Empty_Hotel_2

Jack sat near the front of the school bus, oblivious to his raucous classmates. The other kids were bursting with excited energy; they only had three days left until summer vacation. Jack stared out his window. When the bus slowed to its last stop, he waited for everyone else before heading for the door. He had few friends at his school, and none on this bus. In this neighborhood the public school kids generally didn't place into the advanced classes, and the smart kids, like Jack, usually went to private academies.

“Take it easy, Jack,” said the bus driver.

“Thanks Mr. Shields, see you tomorrow,” said Jack.

Jack remained serious as he walked away from the bus and headed down the suburban street. His neighborhood was the last outgrowth of sprawl, encroaching into the surrounding forest and farmland. Earlier that week a crew had staked-off the shoulder of the road for future sidewalks, and Jack weaved between the orange-painted sticks, but kept a quick pace. Over the blocks Jack walked, the roads narrowed and houses sat farther back. He turned up the walk of a neat, two-story colonial: beige with cranberry shutters. Climbing his porch stairs, Jack's shoulders finally fell, releasing his tension.

“Hey Mom,” he bellowed.

“On the phone,” his mother yelled back from upstairs.

Jack pawed through the mail on the hall table and found a letter addressed to him. He kicked his shoes next to the staircase and then bounded upstairs as he shucked his backpack from his shoulders.

His room occupied a back corner of the house. He threw himself crossways on his bed, so he could look out the window. He grabbed his field glasses from the windowsill and spied across his side yard. Training his attention on a modest ranch across the side-street, Jack alternated his view between the two side windows and the back deck. The screen door was still propped open. Jack spent several moments looking at the gas grill; it hung halfway off the deck. The events of the previous night replayed in his head: the neighbor, owner of the ranch, father of Gabe Vigue, had burst through the screen door and kicked the gas grill with tremendous force. Jack had been lucky enough to catch this drama through his window.

“Whatcha looking at, Bub?” his mom asked from directly behind him.

“Nothing!” Jack exclaimed, startled. “Jeez Mom, you scared me.”

“Well maybe spying on people makes you jumpy,” she replied. “Where’s your jacket?”

“I left it at Mark’s house. I told you.”

“Tell him to bring it over this weekend then — I want to get all your school clothes cleaned and put away.”

“Mark’s gone already,” Jack reminded her.

“That’s right. Did you get the letter from your grandmother?” his mom asked.

“Oh yeah!” Jack rolled off his bed and grabbed the forgotten envelope from his backpack. He skimmed the letter and said, “They want me to visit at the end of the summer.”

“Oh, that sounds nice,” his mom said as she leaned against the door jam. “Why, what’s wrong with that?”

“It’s just that me and Ben are going to camp out and stuff. Like we talked about?” said Jack.

He took every opportunity to reinforce this point. It had taken Jack weeks of negotiations to achieve this agreement about his summer plans. Usually, summer brought a list of scheduled activities designed to engage him and, in his mind, extend the school year to fill all twelve months. This year he had convinced his parents that he and Ben could keep themselves busy by camping in the back yard and working through the chapters of his survival book. Jack's proposal had coincided with his mom’s concern that kids today don't have enough unstructured play time — she had relented and helped him sway her husband too.

Jack's dad tried to take Jack and Ben camping at least once a year, but the trips always seemed too short. Although only in the backyard, this would mark Jack and Ben's first solo camping trip.

“Ben and I,” said his mom. “And I know you, Jack. Halfway through July you’ll be dying for something to do. Tell your grandparents you’d be delighted to visit and we’ll talk about it in a few weeks.”

“Okay, I guess.”

“Love you,” she said.

“Love you too,” he agreed.

“Okay then,” his mom said as she turned to leave. “It’ll be fun,” she called back over her shoulder from the hall.

Jack turned his attention back out the window — fixated once again. Nothing had changed at the Vigue house, not in the last five minutes at least. The previous nine months had been packed with action for the Vigue family: their son Gabe had vanished from his pre-school’s playground. All the neighbors had hung on every piece of news for weeks, and kids as old as Jack were suddenly chaperoned to and from school. As the weeks turned to months, care turned back into complacency, and life had mostly returned to normal.

He put down his field glasses, got up from the bed, and sat down at his computer. Looking at the clock he granted himself one hour of hacking before he would turn his attention to his homework. Jack had been working for a week to break the copy-protection on the accounting software his Dad used for his home business. After upgrading the machine, his dad’s bookkeeping program had suddenly decided not to work. His parents were lost without the software — it handled all of their invoicing.  The attention he focused on this task was familiar to both his parents. Jack was a bulldog — when he set his mind to a problem, nothing could stop him from finishing.

Forty-five minutes later, Jack remotely unlocked the program on his dad’s machine. Twenty minutes after that he completed his light load of homework. In this last week of school, all the assignments felt like a teacher’s afterthought.

 

 

 

**********

 

 

Jack and his parents sat at their kitchen table. His parents enjoyed the dinner, but Jack's thoughts remained on the Vigue house. One of Jack's hands propped up his head as the other pushed his fork across his plate. His gaze wandered through the picture window to the dusk spreading across the back yard.

“I had good news this evening,” said his dad. “Our invoicing is back up. I decided to try it once again before switching to that other thing, and it just popped right up. What would cause that, Jack?”

Jack answered without looking at his dad: “Dunno, maybe an update from the Internet?”

“Well, you’re the expert,” his dad smiled.

Jack felt his mom’s eyes, but continued to look out the window. The urge to return her glance was starting to become overwhelming when the phone rang.

“I’ll get it!” exclaimed Jack as he jumped up from the table and crossed the room. He grabbed the phone and said, “Hello?”

“You figured out how to use the phone — I was worried the ringing would scare you away.” It was his best friend, Ben.

“Yeah, right. Your mom dial for you?” replied Jack as he smiled.

“You still got school?”

“Yeah, three more days.”

“It’s like a prison over there — how do you stand it?” asked Ben.

“Well they actually expect us to learn things. Must be a weird concept to you,” Jack laughed.

“Hey, so what’s going on this weekend? You ready for camping?”

“Well yeah, of course,” said Jack, “I got the tent laid out already,” he exaggerated. He had at least thought about getting the tent out.

“Sweet,” said Ben.

“How long can you stay?” asked Jack.

“I got nothing else this summer, my dad’s out west,” replied Ben.

“Really? Cool!” said Jack, surprised.

“Yeah, definitely. But oh, there’s uh… Stephen is coming,” Ben said.

“Oh yeah? When?” asked Jack.

“July… He’ll be here three weeks. Only three.”

“Good. I mean, why don’t you ask him to come along?” asked Jack. He tried to sound enthusastic, but he tried too hard and it rang false.

“Sounds good, I’ll tell him. We’ll hang out. It’ll be cool.”

“Yeah, that’s cool.”

“It’s going to be an awesome summer. Remember the goal?” asked Ben.

“How could I forget? It’s all you talk about,” replied Jack.

“They’re going to be spectacular, I guarantee.”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll see. Can’t you just get that stuff online like everyone else?”

“Not like these my friend, not like these,” said Ben.

“I gotta get back to dinner — I’ll see you soon.”

“See ya,” said Ben, and they hung up.

When Jack got back to the table he could tell his parents had discussed something weighty. His dad was the first to break the silence.

“Hey Bub, who was that?” asked Jack’s dad.

“Just Ben.”

“He still coming next week?” asked his mom.

“Yeah, he said he can stay all summer because his dad’s out west,” replied Jack. "Is that okay?"

“As long as you mean all summer except when you’re going out to see your grandparents, right?” asked his dad.

“Oh, yeah right. Except then,” said Jack. His face flattened.

 

 

 

**********

 

 

On Thursday, Jack finished middle school.

“Have a good summer, Jack,” Mr. Shields, the bus driver, said.

“Thanks, you too!” replied Jack.

Jack rushed home. He was on a mission. He looped his thumbs into his backpack, pulling himself home. Rushing up the porch stairs, Jack threw open the screen door and almost ran into the door. It was locked; he dug out his key. Casting off his pack in the hall, he headed immediately for the garage. He was surprised to find his mom’s car in there; that meant she was somewhere close enough to walk. Another oddity, but Jack wasn’t concerned.

On the far end of the garage, a makeshift ladder was nailed to the wall. His dad was too heavy for this ladder, so Jack was quite familiar with the loft area in the eaves. For several years Jack had been responsible for fetching gear from the garage loft. He climbed with confidence.

Jack kept all his camping gear stowed in a neat pile. He had a small section of rope to haul up the large items. He tied this to the tent and lowered it to the floor. It took a lot of time and effort to climb down to unhook each item, and then back up to lower the next. He repeated the process until he had a good-sized pile moved including tent, folding chairs, cooking equipment, and all the other comforts. He and Ben would camp no more than thirty yards from the house, but they wanted to feel completely independent.

Jack had one more trip to get the cooler. He had saved it for last because it was light and already close to the edge. Jack always saved the easy stuff for the end. When he bent for the cooler, the plywood floor of the loft cracked sharply and he heard debris hit his mom’s car below. Jack shuffled his feet, trying to get more solid footing over the joists, but he slipped on the dusty plywood and tumbled over the edge of the plywood floor.

Jack raised his arms to cushion his fall and had just enough time to squeeze his eyes shut before he hit the floor.

 

 

 

**********

 

 

Jack was having a bad dream. He tried to roll over and felt a stab of pain in his left arm. He couldn’t seem to focus his eyes, but he figured out that he was in the garage. The fall from the loft started to leak back into his thoughts, although he saw it from behind, as if it had happened to someone else.

“Honey?” he heard his mom calling from the kitchen.

“Here…” called Jack.

The next twenty minutes were a flurry of activity.

 

 

**********

 

 

“What did he land on?”

Jack awoke to see an older man with a clipboard talking to his mom. A long wait in the emergency room had lulled him to dozing.

“Um, camping gear? I guess. Well he was right next to it when I ... sleeping bags and stuff,” stammered his mom.

“Huh,” said the man. “Well, it could have been a lot worse. Oh, he’s awake.” They both looked at Jack.

“How are you feeling? I’m Dr. Lambert — please follow the light.” The doctor shone a bright light into Jack’s eyes.

“Okay.” Jack’s tongue felt weird — soft on one side.

Dr. Lambert turned back to Jack’s mom. “Not much obvious trauma. A mild concussion. What do you remember Jack?”

“I fell out of the loft. I tried to miss the car.”

“Oh, Jack!” his mom interjected.

“Any pain when I do this?” asked the doctor.

“Yes!” exclaimed Jack as Dr. Lambert extended Jack’s left arm.

“Are you left-handed?”

“No,” Jack and his mom answered simultaneously.

“Another piece of good luck. A sling for three to four of weeks should help the arm heal up, but we may want to keep him for observation tonight. Depends on the results of those tests.”

“But Ben’s coming!” cried Jack, turning to his mom.

“It’s okay Jack, he’ll be okay without you for one day.”

“He can still come?” asked Jack.

“Of course,” Jack’s mom turned to the doctor. “Are there any activities he shouldn't do? He was going to go camping.”

“No, no, he’ll be fine,” replied the doctor. “The sling will isolate the arm and let it heal."

An hour later, Jack felt very lucky when the test results came back — he would return home that night.

 

 

**********

 

 

Jack and his mom pulled into the garage sometime after eight. Jack struggled to unbuckle his seatbelt with his right hand. His mom watched him for a minute and then reached over and helped him get untangled. He opened the door and stepped carefully out of the car. Jack’s camping gear was still in a pile near the wall.

As soon as they reached the door, Jack could smell fried chicken. He looked at his mom and they shared a smile. Whenever he was called upon to provide dinner, Jack’s dad made an emergency trip for fried chicken.

Their big kitchen was normally very organized. Tonight, trash littered every counter. Jack’s dad, Greg, sat at the table surrounded by containers of food.

“Let me see,” said his dad as they walked through the door.

“It’s just a sling and an isolation thing — not a real cast,” said Jack.

“Purple, though. Suits you. It brings out your eyes,” said his dad as he cupped Jack’s chin. “What’s wrong? I’m sure you’ll break it next time.”

“It’s just totally going to screw up my vacation,” whined Jack.

“You’ll survive. You won’t even notice after two days,” interjected his mom.

Jack was relieved that his mom was starting to look more in control. She had looked frantic all afternoon.

“Well let’s eat already. Can’t let all this effort go to waste,” his dad ushered them to the table.

They sat down and passed around each container.

“You seem in good spirits, all things considered,” Jack’s mom said to her husband, Greg.

“I had a particularly good day. We got the civic center contract again, and it includes all the out-buildings this year.”

“Greg! That’s wonderful!” Kate said and squeezed her husband’s hand.

Jack could tell when his dad was about to launch into an excited rant. He never paid attention when his parents talked about their contracts.  His parents had started the business together, and remained the only two employees six years later. They had a language all their own.

Jack’s thoughts turned back to his inventory. Ben would arrive the next day, and he wanted to make sure that he had found everything they would need. The cooler would have to wait for Ben, but Jack thought he could move the rest of the stuff with his one remaining arm.

If Ben showed up by noon, they could set up by four, and then have plenty of time to walk to the store. Then they would get back in time to cook their own dinner outside.  Making their own meals seemed crucial to their independence during their back-yard camping.

Soon his parents were starting to clear the table.

“You hardly touched your food. What’s wrong with your appetite lately?” his mom asked.

“I don’t know. Just tired I guess,” replied Jack.

“Why don’t you go curl up in front of the TV and we’ll be there in a sec,” said his mom.

“Okay,” said Jack. He sensed they were going to talk about him.

Jack couldn't find anything better than nature shows. His mind had been wandering a lot lately. He wondered if he was thinking too much; was there such a thing?  As soon as the lions started stalking their prey, Jack started to really pay attention. He was engrossed by the time his dad came in a few minutes later.

“Everything okay, Jack?” his dad asked.

“Sure, well, except for this,” Jack said as he gingerly raised his left arm.

“Yeah, but even before that — you seem a little preoccupied lately. Have you been thinking of Gabe?”

Jack flinched a bit at the mention of the missing neighbor kid.

“I don’t know — not really,” Jack lied.

“It’s okay. It certainly was quite a shock. Nothing like that ever happened when I was a kid.”

“What do you mean ‘was a shock’? It’s not over yet, is it?”

“Well no, no, of course not. It’s just that, well there’s a period time where they really want to find some sort of lead. I think it’s forty-eight hours or so, but the odds of finding something after that,” his dad said. He slowed down as the sentence progressed. “Nobody is giving up on Gabe, but we do have to be realistic. It's been several months and from what we know there hasn’t been any information.”

“Maybe they’re not thinking about it right,” said Jack. “Did they try to think about it backwards?”

“They have the best possible people working on it. You’re right — it’s a puzzle, but this is what they do, and I’m sure they’ve thought about it every possible way,” consoled his dad. “Just don’t fixate on it, Jack. Sometimes things happen that we can’t control.”

Jack hadn’t realized that he had been thinking about Gabe until his dad brought it up. Now it was all he could think about.

“Get some rest, you’ve got to get healthy for your vacation,” said his dad. He settled into a chair next to the sofa. “What are you watching, anyway? Gross!”

 

 

 

**********

 

 

When Jack got up the next morning, he had barely slept. It was early — Jack was still on his school schedule — but it was already hot, and Jack’s father wouldn’t run the air-conditioner until it got even hotter. Jack normally didn’t mind, he preferred the windows open, but this morning the heat added to his discomfort. He had lived the same dream over and over all night. In his dream he was on the Vigue’s deck when Mr. Vigue burst through the screen door. Instead of kicking over the grill, he came right at Jack.

“You’re a sick fuck, you know that?” dream-Vigue screamed, inches from Jack’s face. “What are you, stupid or something?”

His dream ended with Mr. Vigue lifting him up by the front of his shirt. The neighbor’s dream-breath smelled like sour milk, ammonia, and dirt. His eyes were bloodshot and blank. They weren’t focused on Jack, which was unnerving, but his eyes also seemed to be missing the spark that would make them look human. Jack’s shirt was giving way under the armpits as the angry man held him up with no effort. It was the most realistic dream Jack had ever experienced.

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