Just Us: Chapter One

It Begins

I walked quickly through the woods, thinking about the morning so far. It was all some kind of crazy mystery. When the team and I woke and gathered in the Commons for breakfast, we discovered the end of the building was missing and the woods had grown up in the space overnight.

In addition, some of our utility buildings no longer sat where they did yesterday. One of them had a poured slab floor— gone. How did that happen in just a few hours?

Of further confusion was the weather. This morning I got out of bed and dressed in long underwear, wool pants, a long-sleeved jersey, a thick wool sweater and sock cap, dress appropriate for a crisp November morning. I did the same thing yesterday, and the day before that, and a week before that, and I figured it was all fine since we had just celebrated Thanksgiving last week and it should have been a crisp November morning. The hot sun struck the top of my head and caused me to look up into the thick green canopy, catching a warm humid breeze on my face. It was as though the island was trying to reveal to me, in the gentlest way possible, that it was actually summer, perhaps early July.

Minx, my Siamese ferret, twisted around and stuck his head out from beneath my hair falling about my neck. He grunted in the annoyance and confusion only an animal, dealing with screwed up instincts, could make. I smiled, pulling gently on his tail. “Hey.”

Thinking I was playing, he flipped around to stick his head out on the other side of my neck where his tail had been the second before.

“Let’s go back and find Dad. We need to tell him what we found, besides, I’m sweating like a sumo wrestler with a bad hypothalamus and I need to change into something cooler.”

I entered the clearing where our research facility sat just in time to see Dad push another man. He stumbled back, bumping into a muscular woman in her forties. The man, dark haired and in his 50s, wore business casual slacks, a white pullover shirt, and a blue windbreaker. Another man, with a slight limp, and a second woman, bearing a determined look, surged forward toward my father.

Two of my team members, Yancy and Vincent, stepped between Dad and the strangers. The guy Dad had pushed raised his hand and looked over at the advancing man and woman. “Gremlin, Jordon, stand-down.”

They stopped.

He looked behind, at the woman with whom he’d collided. “Tilly, you okay?”

She nodded. “Fine Paul, thanks.”

He stepped forward, wiping his hands down his jacket to straighten the wrinkles. Either he forgot it was a windbreaker or he was just, ‘that guy.’ “Doctor Madison, please, there is no need for violence. We have enough to worry about without adding to it.”

“Violence?” Vincent stepped closer. “You’re responsible for…” he held his hands up and twisted around, “this, and you don’t want any violence?”

“I agree with Vincent, this is your fault!” Dad yelled.

Wow, Dad, good comeback. Way to show off that doctorate! I came to his side. “What’s going on?”

Our big muscular farmer, Yancy, spoke first in his mild Georgian drawl. “I think Mr. Benson is about to tell us why we’re all now sitting in the middle of a dag-gum botanical mystery, weren’t you Mr. Benson?”

The woman, who had advanced on Dad, spoke. “Yes, Paul, explain to these– farmers, what you think happened, but speak slowly so they’ll have a chance of understanding.”

“Wow, what a sweetie,” Vincent exclaimed. “Wanna count degrees,” He waved a hand at Yancy, Sharon, Dad and I, “Because all of us have at least two.”

Benson glanced at the woman, “Jordon, that’s enough.” He turned back to Dad. “Doctor Madison, we need to sit down as a group and discuss this. If we share data, perhaps we can get to the bottom of what has happened.” He looked at Yancy, “I don’t know what happened, and it’s ‘Professor’ Benson.”

I raised an eyebrow. Ooo, lah-dee-dah, gonna be like that is it?

Dad had a kind of blank look that I thought must be an attempt at anger management. His fists clenched and he looked like he might actually slug the guy. “Right, you know nothing!”

I decided it was time to de-escalate this so I stepped in and extended my hand. “Professor Benson, I’m Tobi Madison,” I nodded towards Dad, “the pit bull’s daughter.”

Dad glared at me.

I ignored him of course and continued. “Let’s go up to what’s left of our dining area and talk. Yancy, can you get a fire going, maybe heat some hot water for coffee? Sharon, I think we have some instant in one of the cabinets.”

Yancy gave the visitors an odd assessing look, then nodded.

I smiled wryly at ‘Professor’ Benson. “Please excuse our mess, we seem to have lost our kitchen last night.”

He nodded sympathetically, as if I had just said I used our last bottle of sparkling water, and I struggled with the intense desire to slap the look off his face. It’s Dad’s fault of course, I didn’t ask for the genes.

I leaned in toward Benson conspiratorially and whispered. “I suspect it was kidnapped by the end of the building since it disappeared too. No ransom was left though, so…”

His eyebrows managed some gymnastics, like a Russian teen dismounting a balance beam, then he smiled in the way adults smile at small children.

Motioning for Dad and the professor to move toward the building, I brought up the rear, feeling like I was herding geese. The man Professor Benson called “Gremlin,” limped along immediately behind the older, mouthy woman. His strong consistent gait suggested a prosthetic leg. When his hand moved from under the back of his shirt, I saw the handle of a pistol stuck through his belt.

I grimaced and imagined that this meeting was not going to be full of fuzzy kittens and unicorns!

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