth grader leads astronomer to missing planet.”

Mr. Ayala and Kirby both towered over Hollis and glanced at the journal from behind his shoulders as he flipped through it.

“Do you want to show your folks?” Mr. Ayala asked.

“Yeah,” the boy answered before calling out and dashing for the front door. “Mom, dad! The article’s here!” Teo and Kirby followed him inside, where his mother was seated at the kitchen table thumbing through her phone and his father, at the counter, was cutting up vegetables for dinner.

“Mom, dad. Check it out,” Hollis hollered, tossing the journal on the table. Lonnie lifted the magazine as the small crowd gathered behind her.

“Well, I’ll be,” she said.

Graham was bursting out of his already tight t-shirt. “Hey hey! Look at that thing! And there he is on the cover. That’s our boy!”

Lonnie located the article and started reading it aloud, but stopped after only a few sentences when it was clear that it was science-talk. It might well have been written in lawyer-speak.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said Lonnie, looking at her son. “Honey, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Are you happy with it?”

“Yeah,” Hollis replied. “It’s awesome.”

“Hollis man,” said Kirby, “that is totally sick. I’m going to tell people we were friends way back when you first got a brain.”

“You know,” said Mr. Ayala to Hollis’ parents, “this is going to get out around the world pretty fast after it hits the streets, so to speak. What do you think about setting up an interview with the Post?”

“I guess so,” said Lonnie, focusing on Hollis again. “Are you okay with that, pal?”

Hollis shrugged his shoulders, still focused on the journal. “Sure.”

• • • • •

Mrs. Bennett pointed to the blackboard, where that night’s homework assignment was written. “Remember, read through all of chapter twelve. It’s short. It won’t kill you.”

A collective groan escaped from the student body, the kids collecting their belongings and moving toward the door. Hollis worked his way into the middle of the herd, shuffling his feet a few inches at a time behind the kids in front of him. He felt a poke on the side of his shoulder. It was Alexus, and for the first time he could recall, she didn’t look smug.

“Hey,” she said with what could best be interpreted as a genuine smile.

He stopped and faced her. “Hey.”

“I saw your article in the paper this morning. It was really cool.” She held her books up with both hands across her chest.

“Thanks,” he replied.

“So like, my mom says you’re like a genius or something.” Her eyes diverted for a second just past Hollis as Kirby approached him from behind.

“I don’t feel like one,” he said.

“So like, how’d you know there was a planet out there?”

“I don’t know. It just felt like there should be one there.”

“That’s weird,” she said, with a laugh, “but like, I don’t know, totally cool, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah, he’s not so stupid now is he, Alexus?” Kirby said with a snarky inflection when he mentioned her name.

“Shut up, Kirby,” she replied using the same tone. She smiled at Hollis, stuck out her tongue at Kirby and marched away, her jet-black hair bouncing in step.

“What a bitch,” said Kirby.

“She was being nice,” Hollis replied.

“That’s only ‘cause you’re famous now. I guarantee it, if you weren’t in the paper, she wouldn’t be talking to you.”

“I don’t think she’s that bad.”

“What do you want to date her now?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Do you want to marry her?” Kirby’s voice had grown more childlike.

“Shut up!” Hollis pushed his best friend who stumbled back a step and they both started laughing.

“I now pronounce you Hollis and Alexus Whittaker,” said Kirby, making a sign-of-the-cross with his right hand.

“You’re a moron.”

Mrs. Bennett’s voice rose from behind her desk. “Gentlemen, don’t you have anywhere else to be?” The class had cleared out and the two boys followed suit, pushing each other on the way. Mrs. Bennett smiled and shook her head.

• • • • •

Mr. West leaned on the blackboard with his arms crossed in front of his chest and a stick of chalk in his grasp. He removed his red-rimmed glasses and lowered his head into his hand, exaggerating a grimacing squint as he pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Anybody besides Hollis?”

It had become a familiar scene. Mr. West had been hammering a mathematical rule into their heads for the past few days and after all of his efforts, the only student in class who seemed to fully grasp the concept was also the only one who understood it before he’d begun. He didn’t know if the other kids were becoming humbled at Hollis’ intellectual prowess or if they were just getting dumber. Whatever, he figured, it was starting to fray his nerves.

He’d suggested skipping Hollis up a grade or two to the front office staff, but the wheels of the educational system were old and rusty and weren’t designed to cope with a student of Hollis’ rare abilities. Plus the boy was only flourishing in math and science; he was still below average in the rest of his classes. So for now, Hollis would remain a fifth grader with vast potential stuck in an elementary cage, and Mr. West would continue as a mediocre mathematician humbled by a ten-year old and pulling his hair out wishing that some of Hollis’ talent would transfer to his classmates.

“Kirby, help us out, would you?”

Hollis lowered his hand.

Kirby, who had been doing his best to stay invisible, sat up at attention. He extended his arms to their full length, palms outward and interlocked, and cracked his knuckles. “Okay, let’s see. You got the sixteen twenty-fifths, right?”

Mr. West tilted his head to the side, without responding.

“So sixteen twenty-fifths minus . . . fourteen fiftieths . . . is always going to get you . . .” Kirby glanced down at he textbook and flipped a few pages, but the answer wasn’t there and he turned his eyes back to the blackboard. “Sixteen twenty-fifths . . .”

The vintage bell on the wall clamored signaling the end of class, and the children stirred to life.

“Stop!” said Mr. West, freezing the students mid-rouse. He paused, looking at his star pupil. “Hollis?”

“Nine twenty-fifths,” Hollis replied.

“Nine twenty-fifths,” Mr. West repeated conclusively, turning to the chalkboard and erasing the problems he’d scribbled on it minutes before.

The class started their haphazard retreat to the exit like a shaken snow globe filtering out a hole in its bottom. The last two, as per usual, were Hollis and Kirby, the boy wonder characteristically quiet as his best friend plied him with whatever random topic was inside his head at the moment. As the pair passed in front of Mr. West’s desk an abrupt metallic clang jolted the teacher from his thoughts. He turned to see Hollis retrieving an object, which he’d obviously dropped on the ground.

“What’s that?” Mr. West asked.

“That’s his good luck charm,” Kirby answered.

“It’s my good luck charm,” Hollis added. “String must have come undone.” The boy fished a shoestring from underneath his shirt and looped it onto the medallion, retying the knot.

Mr. West eyed the object from above the fifth graders. “Hey Hollis, do you mind if I take a look at that?”

Hollis handed it to Mr. West, who examined both sides, feeling the silvery stone-like surface between his fingers. “This is weird,” he said. “This is your good luck charm? What, do you wear it like a necklace under your shirt?”

“Yeah.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“I found it in the woods.”

“It’s pretty neat. Do you know anything about it? What’s it made out of?”

Hollis shrugged. “I don’t know.”

Kirby leaned in for another glance at Hollis’ medallion as Mr. West moved the object up and down feeling its weight.

“I told him he should have it checked out,” Kirby said.

“That’s not a bad idea, Kirby,” said Mr. West. “I’d bring it to Relics on Main. They might at least be able to tell you what it is. I’d be interested to hear what they say.”

“Where’s that?” asked Hollis.

“It’s right near Oriental Gardens. Your folks ever bring you out for Chinese?”

“Oh yeah,” said Kirby. “I know the place you’re talking about. It’s got a model train in the window and an old bike and everything.”

“That’s it,” Mr. West replied. He handed the medallion back to Hollis. “Fern Mori, a really nice lady. Tell her I sent you.”



IX

Cool November winds were gusting bits of trash in circles along the sidewalks, shreds of napkins and iced coffee lids. It didn’t seem to make a lot of sense since the same winds were blowing directly into Hollis’ face as he and Kirby rode their bikes home from school. His eyes were tearing up from the chilly temperatures and he used his jacket sleeve to wipe his runny nose as he rode. The breaks in the cement made a rhythmic thud as Hollis rode over them. The smell of oil burners enveloped the downtown, freshly heating up for the first time in more than a half year.

Kirby led the way. He wanted to show Hollis where the antique store was. He pulled to a stop at the corner of Central Street, Oriental Gardens straight across the one-way, two lane road.

“That’s it there,” Kirby said, pointing two doors down from the Chinese restaurant. The display window was filled with bric-a-brac, a rusty model plane dangling from the ceiling, old comic books, furniture, and a penny farthing bicycle, just like Kirby had said. Traffic on Central Street, the main thoroughfare in town, was at a standstill, flustered motorists waiting for the light two-hundred yards ahead to change. Kirby picked a gap between a muddy one-ton dump truck and an SUV and rode his bike slowly between them, catching eyes with the truck’s driver. Hollis followed. Stopping in front of the truck, both boys then made their way between two cars in the second lane and onto the sidewalk.

Hollis could make out a lot more in the Relics and More display window as he and Kirby examined its contents up close. The train set Kirby had mentioned was a 1950 Lionel Postwar set, an all black engine with various colored boxcars and tankers attached behind. Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls sat in the corner with their red yarn hair and triangle noses. Oil lamps, vases and clocks lined a set of olive green metal shelves.

“That’s a cool train,” Hollis said.

“Yeah, it’s probably like five hundred bucks,” Kirby replied.

Kirby leaned his bike against the building and walked through the spring-loaded door, followed by Hollis. The shop’s interior seemed like an antique itself; the floor had worn away to bare wood in the heavily trafficked areas. The musty air had a hint of mildew perhaps left over from the flood the town had experienced a few years prior. In the background, a tinny voice crooned out an old song over a set of speakers, the recording sounding like it was coming through a soup can.

There were shelves reaching to the ceiling crammed with just about everything imaginable: albums, books, typewriters, board games, magazines, toys, plates, shoes, lamps, sewing machines. Various pieces of furniture half blocked the passages between exhibits. On the right side, glass display cases housed the more expensive items like jewelry and political memorabilia. And behind the display case, a set of suspicious eyes, not much higher than the case, kept watch over the fifth graders as they rummaged through the antiques.

When Hollis and Kirby finally made their way over to the counter, an older, stout Japanese woman with graying hair, rose off her stool. With her whole face exposed, the woman didn’t really seem distrustful anymore, but instead exhibited a carefree mien. The woman wasn’t much taller than the boys and wore a white t-shirt that read “Vintage 1956.”

“Hello boys,” she said. “Looking for anything in particular?”

Kirby leaned on the glass case. “Dan West is our math teacher and he said you might be able to tell us about this thing we found.”

Hollis pulled the medallion from around his neck and laid it on the counter.

“Oh Dan! How’s he doing? He’s such a lovely man,” she said, picking up the object.

“He’s good,” said Hollis.

She placed on a pair of glasses that were dangling around her neck, and examined both sides of the medallion. Then she reached beside the cash register on the back wall and retrieved a magnifying glass, studying the artifact more closely. “This is really neat,” she said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything made out of this material before. I don’t even know what it is.”

She laid the object back down on the case. “If I were to guess, I’d say it’s a piece of folk art. Do you know what that is?”

The boys shook their heads.

“It’s probably something that someone made in their home. Maybe they were an aspiring jeweler or something. Where did you find it?”

“Out in the woods by my house,” Hollis said. “It was stuck in the mud by this stream.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I’d say someone wore it as a necklace, just like you’re doing and it must have just fallen off at one point.” She picked the artifact up again and rubbed it between her fingers, then scraped it with her thumbnail. “But I’ll tell you, that is a bizarre material. I can’t tell if it’s stone or metal or some sort of ore. You know what I’d like to do? I’d like to take a picture and upload it to a website I use once in awhile to see if anyone has seen anything like it. Would that be okay?”

“Sure,” said Hollis as Kirby nodded in agreement.

“These folks are good,” she added, motioning for the boys to follow her into the back room. “I’m sure somebody will be able to tell us at least what it’s made out of.”

The cramped back room was in more disarray than the store, except the majority of the flat spaces were occupied by reams of paper. A fluorescent overhead light cast a yellow-green hue across the office and an old desktop computer rested on the middle of a solid mahogany desk, a digital ball bouncing around on an otherwise black screen. She moved the mouse and the computer chugged to life, whirring and sputtering before finally displaying a spreadsheet. She closed the program and laid the medallion down on the desk.

“My name’s Fern,” she said as she reached into one of the desk drawers and pulled out a digital camera. “Fern Mori. What are yours?” She pushed piles of paperwork to one side of the desk.

“I’m Kirby Cooper-Quinn,” said Kirby. “And this is Hollis.”

Hollis waved, but Fern didn’t notice. She was stacking papers on top of one another. “Well, Kirby Cooper-Quinn and Hollis, I’m glad you came in. This will be fun.”

“It glows in the dark too,” said Hollis.

Fern snatched the medallion off the desk and scrutinized it. “It glows in the dark, does it?” She cupped her hands around it and brought it up close to her eyes, then relaxed. “Nothing here,” she said. Fern laid the medallion back on the desk and stood up, stretching to reach a set of curtains and shutting them. “Do me a favor, Hollis. Would you shut off the light and close the door?” She pointed to the light switch next to the office entrance. Hollis took a couple steps and did as requested. The computer screen still illuminated the room, but otherwise the room was in shadows. The old Japanese woman transferred a sweater from the back of the chair to the screen, covering it, lifted the medallion and raised it to her eyes again before shuffling to the corner of the room and repeating the process. “I don’t see anything, boys.”

She handed it to Hollis, who cupped his hands around the object and brought it up to his own eyes. “It’s glowing. Can’t you see that? It’s blue.” He moved next to her in the corner of the room and Kirby followed behind him. With his hands still cupped around the object, he raised it for Fern to see, and it emanated a faint blue glow, just as the boy had said.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “Now I see it.”

He handed it to her and swapped positions with Kirby, who was pushing to get a closer look.

“I don’t see it,” said Kirby.

Fern turned her back to the room and allowed Kirby to come along side her as she covered it with her hands. She flipped it around and agreed with Kirby. “You’re right. It’s not glowing anymore.”

With that, Hollis moved in for a closer look and the glow from the medallion slowly reappeared. “Oh my god,” said Fern. “Hollis, go stand against that far wall.”

Hollis plodded to the other side of the room while Fern and Kirby regarded the object, whose glow faded to nothing.

“Now come back,” said Fern.

Hollis retraced his steps and pulled up next to the other two, and once again, the medallion started glowing. With trepidation in her voice, the woman offered the item to Hollis. “Here, take it.”

As Hollis clutched it, the glow grew a little brighter.

“No way!” Kirby said. “That is messed up!”

Fern stood for a moment her mouth agape. “Now give it back to me and go back over there,” she said. Hollis did as instructed and the medallion once again lost its inner light. “Oh my god,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.” For a full minute, the room was silent. Even Kirby was at a loss for words. Fern shook her head and reached for the curtains, opening them again and letting in the afternoon light. She looked at Hollis and motioned to the light switch. “Can you . . .?”

The boy turned the light back on and opened the office door.

Fern laid the medallion on the cleared space on the desk and snapped a photo of it, the flash illuminating the entire room, then turned the medallion over and took another shot. Then she plugged the camera to a cable attached to the rear of the computer and sat down in a creaky wooden swivel chair. A barrage of pictures showed up on the computer screen, the most recent ones of the medallion. She opened a browser and clicked on a bookmarks, which slowly opened a webpage called “Ant-eeks.” She started a fresh post, noting that they were in the northern Virginia area, that the object had been found in the woods and that it glowed a faint blue when near its owner. After a few sentences of description, she uploaded the images and posted the query.

“I have no idea if anyone will know why it glows near Hollis,” she said, “but someone will know something about it. I’d say by tomorrow, we’ll at least have a clue.”

• • • • •

“I’d totally buy a Ferrari,” said Kirby, “ a yellow one. Those are the ultimate.”

“You’re not even going to be able to drive for another six years,” Hollis contended.

“That doesn’t matter. It’d be there when I get my license. Plus anyone can drive on private property. That’s a fact. And I’d definitely get a place with a racetrack if I won the lottery, so I could technically drive whenever as long as I stayed on my property.”

“Are you even old enough to buy property?”

“Money greases the wheels, my friend. You have a lot to learn about the real world.”

“I guess I’d buy my old house. I loved it there. And I’d have a private jet so we could go back and forth.”

“Why not just buy some mansion by the beach? That’d rock the socks off your old crap hole.”

“I’d get one of them too, I guess.”

“Man,” said Kirby, “you don’t even need to win the lottery. You’re totally gonna be rich with this whole planet thing. I mean, you got an interview with CNN tonight, right?”

Hollis nodded. “Yeah, and a couple newspapers and a few other TV stations tomorrow.”

“That’s awesome! Can I come?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“Is that what you’re wearing?”

Hollis glanced down at his school ensemble, a long sleeve red and white baseball shirt, and a pair of jeans. He shrugged. “I guess.”

Kirby shook his head. “No. Uh uh. That is not what you want to be wearing for your first interview.”

“Why not?”

“Look, if you want to play the part, you have to look the part. We got to get you some real duds.”

Hollis and Kirby were splayed out on the grass and an inflatable red rubber ball rolled a foot away from Kirby. He reached over and tossed it back to the kids playing soccer with it. The JW Elementary playground was a hive of activity, some of the students on the swing set and monkey bars, others playing war or skipping rope. Hollis and Kirby had found the quietest area to have a little chat about video games and the conversation had just gotten away from them.

“Like what?” Hollis asked.

“Huh?”

“What kind of clothes should I be wearing tonight?”

“You gotta wear something fitting. You got any t-shirts with planets on them?”

Hollis thought for a second. “No.”

“What about a Kanye shirt?”

Hollis shook his head. “Why would that be fitting?”

“Cause it’s Kanye. What about 50 Cent?”

“Nope.”

“Oh man, well I’ll loan you something. You can’t go out there looking like that.”

“Your shirts wouldn’t fit me. You’re like two feet taller than me.”

“All right, well don’t worry. We’ll get you situated. This is an important one.”

From straight on, Hollis caught Alexus and Jayden approaching. They were making a beeline for him.

“Aw crud,” said Kirby. “Here comes Alexus and Jayden. Don’t invite them tonight.”

“How come?”

“Cause they’re like . . . I don’t know. Just trust me. They’d be a total drain.”

Hollis watched them as they neared and spoke softly. “I don’t know why you hate them so much. They’re okay.”

“Sometimes I hate it when I’m right,” Kirby concluded.

The girls stopped at Hollis feet. “Hi Hollis,” they said in unison. Kirby and Alexus exchanged irritated glances.

“Hi,” Hollis replied.

Alexus handed Hollis a scrap of paper, which he took and examined.

“That’s my email,” she said. “In case you want to . . . I don’t know, do homework together sometime or something.”

“Okay,” said Hollis.

The girls smiled, spun around without acknowledging Kirby and headed back toward the side of the school.

Hollis stuffed the scrap of paper in his front pocket.

“You’re not keeping that, are you?” Kirby asked.

“Yeah, why?”

“What, are you like actually going to email her or something?”

“I don’t know. I guess. Maybe.”

Kirby glared straight up at the overcast sky and raised his palms toward them. “I’m trying,” he said to the ether. “I’m trying. But you’re not giving me much to work with.”

• • • • •

The boys headed back downtown after school let out. They dropped their bikes along the side of the building at Relics and More and pushed through the shop’s spring-loaded door. The tin can radio, almost imperceptible in the background, played music that Kirby recognized.

“Oh, I know this dude,” said Kirby. “This is Elvis. My grandparents flip out about this guy.”

“What, the music?” asked Hollis.

“Yeah, he was a like rock and roll god.”

Hollis thumbed through a stash of classic comic books on the front shelves. “Do you like him?”

“I don’t know. He’s okay, you know.” Kirby spun a two-foot globe on its axis, stopping it with a finger. “Pacific Ocean,” he said. Hollis didn’t reply. Kirby spun it again, once again stopping its motion with his index finger. “Chad! Hey check it out, this country is called Chad!”

“No duh,” said Hollis.

“What, you know it?”

“I’ve heard of it.”

“Yeah, well it’s a stupid name.”

Hollis delved into an early copy of the Fantastic Four as Kirby moved on from the globe to a 1940s era replica tank. “Cool,” he said, picking it up. “Man, toys used to be really heavy. What is this, made out of a real tank?”

Hollis glanced over and Kirby held it up for him to view. Then Hollis surveyed the cash register area. “Where’s Fern, do you think?”

Kirby shot an eye over the display cases. “I don’t know. Out back?”

Hollis returned the comic book to the milk crate where he’d picked it up and edged closer to the back of the store, examining trinkets along the way.

“Check it out,” said Kirby, “a space bus.” He held up an old tin bus with robots and astronauts painted in the windows as passengers.

Hollis nodded to his friend and rested his arms on the display case in front of the cash register. “Mrs. Mori?” he hollered.

Kirby joined him.

Hollis shouted toward the office door, “Fern?”

There was no response.

“You think we should come back?” Hollis asked Kirby.

“No, she’s here. Maybe there’s a basement or something. She wouldn’t leave the door open if she left.” Kirby slipped by Hollis behind the counter. “Mrs. Mori?” he said, stepping toward the office door. As he entered the back room, Kirby froze.

“We’re not supposed to go back there without her,” Hollis said, moving in behind his friend. He peeked around the corner to see what Kirby was staring at. Mrs. Mori lay on the wooden floor on the far edge of the room, a puddle of blood under her, a bullet hole in her forehead.



X


Wednesday, August 22, 1945:

“Knock ‘em dead sweetie.”

“Thanks pop.” Eleanor leaned across the bench seat to kiss her father on the cheek. He leaned in, but his hands remained on the steering wheel, the engine clattering and shaking the truck all over. A mild breeze blew the exhaust in through their half open windows.

Eleanor flung the door open using her shoulder for strength and jumped out of the cab, reaching back in to grab her handbag off the floor.

“I’ll be back at five o’clock,” he said, “unless I come up with something better to do.”

“Daddy that wasn’t funny when you said it yesterday and it wasn’t funny the day before either.” But there was something comforting about his predictability.

“You laughed the first time I said it. I’m just playing the odds,” he replied. “Humor is cyclical. One of these days, it’ll be funny again.”

She waved at him and slammed the creaky door shut. Her father had bought the Chevy Coupe pickup new in 1941 and the way he figured, it was just working itself in now. Garnet red, a chrome grill and bumper and a spare tire on the driver’s side, the old man did all the maintenance on it himself. He didn’t like paying other people to do things he was capable of handling.

The truck pulled away as she faced the gate of the Potomac Research Facility, a dozen feet high capped with barbed wire and fronted by cement pylons every few feet. Just on the other side was a large half-full parking lot and past that was the actual building where she worked. There were five women in front of her at the security station, and two armed MPs. A speed bump and manually operated boom barrier forced all vehicular traffic to stop before entering the facility, but staff and visitors on foot could walk around the barrier after having their identification checked.

The last woman in line caught her eye. It was Stella Romano, an Italian in her early forties with a propensity for men in uniform and a talent for finding mischief. Her skirt matched the tone of her bag and violet mushroom hat. Stella’s mouth dropped as a flash of recognition struck her. “Eleanor Cole. What have you done to yourself?”

Eleanor twirled around. “What do you think?”

“I think you should have brought a stick to fend off the men. You look absolutely ravishing, don’t you?”

This was exactly the reaction Eleanor had hoped for. It was the first sign that her gamble would pay off—not that she was looking for a hookup with anyone at PRF. Quite the contrary, actually. But it was nice to know that she had it in her.

Some of the other women in line glanced back at Eleanor, a mix of envy and disdain in their gazes. She wished it were different, that women could be pleased for one another, but often enough everything boiled down to a competition. Still, she wasn’t going to let it bring her down. Stella was as accepting a woman as Eleanor had ever come across and that’s all that mattered to her.

“Where did the inspiration for this come from?” Stella asked.

“I needed something different,” Eleanor said. “Don’t you ever feel like a hamster on a wheel, running and running and nothing ever changing?”

“What are you kidding me? At least you still have youth.”

“Ma’am?” The taller of the two sentry guards was speaking to Stella who had reached the front of the line.

Stella spun around. “Oh! Sorry about that.” She started digging through her handbag, pulling out her ID and handing it to the man. He scanned the card and stepped to the side for her to pass, then he moved in front of Eleanor, expectant.

Eleanor had her identification ready and presented it, and within seconds was strolling across the parking lot with Stella to the main building.

There were probably fifteen men for every woman at PRF, most of them professional and respectful, but there were some hands-on slimeballs and arguably the worst was Major Emory Clay, Eleanor’s boss. His arrogant and condescending personality was equally renowned and detested among the secretarial staff, and even with a lot of the men. As Eleanor passed the guard by the building’s front door, her stomach began to churn with the thought of spending another day with him. Inside the building, Stella took an immediate left and Eleanor climbed the two flights of stairs to the third floor and her office.

A dozen or so women streamed into the Potomac Research Facility during the few minutes before nine a.m., all secretaries for higher ranking army personnel. The base housed a couple hundred people during the day, and most of the work that went on within it was highly classified. Eleanor wasn’t privy to the most secretive details inside, but as the assistant to Major Clay, she had high clearance, high enough to attend most meetings with which he was involved.

Her new look was intended to raise a reaction, but she didn't want it from the one man guaranteed to turn it against her. That was the tradeoff, she'd need to work under the chauvinistic gaze of her boss for eight hours. He would start with an off-colored comment, then hover too closely behind her throughout the day, his mouth next to her ear and hand on her far shoulder almost embracing her, feigning interest in her work. His breath, redolent of cigars and poor dental hygiene often brought her to the point of breaking.

And it was about to begin. Their office door was ajar, he'd already arrived. At least he wasn't in the front room, that was her domain and the one saving grace of their setup. He had a private office to the side and occasionally he kept the door closed. Eleanor entered the office and shot a quick eye at his door. It was open.

She laid her bag on the desk and made her way as quietly as she could to her chair, the smell of musky aftershave and the stench of cigars already heavy in the air. And she could hear Major Clay on the phone, out of sight, gruff as ever with his thick Louisiana accent. There was a stack of papers she'd filed away the night before that needed to be run through the ditto machine, but she took a moment to eavesdrop on his conversation.

"Fourteen hundred," he said abruptly. "If you'd like me to come down there and shove a fist straight down your pie hole, I'll be more than happy to do it."

My god, Eleanor thought. He never eases up. From the first minute of the day to the last, he's always demeaning someone.

"Do you think Uncle Sam pays you to be idle?" Clay barked, pausing for a reply. "I am Uncle Sam! And I'll be standing in front of your crappy little desk at thirteen fifty-nine and fifty nine seconds, and I am not waiting two seconds, by god, or you will have my wrath!" He slammed the phone down and muttered a few obscenities to himself.

Eleanor placed her bag on the floor beside her and lifted her chair to stand as quietly as she could. The best few minutes of the work day were before he knew she was in. She tread lightly to the filing cabinet and rolled the upper chamber open slowly, removing a sheaf of papers and closing the drawer with a soft click. Two steps over at the ditto machine, her back was to the room, but it didn't take any figuring to know when Major Clay entered. He let out a long descending whistle.

She glanced back at his door. He was leaning against the jamb with his arms folded in front of his chest and a disgusting smirk on his face. Major Clay was in full ogling mode and his eyes moved from her bare calfs to her new coiffure, stopping for more than a second on her buttocks.

"You know my birthday isn't until October," he said. "But if you wanted my attention, you got it."

Eleanor flashed him an uneasy smile and returned to the work at hand. When would it ever be acceptable to tell a man off when he was being inappropriate?

Her chest tightened, anxious about what was coming next. Would he keep commenting, move in on her, or let the matter drop?

"Woo! Spin around and let me get a good look."

Of course he isn't going to let it drop. She tried her first line of defense—ignoring his remarks. "You said you needed three copies of the 1348s?"

She heard his footsteps closing in on her, so she tried again to change the subject. "I'll do triplicates of the 1348s and 1480s." Eleanor wondered if she should try to make it past him to her desk to minimize physical interaction with him, but knew it would be pointless. She was stuck in an office with him and it was best to let him do what he was going to do.

Major Clay placed his hand on her shoulder and spun her toward him and she relented, facing him full on. He gave her the up and down, his calloused hand still on her shoulder and the stink of cigars and bad breath invading her space. He had a formidable frame, towering over her at a good six foot two. She stared at his belt buckle, trying to avoid eye contact.

With his free hand, Major Clay lifted her chin. "Eyes up here, doll. Get your mind out of the gutter."

Her artificial smile had disappeared, replaced with a blank stare.

"That's better," he said as he laid his free hand on her other shoulder. "You look good enough to eat. I oughta sup you up with a helping of biscuits and gravy."

The life had gone out of her. She needed this job, or at the very least a reference from this man for another. And who would believe her? He was a major in the U.S. Army in charge of top secret information. And it would be her word against his. Clay had even molded his wife into a malleable shell, unwilling or afraid to oppose him. She’d back up her husband if called on. No, Eleanor would be labeled a jezebel and lose her job if she blabbed to anyone. There was nothing she could do but stand there and take it.

"You really don't want me getting any work done, do you?" he said. "I tell you what." He took the papers out of her hand and laid them on the duplicating machine. "Why don't you run along and fetch me a cup of coffee? Be a good girl." He gently pushed her shoulder toward the door and when she began walking, he patted her on the butt. "That-a-girl."

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