The Road of Dreams

by Geron Kees

Chapter 3

They cruised up Route 5, an energetic, metallic mob long on noise and short on restraint. At every stoplight, a new green meant a chorus of squealing tires and roaring engines. Brian, out front, kept the Bee down to fifty, doing his best not to draw the attention of any cops that might be lurking along the way. But the truth was, any lawmen in hiding as they passed would have to be blind and deaf not to notice them. Their group had all the subtlety of a tank brigade rolling into an enemy capital.

Ed was all eyes, continually gazing around them. Route 5 was three lanes wide here, and their group was taking up all three lanes, and extending backwards as far as Brian could see in the rear view mirror. There was a certain thrilling aspect to being part of this mobile force; Brian had never driven anywhere with this many people at one time.

"This is boss as shit," Ed said, grinning and taking a hit off his beer. "I feel like we're in that movie, The Road Warrior."

Brian looked over at him, raising his eyebrows. He'd seen that movie a couple of years back, and it had impressed him. "I don't plan to drive like that. And anybody that swings a chain at my car is getting their lights punched out."

Ed bounced up and down in the seat. "Man, is this going to be cool, or what?"

In the back seat, Missy gave one of her snorting laughs. "Ed thinks we're an army."

"I do not. I just think this many people going to a party together is cool as shit."

Missy snorted again. "We don't even know half of these people, Ed."

"Don't matter. A horde is a horde, and a party is a party." He sounded all set to debate the issue.

Brian grinned, took a sip off his bottle and pretended not to hear. The sun was down in the trees now, and it would be getting dark in another half hour. Route 38 was still fifteen minutes ahead of them, at the least.

He looked over to his right, saw Tim and Deedee talking in the GTX. He glanced back the other way, caught Jeff looking at him through the passenger side window of the Camaro. Brian grinned, and held up his beer. Jeff returned the grin, and held up his own bottle.

And yet another convert to the joys of Canadian guzzling, Brian thought to himself.

The wide concrete strip rolled beneath them. Brian kept an eye on the rear view mirror, watching, as first running lights, and then headlights, started to come on behind them. They were heading into twilight as it passed seven o'clock. He reached out and pressed the rocker switch that turned on the Bee's headlights, saw both Tim and Jeff follow suit. Ahead, the broken white lines of the painted lane dividers - faded into shadows creeping over the landscape these past few minutes - sprang into stark view, raced at them, and disappeared beneath the front of the Dodge.

This car eats road, Brian mused, smiling to himself. Among other things.

Ed was fumbling with the radio. The Bee only had the original stock AM radio, and there was only one rock station to be found on the entire dial. Brian had been meaning to get himself an FM box to replace it, but hadn't yet gotten around to it. Fortunately, the direction they were going was, at least at the moment, carrying them towards the one good station, and the signal was loud and clear.

An old Allman Brothers song was playing, and Ed turned up the sound. "Lord, I was born a ramblin' man..."

Ed grinned, looking over at him. "Talk about fuckin' appropriate, huh?"

Brian smiled. "Ed, almost any old rock song would be appropriate for this carnival. All they ever sang about back in the seventies was how crazy the world was, and everyone in it."

"Yeah, but they were right about it, man." Ed gave him a knowing grin, and tapped the side of his head with a fingertip. "Those were some times, there."

Brian returned the grin. "I was three years old in 1970. I don't think I remember it too well. You don't, either, for that matter."

Ed nodded. "Yeah, but I've heard stories, man."

Brian laughed and shook his head. His buzz was going, and he hadn't drank enough yet to make an impression on his senses. That was fine - he liked it that way. Ed seemed pretty straight now, too, and from what Brian could hear of the girl's conversation behind them, they had lost their highs as well. Some pot was like that: fierce buzz, but short-lived. Brian preferred that, actually, to the buzzes that were more mellow, but hung around all evening.

Brian glanced at his beer, wished now he had put the cooler in the back on the floor. The bottle he had was almost empty, and getting warm. But there would be no stopping this bunch just to get a beer out of the trunk.

Ed reached over and tapped him. He was looking back out the side window. Brian glanced that way, then looked in his side mirror.

There were headlights coming up fast, and they were beyond the lane next to him - the one that Jeff had. Brian blinked. Whatever was coming, it was coming up the narrow breakdown lane by the center grass strip that separated the two sides of the highway.

"Crazy motherfucker!" Ed said, but he was grinning. "Look at this dude come!"

Brian watched the road ahead, flicking his eyes to the mirror as the headlights drew near. He heard it then, over the whispery sounds of air coming in through the open side window: the unmistakeable roar of a big block, wound up tight. The rogue vehicle came abreast of Jeff, who turned to look at it; and then it passed him, moved ahead, and careened into the lane ahead of Jeff. The mystery car's back end went briefly sideways; then it straightened, and the vehicle was moving off up the road ahead of them.

For just a second, Brian clearly saw the car's rear tag: JohnyG.

Brian had had a good look at the car while it was briefly in their headlights: a Chevy El Camino. He stared after the taillights as they vanished around a curve in the road ahead.

"Fuck, Brian, did you see that crazy dude?" Ed was agog, also staring up the road ahead of them.

"No, I missed that," Brian said, a little testily. Sometimes, Ed could push the stating the obvious thing beyond fine art, and sarcasm was a needed response.

Ed grinned, unfazed. "You know what I mean. That was an El Camino, wasn't it?"

"Yeah. A seventy Super Sport."

"Looked kind of strange, didn't it?" Ed frowned. "Looked like it had slicks on it or something."

Brian shook his head. "No, they were treaded tires. Just wide as hell. I think that car had a narrowed rear axle in it. Looked like those tires were swiped off someone's tractor."

Ed laughed. "Pretty thing, wasn't it? Shiny as shit."

True, that. The car had been a deep, Royal Blue - lacquer, by the looks of it. And Brian had not failed to miss the ends of the dual exhaust pipes tucked beneath the rear bumper: three-inchers, like he had on the Bee. Definitely, a big block.

He looked over at Jeff, who noticed and gave him a what the fuck? look. Brian just shrugged. Someone in a hurry, obviously.

But after he thought about it a little more, he suddenly got it. Hell, the party horde was going fifty, just like the three lead cars. They were a massive, rolling roadblock to anyone with a mind to go faster. And someone had had that mind, quite obviously. Passing in the breakdown lane! Not only was it narrow, but the grass-covered ground beside it was uneven. Shit, that fucker had been nuts, all right. All it would have taken was a good rut or drop-off in the ground by the road to tug the wheels over, and that car could have been sideways or even airborne - toast, at the speed that guy was going.

"I wonder," Brian said, a follow-up thought coming along. He looked at Ed. "Maybe they were heading for the party, too."

Ed snorted. "You think? I wanna meet that crazy turkey. He could have wrecked all of us."

Brian stared, and then laughed. He had been under the impression that Ed had been admiring of both the rogue car and its driver. "I thought you wanted the dude's autograph."

Ed shook his head. "Like to write my name on his forehead, though. Crazy peckerhead."

Brian grinned at his buddy. "Never cease to be amazed, man."

"I try not to bore. I mean, the car was pretty as shit. But the driver is a few bottles short of a six pack."

"Maybe. I hate to say it, but that was a stunt most any guy would try if he got wound up enough. Our bunch is kind of blocking the whole road, you know? Probably pissed the guy off."

Ed frowned. "Yeah, I didn't think of that. Maybe. Still a crazy-ass thing to do. If he'd hit Jeff's car you wouldn't be so calm, I'll bet."

Brian had to agree with that, though he didn't say so. Yeah, if the El Camino had hit Jeff, Brian would have been as about as upset as was possible to get. He looked over at the Camaro driver, who saw and grinned at him. Brian grinned back, settled more comfortably into his seat. Jeff was okay.

They continued on. It got darker, and night settled in to stay. The road wound away before them, a barren strip of concrete illuminated by the bouncing beams of their headlights, empty as far ahead as they could see. Off to their left, across the green of the median strip, an occasional pair or group of headlights passed, going the other way.

They weren't going fast enough to catch traffic ahead of them. Brian wondered, briefly, if they had a couple of miles of traffic backed up behind them. The speed limit was fifty; but most people cruised Route 5 at sixty or better, especially this far out in the boondocks. Cops didn't loiter much out this way - it was too far from the doughnut shops.

A sign came up ahead of them - Brian knew what it was. The road was getting ready to narrow to two lanes as it plunged into the depths of forested countryside. Tim's right lane was getting ready to run out. Tim was aware of it, and began to drift back, and turned on his turn signal and eased in behind Brian. Brian could see a convulsion in the sea of headlights behind them as others traveling in the right lane moved to merge into the pack.

The lane ended, and Brian let the Bee ease up to fifty-five. It was only another few minutes to the Route 38 intersection.

The air coming in the side window seemed to magically cool and thicken as the woods to either side of the highway deepened. The humidity was still up, but the drop in temperature was invigorating. Brian sighed, wishing again he had another beer.

"How much longer, do you think?" he asked Annabelle, leaning back and briefly glancing over the seat.

She shrugged. "Ten, maybe fifteen minutes."

Brian smiled. He could handle that.

It wasn't long before they saw the sign heralding their next turn. Route 38 was a two-lane blacktop - it was going to be interesting to see all these cars squeeze into it.

As they neared the intersection across the median that signaled Route 38, Jeff started to hang back a bit so that Brian could make the turn first. Brian drifted over in front of the Camaro, and put his left turn signal on. Behind them, the sea of headlights slowed and began to squeeze together. Brian had to marvel at the cooperative effort of so many people, half of which were already less than sober.

They had to turn across opposing traffic, but it was light, and Brian was able to turn and see Jeff and then Tim, and then a dozen other cars make the turn before the line had to stop for traffic. Brian just kept the Bee at about thirty, figuring that that was slow enough that anyone waiting to make the turn could still easily catch up with the back of the line.

Route 38 was a winder, loaded with rises and dips. This was back country they were coming into now, the province of farms and forest and not much else. Most of the farms were no longer functional, though some still grew corn and tomatoes for local consumption. They passed long stretches of waving cornstalks, looking spookily active in the cooling night breeze. At least it wasn't still and sultry, which would have made even being outdoors uncomfortable. As it was, the breeze coming in the car's windows was pleasingly refreshing.

"Great night for a party," Annabelle said, leaning forward on her arms atop the back seat. "I love it out here in the boonies, especially at night."

Brian grinned. He understood that affinity for trees and quiet. Where they all lived in Alna was not exactly the city, either, being several small neighborhoods, a school and a shopping center plopped down in what had once been cornfields and forest just like that now around them. In another twenty or thirty years, people would be mowing their front yards underneath the very trees they were passing.

It took them another ten minutes to hit Ridge Road. There was no traffic at all here, and the Brian made the left onto the slightly narrower road without a hitch, the long line of cars behind following.

"Start looking for this sign on the right," Annabelle said. "It says 'Eighty Acres'. Jennifer said it was written on a big piece of plywood right by the road."

Silence filled the car as everyone watched. The rumble of the Bee's powerplant lessened as Brian let the car slow. "I don't want to miss the turn. Getting this bunch to back up would be no small project."

They rounded a curve and came to a cornfield on the right side of the road. They rolled past row after row of stalks gently waving in the night air. Brian watched the odometer creep up on nearly three miles since they'd turned.

Suddenly they came to a break in the rows, and Ed immediately called out, "There!"

Brian braked the Dodge, angled the car towards the piece of plywood propped upright by the side of the break. The very large piece of plywood. Brian grinned. No missing that.

The four-by-eight foot rectangle stood on one narrow end, set back just far enough from the road that its face was visible to cars coming from either direction. 'Eighty Acres" was painted on the front in foot-high red letters.

Brian nosed the Bee into the cut, found himself looking at twin dirt ruts that walked away into the cornfield. "I hope there isn't a guy with a chainsaw living here," he said, grinning, as they crept up drive. Behind them, lights danced among the corn rows as the long line of cars followed.

Annabelle reached across the seat and gave Brian's shoulder a playful push. "No creeping us out until after we get to the haunted house, please."

Ed laughed. "It ain't the chainsaw that's scary, it's the hockey mask."

Missy reached over and smacked Ed lightly on the shoulder. "Stop right now."

Brian smiled, and looked in the rear view mirror. "I think we're more likely to creep out the people at the party than the other way around. We look like an army column coming through here. Bet once they see us coming at the house they hide every joint in the place."

Everyone laughed.

The dark drive twisted and turned among the cornrows, until it suddenly straightened and proceeded ahead up a slight rise in the land. Spooky lights danced among the field of corn as the dozens of other vehicles behind them bounced along the rutted lane. They reached the crest of the rise, and Brian heard the others all gasp, even as he did so himself.

Ahead of them, perfectly centered in the drive between cornrows to either side, was a full moon; low in the sky but rising, casting a cool white glow down the twin ruts and into the interior of the Bee.

"Fuc-king awe-some," Ed said, grinning at Brian. "What could be better than that?"

What could?

A glow began to make itself known in the sky ahead of them - a glow beyond that supplied by the Earth's satellite in the sky. This one was yellower, sharper, and bore the stamp of the electric glow made by men. Brian shifted in his seat, feeling a small spark of excitement creep over him. This was really cool so far. His earlier feeling that this was going to be an unusual night seemed to be bearing itself out now.

The rutted drive began a slow arc to the left, taking the moon into the waving fields. Brian was just about to comment on that when the rows of corn ended quite suddenly, and they found themselves at the top of a steep hill. Despite his expectations of something creepy, Brian took a breath of wonder and slowed the Bee even further.

The drive continued to curve to the left and then plunged down a steep embankment, turning gracefully back to the right again to follow the slope of the hill. Below them, on a small rise, stood a house that looked like it had been plucked straight from the pages of a scare novel. Large, rambling, bathed in eerie moonlight, with many oddly-shaped and -sized windows blazing with light, it looked wholly out of place standing in the middle of a barren field. Behind the house and slightly to the right stood the darker, hulking form of a barn, and several other smaller outbuildings were visible scattered about. To the left of the house, a barren land unwound - fields laying fallow - into a straight shot across gently rolling landscape to a dark, looming mass in the distance that could only be Sugarloaf Mountain, it's moonlit face showing the dark stubble of a wooded beard.

But it was the house, and the fields about it, that drew the eye. For the fields seemed packed with cars. There must have been several hundred of them, many parked in neat rows; others standing about more randomly, as though their drivers had simply pulled up on a barren spot and leaped from the car, ready to party. Brian simply gaped at the number of cars, suddenly feeling that their horde - a giant of respectable proportions on the road in - now seemed but a small addition to the numbers already parked below.

Behind him, Brian heard Annabelle give a small laugh. "Jenny hasn't disappointed me yet."

"I gotta agree with that," Brian said, nodding, as he urged the Bee over the rise and started it down the hill. "This has to be one of the biggest parties I've ever been to."

He sensed everyone nodding, but no one else spoke. Brian could get that. This was way more than they had expected.

The Bee bounced as it took the grade, and Brian winced, imagining what it must be like trying to climb back up such a dirt rut in the pouring rain. Brian could see the remains of a gravel bed scattered to each side of the drive; but the absence of the stones in the ruts themselves only pointed to the fact that this place had been abandoned for some time. He glanced briefly up into the sky; it was clear and deep, full of moonlight and stars; and the idea of rain seemed farfetched just now. But Brian knew that their proximity to the mountains offered weather that could change at the drop of a hat - he'd need to keep an eye on the sky, and be gone from this place if it suggested a malevolent change.

Behind the Dodge, lights bounced as the other cars followed, a long line that stretched up and back into the cornfield above. Brian grinned again, knowing what their arrival must look like from below.

They reached the bottom of the hill, and Brian drove across to where the closest of the cars were parked. It seemed safer to park a little farther out and make a short walk to the house than it did to move among the packed vehicles to find a spot, and to risk being hemmed in by later arrivals. He found a spot at the end of a row, so that he had corn to one side, and backed the Bee into the slot. Across from him, Jeff backed in facing him, starting a new row, and Tim backed in next to him. Slowly, the row filled, as the army of partyers from the Alna shopping center formed up.

Brian turned to look at his passengers. "Shall we?"

They got out, and locked up the car. The first thing Brian did was go around to the trunk and hand out fresh cold ones. He used the little church key on his keychain to open them, and then closed the trunk and they all walked back around to the front of the car.

Jeff and Tim and Deedee were there, beers in-hand, with a few others. The Alna cars were disgorging people in huge numbers, many of which made straight for the house. Others came closer, called their thanks, and then followed the crowd streaming in the direction of the party.

Jeff smiled as the Bee's occupants drew up. "That was a hell of a trip, wasn't it?"

Brian nodded. "Yeah. What'd you think of that El Camino passing us?"

Jeff shook his head. "That crazy fucker? Shit. I'm just glad he didn't bounce into me or something."

Ed laughed. "Keep an eye out for that car. Brian thought they might have been coming here."

Jeff frowned at the idea, but then smiled. "Why not? This place looks like it would be the home to crazies of some sort."

They were much closer to the house now, which was well-lit by both moonlight and some spotlights haphazardly placed about the exterior. They all turned to look at it.

The center part of the house was three stories tall, culminating in an octagonal garret spiked with the knobbed forms of gothic lightning rods. All about the central structure rambled lesser sections, obviously added on at later dates and with different materials. Windows large and small - rectangular, octagonal, and round - blazed with light, and shifted and darkened to the forms of people moving within. The faint sounds of Black Sabbath's Iron Man reached their ears, and Brian had to grin. Surely that wasn't live.

"Looks like they couldn't decide on any one design," Tim said.

"Probably just got whatever they could get hold of back then, "Deedee supplied, smiling. "Whatever was on sale in the Sears catalog."

Brian laughed. That certainly looked to be the case. Each addition to the house was slightly different, and he could envision generations of the family that had lived here adding new rooms to the house, and using whatever supplies were on hand. To live in one spot for so long was a new idea to him - Brian's parent's house was not a lot older than Brian himself.

A large, covered porch stretched around the base of the structure, also showing signs of being added to over the years. The shadowy shapes of chairs crowded here and there, some with the dark forms of people sitting in them. Well, the mostly dark forms; Brian could see the wink of lighters here and there as people fired up smoke of one sort or another.

He took a good swig of his beer, then canted his head at the house. "Party, anyone?"

They started forward. A smaller group standing near them proved to be Wade Tomlinson, Dave Routh, Mike Zurka, and Mike's girlfriend, Molly Stanburn. There was also Vicki Bender, who had a thing for Wade in the same way that Marianne Davis had a thing for Colin McGivery. And those two were there, too.

"Hey Colin," Brian said, coming up and poking the other boy fondly. "Marianne. Didn't see you guys in the crowd."

Colin's teeth flashed in the moonlight. "We almost were late. Saw that wagon train of yours on the move just as we drove up, and got at the end of it." He looked around. "Amazing place."

Ed came over, pointed his beer at Colin. "Hey, dude. Got any smoke?"

Colin's face compressed in a fashion that said he did, but not for sale. And probably not to share. He had a brother in the city that was always getting good weed, and Colin would drive over and get a hand-out as often as he could. But Colin was a little one-way, a trait that everyone knew about but tolerated because the boy was so obviously helpless when it came to interpersonal relations. Colin meant well, could be counted on in a crunch - Brian knew that first-hand - but suffered from being unsure of himself, which was reflected in an inability to trust the motives of others.

Colin looked about at the crowd around him, and Brian could see the other boy calculating how fast what pot he might have would vanish if he offered it up. Brian turned and poked Ed. "You still have that one joint left."

Ed sighed, giving Brian a look. Once again Brian had moved to defend Colin's fragile ego - something that Ed just couldn't quite understand. But Ed's heart was in the right place, too, and he didn't argue the point. "Oh, right. Forgot about that."

The math now looked better to Colin. "I have a couple of joints. One is for Marianne and me on the way home, but I'll share the other one."

Everyone smiled, long used to this little game. Friends do that, Brian mused. Look out for each other, even for the sometimes-turkeys among them.

Brian nodded."Cool. I have a few extra bucks, too, in case we find something for sale."

That lightened Colin's mood, and Brian grinned as he saw the other boy thinking, we won't get too far from you, then.

Jeff poked him. "Let's go see this place, huh?"

There was a group nod, and they all started forward. Annabelle placed herself to Brian's left; Jeff was already at his right. Ed was on the other side of Jeff, and smiled over at Brian, his eyes glittering with humor at Brian's book-in-the-middle-of-bookends situation.

Brian leaned forward and gave his friend a warning glance. Don't you dare.

Ed's smile changed to a grin, and he took a hit off of his beer and looked away.

The closer they got to the house, the louder the music got. There were people all over the place outside, sitting in groups, walking along, carrying bongs and beers and bottles of liquor. Many looked older - twenties and even thirties. Some, maybe even older than that. It was a varied crowd, one of the largest and most diverse that Brian could ever remember seeing at just a party.

Jeff prodded him with an elbow. "Are you seeing the tags on some of these cars?"

Brian slowed, as did the group, and everyone's heads turned to scan the license plates of the cars in the line to their right, just visible in the light spilling out everywhere from the house.

Ohio. Pennsylvania. New Hampshire. New Jersey. And of course their own state, New York, in abundance.

"Man," Brian breathed, "these people sure came from all over."

His eyes settled on another plate, one from New York: JohnyG.

He realized then that he was seeing the El Camino from the trip up - its front end, as it was backed into its parking spot. The Royal Blue lacquer looked black in the moonlight.

Ed saw it, too. "Hey, there's that crazy fucker from the road!" He stepped out of the group and went over by the Chevy, bent down and peered into the tinted side window glass. "Nobody home. But it's the same car, all right." He came back to stand near Brian. "You were right, Bry. That knucklehead was coming here."

Jeff laughed. "Come on, Ed. I'll bet that dude was just a little smashed, just like half of our own group on the way up here. Leave it, huh?"

Ed grumbled, but then smiled. "Yeah. Ain't gonna let no Chevy driver ruin my party."

Jeff rolled his eyes, and Tim and Brian both laughed.

"That's the car that passed us on Route 5," Colin suddenly said, finally understanding what they were talking about. "I was at the back of the herd, and that car came up on us fast."

"You were at the back?" Brian asked. "Were we holding up a lot of traffic?"

Colin shrugged. "At first. The farther out we got, the more turned off and went other ways. When this guy came up he passed everyone and then got stuck behind us. He kept changing lanes like that was gonna help him get by. Finally he cut over on the roadside and took off."

Brian nodded. "We caught the tail end of that move. A little crazy, but I can kind of see why the guy did it."

Ed sighed. "Oh, you'd stick up for the Russians if their tanks rolled into Utica."

Brian grinned. "I would not. My car can beat any Russian tank ever made. I'd eat them alive."

Ed stuck his tongue out. "You know what I mean. You always see the other guy's side of shit."

Brian blinked. "And that's wrong?"

Tim put a hand on Ed's shoulder. "Let it go, man. You ain't gonna win this one."

Ed took another hit off his beer, and nodded. "Yeah. What say we fire up one of these joints?"

It was agreed, and Ed of course took the first very large hit. When the doobie came to Brian he took a small hit, remembering the quick high that had hit him last time. He passed the joint on to Annie, who seemed to copy the economy of Brian's toke.

Everybody got their desired hit, and the roach came back to Ed, handed to him daintily by Marianne Davis. Ed fished in his pocket for his keyring, to which was attached a cotter pin with a small nut on it. The "legs" of the pin had been spread outwards a little, while the tips had been bent back inwards. Ed stuck the roach in between the ends of the pin, screwed the nut upwards until the legs grasped the roach, and held it up. "I'm gonna kill it if no one objects."

No one did.

Ed tore up the last half-inch of the joint, squashed out the fire, opened the makeshift roach clip, and ate the remains. Everyone smiled.

"Bet your dentist wonders what kind of stains those are on your teeth, dude," Tim said, grinning.

"He don't," Ed claimed. "My dentist is an old head. He's cool as shit."

Tim grinned at Brian. "That figures."

They went on towards the house, a mood of anticipation taking hold of them.

They reached the weed-strewn front walk and climbed the three wide wooden steps and stepped onto the front porch. The wood groaned and sagged beneath their feet, and Brian made a mental note to watch where he stepped here. Some light spilled out through the sagging screen door blocking ingress to the house; but it was indirect and the porch was shrouded in shadows. Brian was just noticing the dark shapes of a couple of people sitting in chairs to one side of the doorway when a flashlight came on and briefly pinned them in the beam, then dropped to the boards in front of them.

"Hi, y'all. I'm Jed, the official greeter." The flashlight tilted back for a second and showed them the heavily-bearded face of a man in his late twenties or early thirties. His black hair was long like Ed's, and his eyes slightly red and heavy-lidded - also like Ed's. A pretty woman with long, wavy brunette hair was briefly visible in the light, seated in the chair beside him. She also looked a little stoned.

"You people part of that mob that just showed up?"

"Yeah," Brian said immediately, taking a small step closer. "Hope we didn't worry you much."

"Nah." Brian sensed rather than saw the extent of the other's grin. "You're about the fourth bunch to show up like that - only yours was about the biggest." Jed laughed. "The first bunch was a little hairy, but by the time you guys got here we were getting used to it."

There was a round of laughter from the others.

"I can see you're all eighteen, right?" Jed continued.

There was a moment of stunned silence; and then everyone was nodding at once.

"Sure, man," Ed said, speaking for the whole party. "We're grown ups."

Jed laughed. "Cool. Just want to say a few things to everyone coming in so things stay casual, you know?"

More of the Alna crowd climbed the steps behind them, and Jed pointed the flashlight at them. "Hold up, y'all. Too many of ya climb up here and we'll be falling through the floor."

Still more people were arriving. Jed pointed the light at them, asked them to relax a second, and waited until it appeared that no one else was going to come along.

"Okay, y'all, listen up. Glad to see you people. Hope you all have a good time. Just want to point a few things out and then you can get on with the party. Sound cool?"

There was a general mumble of agreement, and the woman seated by Jed laughed.

Jed's voice sounded like he was smiling when it returned. "This place was built in 1804 - this main section, that is. It's been added to like crazy ever since, and you're gonna have fun looking around, I'm sure. I just want to point out that the house is old, and it's not totally safe. So try not to get too many of ya standing in one spot at the same time, okay? Because the floors here and there are a little shaky. The place won't collapse or anything, but let's not push our luck, you dig?"

Brian and his group looked at each other, and even in the poor light he could see everyone grinning.

"Yeah," Jed continued. "Now - about this porch. You're cool to go in and out the front door, but don't go down the other way there, where you see we put some chairs across. Some dude already put his foot down through the floor boards. He wasn't hurt, and we wanna keep shit that way. So stay away from there."

Brian reached out and gently poked Jeff, whose teeth flashed in a grin. Just for the hell of it, and because it was dark. And because he wanted to do it.

Jed waved the light at the ceiling above them. "If y'all go upstairs, and it starts to feel like the house is swaying back and forth, come on back down. Some people said earlier that they felt the place moving when they all walked, and we don't know if it really was or whether their Lumbo was just especially good. Don't take chances, okay?"

Ed laughed. "Oh, man, is this great or what?"

Jed could be seen to nod. "Yep, it is. We had a big turnout - bigger than we expected. We've been having fun. Let's keep it that way." He tilted the light forward and pointed it towards the field to the left of the house. Brian turned, and could just make out the shape of a trailer sitting on blocks nearby.

"That place is off-limits, you dig? Me and Carrie here live there. We're the caretakers here - or, we were. The land belongs to some big-city developer who thinks he's gonna build townhouses here someday. But not any time soon. So they decided they didn't need no caretakers anymore, so we're outta here after tomorrow. That's the why for this party. To have a little fun, and because I can't take my crop with me. You all want some, you help yourself. It's up in the garret. Take what you want."

Brian blinked. Crop? This guy was growing all this corn or something?

"Oh, yeah," Jed continued. "One last thing. The steps into the basement have been removed. That's because a car-theft ring ran out of this place back in the fifties and sixties, and the basement here is full to the gills with pieces of old cars. The shelves and racks are all falling apart and some of them have already fallen over. We don't want anybody down there gettin' hurt, okay? We gotta call an ambulance, then the cops will be right behind, and if they come the party is over for everybody. So stay out of the basement."

Brian's eyes widened. Car theft ring? This place was one surprise after another.

"Shit, I nearly forgot," Jed said, waving a hand. "One really last thing. There's a graveyard over there to the left, from the family that owned this place into the forties. Graves go right back to 1809. I don't want no one disturbin' those people, and I see anyone bustin' stuff or anything dumb, you're outta here, understand? You can look, but don't touch anything."

He waved the light at them. "Well, I'm done. Don't just stand there, go party."

Inside the house, Drive, by The Cars, started playing.

From above their heads, up on another floor, a loud thunk was heard. Everybody looked upwards.

"Don't mind that, it's just the guillotine," Jed said.

Everyone froze, and Jed laughed. "Just part of the party favors, y'all. This is a haunted house party, right? It ain't like it's real." He cleared his throat. "More or less."

"Is this place really haunted?" Annabelle asked then.

For a moment Jed and Carrie looked at each other. Then Jed's face tilted back up at them. "Nah. Me an' the missus have lived here for three years. We've heard stuff at night, and seen some stuff - weird lights and things - and other junk kinda moves around on its own sometimes - but I don't think it's ghosts."

"Then what is it?" Tim ventured to ask.

"Shit - I don't know. Could be kids - 'cept there ain't any. Could be bums - but there ain't any of them, either."

"Then what's left?" Brian asked.

"Aliens, of course," Jed said, laughing. "Naw - I don't know. Strange stuff happens around here, but that's the country anywhere. I don't believe in ghosts, my own self."

Brian grinned, feeling that Jed was having fun with them. "We'll be careful," Brian said.

"Cool. Have a good time, y'all."

Brian heard the crowd at the bottom of the steps saying that they wanted to go see the graveyard. A bunch of them took off in the direction that Jed had pointed to when he'd warned about disturbing the graves. Some of the others lit up, and moved into a circle to pass their joint around. Brian saw Colin and Marianne there, waiting a turn, and shook his head. Colin was always where the freebies were to be had, no doubt.

Ed came closer, and leaned towards Brian. "I wanna see this crop the man was talking about," he whispered.

Brian stared at him. "Why?" he whispered back.

Ed smiled. "Does that dude look like a corn farmer?"

Brian looked back at Jed, could just make out the beard and long hair in the half-light. "He looks like a dude from The Hills Have Eyes."

Ed laughed and gave Brian a push. "What are you saying, dude? That us long-haired freaky people all look like chain-saw murderers?"

Brian leaned closer. "Just some of you, man."

Ed laughed again and reached around Brian and opened the screen door. The hinges gave forth a horrendous squeak as the door shuddered towards them.

Jeff laughed. "If that doesn't sound like haunted house shit, I don't know what does."

Annabelle looked at Missy. "This place is pretty creepy."

Missy nodded. "You're telling me?"

They filed inside and found themselves facing a steep flight of steps to the second floor. A kind of hallway ran to the left of the staircase towards the back of the house. To the immediate right and left, open doorways spilled into other rooms. The wavery light they'd seen from outside was coming from the doorway to the right, and when Brian looked inside, he was stunned at what he saw.

A large hearth in the opposite wall had a fire blazing inside. Bookcases built into the wall ran from the floor to the ceiling on either side of the hearth, and the twinkle of glass filled each shelf from side to side. Bottles, to be precise.

Jeff leaned past him in the doorway. "Holy shit! Are those empty beer bottles?"

They went farther into the room to examine the shelves.

"Aw, fuckin' right!" Ed said, grinning at everybody in general. "I think Jed has been saving his empties for a hell of a long time."

It was true. Empty beer bottles ran the length of each shelf - about five feet - and the rows went seven or eight bottles deep. Brian did a quick count, and then some swift math in his head, and figured there were easily over two hundred empty beer bottles on each shelf. And six shelves on each side, or twelve times two hundred.

Twenty-four hundred empty beer bottles. One hundred cases of beer.

Annabelle stared at the shelves. "Maybe they have a lot of parties here."

Ed shook his head. "Nah. Look - they're all Miller bottles. You couldn't get all the people at a party to drink the same brand if you pointed a shotgun at them. This is the work of one, dedicated, diehard drunk over a long period of time."

Everyone laughed.

It was a hell of an impressive sight, though, and they stood looking at the bottles and the room for a few minutes while the newness of the place sank in.

"These are some butt-ugly chairs," Tim said, looking at the oddly-upholstered, low chairs placed around the room. There were also several pieces that resembled narrow sofas, and Brian was studying their unusual design when it registered what they were looking at. "They're car seats," he said, looking at the others. "I didn't realize what they were right off because I'm used to seeing the seats inside of a car. But that's what they are, no shit." He pointed. "Those are buckets, and the bigger ones are bench seats."

Tim snapped his fingers. "Probably got 'em out of the basement. Remember they said a car theft ring operated here?"

For a moment no one said anything; and then everyone started laughing, imagining the histories of these poor pieces of automotive seating.

But Ed was not to be deterred from his mission. "I want to see the garret, Bry," he said, pulling at Brian's arm.

"What for?" Jeff asked, overhearing.

Brian rolled his eyes. "Jed said we could have as much of his crop from the garret as we wanted. Ed thinks the guy wasn't growing potatoes."

"Or corn," Ed said, emphatically.

Jeff turned a moment and looked towards the front porch; then brought his eyes back to Brian. They were wide with new astonishment. "I think we should go up to the garret," Jeff said, pointedly.

"See?" Ed grated, poking Brian in the ribs. Brian brought up an arm to block his friend's playful attack

"Okay, okay. Let's go."

They returned to the front entry and Brian turned and started up the steps. They groaned under his weight, too, and he could feel the wood give a little; but he in no way felt that they were fragile. Jed had maybe been pulling their legs a bit on the state of decay present in the old structure.

They clomped up single file and found themselves on a landing, which also gave forth little squeaks as they moved.

"Which way?" Tim asked.

A long hallway ran to the back of the house, and a shorter, open one to the front. Open doorways showed on both sides down the length of the entire hall, some dark, other spilling light out onto the floor. A few people moved down at the other end of the hall; but for the most part, things seemed oddly quiet.

Somewhere downstairs, Bon Jovi was now playing, and the curious thunk repeated itself somewhere down the hall.

"I want to see this guillotine, too," Annabelle whispered, pressing close to Brian.

He grinned at her. "Why are you whispering?" he whispered.

She smiled, reached out and squeezed his wrist, but didn't say anything. Brian put a hand down a moment and squeezed her hand where it lay against his arm.

"Isn't it kind of weird that we aren't seeing anyone?" Missy asked. "I mean, there's people all over the place outside, and there must be a lot in here, too."

Ed shrugged. "They're all tied up someplace," he said, matter-of-factly. "Probably waitin' on their turn on the guillotine."

Missy smacked Ed on his bare arm, producing a thwack that resounded in the open space. She immediately realized she'd hit too hard, and grabbed Ed's arm and smoothed her fingers over it. "Sorry. Just stop saying stuff like that."

Ed smiled, put an arm around her shoulders. "Scared?"

"No. A little nervous, maybe. The place is creepy, don't you think?"

Ed gave her a small squeeze. "Let you know after I see the garret. If we can find the sucker."

Brian walked around into the short, open front hallway and went to the end and looked around the jamb of a doorway there. Another flight of steps headed up to the third floor.

"Here," he called, not loudly, but enough to be heard. The place had a definite effect on the mind, and Brian had the odd idea that to call too loudly might be to awaken something that he would rather not have to deal with.

The others moved forward as a group and joined him. Brian looked up the stairs again. They seemed to go straight up; but there was a wall plainly visible at the top, while a light could be seen shining on it from the left.

"Looks like it goes up and then turns. Come on."

He looked back once, saw Ed with his arm around Missy, and Tim with his arm around Deedee, and wished he could have his arm around Jeff. And at the same time, he realized that Annabelle was looking at him, and probably wishing that he had his arm around her.

Shit, this just sucks, he thought, but realized at the same time that there was nothing to be done about it.

He started up the steps, and heard the others following. The higher he climbed the more intense became the glare from the left at the top of the steps. Somewhere off in the house, the guillotine dropped again with a thunk, and Kansas started into Dust in the Wind. Really, a very unreal night.

Brian reached the top of the steps, and saw that there was a small landing there. He peered to his left around the corner, saw another six steps continuing upwards. At the top he could see a strange, vaulted roof, and a naked light bulb hanging by a wire from the rafters. Brian licked his lips, made the turn, and continued upwards.

The stairway emerged through an opening in the floor into the center of a large garret with a high, vaulted, eight-sided roof. The light bulb lit the place brightly, and Brian could see the tall forms of plants, standing upright on the ends of cut stalks, marching in a circle around the garret. They were large - twelve to fifteen feet in height - and they looked like skeletons standing watch at the funeral of a lesser demon of the night.

They were pot plants - hundreds of them. And they were picked clean.

The others came up to stand next to him. Everyone stared, except for Ed, who moved slowly forward to stand before the wall of stalks. "Mo-ther fuc-ker. We're too late." He turned to face them. "They've been stripped."

They all moved forward to stand by Ed, feeling a little bit of what he was feeling, but knowing that it was a totally different experience for Ed to see the dessicated bodies of his idols stacked there like so much firewood.

Brian turned to look at the others, was about to say something, when he noticed the way that Jeff was looking at the ceiling with a strange expression on his face.

"What?" Brian asked, feeling he had missed something.

Jeff pointed at the ceiling. "This is a big room. See how far back the walls are? We're only seeing the front of a pretty deep stash of plants."

Ed looked up a moment, then turned to look back at the plants. He reached out, grasped a stalk, and moved the whole naked plant to the side. Another, equally denuded plant, stood behind. Ed grasped that one and moved it, and then a third.

Bingo.

A lovely, untouched plant came into view. Ed gasped, stuck his hand between it and another loaded plant, and pushed it as far back as he could. "Goddamn dumb bastards," he said softly, turning back to face them. "These knuckleheads pulled everything off the plants, as far back as they could reach - but they never moved any of the plants. There must be four or five more rows in the back."

Tim laughed. "I thought Jed had the look of a good farmer. He's no piker - this is a big crop."

They all moved forward, and began to pull plants aside, revealing more plants that were either untouched or lightly raided by the partyers.

Ed grinned. "The dude put them up here to dry," he said, getting it then. "Holy fuck. I wonder where in the corn he had this stuff hidden? It's too tall not to be seen from a distance."

Annabelle waved a hand at the walls, to indicate what was outside them. "He's got eighty acres to hide it in."

Missy stared at the wall of plants. "I can't believe the guy is just giving it away."

"He said he can't take it," Brian pointed out. "This is not the sort of stuff you toss in the back of a U-Haul and drag behind the old Ford pick-up."

Ed looked around the garret, an anxious expression coming onto his face. "We need some bags. Lots of bags."

"I have some Safeway store bags in the trunk of my car," Jeff offered.

Ed grinned, eyes wide. "Perfect."

Jeff laughed at Ed's expression. "I'll go get them." He trotted back to the stairs and disappeared down them.

Ed looked again at the crop, just standing there waiting to be harvested. "We don't want to be greedy," he said. "We don't wanna take it all."

Tim made a noise. "Are you nuts? There's probably thousands of dollars worth of this shit here. We couldn't take it all even if we wanted to."

Ed frowned. "It's homegrown, dude." He reached out to a plant and fingered a bud. It was brown and moist-looking. "Probably from Colombian seed-stock, though." He grinned. "It looks like Colombian. Probably smokes like it, too."

Tim grinned. "Maybe it will sell like it. Forty-five an ounce? I could rebuild my engine just by selling a pound of this stuff."

Brian held up a hand. "Wait a minute, you guys." He looked at Ed. "I'm not putting ten pounds of weed in my car, I'm telling you that right now." He looked at Tim. "You get stopped with that kind of quantity and you're going to jail. Why the fuck do you think Jed isn't taking it? He's too damn smart, that's why. Doesn't want to risk something happening and him getting pinned as a dealer. Not happening to me, either."

Tim frowned, and Ed just looked disappointed. But then Tim sighed, and nodded slowly. "Point."

"Goddamn it, Brian," Ed said, "why the fuck you gotta be right all the time?"

Brian gave out a startled laugh. "Are you agreeing with me?"

"Fuckin' right. I don't wanna go up the river and be some guy's butt buddy."

Ed knew immediately that he'd said the wrong thing. While the others laughed, he cast a small, I'm sorry look Brian's way, there and gone in an instant.

Brian nodded, understanding, and not offended. "There you go. That's sensible."

They heard a noise on the steps, and Jeff returned with five brown grocery store bags. He handed them out. "Fill 'em?"

"Leaves and buds," Ed said, waving open his bag. "No stalks. Just take enough to smoke for a while."

Jeff looked startled, and Brian reached out and patted his shoulder. "We don't want to get nailed with quantity and go up the river and be some dude's butt buddy."

Jeff looked like he was going to laugh, but somehow managed to sit on it. But his eyes sparkled as he squatted next to Brian and they started picking the plants.

Ed started humming as he worked, and looked happier than he had in a long time. Missy helped him, also looking quite content.

They'd been at it for about ten minutes when they heard someone coming up the steps behind them. They stood and turned as two guys came up through the floor. The two stopped immediately, staring around the garret.

"Whoa," said the first one, a small-framed guy with brown hair and blue eyes, and a bit of a mustache and beard on his face. He wore jeans and a light jean jacket, and Brian couldn't help but to notice a pleasing appeal to his face. The guy was older than Brian's crowd - maybe early twenties. But still cute.

The newcomer's companion was a little taller, about the same age, with a kind of dark blond hair, parted in the middle and swept back, and wore gold-rimmed glasses through which gazed greenish-brown eyes. He was staring about in obvious amazement as well.

The first guy's eyes found Brian's, and he grinned. "I see we're not too late."

Brian couldn't help smiling back. "Nope. Help yourselves. The front plants have been stripped, but dig back a little and you'll hit gold."

"For real," Ed said, laughing.

The two newcomers came forward, stopped. The guy with the mustache looked them over, stuck out a hand. "John Graham. But my friends call me JohnyG."

Brian reached out automatically; and then the other's words registered. "JohnyG, huh?"

The other's mustache twitched, and his smile broadened. "That's me."

It was the driver of the El Camino that had passed them on the drive up. Ed just stared, his mouth half open.

Brian took the guy's hand and shook it warmly. "Been wanting to meet you."

JohnyG's head canted slightly to one side, and a puzzled look came into his eyes. But Brian also noted that the other's hand squeezed his just a bit more warmly.

"Really? Do I know you guys?"

Ed stepped forward, grinning. "Not yet. But you will."

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