Coleman looked over the sheet of paper he had jotted notes onto. He mouthed the written words and then took a deep breath before he lifted the receiver, punching a speed dial. Then, he waited, his heartbeat heavy in his chest. After several rings, her voice was on the other end.
“Hi, Biddy? This is Coleman….Coleman Shanks? From Biology class?” He made each statement sound like a question as if needing permission to speak to her.
“I know who you are, Coleman. We’re lab partners, remember?” she replied, her smile could be heard from the other end.
“Um…yeah. Well, I was just…anyways, I was calling to see if you’ve heard any more about why they closed the school down for the rest of the month…and, well…yeah, mostly just that…”
“Oh,” she responded, seemingly taken by surprise. “Well, not much really. I asked my dad a couple days ago and he…well, you know he works up at the plant in Jenkinsville, right?”
“Right. Did you…oh, uh, go ahead,” Coleman interjected, but then pulled back so as not to interrupt.
Biddy paused a moment just in case he was going to say something else. “He, um, he said that there were a couple issues going on at the plant and there were some concerns about the city water over the next week or so. He said it was probably easier to close the schools than to try and prevent people from using the water fountains. But then they closed pretty much everything else, too.” What she didn’t say was the rest of the conversation she had had with her dad. The part that left a question in her mind. A question that had still not yet been answered. And may never be.
“Yeah…that’s weird, right? So that’s all he told you? Is your dad there with you?” Coleman asked.
“Well, no. He didn’t come home these past few nights. He called the night before last to say the plant is in lockdown until they can clear up the issue, but he made it sound like it wasn’t a big deal.” Biddy replied, her voice cracked just a little, but enough to betray her nervousness about the situation.
“Okay. Well, I’m sure it’ll be fine, just as he said,” Coleman said, picking up on her tone. Coleman couldn’t think of anything else to say at that moment. He looked down at the sheet of paper in his hand.
Silence hung in the air.
“So,” Biddy said, breaking it, “what was the rest of the reason you called?”
“The rest?” Coleman inquired, swallowing hard.
“Yeah,” she replied. “You said the closing of the school was MOSTLY why you called.”
Silence hung for a couple seconds. Coleman held the phone away from his face and took a deep breath.
“Yeah. Um. W-well,” Coleman stuttered. “I…wanted to see if I could take you up on your offer.”
Silence hung from the other end this time for a second.
“Offer? What offer?” Biddy replied, genuinely confused.
“On Friday, when we were cu—well, dissecting those…eel things—“
“Yeah, and you said with all that you could teach me in biology, it could probably earn you several hundred lessons in soccer.” Coleman had anticipated what came after.
Biddy laughed right into the receiver. “Coleman. That wasn’t an offer. In fact, it was probably an insult and I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say it like I did.”
“That’s okay I know what you mean…meant, I mean. Anyways, I wanted to see if you wanted to meet up at the soccer field and I could show you a few things.” Coleman said this all fast and then bit down on his crossed fingers.
A longer silence.
Coleman could hear a sigh from the other end. “Don’t you think we should stay in until we know more about what’s going on?” Coleman looked down at his sheet. So far, it was all going as planned. He took another deep breath.
“Well, it’s been five days and we haven’t heard anything yet. I have a portable radio we can listen to and some bottled water I can bring in case we get thirsty. And I’m tired of staying inside, aren’t you?” Coleman was determined. He had gotten this far and now he wasn’t going to let up. “My mom said it was okay, as long as I’m still in the neighborhood. Can you ask yours?”
“I could,” she replied, “but she got called into work early this morning at the hospital. Apparently some people didn’t get word about the water quick enough.” There was a pause. “But you’re right, I have been a little bored…and it sounds like you have it planned out pretty well…”
Coleman burst in. “I can meet you down at the field in, say, 20 minutes?” Coleman wasn’t normally this forceful, but the school year was coming to a close and he didn’t know when he would have another valid reason to call her. It was now or never.
There was another pause. Then, “Why not?”
“Awesome!” Coleman said, almost too loud. “This i—I w—See you there!” Coleman clicked the receiver off, not giving Biddy the chance to change her mind. Then, he grabbed his already packed backpack and soccer ball and headed out the front door, being sure to lock it behind him.
Dribbling the ball down the sidewalk with a girl on his mind, Coleman paid no attention to the lack of activity in the neighborhood—no cars passing nor people out in their yards–down the entirety of Magnolia Street. He did, however, hear the incessant yapping of the dog across the street in the Barnwell’s side yard. ‘Stupid mutt never shuts up,’ he thought. Why own a dog?
Coleman paused with his foot atop the ball and stared across the street at the dog. It was a larger-sized, tan mix of some sort. It was up on its hind legs, its front paws on the top bar of the half-height chain-linked fence, barking constantly as if it had an unlimited lung capacity.
Yet, Coleman noticed that it wasn’t barking at him, but at something down the street behind him, maybe just past his house. Coleman popped the soccer ball up into his hand and stepped off the sidewalk to get a better view down Magnolia.
Nothing. No people. No cars, except for a few that were parked here and there. Nothing but shadows cast by the trees that lined the street and even those didn’t move much on this warm, relatively breezeless day.
How strange on this cool, spring day to see no one mowing their lawn, no one taking a jog, not a single person performing any kind of outside activity. But Coleman’s teenage brain dismissed these thoughts quickly, because they had nothing to do with his mission today. He had somewhere to be and he wanted to get there first, so that he could prepare. This was going to be a terrifc day. And he was right.
Coleman turned and headed back toward the soccer field, a smile on his face and a slight spring in his step. At the end of the block he turned left on Birch Drive and trotted up the slight incline. He dropped the soccer ball booted it up the sidewalk and then turning his head and seeing no cars coming up the street swiped it over across Birch and up the hill to Poplar Street.
He dribbled it back and forth, left and right, right and left and then, without thinking, he power-kicked it up the hill, raised his hands in victory, and cheered like a crowd. But the cheer abruptly faded upon seeing the ball crest the hill and disappear over the top.
Coleman hefted his backpack higher on his shoulders and then ran quickly up the remainder of the hill. He thought to himself that he wished he had bent it like Beckham, because the ball was racing down the other side of Poplar, right down the middle of the street, past the soccer field.
Coleman picked up his pace and as he passed the soccer field on his right, unshouldered his pack, dropping it and then sprinted for the ball. Fortunately, the ball hit a pothole in the middle of Poplar, changing course and bouncing over the curb and going into the bushes outside the Science Quad.
Coleman darted over to the building, pushing through the crowd of shrubs that sat just outside the Biology classroom window where he had had the privilege of being partnered up with Biddy for labs this last semester. As he grabbed the ball and backed away, he felt one of the branches scrape across his face, causing it to go white hot for a second. He reached up and felt the scratch, but nothing came away on his hand, so he dismissed the wound. He then tossed the ball toward the soccer field, trotted back to retrieve his backpack and sat down on the curb to catch his breath.
Coleman had just about gotten his breathing back to normal when he saw Biddy coming up Poplar. She was still about 50 yards away and he began to think to himself,
Should I keep looking at her while she approaches, or will she think I am staring?
Should I stay seated or stand up? But if I stand up, I’ll feel uncomfortable just standing there, because there is nothing more silly than a guy standing still, doing nothing.
Should I walk and meet her halfway, only to have to backtrack to where I am sitting?
So, Coleman just sat there, rustled into his backpack, opened one of his water bottles, took a swig and choked on it. ‘What an idiot,’ he thought to himself as he raised his arms to regain his breath.
Then, he stood up, smiled as Biddy came within spitting distance.
“You’re bleeding,” were her first words. Her head was cocked to the side looking at his right cheek. Then it was her turn to rustle into her backpack and she produced a napkin. She approached and dabbed at his cheek. It came away with a little stripe of blood, but not much.
“Hmm…” was all he could muster, having been touched by this girl he had liked for so long.
“You get in a fight since we spoke?” she asked, smirking.
He quickly thought, ‘God, if you are there, please help me have a normal conversation.’
“Not a serious one; you should see the other guy,” he started, upset he that used the cliché, but then added, “actually, the other guy was a bush, but still, it’s in pretty bad shape.”
This made her laugh. ‘Score!’ he thought. ‘I knew it. There is a God!’
“Thanks for that,” she sighed. “I don’t think I’ve laughed since this whole thing started with the school and stuff shutting down. It feels weird. I actually enjoy school.”
“Oh yeah? Me, too, I guess,” Coleman replied. “I mean, I enjoy being able to sleep in, but it’s weird sitting at home, like it’s summer vacation, but not being allowed to go anywhere.”
“Exactly!” Biddy exclaimed. “It’s just bad water, but why close everything down?” Biddy looked down at her feet for a moment. “Something just doesn’t feel right.”
Coleman felt the need to reassure her. “I’m sure people like your dad will figure everything out and we will be back to normal soon.” Coleman tried to genuinely smile. Not a smile of feeling everything was going to be okay, but a smile that everything was okay in his world right at this moment. And therefore, it was genuine.
And in order to get her mind off the subject, he changed it. As he walked over to pick up the soccer ball where it had landed, he said in his most curiosity-inducing tone, “Did you know that soccer dates back to early as 300 BC?”
Biddy laughed, obviously caught off guard by the sudden change in subject, but she picked up on his tone, quickly. This was something they were prone to doing in biology lab when Mr. Galloway’s monotone lecture would drone on and on and they needed something to brighten the mood.
“No, I did not! That is amazing! Pray sir, tell me more!”
“Why certainly, young miss,” Coleman felt butterflies in his stomach as he spoke because he felt this was going really well. Much better than he had anticipated. “It was determined to possibly originate as a military exercise in China and played in much the same fashion as we do today, but when the Welsh got ahold of the idea, they decided it was missing a very important ingredient.” He paused for effect.
“What ever could that have been?” Biddy exclaimed, she held her hands up to the side of her face as if writhing with anticipation of the answer.
“Violence! It needed bloodshed,” he answered. “Instead of a leather ball stuffed with feathers and hair, the English made a solid wooden ball, covered it in oil, so it would be impossible to hold, and setup entire opposing towns as teams as they rushed at each other, trying to get the slick sphere to their own community church’s porch.”
This made Biddy laugh hard. “Wow, your history skills are much better than your science skills.” She was still chuckling and they both continued toward the center of the soccer field.
Neither one of them saw the thing, a thing that looked not much more than a large discoloration on the asphalt, slide over the curb on Poplar, and into the grass where Coleman had been just moments before.
At the middle of the field, Coleman unshouldered his backpack and held the ball under his left arm. “So, what I’m not gonna do is start you off with what Coach Barnett does, which is 20 minutes of running aimlessly around the field while he stares at the junior varsity cheerleading practice over that way,” he pointed to the area between the soccer and football practice fields.
Biddy turned to look and forgot for a moment that this was not just another day at school. There were no cheerleaders. There was no Coach Barnett. The field was empty except for her and this slightly goofy boy that she was beginning to realize was more interesting than most of the other guys she hung around with. He didn’t stare like some guys, secretly judging with whispered comments to their buddies. He wasn’t one of those who would flip things across the room at her and then act like they were fully engaged in the lecture. And he definitely wasn’t one of those who would go out of their way to avoid her because they thought she was unapproachable.
Biddy watched him explain and perform a few kicking and ball-stopping maneuvers. She really had very little interest in what he was trying to teach her. She hadn’t come here to learn about soccer. She just knew she needed to get out of the house so she could stop thinking about what her dad’s last words were to her.
“Hey sweetie,” her dad had said when she had answered the phone. “Is your mom home?” He sounded out of breath.
“No, she got called in again this morning,” Biddy replied. “What’s up?”
Her dad paused and then sniffed. He would do that when he was thinking about how to say something he hadn’t quite planned on saying.
“Oh, not much. There was a little mishap here at the plant and we need to clean it up. It’s not that big a deal. I am just going to have to stay here for a few days because of the lockdown and—hang on” he put his hand over the receiver. It was muffled, but she could hear her dad say “What? What do you mean? That shou—go, just get down there. I’ll be there in a minute.” And then her dad was back.
“Sorry, sweetie, I am going to have to go, but do me a favor. Give your mom my love and be safe. There is plenty of food and I should be home very soon.” The words “very soon” sounded farther away as if he’d pulled the phone away. There was a pause and she could hear a faint sound like fabric tearing. And then, “I love you with all my heart, sweetie.” The tearing sound was louder and then there was nothing.
That was two days ago. Her mom seemed to believe everything was fine. But Biddy hadn’t told her about the sound she heard on the other end of the phone. And she didn’t tell her the muffled words of her father. “What? What do you mean? That shou”. Shou what? Should or shouldn’t? What was he trying to say? And what about the food? “There is plenty of food,” he had said. Yes, there WAS plenty of food. They had stocked up enough food over the past two years to be able to survive at least 6 months without having to go to the store. Why would he say that amidst everything else?
All these thoughts had been turning over and over in her mind over the past two days and she had needed a break. She needed to get outside her own head and needed be with someone who wouldn’t judge her, wouldn’t burden her further, and wouldn’t need her to do anything more than just to be there.
Then, Coleman was laughing and Biddy was jerked back into the present. She quickly forced a laugh and looked him in the eye, hoping beyond hope that he hadn’t asked her a question, but thankfully he repeated it.
“Wanna try?” Coleman asked, as he kicked the ball towards her. Biddy turned her right side to face him, swiped with her left foot and kicked the ball right at him, but Coleman easily dodged and ran after the ball. Biddy gave chase and for the next half hour they kicked the ball back and forth, running here and there, laughing giddily and not really even following the guidelines set forth by the Federation Internationale de Football Association. Coleman was just happy to be with a cute girl and Biddy was just happy to be distracted.
Meanwhile, the thing in the grass had moved closer.
Out of breath and done with lesson number one, Coleman went and grabbed his backpack and picked up Biddy’s and headed back toward the side of the field where she had collapsed, mostly out of breath and ready for a snack. Coleman had brought a tuna salad sandwich and pretzels. Biddy had a couple healthy-looking nutbars and an apple. They ate in relative silence, occasionally looking around at the field and school buildings and occasionally at each other.
Biddy was hoping they wouldn’t start talking about the mysterious events of the past few days and Coleman was disappointed he hadn’t thought to make a second list of things to talk about. He thought about bringing up science class but struck that down because he didn’t know enough about science to have anything interesting to say. He thought about bringing up the Jenkinsville plant and water issue but sensed she hadn’t wanted to talk about that earlier, so that was strike two in the potential conversational topic department. He sure as hell was not going to talk about the weather. Only old people and people who had no idea what to say to another human being ever talked about the weather.
“Pretty nice day for playing soccer, huh?” he relented, hoping she would pick it up and take the conversation into another area.
“I guess so,” she smiled, and then took another bite of her apple. Coleman watched her as she continued to chew. No such luck. He was getting a little frustrated with himself because the day had been going so well.
“So, what are you planning on doing for the rest of the day, after this?” he asked, immediately wishing he hadn’t. He didn’t want there to be an “after this.” He just wanted this to go on for as long as it could. He didn’t mean to, but grimaced at himself.
“Oh? Uh, I hadn’t really thought about it,” she replied. Biddy wasn’t looking forward to whatever was “after this.” She wanted to remain here, in this spot, for as long as she could. Why was he bringing up “after this?” she wondered. Was he bored now? Did she say or do something he didn’t like? She felt he was trying hard to keep the conversation going and she blamed herself for not offering more. She honestly didn’t want to know what was “after this.” And so she made a counter-offer.
“How about we walk around the neighborhood for a while. See what other people are doing?”
Coleman couldn’t hide the smile that spread across his face. “That sounds like a great idea. I’ll go throw our trash away and we can go.”
Coleman got up and helped Biddy up. She handed him her wrappers and he trotted, almost floated over to the trash can a few yards away.
Biddy brushed some crumbs off her T-shirt and began to shoulder her backpack when she heard Coleman laugh. He was standing next to the trash can, facing away from her and looking down at the ground.
“What’s what?” Biddy replied.
“It looks like a weird shadow,” he answered, and then looked up and behind him and around. “But there’s nothing—uh!”
“What?” Biddy inquired, getting a little annoyed with his dilly-dallying. She could see part of the shadow in front of him, but he was blocking most of it. It was probably the size of a small car, but looking up and around, herself, she saw nothing that would be casting a shadow.
“My foot,” he laughed again, but this time it was a nervous laugh. “My foot is stuck.” He turned his body around to the right a little, but his left foot was still pointed forward. He grabbed the trash can, one of those that sits inside a cage that is bolted into the ground, and pulled, but his left foot remained planted. “Um, can you, uh, can you gimme a hand here? I seem to be having a little problem.” He smiled, but it didn’t last.
Biddy let her backpack drop and started toward him but froze when she saw his left foot disappear into the ground up to his ankle with a jolt.
“Ehhhh!” was the sound that came from Coleman’s mouth. His whole body jerked forward and down, but he quickly twisted away and latched onto the trash can again with both arms, the palm of one hand screeching across the metal top of the can, before catching hold of the outer cage.
Biddy could see that there was a dark, but opaque substance that surrounded the place where Coleman’s foot had been. She was probably wrong, but it looked like it had depth. It was like looking into a black garbage bag. You knew it could hold stuff, but depending on the light, you didn’t know how much until you started filling it. Biddy was transfixed by what appeared to be a swirling blackness. She began wondering how much one could fit in there. A person? A car? An entire galaxy?
Coleman turned his head and looked at Biddy, his eyes were wide and his face had gone deathly pale.
“Run!” he screamed at her. “Get away from here!” And then a loud pop broke Biddy out of her trance. Coleman let out a high-pitched squeal that seemed to carry on far beyond lung capacity. His left leg stopped making sense. He was still hanging onto the trash can, but his leg was stretched out twice as long as it should be and came to a pinpoint where his ankle met the shadow thing. It was like she was watching a cartoon of Coleman being sucked down a drain. But this was not a cartoon. This was real, wasn’t it?
Then his skin began to tear at different places and pop off the bone, like many rubber bands snapping back when broken. Coleman’s left side also started to rubberize like his leg and pull away from the rest of his body. The skin split at the waist and that’s when the high-pitched squeal died along with the boy she had begun to think of as a friend.
His limp body plopped onto the ground and continued to slide into the shadowy drain.
Biddy’s own feet were frozen, but out of fear and nothing else. She could not tear her eyes away from the scene. She had to make sense of what was going on but despite her knowledge of all the sciences, things just weren’t coming together for her.
And as if it sensed what she was trying to do, the shadow thing changed. Coleman’s body had all but disappeared into the swirling, black void, when the shadow no longer acted like a shadow, but it stood up on one end. Then, as if the surrounding air had a pocket, the shadow that was not a shadow at all, slid sideways into the pocket, the air creasing and then collapsing around it. And then it was gone.
As she watched this mysterious event unfold, or rather, fold, before her, something in her brain dislodged. A set of neurons detached, losing connection with the rest of her brain. And for the rest of Biddy’s life, which wouldn’t be long, every time she would see something she couldn’t quite make sense of, an image would come to her mind, of a letter being slid into an envelope, sealed and closed, but never addressed, never put into a mailbox, and never, ever delivered.