Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 5)

2001
I didn’t stop to look at the paper the following morning. I hadn’t slept a wink the rest of the night. I couldn’t get the picture of Ruby, sitting there helpless, alone, and devastated out of my mind. And I knew that somehow I was responsible for the entire disaster. Before Mom would normally have been out of bed, I called her.
“Mom?” I called, as if anyone else would have answered her telephone at four thirty in the morning. “Yes, Mom. This is Lance.”
“Oh my goodness, Georgie! It’s good to hear your voice. How are you? I haven’t heard from you in months.”
Mom was the only one who still called me “Georgie.” the name wasn’t all that bad, but Lance Latimer looked better in print. I hesitated for a moment, not quite sure how to ask the question. Then I decided that what I had to say, the whole bloody lot, was not the kind of conversation for a long distance telephone call. “Mom, do you remember those articles Tommy and I wrote for that journalism class?”
“You mean those dreadful disaster stories? Yes, I remember them. Who could ever forget those?”
“Yes, Mom. Those are the ones. Do you remember what ever happened to them?” I didn’t know what I was planning to do with them, but I had to start somewhere.

“The last time I saw those things, they were in the attic over at the old house. I don’t remember packing them when I moved. The new owners probably threw them out. Why? Do you need them for something, dear?”
“Yes, sort of, Mom. I need them for a research project I’m working on.” It was the only excuse I could think of.
“Well, if you really need them, I’ll have a look around. But if they’re over at the old place I don’t know how I’ll get to them. If I find them, would you like me to mail them to you, dear?”
“No, Mom. I’m coming out to visit you today. I’ll be there as soon as I can get a plane ticket. Will that be alright, Mom?”
“Well, of course, Georgie. I’d love to have you come out for a visit. Will you be able to stay a few days?”
“It all depends on how the research goes, Mom. I don’t mean to rush this, but the research is rather important.”
“Well, alright. But maybe we could at least go out to dinner a couple of times while you’re here. I haven’t seen you for such a long time. And maybe we could visit with . . .”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t think there’ll be much time to visit. But we’ll go out to dinner somewhere, I promise. I’ll explain more when I get there.”
“I’ll see if I can get your Aunt Myrtle to pick you up at the airport. How would that be?”
“Mom, don’t go to any special bother. I’ll rent a car at the airport. I’ve got a lot of running around to do. I’ll see you in a few hours, Mom. G’bye.”

It was nearly noon before I reached the Indianapolis airport. By the time I reached my Mother’s house, it was after two. Mom had bought a small bungalow on the north side of town. It was near a public park, and she could walk the short distance on a daily basis, something the doctor had strongly advised. As a result she was keeping in pretty good shape for a woman of seventy-three. I realized immediately that I had severely neglected her, thinking instead of my own convenience and my taste for the bottle. I vowed right then that if I ever got through this I would never again neglect her. But that was for the future. Right now I had another problem.
Mom met me in the yard before I even had a chance to put down my suitcase. We went through the usual hugging routines that everyone dreads when he visits home after so much time has passed. As we walked into the house, Mom looked at me critically. “Georgie,” she began, “you look as though you had seen a ghost. What’s wrong?’
She always could see right through me. Maybe that’s why I always dreaded coming home. “Mom,” I said after a long time, “I have a serious problem, and I don’t know where to start telling you about it.”
“Well, Georgie, you know what they always say about that. Start at . . .”
“Yes, I know. Start at the beginning. Trouble is I don’t really know where the beginning is.” I went on to explain to her what had been happening. When I finished, she looked at me again.

“Well, Georgie,” she said finally. “It looks like the chickens have indeed come home to roost. If you remember rightly, I tried to tell you those stories would come to no good. Now maybe they’re causing someone harm and that someone isn’t even you. Innocent people are getting hurt. But what’s done is done. Now what do you propose to do about it? Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Actually, I’m not sure where to start. But I’m sure this has something to do with those old manuscripts. I’ve got to find them.”
“Well, I looked for them around here. I looked every place I could think of. They simply aren’t in this house.”
“Could they still be in the old house?”
“I don’t know, Georgie. The new owners pretty much cleaned everything out after I left. But you could ask them. I think I have their phone number.” Mom went into her bedroom. She returned five minutes later, waving a piece of paper. “Here it is. They said I could call them pretty much anytime.”
The call took just over a minute. "Hello."
"Mrs. Johnston?"
"Speaking."
"This is Lance, I mean George Wilson."
"Oh! Hello Georgie." She had apparently picked up the name from Mom. "How are you today? Your Mother has told us so much about you I feel like you're one of the family."
I hadn't realized Mom had been that intimately involved with the new family. "I'm just fine, Mrs. Johnston. Listen, I need to ask you a favor."

"Certainly, Georgie. What can I do for you?"
"I need to look in your attic." There was a short pause before she answered. When she spoke again, her tone was just a bit cooler.
"Yes, Georgie. I guess that would be alright. What is it you need from our attic?" She emphasized the word "our" so as to remind me that this was a bit personal.
"I need to see if I can find some old manuscripts I left there years ago."
Another short pause. "I guess that would be alright. When do you need to come over?"
"Whenever it's convenient for you, Mrs. Johnston. The sooner the better."
"Can you be here in an hour?"
"Yes, I believe so."
"Good. Then I'll see you about four. Oh, and bring your Mother if she can come."
"Okay. About four then."
*
1961

Graduation day. Tommy and I had gone through school together and, with few exceptions, had shared all our classes. So it's no surprise that we spent the entire day together. Neither of us went to the prom: girls were still wishful thinking. We also shared all our journalism classes as well as our goals to become reporters for some great metropolitan newspaper. But since neither of us came from the planet Krypton, we were going to have to go to college first.
"Why couldn't we have gotten into the same college?" asked Tommy. "We were both qualified for the program in both schools."
"Yeah, but both schools had just one opening." I started leafing through the stack of manuscripts we had written together. "Question is, What are we gonna do with these?"
"Well," said Tommy, "we can't just throw 'em away. There's just too much work tied up in 'em."
"Mom thinks we oughta destroy 'em. Says they're too violent."
"She's probably right," added Tommy shaking his head to clear the memories. "But the fact is the world is a violent place. These things could actually happen some day. We might find ourselves writing some of this stuff ten or twenty years from now. Wouldn't that be a kick? Imagine having the scripts already written. We'd have a scoop on the world."
"That's too weird, Tommy."
"I know, but it would be interesting to compare things that we have to write about with these stories. We oughta save 'em, even if it's only for a good laugh some day."
“That leads to a slight problem," I said. "Where are we gonna keep 'em? Neither of our parents want anything to do with 'em. So that means we hafta hide 'em somewhere. But where?"
"Well," said Tommy slowly, "since we both have big attics, maybe we should split em up between the two."

"That'll never work," I corrected. "I heard your Mom say she was gonna move after you leave. She'd never move 'em. She hates 'em."
"So does your Mom."
"Except I think I know a good place to hide the things that even she won't find. Then, if we wanna look at 'em later, we can get to 'em easily."
"I don't remember any hiding places in your house. Where are you talking about? Unless you mean that . . ."
"That’s right. In the attic, right next to the chimney. There's a loose floor board there, and there's a spot just big enough to fit these things in. Mom'll never fine 'em there."
*
2001
"That's it!" I exclaimed.
"That's what?" Mom returned.
"I know where I put those manuscripts."
"Where's that, Georgie?"
"Mom, I wish you wouldn't call me Georgie any more. It's so demeaning. Makes me sound like a little kid or somethin'. Couldn't you at least call me George? After all, that is my name."

Mom looked away. I could tell she was more than a little hurt. I immediately wished I hadn't said it, but it was too late now. "I didn't mean anything by it . . . George," she said after a while. "I was just using the name I've always used. If you didn't like it, you should have said so years ago."
"I'm sorry, Mom. But I'm a man now, have been for a lotta years. A man gets a little tired of being addressed like a kid."
The car became very quiet for the rest of the trip. Finally we arrived at the old house. Mom looked at me very seriously. "Promise me something . . . George."
"What's that, Mom?"
"If Mrs. Johnston calls you Georgie, don't make a fuss."
"Fine, Mom. I won't say anything."
"Good. I'll do something about it later, but for now just let it slide. Okay?"
"Yes, Mom. I said I would."
The greetings were quite warm, and Mrs. Johnston insisted on serving a snack. I cringed a few times when she called me Georgie, but I managed not to show it, at least I thought I did. But a little way into the conversation she looked at me and remarked, "Do you mind if I call you George? You ought to be called George at your age."
I think that was supposed to be a compliment, but after I heard it I wasn't quite sure. "I hate to rush things," I said, "but I would like to look for those manuscripts now if you don't mind."

"Sure," said Mrs. Johnston. "Help yourself. I believe you know the way. Oh, by the way, watch out for all the junk up there. If you need to move something go right ahead."
*
1948
I was five years old. Old enough to know there were no ghosts in that closet, but still young enough to wonder. Every time I went near it, my older brother, Kevin, would make some sort of howling sound and send me running for cover.
"Ooooh! Shadow!" Kevin taunted.
"Mom!" I screamed.
"Yes, Georgie. What is it?"
"Make Kevin stop doing that!"
"Stop doing what, Georgie?"
"Make him stop making that awful sound and scaring me."
"Kevin!"
"Yes, Mom."
"Leave your brother alone."
"Aw, Mom! I'm not hurting him. He's just chicken."

"Well, think about it, Kevin. Would you like to have someone trying to scare you all the time? He's only five, you know. You're seven. You oughta know better."
"Aw, Mom."
"Now, don't 'aw Mom' me again. I said stop it and I mean it."
Kevin stomped away and sulked in the corner.
So one day, when I reached the ripe old age of seven, I decided to get Kevin back  I hid in that closet and waited for Kevin to come upstairs. It seemed like forever, but I guess it was maybe a half hour later when Kevin came moseying into the room. I waited until he had settled onto the bed, right next to the closet.
When I came out of the closet screaming bloody murder, Kevin jumped straight up from the bed and ran down the stairs as fast as he could move. I swear his feet never touched the floor. I came down the stairs laughing my head off. “That is the funniest thing I have ever seen in my entire life.”
This time I got the lecture. The next day I went into that room, expecting someone to come charging out of the closet.
*
2001
Kevin died of pneumonia three years later, but I've never been able to go close to that closet since without someone beside me. I just keep thinking that Kevin is going to jump out any time. But today, I must face it alone.

The attic door is next to the closet and I have to go into the attic if I am ever to find those manuscripts. So here goes.
I slip into the attic while holding out my hand as if to fend off some invisible enemy. Once inside the attic I discover that old chest of drawers.
*
1954
Tommy and I were playing upstairs that day. It had been raining off and on for three days and the temperature was only thirty seven degrees, so playing outside was pretty much out of the question.
"Hey! Let's explore the attic," I suggested. "There's lotsa good stuff in there to look at."
The upstairs of the house was actually a half story that my Dad added when my Grandmother came to live with us. It was kind of in the middle of the rest of the house so that there were two separate pieces of the old attic left, one at each end of the house. The carpenter had made small access doors at each end of the addition so we could get into the attic which was at the same level as the addition. The problem was, that in order to store it somewhere during construction, we moved the old chest into the attic area. No one had remembered that the chest of drawers was still in the north facing end of the attic until the addition was finished. By then it was too late to retrieve them. The access doors were too small to allow the chest to be removed. Mom refused to let the carpenter make the door opening any wider so we just left the chest there. Kevin and I had used the chest to store some of our treasured items.

When I opened the attic door, Tommy, who had never been in the attic before, spotted the chest right away. "Ooh, neat. Look at that old chest. What d'ya keep in there? Old clothes?"
I looked a bit apprehensive. "Gee. I don't know if I oughta show you those things. Some of 'em were Kevin's. He might not like it."
"Hey, man," scolded Tommy. "Kevin's been dead for, what, three years now?"
"Don't say that, Tommy. He might be listening."
"You're weird, George. Kevin isn't gonna know anything about it. He's dead, for Heaven's sake. Get over it."
My eyes began to fill with tears. Tommy noticed the problem and backed off. "Hey, buddy. I didn't mean nothin' by it. But you gotta get over it sometime. You got your whole life ahead of you. Never mind I don't need to see that stuff. It's yours and Kevin"s. That's the end of it."
"No. You're right, Tommy. I've gotta let him go. I guess it'll be alright.” I gingerly began to open the top drawer. “But you’ve got to promise me you’ll never tell anyone what’s in here. Okay?”
“Sure, George. You know I’d never tell any of your secrets. What kind of a friend would do that?”
I resumed opening the drawer. “This is my Tom Mix Decoder Ring. It still works, but we don’t get any messages to decode anymore.”

“Yeah, man. That’s cool. My Dad would never let me send away for that stuff. Said it was a waste of money.”
I looked at Tommy. “My Dad wouldn’t let me do that either, but Mom helped me send for it. I guess she did a lot of things like that for us kids.”
“Oh! Man. You got a silver bullet. Was that from The Lone Ranger”
“Well, you know The Lone Ranger is really Clayton Moore.”
“Course I do, but it makes a dandy story. I just love watching Silver stand up on his hind legs just before The Lone Ranger calls out ‘Hi yo, Silver, away!’ And then he rides off into a cloud of dust, and . . . well, you know how it goes.”
“And here’s my toy John Deere tractor. I used to have a whole set of farm implements to go with these, but the rest of ‘em got broken or lost.”
“Wow! Those are really great. Where’d you get ‘em?”
“Kevin bought ‘em for me one year when he went to the State Fair. I had the flu that year and didn’t get to go.” I could feel the tears starting again so I turned away. Then I spotted a loose board next to the chimney. Tommy and I inspected the hole. “This’d make a good place to hide somethin’. Got anything you wanna hide in here?”
“Not that I can think of. But maybe we’ll find something later.”
*
2001

I pulled open the drawer, covered now in years of dust. There, to my surprise, was the John Deere tractor, still in tact. “I haven’t touched this in years,” I thought. Once again the tears began to flow just as they had that day with Tommy. I wonder what ever happened to Tommy. I think he was a war correspondent in Viet Nam, but I haven't heard from him in such a long time.
Remembering again why I was up here, I turned toward the chimney and the loose floor board I had found so many years before. I knew I had to look, but I was afraid of what I might find. Slowly, I knelt down beside the source of my troubles. Would the stories be there? Would I be able to do something about this nightmare I was in? Would this all turn out to be some fantastic figment of my imagination? I placed my hand on the board, hoping, praying that this would all just go away. But I knew it wouldn’t. So with all the courage I could muster, with one quick movement, I raised the board.
*
1961
"This is sort of like a time capsule," said Tommy as we carefully placed the manuscripts into the gap between the floor joists. "Someone'll come back here in a hundred years or so and open this board. They'll read these stories and see how good they are. Then we'll be famous."
"Then we'll be dead, dummy. What good'll that do us?" I looked again at the manuscripts. "Heck! In a hundred years these things'll turn to dust."
"Yeah. I guess you're right. But we could look at 'em in a few years. Maybe they'll be worth something to someone."

I checked once more to be sure they were all there. There was the pickup truck running into the train, the airplane that tried to land on the highway, and the apartment house fire. Mr. Sharpe would just as soon we destroyed that one. "Too graphic," he said. I hesitated as I fingered the next one. It was about an explosion in a coal mine. Fifty seven miners trapped in the mine. They could talk to the surface over a telephone line that survived and could be heard struggling for breath as, one by one, they suffocated. "Boy, I hope that never happens to anyone I know."
I turned to Tommy who had suddenly become ill. "What's the matter, Tommy?"
"I don't know," he said. "I just suddenly can't seem to breathe. Like I was trapped somewhere and the air was running out."
*
2001
Under the loose floor board, I found a few scraps of insulation and some crumbling fragments of paper. There wasn’t nearly enough to account for the manuscripts we had left there forty years ago. The manuscripts were gone.
I sat for a moment, unable to comprehend the importance of what I had just discovered. Where were the manuscripts? Could Tommy have somehow gotten them? If so, where did he put them? "I've got to get in touch with Tommy right away, before the next story comes true."
When I had recovered my senses again, I struggled out of the narrow doorway and into the bedroom. I ran down the stairway, nearly tripping over my own feet as I went.
"George? Are you all right?" It was my Mother’s voice.

When I exited the stairway at the bottom, my face must have betrayed my panic because Mom came running to my aid. "Sit down, George, before you have a heart attack. Now what's the problem?"
"Mrs. Johnston, may I see your telephone directory?" I asked, trying unsuccessfully not to show my desperation.
"Why, of course, George. I'll get it for you."
"I'll get you a glass of water," put in my Mother.
I gulped at the water and as soon as Mrs. Johnston returned with the phone book, I grabbed at it a little too quickly. I spilled the water all over my trousers in the process.
"What is it you're looking for?" asked Mrs. Johnston. "Maybe I can help."
Without acknowledging her offer, I began to paw through the book. "Sutherland, . . . Sutherland . . . Mom, what was Tommy's mother's name?"
"Oh dear. I believe it was Agnes, or maybe Angela. Does that sound familiar?"
"I think you're right, Mom. It was Angela." I looked again. "No. There's no Angela listed. Do you know if she's still alive?"
Mrs. Johnston looked puzzled. "Angela Sutherland? It seems to me there was an Angela Sutherland living over on Fletcher Avenue. But she moved a while back."
"Moved?" I said. "Do you know where she moved?"

"Oh! Let me see now. I believe she said something about West Virginia. Charleston, I think. Said she was going to live with her son Tom."
"Mrs. Johnston, do you mind if I make a long distance call on your telephone?"
"Oh, I guess that would be alright."
I was out of my seat and on my way to the phone almost before the words were out of her mouth. "What's the area code for Charleston?"
After some frantic inquiry I obtained the number I was after. The phone at the other end rang five times before it was answered. It was a man's voice. "Hello."
"Is this the Sutherland residence?"
"Yes. May I help you?"
"I'd like to speak to Mrs. Angela Sutherland, please."
"I'm sorry. Mrs. Sutherland can't come to the phone right now. Can anyone else help you?"
"My name is George Wilson. Who is this speaking?"
"Mr. Wilson, are you a relative of Mrs. Sutherland?"
"I'm a very close friend of Tom Sutherland, her son. Why?"

"I'm a paramedic, Mr. Wilson. Mrs. Sutherland has had a mild heart attack. We're getting ready to transport her to the hospital right now. Can you meet us at the hospital? We may need someone to give permission for any procedures. Where are you now?"
"That may be a problem. I'm in Indianapolis right now, but I believe her son, Tom, lives there with her. Can you contact him?"
"I see. Mr. Wilson, I'll be very frank with you. Mrs. Sutherland apparently had this heart attack after seeing a news report on television. There's been an accident at the mine. There's a possibility that Tom may have been involved."
"Did it involve an explosion?"
"Yes, as a matter of fact it did. Mr. Wilson, is there any way you could come to Charleston? It would be greatly appreciated."
"Yes. Yes. I'll be there as soon as I can get a plane." I hung up the phone, and turned to Mrs. Johnston. "Could you turn on the news, please?"
"Why, yes, of course. Any particular channel?"
"No. Whatever you usually watch."
When the TV finally came to life, we heard the voice of Dan Rather reporting. "A mine explosion in a coal mine near Charleston, West Virginia has resulted in fifty-seven mine employees being trapped. For a direct report we go to . . ."
I didn't need to hear any more. The words were all too familiar to me. Tommy had written the story himself.

*
1961
"Hey, George. why don't we make this one a TV news report?" suggested Tommy. Maybe Dan Rather could report it on the evening news."
"But Dan Rather is just a field reporter. Why not have Walter Cronkite report it? He's the one that anchors the show."
"Hellooo. Anybody in there? This is fiction, Georgie boy. We can put anybody we want in the story. Besides, Walter Cronkite won't be the anchor forever. Maybe someday Dan Rather will be the one."
"Then it's gotta be a big one. Nothin' small is gonna make the national news."
"How 'bout I'm down in a mine doing a local story on mine safety when there's an explosion. Everybody is trapped, and I keep reporting until the air runs out. The miners die one by one and you can hear them gasping for breath."
"Tommy, you're definitely weird. You better hope this one never happens. I'd hate to have to report your death on the six o'clock news."
"Yeah, well, we all gotta go sometime. Might as well do something worthwhile when we do."

There was something about the expression on Tommy's face that told me he was suddenly serious. This was a side of Tommy I had never seen before. I tried to pass it off. "Let's don't get maudlin, Tommy. You're gonna make a great reporter someday. Don't do away with yourself before your time."
*
2001
There was no longer any question of where Tommy was. I felt sick to my stomach. I had to act now if there was to be any hope at all.
"Mom, I've got to go to the airport right now. Is there any way for you to get home?"
Mrs. Johnston chimed in, "We'll see that she gets home, George. You go on. This seems to be quite urgent."
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