The first time the nightmares start, it’s almost exactly two weeks after the thing that happened (nobody in Lillian ever mentions the words ‘spaceship’ or ‘alien’ but it’s implied in the way they refer to it, always hushed and uncertain, like they’re afraid it’ll come back).
They’re not nightmares, not exactly. They’re more like pulses, low and strong, an erratic beat in the current of his thoughts. When they first happen, Joe sits up with a yell and almost dislodges his dad from the bed they’re sharing in the Rivenskys’ living room. Joe’s house is roofless, the lawn strewn with debris, and he and his dad are staying at a neighbour's, at least for a while.
“What the hell, Joe?” Jackson grunts, eyes bleary, and Joe shakes his head and mumbles a soft “Sorry” before he lies back down again. In the dark, he can hear the tick of the clock in the hallway, the faint whine of mosquitos in the summer air, even the muffled snores of Mr Rivensky from the bedroom.
More distantly, he can hear explosions in his head and he knows, with a weird twist in his stomach, that it has something to do with what happened in that cave.
He tries not to think about the creature, about the way the town still smells greasy with smoke, like somebody’s roasted a marshmallow for way too long.
He tries not to think about how much he misses the guys, how much he misses Charles, who he hasn’t seen between school being suspended because of town-wide construction and the strict new curfew that the mayor announced after everything that happened.
Mostly he tries not to think about Alice, the press of her hand in his, and how he hasn’t seen her since that night.
But that doesn’t work.
He doesn’t get to sleep for a long time. The next few days are just the same. Joe’s so tired that every waking moment feels like he’s walking underwater, that his hand shakes and he ruins the umpteenth figurine he’s started painting to stave off the boredom. He’s so tired that he’s sure the hurried knocking that comes in the middle of the night one Saturday isn’t real but another byproduct of his fatigue until he hears Charles’ voice ringing in the night.
“Joe! Dude, come on!”
The whisper is so loud that Joe thinks Charles might as well have shouted. He slips out of the bed, gingerly, freezes for a second when his dad murmurs in his sleep, and pushes back the curtains.
In the sliver of moonlight, he can see Charles’ face pressed against the glass, eyes wide and urgent.
“What are you doing here?” Joe whispers and even though he can only imagine how much trouble they’d get into if anyone found out that Charles was breaking curfew, he can’t help the grin that’s splitting his face.
“Come on, we’re going to Cleveland!”
“We got in! We fucking got into the film festival! We only just got our mail. Come on, it starts in the morning. We’re sneaking out tonight.”
“The Cleveland International Film Festival?” Joe says. “Wait, Charles, we can’t go.”
“Why not?” Charles challenges.
There are a million reasons why they can’t go, why the kids of the town aren’t even really allowed to go outside. Lillian’s in shambles, everybody’s in lockdown and after everything that’s happened, the last thing they should be doing is skipping town. Cleveland’s almost four hours away.
Joe sneaks a glance back at his dad who’s fast asleep.
“We don’t even have a car,” Joe says weakly.
Charles grins, “It’s covered.”
“Come on,” Charles says, fiercely and Joe exhales. After everything that’s happened…all Joe wants is to get away.
Joe nods silently and Charles lets out a whoop that Joe has to shush, even though all he wants to do is follow suit. He pulls on his jeans, a t-shirt, scrawls a note for his dad that says he’ll be back soon. His hand shakes when he signs off, doesn’t even think twice about how Jackson Lamb is going to react because if he really thought twice, Joe knows he wouldn’t be leaving.
When he slips out the door, Charles bumps his shoulder with his. It’s not a hug but it’s the closest thing to it and Joe grins back.
“I don’t know how you got Jen to drive,” Joe whispers as he follows Charles down the street.
Something twitches in Charles’ smile when he looks back at Joe and stops just in front of a car on the corner. “I didn’t.”
This time round, she isn’t sitting at the wheel of the Skylark with its racing stripes. It’s a battered red Ford, a much older model with rust stippling the doors. Joe knows his dad mentioned it the other day, not maliciously, just matter-of-factly, that Louis Dainard did a number on the car but all Joe can think of is that first time when she pulled up to the curb and his heart jackhammers in his chest, just the same.
“Hey, Joe,” Alice says, brushing her hair away from her face and when Joe smiles at her, she smiles back.
It takes them a while to find Cary, who isn’t at his aunt’s like Charles thought but at his grandmother’s and it takes them even longer to get him into the car (“Wait, wait, I need to go back and get my stu-“ “Goddamnit, Cary, we don’t have time! This is serious business, get into the goddamn car!” “Jesus, Charles, take a chill pill!”). Preston is in Dayton for the rest of the summer but Martin’s at his place just like they thought although it takes them ages to wheedle him into coming and even longer to accommodate his crutches.
“Maybe we should just forget about him,” Cary grouses as he shifts in the backseat to make room and Alice turns around slowly.
“Nobody gets left behind,” she says, voice steely.
Cary shuts up…at least for the next half hour until he pipes up about the way Heather Coleman’s pool caved in when one of the tanks got smashed into her house and Martin interjects with a fact about water drainage.
It’s as if the floodgates have been opened because they start talking over each other all at once, gossip about what might be happening (“Dude, they can’t just send us to Riverside High, that’s bullshit!”), the crazy stuff they’ve seen on the street (“The diner was totally on fire when I saw it, maybe you’re finally going to lose some weight, Charles”, “Shut up, Cary!”) and, more tentatively, speculation about what happened (about that last thing, Alice and Joe say nothing).
By the time they drive onto the interstate, the sky’s already melting into a dusky blue and the sun is grazing the horizon.
The guys are too busy shouting instructions at Charles as he plays with the radio to notice but they fall silent when Joe presses forward and breathes against the glass, “Look!”
There’s a brief moment of quiet as they stare, light flooding the crammed interior of the car. From where he’s sitting, he can see the light play off the back of Alice’s neck where she’s swept her hair up into a ponytail, the sun setting ablaze the loose strands. Out here, the air smells clear, sweet. And for the first time in a long time, Joe doesn’t feel so heavy, like he’s no longer carrying sandbags around inside of him.
“It’s beautiful,” Charles whispers and Cary snorts.
“Should we start painting watercolours for posterity?”
And Charles lets rip a humungous fart. Cary bursts out into hysterical laughter.
“Oh my God,” Charles stares mortified at Alice, “I am so sorry.”
Cary lets out another howl and manages to wheeze out between gasps, “Maybe, we…should start…painting…for Charles’ posterior.”
It doesn’t make any sense, it’s not even funny at all but then Alice snorts and the rest of the car erupts. By the time they reach the gas station for rations, Joe has to swipe at the tears running down his eyes so that he won’t look like a complete freak when he buys the gang Cokes, and in Charles’ case, coffee, from the counter.
The caffeine doesn’t do too much. They linger at the nearby rest stop to drink while Cary sneaks suppressed grins at Charles and Martin leans against the car on his good leg. An hour later, after they try to sing along to everything that Charles tunes the radio too and Cary has to disentangle himself from the map they’ve been consulting, they’re all asleep except for Joe. It’s not until he laughs at the sound of Martin’s kittenish snoring that Alice notices he’s awake when she catches his eye in the rearview mirror.
“Um, are you tired? I don’t think any of us ‘cept for Charles can kind of drive though,” Joe says quietly.
“Nah, it’s okay. I think we’ve only got like half an hour left,” Alice says.
“Besides…” she hesitates.
There’s a catch in her voice that makes Joe lean forward, “What?”
She shrugs, “I don’t think I could sleep. Haven’t been doing a lot of that lately.”
“Oh. Me neither,” he says and Joe can feel his heart stutter. He shouldn’t be this nervous talking to a girl, not when it’s hardly the scariest thing that he’s done this summer but he’s sweating all the same.
“How’s your dad?” Joe blurts out.
There’s a measured silence before Alice answers.
“He’s good…he’s getting better.”
Joe doesn’t say anything, just reaches out clumsily, hand a little shaky, palm clammy, to touch her shoulder. He doesn’t know why he does it, just wants to let her know that he kind of gets it and Joe feels her relax under his fingertips just before he withdraws his hand, hears her soft exhale even over the sound of Martin’s snoring. The lopsided smile she gives him in the mirror makes him duck his head to hide his own.
They’re quiet for a while as they cruise down the highway and Joe wants to say more, even though he doesn’t know what, but then Charles wakes up with a start and he lets out a cheer when a “Welcome to Cleveland” sign comes rearing up.
“Wake up!” he bellows in Cary’s face and there’s a mad panic when Cary does, shoving Martin and his crutches in the process.
“Dude!” Martin exclaims but they’re all too excited to be irritated by each other.
“Cleveland!” Cary shouts.
“Did you know that the Cuyahoga River that runs downtown has caught on fire on several occasions?”
“Why, no, I did not, Smartin. Please, tell us more boring facts we don’t care about.”
“Ugh, I hate it when you call me that.”
Alice’s laughter rings out loud and clear in the morning air.
“Okay, so it’s 10:30 right now. Here’s the plan.”
Charles unfolds the program for the festival and spreads it out on the front of the car where they’re parked near the Cedar Lee. They’re showing “The Case” in the amateurs’ category, a fact that Charles solemnly assures them isn’t representative of their talents, just their industry cache (Joe and Alice exchange grins over his head).
“They’re gonna be showing it around 1. We stay around until then, make our debut and then we go home.”
“And then get murdered by our angry parents,” Cary supplies.
Martin looks alarmed.
“Come on,” Charles says officiously. “Let’s go in.”
After everything that’s happened, spending a few hours in the dark shouldn’t be this much fun but it’s what Joe needs. He sits between Charles and Alice, tries not to notice each brush of her arm against his when she reaches for her soda.
“Hacks,” Charles mutters after each of the entries and Joe listens to every bit of commentary he provides, asks about the lenses and shots they’re using. Behind him, Martin dispenses factoids and Cary rolls his eyes. Joe hasn’t had this much fun in a long time.
They break just before 1. Charles and Cary go in early to reserve good seats, Martin hobbling behind, but Joe stays outside a little longer, blinks rapidly at the spots swimming in front of his eyes from the bright sun. Alice sneaks up behind him, steals some of his popcorn and Joe laughs.
“Hey,” he says.
“You having a good time?” Alice asks and Joe nods.
“Yeah,” he grins, “yeah, I am.”
“You know,” she starts. Alice looks at the pavement, blushes. “I never got to say thank you.”
“For saving my life,” Alice says shyly.
“Oh,” Joe says.
“So…” Alice steps closer and for a second, Joe freezes. “Thank you.”
They stare at each other. Joe opens his mouth and closes it again, can feel the heat prickling on the back of his neck.
“We better go in,” Joe says and Alice nods absentmindedly.
He turns to go but he feels it, her hand in his and her voice is low and quiet, “Wait.”
The first time Joe Lamb kisses a girl, it’s not Joe that makes the first move but Alice Dainard who puts her mouth on his. It’s over before it even begins but she tastes like root beer and popcorn and he clenches his fists so hard that he leaves tiny crescents in his palm.
The first time Joe Lamb leaves Lillian, it’s on a trip to the Cleveland International Film Festival at the height of summer and when they come home, hours later, just as the sun is setting, it’s to find their parents camped on the side of the main road near the big town sign, furious and ready to intercept them.
Joe’s grounded for two weeks but his dad doesn’t say anything more, just glares for a really long time. When Joe starts on his new train set though, Jackson sits next him, clumsily takes a paintbrush in his own fingers.
“So uh, how do I do this?”
Joe doesn’t even say anything when his dad uses the wrong black on the coal hopper and although he won’t see the rest of the guys, or Alice, for at least another week until school starts, it’s okay.
For the moment though, right now, it’s perfect. They sneak back into the cinema to catch the last half of “The Case” (“Where were you guys?” Charles hisses), to hear the smattered applause that follows the end. On the ride back home, Joe sits shotgun and shoots the guys murderous looks in the backseat when they make kissy faces at him.
Joe starts to drift off just as they exit from the 70, just as the wind breezing through the window turns mild.
“Joe-“ Charles begins but Alice hushes him.
“Sh, don’t wake him,” she says. Her voice sounds faint, like it’s dissolving into the air, but it’s the last thing Joe hears before he falls asleep.
The nightmares stop.