I. Student Life
In which we are introduced to our cast of characters, the town of Whitby, and the strange things that reside within.
Beverly Jones opened the door and frowned. Filing cabinets filled the room like monoliths. Cobwebs stretched from one to the next. Equipment older than her were draped with white tarps, and every corner of the room was stuffed with newspapers. The Laemmle High Newsletter hadn’t published in years, and her attempts to revive it suggested it would be a long while before it ever published again. She’d expected her first year as an upperclassmen to mean so much more. She’d made plans. Her future was ahead of her as a bright and shining light, if she could work past the cobwebs.
Behind her, Merton Dewitt looked around the room through his thick glasses and let out a low whistle.
“This place is a dive,” he said. “Can we even work this junk?”
“Turns out the school will give us the key but not any direction.” Beverly stood, wiping dust off her hands. “I was hoping to–”
“Revolutionize the school’s newspaper, yeah.” He grinned at her. “You’ve got big dreams, Bev. This is a small town.”
She glared at him. Merton was the second half of the brand new newspaper club at Laemmle High, only because he’d been her best friend since grade school, and he was the only person she knew with his own camera. He didn’t share her ambitions or her dreams. Merton’s main interest was surviving two more years of high school with minimal scarring. But he didn’t laugh when she told him she wanted to go to college and become a famous journalist, and he was the only one she told about kissing Ricky Summers under the jungle gym two summers ago. In return she watched Invasion of the Body Snatchers down at the cineplex for the five hundredth time and kept a straight face when he talked about alien abductions. They’d spent a lot of the last summer on the roof of his house with his telescope positioned to some distant star while she talked about colleges and he explained how light carried over lightyears to the human eye. He’d agreed to do the newspaper club with her after she’d begged and his mom told him it was a good idea to have some extra curriculars.
“I don’t want to revolutionize anything,” she said. “I just want there to be a school newspaper.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not sure if any of this junk works.” He kicked a filing cabinet. “Aren’t we supposed to have a sponsor or something?”
“Mr. Colburn is in charge.”
“So no then.” He opened up one of the drawers, and dust flew into the air. He drew back. “Is there anything in here that works?”
“No.” She grabbed his sleeve and pulled him out of the room. The hallway was bright in comparison, but the air was much more breathable. “We’ll figure it out later. You’ve got Miss Chandler for first period, right?”
The halls were heavy with students moseying to their first class. Summer still filled them with bubbling energy that would likely die out soon. In a week the walls would be peppered with club invitations and the announcement of the first dance or reminders from teachers on dress code violations and the time limit between classes. Once again the janitors had tried to remove the smell of smoke from the girls’ bathroom, but the yellow walls remained fragrant. It was the same school it had always been, but somehow it felt brighter. Beverly felt oddly empowered by being an upperclassman. Some of the freshman girls still wore the full skirts their mothers bought for them and boys stumbled awkwardly beneath the feet of their alpha males, but she felt above all the nonsense and drama. No more would she draw hearts in her notebooks or falter beneath the glances of the prettier girls. She didn’t care that she wasn’t Betty Isen, even if Betty was the one dating Johnny Maxwell. She didn’t care about her hemline or clip pictures out of magazines or dream about boys that she couldn’t kiss. She was nearly an adult now. It was time to start acting like it.
“School’s always the same,” Merton said as they sat down for first period. “Doesn’t seem worth writing about.”
“There’s always something.” She considered for a moment and shook her head. “News is what you think’s important enough to write down.”
“You’re the one who’s deciding what’s important though.”
She grinned. “That’s the point. We can go through all the old newspapers after school and see what–oh hi, Johnny.”
She saw Merton’s expression out of the corner of her eye and ignored it. It wasn’t her fault Johnny Maxwell shared first period with them, or that he had gorgeously flaxen hair and bright green eyes or shoulders she could climb on, if she was so inclined. All the other football players whooped through the hallways and knocked books out of girls’ hands, but not Johnny. He helped pick them up and then smiled and laughed with you. Then he gave Betty Isen his letterman jacket and kissed her mouth instead of yours.
“Hey,” he said, nodding at Merton and smiling at Beverly. “How’s it going?”
Beverly felt her heart flutter and immediately cursed herself. “I didn’t know you were taking communications.”
Liar, Merton mouthed at her.
“Sort of putting it off,” Johnny answered. “Plus nutrition was all filled up.”
She nodded sympathetically. “How was your summer?”
“Ah, you know. Me and Betty drove up to the lake a lot.”
Her jaw set. Betty was beautiful, blond, and she and Johnny had been going steady for almost the entire time they’d been in high school.
“Beverly’s restarting the school newspaper,” Merton said.
“Oh yeah?” Johnny’s smile was radiant. “That’s pretty neat. You can write about the football games.”
“I’d love to!” Her face turned bright red. “I mean, we would like to include sports too.”
“Beverly loves watching the games,” Merton said.
She was grateful when Miss Chandler walked in, and the class fell quiet into their seats. She buried her burning face in her notebook and glared at Merton as he chuckled at her. She closed her eyes as the teacher passed out syllabi. Her bright and sunny future as a grown adult slipped away as she doodled in the corner of her notebook.
Marya stood in front of the class, her arms folded in front of her long black dress. It was the fourth time she’d been introduced that day, and she was starting to tire of it. The faces of her new American peers stared at her with dull eyes. Again and again she wondered why her father had sent her to this tiny town.
“Would you like to say anything, Marya?” the teacher asked.
Marya shook her head. Her English was good, but her thick accent remained. So far the people she’d spoken to had greeted her with confusion and slowed down speech. She wanted to explain to them that she’d been all over Europe where English was a common language, but instead she’d lowered her eyes and kept quiet.
She took a seat in the back of the room and looked at the textbook that had been handed to her. She was skilled in languages and maths, and her father had ensured her education concerning sciences, especially new technologies. World history could not cover what was in her father’s bookshelves. She’d read firsthand accounts of kings and farmhands. Her caretakers had taken special care in literature, and she’d studied in subjects from astronomy to mythology to the arts. And yet here she sat in Whitby, Massachusetts with a textbook on American history that was far too light in some of its areas. What was the point of this? Was she being punished? She’d never done anything to exact her father’s ire, but he always looked at her with disappointment in her eyes. If only she could be better. If only he didn’t need to hide her away.
Dutifully she opened her notebook and copied every word the teacher said. She didn’t really need to. Her mind snapped words up easily. She’d learned most of this already, and she didn’t really want to bother with tests and papers, but she was supposed to be a student here, so student she would act.
Fingers tapped on her desk. She looked up. The girl smiled with pink lips, and strands of blond hair curled around her blue eyes. On her shoulders was a letterman jacket two sizes too large, its collar pulled up so the slight bruise at the base of her neck was hidden. Marya’s eyes drew to the hickey and followed the curve of her shoulders. She clenched her teeth together.
“Do you have a pencil?” the girl whispered. Her cheeks were still flushed. The necking hadn’t occurred long ago. “I forgot everything in my locker.”
Marya retrieved another pen and held it out to her. The girl grinned. Marya’s jaw was beginning to ache.
“You’re from Europe right?” Her eyes had a faraway look. “That’s so swell. I always wanted to go to Paris. Have you been?”
“Yes,” Marya said quietly. “Not recently.”
“You have to tell me all about it.”
Their teacher cleared her throat loudly, tapping the chalk against the board. The girl quickly turned around and straightened her back. Marya ducked her head. The lecture continued.
The bell rang, and Marya folded up her carefully taken notes. She looked at her class schedule.
“I’m Betty by the way,” the blond girl said as she picked up her books. “Marya, right?”
“I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t from Whitby. Why’d you come here?”
Marya kept her head down as she smoothed the crease in her schedule. “My father sent me.”
She nodded as if understanding some hidden message. “What’s your next period?”
Her mouth twisted as she read the schedule. “What’s Home Ec?”
“Oh, neat! Do you have Miss Helim? I had her last year for math. She’s super sweet. I can walk with you if you’d like.”
“Um.” Her nails scratched her textbooks. “Alright.”
Marya had lived in her father’s homes with only the company of a few extended family members and the occasional tutor. The crowded and brightly lit hallways blinded her. She shied away from people as they passed, but the claustrophobic building made it hard to do properly. Betty walked half a step in front of her, blond curls swinging as she chatted on. She waved to nearly everyone as they walked by. Marya could barely keep up. Students stared at her as they passed, and she caught whispers. Rumors were already circulating about the strange girl with the thick accent. She hugged her books tighter and kept in step with Betty.
“And that’s the locker room and that’s the drama room,” Betty continued, “which is filled with mirrors and it’s super spooky. I did the school play last year and never again.”
“I’ll be sure to avoid it,” Marya said.
Betty stopped and waved at someone across the hall. A handsome boy with a wide chin and broad shoulders approached them, sweeping Betty into a kiss.
“This is my boyfriend.” She giggled, worming free of him. “Johnny, this is Marya. She’s European.”
“Danny was telling me a Communist had invaded our school.” He smiled at her. “You don’t look that threatening to me.”
“I’m not a–”
“Don’t be mean.” Betty slapped him playfully on his chest. “Don’t you have some heads you should be knocking?”
“Practice started weeks ago, babe.” He kissed her again. “But I do gotta run. Nice meeting you, Marya.”
Betty waved at him as he left. “You should come watch them after school. Our team’s the best in the whole region.”
“I don’t know much about sports,” Marya said.
“I don’t watch because I’m interested in football. Oh, look, there’s your class. I’ll see you around.”
Marya headed into the classroom. Instead of desks, there were rows of tables and ovens, dress stands lining the far wall, and only girls in attendance. Miss Helim stood at the front of the classroom, and Marya stared at her, uncertain how to react. She looked completely normal, her blond hair curled around her chin, white shirt buttoned up to her collar. None of the girls were reacting to her at all. The teacher turned and smiled, greeting Marya and offering to let her stand in front of the class. She did so, the whole time staring at Miss Helim. She had skin, but it wasn’t skin, and her eyes were somehow hollow. No matter how hard Marya tried, she couldn’t hear her heartbeat at all.
Marya sat as Miss Helim explained their coursework. Her classmates giggled and chatted as if nothing was wrong at all.
“Watching football players isn’t a story,” Merton said.
Beverly glared at him. They’d sat in the back of the bleachers, and Merton had spread out to take up as much room as possible. She had her notebook in her lap, names of players written down. In the very front were the girlfriends and the hanger-ons, cheering and shouting for each practice play. Students lingered and left, and some of the boys watching with hopeful hearts.
“It could be,” she said. “Besides, we need something to start with. Bring your camera to school tomorrow.”
He wrinkled his nose. “I’m rethinking this.”
“Too late. You can’t turn back now.”
Practice wrapped up, and the boys returned to the locker rooms. Their gaggle of followers filed out of the bleachers. Beverly sighed and put away her notepad. The sun had started to dip below the horizon, and the street lamps were turning on. She helped Merton to his feet.
“I think you’d look neat behind a camera,” she said. “With your glasses and everything, you’d look an ace reporter.”
He smirked. “I don’t think so.”
They grabbed their bikes and rode out to the soda shop on Fifth Street. There wasn’t much for teens to do around Whitby that wasn’t parking up in Devon Fields or bonfires down by the lake, so each day after school the booths were filled with kids. Johnny and his friends took up two whole tables on their own, and Beverly lingered on the sidewalk outside, looking in.
“They’re just kids,” Merton said, setting his bike against the stand. “I remember in fifth grade when Johnny fed the class frog a half pound of glitter ‘cause he thought it would make it happy.”
“The sixth graders dissected those frogs,” Beverly said.
“Yeah, it’s a real circle of life. Can we get a milkshake or what?”
Inside the place was roaring. A few kids were hanging around the jukebox, listening to Elvis and Bobby Darin. They jumped onto two seats at the end of the bar. They could recognize every single face of the kids that occupied the pop shop. They’d all been in classes since grade school, and most of them had been born in Whitby. No one left, no one could as far as anyone knew. They had all the fixings of Main Street USA, from the cineplex to the soda shop, from the high school to the office buildings on the east side of town, but everyone knew it was a front. Every single person here had a parent who worked for the government, and the ones who weren’t scientists were communications experts, or intelligence officers, or any medley of jobs that had helped out during the war. There were old constructs still built up in the trees that surrounded Whitby, supposedly all the way up to Lake Green. Rumors circulated like wildfire around school. There were supposed to be tunnels underground, and monsters roaming the woods, and the lights out on Devon Fields could be seen just about every night.
“They’re just lights from the highway,” Beverly said, ever the skeptic. “Mr. Eckels even said so in physics. I thought you were all about that nerdy stuff.”
“The closest highway isn’t even for miles,” he said. “The government guys have to tell us that stuff anyway.”
She rolled her eyes. “They’re all government guys, Merton.”
“Anyway, we should ride over there this weekend. I want to look at them.”
She laughed as she leaned forward. “Are you asking me out to Devon Fields?”
His face went bright red but he carried on, unabated. “Mr. Carmichael says they’re aliens.”
“The farmer who smells like a liquor store? You need to stop reading those magazines, Merton. They rot your brain.”
“You think if that stuff was anywhere, it wouldn’t be here?”
She pulled the straw out of her milkshake and grimaced as it plopped bright pink foam on her sleeve. With a groan she looked for the nearest napkin dispenser.
“You stay right here and stop thinking loony thoughts,” she said, hopping down. “I’ll be right back.”
The crowded pop shop made it difficult to move. She squeezed between a few of the kids crowding the soda bar and ran directly into someone tall, blond, and handsome.
“Oh, Johnny,” she said, stepping back and finding herself unable to. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” He smiled at her, and her whole face was on fire.
She grappled for anything to start a conversation with. “I was, um, watching practice. This year’s going to be really good, I can tell.”
“We’ll screw it up somehow. Need a napkin?”
She sheepishly pulled her sleeve behind her. “I’m a mess most days.”
“You’re here with your nerdy friend, right?”
“Merton, yeah.” She glanced back down the row. “It’s just about impossible to get a table.”
He waved a hand to the booths his friends occupied. “You could cram in with us, if you want.”
Her vision of scooching in beside Johnny, arms accidentally touching, laughing together, feet twining together, was interrupted as Betty flounced over to his side, wrapping her arms around his broad shoulders.
“Need help, babe?” She smiled brightly at him, barely even noticing Beverly.
“I was going to show you what a big strong man I was by lifting all those sodas,” he said. “Now you just ruined the moment.”
“As much as I love seeing your acts of bravery, it’ll be less charming when you spill them all over yourself.” She wormed forward to the counter. “Oh, hi, Beverly.”
“Hi, Betty,” she muttered. “You guys look full enough. See you around.”
Beverly grabbed her napkins and bowed out, returning to Merton’s side. He didn’t say anything for a minute as they finished off their shakes.
“You want to get out of here?” he asked.
They tossed down their change and headed for the door. The days were already growing shorter, and the sunset sat behind them as they rode their bikes back to the rows of cozy suburban homes. They split at a cross street, and by the time Merton got back to his house, the sky was a bruise colored purple. He kicked his bike into the garage and glanced at the end of the cul-de-sac. Rising slightly above, on the street behind theirs, was the empty house he’d been used to seeing dark at night for a decade now. Like everywhere else in this town, rumors circulated around it. On Halloween the seniors would dare each other to break in, expecting to find leftover experiments and the ghost of the previous owners, who if anyone remembered didn’t bother to say their name. He’d spied it from the roof of his house too, sitting out with his telescope, always trying to convince Beverly he saw a curtain move. She swore she never believed him, but she always looked anyway.
Tonight a light was on.
He glanced at his telescope set up, but the night was chilly, and he wasn’t going to start a career as peeping tom. He shut his front door, and the night moved in.
If he’d stayed a minute longer, he might’ve seen the window be drawn back, and burst of black bats fly towards the waxing moon.
Johnny turned the car off as they came to Betty’s house. A few lights were on. She leaned forward, grimacing.
“Let’s stay out,” she said. “It’s still early.”
“I gotta get home.” He twined his fingers in hers. “Mom would let you stay for dinner, you know.”
“No.” She couldn’t tell him his happy family made her even sadder most of the time. Instead she leaned forward and kissed him. His other hand went to her waist, and hers brushed through his hair.
It was a few minutes before either of them moved away. Betty sat back in his car seat and undid the ribbons in her hair. Another light blinked on in the bedroom.
“Okay,” she said. “I should go.”
He opened the door for her, and they walked together to the front door. The porchlight was off, but they didn’t mind. It meant the neighbors couldn’t see when they went in for another embrace.
“Friday night,” Johnny said, squeezing her hands. “We’re going for a drive, right?”
“Of course.” She laughed. “What else would I be doing?”
“Bill wants to race.”
“You’re both driving junkers. It’ll be a race to see who falls apart first.”
She kissed him one more goodnight and headed into the house. Johnny lingered for a moment before returning to his car. He did see the black shapes of the bats in the night sky, but only shook it off. Weirder things happened in Whitby.
The bats fluttered over the darkened houses, flitting over streetlights and trees. The small shops in the town main square were closed down, everyone indoors, watching television or listening to the radio. Open windows let in cool night air. There was a moment where a small part of the colony pulled towards a house, whose windows were open, curtains wafting in the breeze, lights out, but they jerked forward together, into the trees that surrounded the town. Anyone watching would’ve seen them dip below the treetops and come together in a cloud. Their shape would change, wavering at first, and then solidify into a young girl with long black hair, wearing a black dress.
Marya gave herself a minute to reorient. The shadows underneath the trees were meaningless to her. She could see Devon Fields in the distance, the tall grass bent where cars parked, and the moon hung half full. The air was crisp with fall, and the leaves had started to turn.
It was unclear to her why her father had sent her here. She knew about its history. Built up as a community of scientists to work during World War II, its real work completely secret, now a small town out of the way of anything. He’d told her there was something wrong in the town, that it was her job to find out what. At the moment, the strangest thing about it was how normal everyone acted. It wasn’t different from any small town she’d been to, and there had been so many of them.
She’d never been her father’s favorite. The home they’d shared, infested with their kind, rooms used with cousins and siblings and aunts and distantly related relatives, they’d all gone and done things with their lives he was proud of. She was too young, too new, too green. When he’d asked her to do this, she’d jumped at the opportunity. Anything to prove herself.
Marya found herself crouching down onto the ground. She dug her nails into the soil and frowned. There was something wrong in this town, but it was so hard to put a finger on what. Everything was just off. Askew. Someone had built a town based out of a magazine, supposing this is how people were supposed to live, and everyone went along with it.
Heartbeats everywhere. She faltered momentarily, putting her hand against a wide trunked tree to steady herself. She hadn’t fed since coming here and didn’t plan to until she left. There was enough happening that she didn’t need to make herself part of the mystery.
Noises in the trees. Marya sucked in a breath, and then a colony of bats burst forward, flapping their way through the trees. Lights in the distance, their many eyes beheld, periwinkle and rose and shades of green. They flew into the sky, the whole town beneath them.
School was promising to be the same as always, to Beverly’s disappointment. She had removed all the white sheets off the equipment in the journalism closet. The only real problem was the filing cabinets. They were all locked, and absolutely no one had the key. Mr. Colburn did not give any student the time of day, despite being their advisor. His classroom door was locked when he wasn’t in it, and if she caught him in the hallways he was always hurrying off. It was Miss Helim who was standing with her now, looking over the equipment with her.
Miss Helim was something of an anomaly in the school. She lived with Mr. Colburn, but as far as anyone knew, they weren’t married. She taught both Home Economics and Quantum Mechanics, her blond hair fashionably flipped, and her blue eyes wide and dead. She never said very much, and her expression often remained passive and soft. She brushed a hand across the top of a filing cabinet, letting dust fly into the air, and then turned where Beverly was pulling out the large drafting board.
“The club was running a few years ago,” Miss Helim said. “I suppose no one wanted to continue it.”
“It’s alright.” She blew away the dust that coated it. “Me and Merton will figure it out.”
“The school should offer some support.” Miss Helim gave the office a concerned look. “Gustav lacks the commitment.”
Beverly wasn’t used to referring to teachers by their first name, and so she promptly ignored it. “Once I figure out the machinery, it should be no problem. Thanks anyway, Miss Helim.”
She nodded solemnly as the door kicked open. Merton leaned half in, backpack hitched over his shoulders.
“Come on, Bev,” he said. “It’s Friday.”
“Yeah, yeah.” She grabbed her own bag off the floor. “We can mess with this stuff next week, Miss Helim. Thanks again.”
She waved as they headed out the door. The school was cleared out already, and half the kids would be down at the soda shop, the other half driving to Devon Fields or the woods surrounding the town. It was still warm enough to go up to the lake, and there might be one last bonfire this weekend. Merton and Beverly were a lot more constrained in their options. They rode their bikes to the main square and walked around a while. It’d get cold soon enough, and by Thanksgiving it’d be snowing.
“I just want to do something this year,” Beverly said as they stopped for an ice cream. They sat on a bench outside the soda shop, away from the large crowd inside but close enough to see who was there. “I feel like we’ve been stuck in Whitby doing the same thing all the time.”
“Plus it’ll look good on a college application,” Merton said, nudging her slightly.
She sighed. “Mom actually wants me to go so I can find an educated husband. It’s dad that’s against it.”
“It’ll work out, Bev. You do more work than probably the rest of our class combined.”
“I’m trying to be a well rounded individual.” She glanced back at the soda shop, where Johnny and his friends were putting on their letterman jackets and walking out. “Vary my interests.”
He followed her gaze and rolled her eyes. “You are obsessed.”
“I am not.” She turned her head away sharply as they opened the door to the shop. “I’m being friendly.”
“I think he and Betty have gone out since freshman year. I don’t know if he’s ever gone out with anyone else.”
Her nose wrinkled. “Now you’re just being mean.”
“All I’m saying is,” he said, tossing the last of his ice cream, “your dream guy isn’t waiting for you. Maybe you should–”
“Settle? That’s the real American dream, ain’t it? Why have the thing you want when you can get your M.R.S. with the first guy you meet.”
“Move on,” he finished. “Plenty of people like you, Bev.”
“Name one,” she said.
She missed his expression as she turned to toss her own ice cream cup. In front of her, Johnny was climbing into his red Ford, Betty in the seat beside him.
“Hey, Johnny!” she called, giving a wave.
He smiled at her and waved back. “Hiya, Bev. Going over to the fields?”
She flounced closer to him. “Is that where you guys are headed?”
“Billy and me are gonna see who’s fastest.” He nodded to his friend getting into the blue Chevrolet. “You should come down and watch.”
“Yeah, alright.” She waved at him again as he got in his car and returned to Merton’s side. He gave her an annoyed look.
“You don’t want to go?” she asked, seeing his expression.
“You said you didn’t want to.” He stood and headed over to the bike rack. “Besides, it’s not going to be very fun with us on our bikes.”
“We’ll just sit and watch. You wanted to go out there anyway, remember? Come on, Merton, it’ll be fun.”
“I think I’ll pass for tonight.”
“But–” She stamped her foot. “You really don’t want to? You’re going to make me go all the way out there by myself?”
“It’s just Devon Fields.” He softened a little, smiling at her. “Unless you think the aliens are going to pick you up on the way.”
She smiled back. “You think they’d give me a ride?”
He shook his head. “I really don’t want to go hang out with Johnny and his friends all night, but you do. You can pine the whole time, it’s your favorite thing to do.”
“Wow, Merton,” she said. “And here I was thinking you were my friend.”
“Best friend,” he reminded her. “Call me tomorrow, okay? I wanna be the first to know if you manage to seduce Johnny away from his main girl.”
She watched him ride off, the sun setting behind Devon Fields. She picked up her own bike and started the trek over there. It wasn’t far. Nothing in Whitby was far away from the rest of Whitby, and Devon Fields took up half the town, it felt like. There was supposed to be some military complex built out there at the start of the war that either got torn down or never really existed in the first place. Most people parked close to the woods, using the shade and trees to hide from anyone who bothered looking, but there was a dirt and gravel path that twisted through the back part of the fields. Beverly tossed her bike aside among the trees, knowing no one would bother it, before finding the crowd of kids among the tall grass. They were mostly cheerleaders and football players, whooping and hollering as the cars lined up. She spotted Betty leaning into Johnny’s car, giving him a kiss before hopping over to the sidelines. She sidled up beside her as one of the cheerleaders stepped in front of the cars, waving her hair scarf suggestively at the two.
“Hiya, Betty,” Beverly said.
Betty gave her a sideways glance. “Where’s your friend with the glasses?”
“This isn’t really his style. I didn’t know Johnny liked racing.”
“He and Billy do it as a gag.” She put her hand to her cheek and sighed. “Johnny likes showing off how manly he is, I think. He thinks I’ll run up and give him a big kiss just for driving a car fast.”
“Well I would.” She gave a shrug. “But he doesn’t need to drive a car to get that treatment.”
Beverly went silent. She’d never talked to Betty at any length, and not just because she was dating the boy of her dreams. They’d never had anything in common, not in Girl Scouts, not in junior high, and definitely not with the social circles they kept. Johnny was friendly with everyone, and Betty was friendly with Johnny.
The girl dropped her scarf, and the cars took off, growling and kicking up gravel. The whole crowd screamed as they did, throwing their arms up and howling at the racers. The track wasn’t very long and curled around back to where they were now. They’d go three laps and whoever finished first won. The cars swooped around, and Beverly could see a part of the gravel road to that shifted to the left and then back. She gasped as she thought the cars came close together.
“They’re just goofing,” Betty said, giving her a look. “Trust me, they’re probably not even going that fast.”
The cars came back around, raining gravel again. A few of the girls shrieked as they backed up, their boyfriends grabbing them. Beverly glanced forlornly at the pairs. Merton was probably right, all she ever did was pine after a boy who only had eyes for one girl. The other boys at school weren’t horrendous, but none of them were Johnny.
The cars swooped past a second time. A cheer went up. Billy was slightly ahead, but only slightly. The lane shift was more difficult to handle as they sped up. She could see Johnny’s expression as they came close. He was laughing, both hands gripping the steering wheel, his car inching forward. The last lap started with them both flying through, the entire group running forward to greet the winner. At the shift, Johnny tried to use it to beat out Billy, and they all saw the car turn early, and then–
And then there was a sound of tearing metal and squealing tires and gravel roaring. Billy’s car hit Johnny’s and pushed it into the tall grass, nearly toppling it. There was screaming, lots of screaming, and several of the boys ran forward. Betty was right behind them, running towards the car. Billy staggered out and landed on his knees, looking dazed and bloody. There was a gash on his forehead that dripped blood like a mask over his face. Beverly was running too, and she could see the dent in Johnny’s car and smell the smoke. The boys managed to pull the door open, and she watched as Johnny’s form slumped forward, caught by Betty’s open arms, who squeezed him tightly. As Beverly got close, she could make out his twisted left leg, and the skin on his face was bright red. A few people were helping Billy up, and he was stuttering nonsense, calling to his buddy to see if he was okay. Betty kissed her boyfriend’s face, but he wasn’t moving.
It took the cops and ambulance twenty minutes to arrive. Beverly was in a cold shock as she watched the ambulance pull Johnny onto a gurney, Betty trailing behind, and saw the cops talking to everyone there, especially Billy, whose face now had a large bandage wrapped around it, and he was still covered in blood. Everyone knew everyone in this town, and Beverly was taken along with some other kids in the back of a cop car to her house. It was nearly ten at that point, and her mother’s rage at her staying out was quickly replaced with concern just looking at her.
Beverly couldn’t sleep. She lay in her bed, eyes staring up at her darkened ceiling. Her head was filled with the sound of tearing metal and the smell of smoke. Johnny’s limp body unmoving, held in Betty’s arms, and she started crying, holding her pillow over her face to quiet the sobs. After a while she got up, sat at her desk, and removed her notebook. She thought for a long time, and then started to write.