Brown eyes were seemingly aimed forward, but Archie’s attention was really on his inner thoughts. A dreaming fiend, he had made a habit of checking out fifteen minutes into the class period after no amount of leg bouncing or pen clicking would settle the itchy feeling that laminated his body. Archie liked to think about his journeys after school—would his grandpa give up the television long enough for him to catch an episode of Full House? Probably not, but maybe that was for the best. It served as a reminder that the closest he’d ever get to John Stamos was the television screen, though Archie was still half-convinced the desire to be closer was because he wanted to be him.
The final bell dragged him from his thoughts. Briefly, he made eye contact with the teacher, who looked disappointed. Perhaps he’d made himself known for getting lost in a reverie during class. There were no decent grades to back up his behavior either, so Archie offered a goofy grin as his awkwardly lengthy limbs were finally pulled from the confines of the desk. Once his bag was placed over his shoulder, Archie made it a point to weave around other students to leave as quickly as possible.
Today, he didn’t have to worry about entertaining himself. He had a date at the creek with his brand new and unofficial club, not school-sponsored, but meaningful anyway. Was a college going to fact check you on your school clubs if you wrote it down on the application? Archie probably would, but that was like, what? A couple of months away?
Why worry about college now? Besides, a particular name had been plaguing his mind lately.
No, not Ruth Dawson, the new girl on the block who had quickly risen in the ranks of his friendship. Archie’s shop class buddy Douglas Donald, otherwise known as DD, teased him every class period for not asking her out yet, and he laughed it off. They were just friends, and details of that weren’t DD’s business anyway.
Cindy Fischer— yes, that was the name in his mind. Again, not a girl Archie was interested in dating. While pouring milk into his cereal bowl a week ago, Archie recognized the name and picture on the carton. HAVE YOU SEEN ME? No, actually, not since June. Cindy was a freshman and would have been a sophomore had she not mysteriously gone missing during the summer. Her name filled the mouths of the student body.
Her case seemed perfect for S.H.I.T., aka Supernatural Happenings Investigation Team. Archie gathered his materials and had convinced himself over the weekend that this was, in fact, due to Graysville’s arcane occult of nonhumans. Aliens were out there—Mothman too. Anyone who said that there wasn’t some sexiness in mystery was a fool. Archie almost has the decency not to ask people’s opinions on it.
Rushing outside, Archie headed for the bike rack. He had one of the bigger bikes to accommodate his stature. Once it was pulled out, Archie swung his leg over the seat and took off over the grass and then back onto the pavement. Most of the ride to the creek was spent standing up on the pedals. Abandoning his bike right outside the woods, Archie followed the cleared dirt path within on his feet.
Sand, rocks, dirt, and broken bottles protruded into the shallow water to create a second bank. He wasn’t the first one there, which surprised him. Bernadette Vaughn must’ve been there for a while. She had a blanket spread out and was sitting down on it with her sketchbook. Being the exact opposite of quiet upon his arrival, her head subsequently whipped up as Archie approached. He smiled at her, and she managed a small one in turn.
They were barely friends, but he appreciated her joining the club. Archie wasn’t one for jealousy, but he didn’t understand why she was so dismissive and made it a point to avoid him and Sterling. Not Ruth, though. For a while, Archie chalked it up to shyness. They were in an art class together or something, but it’d been a hot second, and Bernie still hadn’t thoroughly warmed up to the rest of them. It hurt, but only a little bit.
“Hi Archie,” Bernadette’s meek voice barely cut through the air. She placed her pencil inside her notebook before setting it aside. Archie’s consistent enthusiasm kept her on her toes and made her feel obligated to be nice to him. Not that she wouldn’t have wanted to be otherwise, but he made it a point to talk to her when they were alone. It wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable, but she’d prefer silence over talking to Archie in particular.
At least she didn’t flinch this time when he came to sit on the corner of the blanket. It didn’t last long because seconds after he’d set his bag down, Archie was back up and heading towards the water. Carefully, Dette watched him disrupt the surface with the toe of his shoe.
“Why are you so early? I’m usually the first one,” Archie commented idly, raising his head to glance back to her.
“I didn’t go to school today,” she admitted.
“Yeah? I got nothing better to do. Okay, well, that’s not true, but I like seeing everyone.” Stepping back from the water, Archie angled his head down to search for the perfect rock.
“Is Ruth coming?” She asked, almost surprised at her boldness for instigating further conversation.
Archie nodded his head dramatically as he sank to the ground in order to pick up a flat, worn piece of glass. It was green, and the edges weren’t very sharp. “Sterling too, any minute now,”
Before Ruth, Sterling was the closest thing to a best friend Archie had. They’d known each other since first grade, but something invisible had wedged itself between them by the time middle school rolled around. Still, Archie often managed to drag him into his antics and didn’t shy away from bugging him. Recently, however, Archie had gotten to see a lot more of his face, which made him happier than he’d ever been able to express adequately.
Bernadette preferred Ruth over Sterling and Sterling over Archie, but that tier list was better left in her head. She knew Ruth the best. They were acquaintances at the least, having had an art class together that semester. Sterling was probably the most tolerable man Dette had met to date. He was mild and had an air of maturity surrounding him, making him less of a pain to be around. She didn’t have to wrack her brain so hard, trying to figure out how to interact with him or even Ruth, for that matter. But Archie…?
Exhausting. For several reasons. Sure, Archie and Ruth were similar in some ways but incredibly different.
Dette watched as Archie took the piece of glass he’d found and wandered back over to the edge of the water again. Flicking his wrist outward, the glass flew from Archie's hand. It was supposed to skip. Instead, it sank to the bottom of the creek as soon as it hit the surface. “Damn,” she heard him mutter before twisting around, that signature grin stretching across his face. Anxiously, Bernadette glanced away towards the trees closest to her, praying that the others would magically emerge.
The disappearance of Cindy Fischer settled uncomfortably in the usually placid Graysville.
There weren’t many surprises left this town. Sterling had spent his entire life here, born and raised, and he knew most people, places, roads and backroads quite well—and he couldn’t wait to leave. On the rare occasions he left the town for holidays and family gatherings in Boston or Providence, he found himself gawking at the stark change in surroundings, up at looming buildings that had certainly earned their skyscraper nicknames. These other places were exciting, buzzing with life and activity and the unknown, and the mere idea of starting anew in a city next fall for college kept him up at night.
He couldn’t even remember the last time any kind of violent crime, or any serious crime at all, even happened. When he ran through the streets as a younger boy, and now watched wistfully as his younger sisters did the same, a sense of safety, security, and familiarity prevailed over all. Nothing ever happened in Graysville. It was as much a curse as it was a blessing: doors and windows were often left unlocked for the convenience of it, and Sterling simply trusted that the girls would come in from their neighborhood games when the sun started setting. They always did as reliably as the sun rose in the east and set in the west.
Routine. Wake up early, make breakfast, kiss mom goodbye, make sure the girls were awake, eat, clean up, lead the pack to the bus stop, get through school, get work done, tutor, meet the girls at the bus stop, make dinner, homework help. bed. Rinse and repeat.
Sterling initially met Cindy’s disappearance with utter disbelief—not because he knew her well in any way, but because it started the gradual undoing of his worldview. Of course he was concerned for the family, and he played the part of good citizen and helped with a search or two. But when her disappearance wasn’t just due to an overly worried parent or a total miscommunication between parent and child, and they didn’t find her a couple of days later like they expected to, his mind started wandering to dark, ugly places.
It made him warier. He didn’t like to think of himself as a mother hen (though his sisters would certainly call him one), but the young man found himself keeping an extra careful eye on the girls. They started getting scolded for arriving home late, or leaving home without telling him or his mother where they were going. And that started fights—why didn’t he trust them anymore? Where was this coming from all of the sudden? Take a chill pill, dude. You’re too much.
How do you tell a naive little girl that there could very well be a dangerous person in their midst? How do you start to change the way someone thinks about people outside the home? His mother wasn’t around to do it, so Sterling needed to make sure it was said—and said correctly. It was important.
“I’m not worried about you,” he finally said after struggling to find the right words. All the girls actually paid careful attention to his words, recognizing that something had changed deep in his tone. “I’m worried about other people, and I really need you to understand that. You need to be careful going places by yourself, taking rides or things from people that aren’t mom’s friends… Just in case.”
The smile he forced at the end of it all didn’t seem to put them at ease.
Another day of school passed by without much to note. It was always a welcome social escape from the difficulties that came with filling in the shoes of multiple parents at home: Sterling lived for the hallway chatter and the lunch room laughter, even if it wasn’t quite the same as an after-school hangout. He’d have more time for them in the spring, he reassured himself, when college applications and club responsibilities weren’t so heavy—the stakes were just too high to have too much fun right now.
That being said, he’d go completely insane if he didn’t have some semblance of escape. An old acquaintance of his, a tall, beanpole kid named Archie Andovini, who was another fellow local yokel, started what seemed like a lighthearted little club: the Supernatural Happenings Investigation Team. The crass acronym wasn’t lost on him, and consequently, it wasn’t recognized by the school and given official club status—but it was still something fun to do and gave him a place to be once a week besides the library. Why not talk nonsense about urban legends and weird mysteries, and maybe make some friends while he was at it? He couldn’t say he knew any of the other members particularly well at this point, but that was bound to change.
Since the Coleridges took the bus to school, he couldn’t speed down the bike path to their usual creekside meeting spot. Sterling adjusted his backpack straps and set off into the woods, down the familiar worn dirt path he and many others had trod many times before. Part of him always enjoyed these walks; it was a welcome change of pace from the nonstop schedule and classes and deadlines. The pollen in the air made his eyes water and tickled his nose, though. He’d have to remember to take a Benadryl when he got home.
He offered a friendly wave grin to the two others in the clearing in the woods next to the creek. “Hey, guys!” His voice filled the quiet space and drowned out the soft trickle of water to their side. He shrugged one backpack strap off as he approached Archie and Bernadette, rummaging around for something that had just escaped him.
“My sisters wanted muddy buddies last night,” Sterling said as he finally resurfaced with a gallon bag filled with the dusty cereal snack. “And we had plenty of extra. Thought you’d all want some—take as much as you want! Just share.”
He immediately regretted letting the last part slip, and a subtle heat rose to his cheeks and ears as the embarrassment flooded him—the reminder was more or less a reflex he’d taken up from dealing with his youngest sister so often. Nonetheless, he tried to play it off by offering the bag to Bernadette, who was closest of the two.
Ruth immediately got the sense that she was a very unwelcome surprise variable upon her arrival to Graysville.
Nothing about the move on its own was particularly memorable: she packed her things into those same boxes that always stayed only half-unpacked (because who needed decorations when you were due to move in a year, anyway?), manned the garage sale, helped load things up in the car, and hit the road when it was time. This new setting was like all the other dozens of suburbs she’d wound up in—completely unassuming, with a sleepy, boring kind of energy to it.
Or, so she thought.
There was a very sudden change of atmosphere only a day or two later. Right away, Ruth got the sense that events like this, ones where straight-laced, pretty girls set off on their bikes for a friend’s house, never to be seen again, were not the norm. In this tiny town of only a couple thousand people, suspicions of everyone were high. For all these people knew, their neighbor of two decades could be hiding a very dark secret—and a new family moved in only a week or so before Cindy up and vanished.
Always searching, ever eccentric, Ruth felt the lingering eyes on her everywhere she went. No matter how much she tried to accept it, deciding that she just simply was not going to let any of it bother her, the unspoken words and heavy gazes unnerved her deeply. It started to make her bitter, brazen. These hicks didn’t even know anything about her or her family, but just because she was new, they had to give her the cold shoulder?
Cindy Fischer’s bright-eyed visage grinned almost menacingly at her from across the kitchen table, where she was immortalized in ink on the side of a carton of milk. Ruth slowly began to resent her with each week that passed, where their desperate staring contest persisted just a little bit longer, even if she knew there was no way this girl could have seen any of this social fallout happening.
It worked out though, somehow. She found solace her usual array of weird hobbies—poking around the woods and creeks around her home aimlessly, with Tupperware containers and nets, looking for bugs or cool rocks or anything, really. Her camera went wherever she did, and she took artsy, avant-garde, silly pictures of whatever struck her on that particular day. A waste of film and time, perhaps, but it was something to keep her mind busy and away from the tremendous sense of isolation.
Thankfully, that all changed quite quickly when school resumed in the fall. The last thing Ruth expected to stumble across was a friend in the midst of all this. Maybe they were a match made in heaven (probably hell). Another tall, lanky, bony kid much like herself, but taller, and larger than life. She and Archie quickly became thick as thieves. Ruth appreciated their friendship more than she’d ever let him know, with her tough, strange delivery and sense of humor. It had been a long, long time since she had a friend like this.
It was something she could get used to.
School passed by in another stupid blur. Some days were better than others, but Ruth was terribly bored and, simply put, over it. She went to photography and newspaper, but elected to hide away in the locker rooms and bathrooms during precalculus and US history. What did it matter? She was doing the next class’s worth of reading and work anyway, just in solitude. Attendance shouldn’t matter if she was on top of her work, which she was—she was quietly one of the better-performing students in her class.
And she found her way back by Archie’s side for lunchtime. It was only then that he reminded her that they had a S.H.I.T meeting later that day, after school. “Oh yeah,” she muttered, barely trying to hide the fact that she was sticking a piece of gum underneath the table so a wandering administrator wouldn’t see her chewing it. “That’ll be fun.”
She secretly hoped Archie had some sort of plan. As fun as it was to dick around in the woods, swatting off gnats and mosquitoes as they chatted about absolutely nothing, Ruth did enjoy the meager education she gained from the unofficial club’s esteemed President. Who knows what they’d end up learning about today?
Ruth lingered for a moment longer after the school bell, for absolutely no reason. She stood idly by her locker for some time, racking her mind, convinced there was some deadline she’d let completely slip her mind. After double and triple-checking her homework logs, a bell rang somewhere in the empty hallway. Ruth became acutely aware of what time it was, quickly collected her things. threw her hair back into a sloppy ponytail, and headed off for the creek.
On top of her bike, arms out, zipping downhill through the leaf litter—she flew, heart light but full, ready to be with friends.
She came to a skidding halt in the small clearing by the creek, hair blowing wildly, loose strands falling over her eyes and shoulders. “Hey nerds,” she greeted, breathless.
Throwing her bike and backpack down a couple strides away from the rest of the group, Ruth grinned widely at the usual crowd. Archie, her soulmate. Sterling, equal parts adorable and insufferably geeky. And Bernadette, who made her feel unsteady and soft in a way she had never felt before and didn’t like to dwell on.
Her dark, darting eyes were quick to find the bag of treats. “Are those muddy buddies?” She asked as she worked the bag free from Sterling’s hands (who could only watch, bewildered with her brazenness). “Oh man, I love these.”
She was quick to finish a handful of the dusty snacks, and then finally looked at Archie. “What’s on the agenda today, boss man?”
Unfortunately, Bernadette was all too familiar with Graysville. She’d lived there her entire life in the same big house. She and her parents were on opposite sides of the spectrum. There well-known minglers and frequently took it upon themselves to host work-related and family parties. She couldn’t escape those with her brother at her side now that he was away at college. That was a burnt bridge that she didn’t want to think about anyway. She’d be leaving soon too, and despite how much she disliked being at home, change was terrifying in its own right.
That made Graysville a near-perfect place. Typically, nothing exciting enough to note happened. Then, the knowledge of Cindy’s disappearance made its rounds, and Dette was beginning to have trouble sleeping. Her mind raced about all the things that could have possibly happened to her. What was worse was that Bernadette had known her—they had been acquaintances and had P.E. the same period. It made the situation all more personal and became something she tried hard not to worry about.
It became easier with yet another change that occurred in the unchanging town. Ruth Dawson appeared right as junior year wrapped up as Bernadette found out. They ended up having a class together and subsequently became close enough for Ruth to invite her to S.H.I.T., a name she didn’t laugh at even after Archie explained in detail why she should have. The whole Cindy thing almost made her decline the offer but knew that the socialization would be beneficial to her. She couldn’t cling to her bedroom forever. She’d have to get used to talking to people. She had to get used to talking to men. And, Ruth would never include Bernadette in something if her intention was to hurt her.
Bernadette skipped more school than her parents liked. For as much shit as they gave her, they also aided her in her antics. It was shameful getting up in the morning and being unable to go to school due to failed attempts to stomach the anxiety of what would happen. Nothing worse than a test, probably. She knew that, but the thought of cramped hallways and rotten lunches made her sick.
Early in the day, Bernadette escaped her house and headed to the creek. She’d lugged her bag of art supplies and a blanket to lay out over the dirt, rocks, and sand as she waited for her fellow club members. She drew portraits from memory. Then, she illustrated the scene in front of her before the school day wrapped up.
After Bernadette's and Archie's initial awkward chatting, it was like magic when Sterling peeked through the trees, his comforting voice cutting through the conversational silence that that blanketed the location. Her heart lurched in fear for a split second. Then there was momentary disappointment that set in before Dette allowed even a whiff of contentedness. Sterling was second best, but she’d take it over being alone with Archie.
That didn’t mean she’d take food from him. Did she genuinely think that Sterling would try to drug her or that this was some complicated scheme with Archie? No, but that didn’t stop her from shaking her head with an awkward smile when the muddy buddies were offered up to her. “I’m good, thank you, though.” She saw Archie slink up in the corner of her eye anyway.
It was seconds after Dette had stuffed her belongings into her bag that Ruth made her long-awaited appearance. “Ruth—” she said, borderline startled. Standing up to join everyone else, she continued with a more appropriate greeting. “Hi, Ruth.” This time, her smile was genuine, and her eyes softened. There was comfort there to be found yet, despite the high energy and competitiveness for snacks that Sterling could be counted on to bring.
For a moment, Dette watched the three others before she bent down to pick up the blanket. Once the dirt and grime had been shaken off to the best of her abilities, Bernadette began to fold it. Her head lifted, and her eyes were aimed at Archie after Ruth had asked what they’d all probably been wondering. What did they have to expect for this week?
Archie had a feeling that the others would start showing up soon. They had to—they all came from the same school after all, and he knew both Sterling and Ruth had floated around during the daytime. In fact, he’d personally taken on the responsibility of reminded his best friend Ruth that the club would be having a meeting at the creek.
It’d be rude not to show up. Archie spent all day imagining what he’d say to everyone. It was strange being in an ‘official’ leadership position that made all the executive decisions. The club he’d created functioned similarly to democracy he liked to imagine. All input would be considered, and that was made clear by day one. They had each other’s backs, and respect was paramount. They were all losers, and no one needed to be dragged down.
“Sterling, my man!” Archie greeted, whipping his body around to face the woods that his favorite male friend emerged from. Several strides later, and he was wrapping his bumbling limbs around his friend for a quick squeeze, something that had clearly been off-limits when it came to Bernadette. Just as fast as he was to approach, Archie was already backing up and turning to the water with curious eyes. At the mentioning of a potential snack, his focus was once again on Sterling as he debated his choice.
The desire was fleeting. Ruth emerged from the trees, and Archie was too busy grinning from ear to ear. He felt like a puppy excited to go on a walk, except for this time, he was in control of what happened. “Miss Ruth-erford, Ernest! So glad you could make it!” He let out a hearty chuckle before drawing his bag from his back. “So glad you asked!”
After digging around the canvas confines, Archie procured one side of a famed carton of 2% milk, hastily cut from the others. Sure enough, Cindy Fischer’s name, birthday, and photo were on it. “Have you seen me?” Archie read, holding up the evidence for all to see. He looked around, gauging everyone’s reactions. Bernadette visibly winced.
“As you all probably know, Cindy Fischer has gone missing, bless her heart.” With a theatrical sigh, Archie bounded towards Ruth to hand off the cutout for her to take a closer look and subsequently pass around. That’s what he expected, anyway, and didn’t plan on detailing these expectations allowed. He and Ruth were telepathic, like Siamese twins. Not really, but they were close. They could be.
After clearing his throat, Archie continued. “You want to hear my thoughts? I don’t think she ran away; I don’t think it’s fraud. I have three theories as to what actually happened. So, edge on the sit of your seats no more!” Archie spun around on his heels before presenting the air with his palm up. Then, he pointed to the sky.
“Aliens, the most likely candidates, in my opinion.” Jazz hands. “Capture, examination, conference, tour, loss of time, return, theophany, and aftermath! What stage of abduction could Cindy possibly be at now?” Bending down, Archie scooped up a handful of rocks for no particular purpose and instead worked to clean the dirt off of them as he talked.
He tossed one of the rocks up in the air as he continued onto the next theory. “Or Bessie’s a lot closer to home than we could have ever imagined,” Archie told the club members while throwing a rock into the water. “I did some digging; she was last seen at Cogar Pond, a popular swimming spot for the local youths. I can assure you all that we are safe here. The creek isn’t deep enough to host a prehistoric legend.” The rocks were all dropped.
“Finally—she absolutely could not resist the glowing red eyes and a twenty-foot wingspan of none other than Mothman. Lured into the creature’s den, she must have been brutally ripped to pieces.” Feigning a sad expression, Archie once again released a dramatic sigh before shaking his head and standing upright.
“Okay, I lied. I’m not sure, which is why I think this is the perfect opportunity to investigate! You guys in? Any questions?”
Bernadette looked horrified by both Archie’s insensitivity and gruesome stories of her being torn apart. He saw he open her mouth to say something but quickly close it. Her eyes darted to Ruth, and Archie almost scoffed.
“I mean,” he added, “we’re all curious. And I am an advocate for the truth, whatever grittiness lies above it. Aliens, ghosts, monsters—we’ll look at all possibilities that your local sheriff’s department won’t. Like, why do you think they haven’t made any progress?”
Even after all these years, it was so easy for Sterling to forget how much of a character Archie could be. Maybe it was because his usual crowd of math-minded, chemistry geniuses, and physics whizzes were some of the most awkward and introverted people at school. All the stereotypes were, sadly, very true. Sometimes it started rubbing off on him, and it was moments like these where he became acutely aware of how stiff his academic crowd was making him.
He flashed a small smile up at his friend and squeezed him back—once, tight, sweet. It was one of those things Sterling would never tell him, but he always appreciated how he could loosen up a little around Archie. He was so different, but in the best possible way and a kind he was grateful for.
Sterling folded his arms across his chest, expression neutral and light as the show began. The clouds above them drifted to obscure the sunlight in seemingly just the right places as Archie started up; Mother Nature must have recognized the innate theatrical flair in him, as he was left in his own natural, subtle little spotlight.
Using Cindy Fischer to start this week’s meeting immediately left an uncomfortable taste in his mouth that only grew as Archie carried on—and not instantly being able to place why made him that much more uneasy. Even if he could see that this mysterious disappearance was quite literally a perfect opportunity, and precisely what this club had been founded to investigate, something about her particularly struck him profoundly.
It felt too fresh. Still. Perhaps the real sting of the case came from the fact that this was no longer in some faraway, unimaginable place like Utah, with its alien landscapes carved by wind and glaciers; this was someone they also grew up with. Sterling had no problem throwing around these same wild accusations with imaginary people, but the weight of this gradually settled on his shoulders. Those people—the missing hikers, the loony scientists, those too curious or innocent for their own good—meant something to someone, too.
Everyone was a son, daughter, child. Sometimes, these case studies were even a parents. And everyone was a friend. That’s important to remember too.
The concern in his gaze deepened and remained through the end of the monologue. He opened his mouth to ask a question after the thoughtful silence had some time to brew, but closed it quickly when Archie suddenly added his last quip. He hesitated just one more moment, considering his phrasing over Ruth’s soft crunching, before finally clearing his throat.
“I guess that’s fair,” Sterling started. He raised a hand to scratch the back of his head, moving his eyes to the leaf litter and discarded stones at Archie’s feet. “I just don’t even know where to start—this is just all so real, all of the sudden.”
His eyes widened. “Oh! An archive search! We can do a real-life, actual archive search!” The energy returned to his voice and body: Sterling now stood up straighter, confident. “We’ve got to get to the library and dig around. People must’ve documented anything strange they saw or experienced, yeah? Maybe their accounts were taken down in newspapers or magazines decades ago.”
Sterling glanced around the circle for some visual affirmation, hoping the others were up for a little bit of work. “That’ll give us a place to start,” he offered, “Instead if just discovering what we’re maybe working with from scratch. Maybe this area has a well-documented... Thing. Unless someone has a better idea.”
Pretty quickly, Bernadette was reminded of several things she didn’t like about Archie Ardovini. For one, he severely lacked in the tact department. Gritting her teeth together, Dette found herself uncharacteristically defensive. The way he talked about Cindy’s disappearance made her blood boil. Though, it may have come from their previously shared rapport or her general distaste for the guy himself. Either way, she knew it wouldn’t have sat with her right because using the situation for some cheap entertainment was wrong.
Aliens? The Loch Ness monster? Moth Man? Was Archie serious? Not nearly as much as he’d initially led on, which was simultaneously relieving and even more shameless. Opening her mouth when their eyes met, she wanted to yell at him. It wasn’t a joke! But, knowing Ruth was right there and in fear for what might happen if she did, Bernadette shut her mouth and settled for breathing heavily out of her nostrils.
Silently, she hoped that Sterling would have some common sense to tell him that this was wrong and not something for them to get involved in. Instead, he offered an expedition to the library to seek out more information. Desperate, Bernadette glanced over to Ruth, who seemed preoccupied with the snacks. Turning back to Archie and Sterling, Bernadette frowned.
Sterling wrapped up his suggestion. It was a lot less harmful and reaffirming to Archie than she initially assumed it was going to be, but even so, she disagreed. And, in polite Sterling-fashion, he left room for other people to speak. Standing up straighter to appeal taller, Bernadette was only reminded she was the shortest one there. It didn’t change the fact that she had to hem all of her skirts and jeans so they didn’t drag or bunch up on the floor. But maybe there was some pride in that. For a split second, she urged some confidence into her chest and vocal cords.
“Doesn’t this feel kind of wrong?” She squeaked. Clearing her throat, she hoped her next words wouldn’t appear so timid. “To me, doesn’t this feel kind of disrespectful?”
“I didn’t mean it like that!” Archie piped in quickly, twisting around to lean down and face her at her level. Dette forced him away with the palm of her hand pushing on his face. Of course, he obliged but spent her rebuttal removing and wiping off his glasses.
“I… It doesn’t matter whether or not you meant it that way,” Bernadette said before crossing her hands over her chest. “It still comes off that way.”
As he returned his glasses to his face, Archie smiled at her earnestly. “I’m sorry, Dette.” He quickly apologized. Then, after looking to Sterling and Ruth, he returned his attention back to Bernadette. “But maybe Cindy would appreciate it? Like, if something strange really did happen to me, I’d be so happy that someone would take the time to do a personal investigation for me.”
“You’re not Cindy!” Bernadette snapped but immediately stepped back in embarrassment for her outburst. It was such a bad look and in front of her only friend Ruth? She’d really blown it now. “And… that stuff isn’t real.” She added softly as if it would make up for it. Dette knew she was probably making things worse. “Some creepy man probably got ahold of her and is doing awful things to her. She might be dead already but watch— her body won’t turn up for two years.”
Archie’s eyebrows raised, and he pressed his lips together. Awkwardly, he glanced away and lifted his hand to his neck to scratch the back of it. “Sheesh, that’s a little…” He trailed off, realizing that saying she was mutilated by Moth Man wasn’t much different. “That kind of stuff doesn’t really happen in Graysville, though.”
Bernadette’s face burned, and her jaw hurt from clenching her teeth together. Stuff like that did happen in Graysville, but Archie was the stupidest, densest, most incentive boy she knew. It was no wonder he didn’t have many friends either.
“Woah, Bernie, sorry, sorry, you don’t need to cry!” He waved his hands in front of her, genuine concern on his face as he noticed the tears. That had never been his intention, but it’d happened. “It’s fine; we don’t need to focus on Cindy.”
She took another step away from Archie and quickly wiped at her eyes. She’d humiliated herself and ruined her image in the regards of the only people who bothered to hang out with her, hadn’t she? “I don’t care. It’s not a big deal. We can do it.” She tried to reassure him but couldn’t even look him in the eyes. She sniffled and dried her cheeks a final time with a swipe of her fingers on either side.
“I just want to help, but we don’t have—” Archie began to speak but was interrupted.
“I said it’s okay! You might be right, so we can just see what comes up at the library like Sterling said.” After drawing in a deep breath, she nodded. “Let’s just go.”
Not entirely satisfied, Archie tilted his head and asked, “Are you sure?”
She nodded, already beginning to walk away from the circle. Hopefully, the interaction could be put behind them, and it would be ignored. Bernadette wished she hadn’t let the idea get to her like it had. She’d joined S.H.I.T. after all, so it was only natural they’d be investigating mysterious, unsolved murders and disappearances in terms of cryptids and creatures. Whether or not the person in question hit close to home, it shouldn’t have mattered.
Things like this, which delved into the strange and slightly morbid, bothered Ruth much. Although she wouldn’t even call herself unflappable, this kind of wording from Archie was something she’d gotten quite used to; in fact, they had plenty of fun making a good-spirited banter out of it.
Sterling—always the rational force that steered these discussions, always wanting to run back to the library for some reason or another—didn’t surprise her in the least. Bernadette’s contribution, however, made her widen her eyes and stop eating. This may have been the first time she could remember her friend speaking up so forcefully.
A subtle scarlet flush heated her cheeks as she and Archie began to go back and forth, the tone in the clearing suddenly turning tense. She felt polarized between two worlds, stuck between a rock and a hard place: one of rational understanding that validated Dette’s concerns, and the other, unwavering support for her best friend.
Guilt crept into her throat, drying out her mouth, making her a little ashamed for some reason—but maybe she didn’t always have to have Archie’s back. Sometimes that was a way to be a good friend, too. But she couldn't tell which of the two were more correct.
She didn’t know what to do with herself when Dette became emotional. Ruth herself struggled to maintain her usual cool, unaffected expression as she considered the worst possible reality of this situation: what if there really was an entirely human monster lurking among them? Before she knew it, she was blinking away tears of her own; she turned her head to the side to hide them from her friends, hoping to stop the full waterworks show before it could start. She always hated how she cried when others got emotional.
The long moments of silence that followed Archie and Dette’s little dispute became nearly unbearable, and she was no expert in de-escalating awkward situations. That being said, she wiped powdered sugar off from the corner of her mouth with her sleeve and clapped her hands together. The sound resonated strangely in the empty space, making her immediately second guess her strategy of simply choosing to ignore what just happened.
“Cool,” Ruth started, glancing around, trying to read the room (another personal weakness). “O-kay then. Let’s go look at some dusty old newspapers, ‘cause we don’t have anything better to do.” Her tone was sarcastic and flat, but light—hopefully that would shake up the air enough to get things back to normal.
Things were far from normal in Graysville though. Dette was right, and now it was hard to ignore. Ruth didn’t want to think much about it; even if her world had always been less stable than most, it was a somewhat light and happy one. The long shadows this very real possibility cast into it disturbed her.
She (gently) shoved the bag of muddy buddies back into Sterling’s hands—the action caught him off-guard and she felt him flinch just slightly—before taking a couple of long steps towards her bike. “Everyone's got wheels, yeah? Or are we walking?"
It was apparent that Bernadette wasn’t okay but didn’t want to be pushed. What other choice did Archie have except to move on when she was already walking away? His lips pursed together, and he glanced around—at Sterling first and then at Ruth when she spoke up. She perked up quickly and took up Bernadette’s earlier offer to just move on. So, he chose to read that: Archie smiled awkwardly in turn and nodded.
“Right on, to the library then,” he chuckled diffidently, embarrassed about unintentionally trying to drag on an argument. It dimmed his desire to even continue with their meeting, but the world didn’t revolve around Bernadette. Sterling, Ruth, and Archie were trying to have fun, but besides that, they were taking the situation very seriously! Bernadette didn’t seem to think so, though, which was irritating.
Right outside of the woods, Archie shuffled over to his abandoned bike and plucked it up from the ground. “You won’t find me without, err…” Archie trailed off as he relaxed onto the seat of his bike and stared down at it. The gears in his brain were churning, but for what reason? “Richard!” He needed a name for his bike, evidently. Archie patted the handlebars and nodded, confident in his choice.
Meanwhile, it seemed as if Dette had also ridden her bike to their spot. She tussled with her long olive skirt until she was confident it wouldn’t get caught in the wheels as they rode. Then, she flipped up her kickstand with the top of her foot and waited until everyone else was ready to go. Archie had no idea how she managed to ride a bike in that kind of outfit—it was impressive, really.
Archie zoomed away towards the library as if it were a race. Then, realizing he was alone at the front, glided until he looked back to see his friends were closer. Dette wasn’t about to race with him, and he had the insight not to leave her behind. It’d be rude, and although they’d sparred a little, it didn’t change anything: they were still friends! Archie couldn’t afford to force someone out of S.H.I.T., nor did he have the desire to.
Eventually, the squad made it to the library. There was a patch of grass in front of the library that Archie always left his bike on. After he’d placed it there, he stood on the sidewalk and waited for the others to situate themselves. Bernadette carried a lock with her and used it accordingly. It was understandable since more people were in and out of the library as opposed to their sequestered meeting area off by the woods.
Strolling up to the entrance, Archie threw the door open and held it for each of the members, slipping inside after the last. Then, he strode up to Ruth and slung an arm around her before turning his head to Sterling. “Alright, Clever Little Man, also known as Albert “Sterling” Einstein the Second, where do you reckon we’ll find what we’re looking for?” Archie asked as they passed the front desk, where one of the librarians told him, by name, to keep his voice down. He was a common noisy culprit who frequented a couple particular sections.
Anyone who spoke to him for more than five minutes could guess which ones.
“I’m sort of excited for this archive search,” Archie said before pulling away from Ruth’s side and instead opting to hook his hands over Sterling’s shoulders. “We should look into previous mysterious disappearances. Maybe there are some similarities.” Archie had to remind himself not to shout the last bit of his words. If they hadn’t been inside a library, he definitely would have.
Ever the mediator, ever the diplomat, the cat suddenly had Sterling’s tongue and he felt like he was about to choke on it.
It wasn’t often where he could genuinely see both sides in a conflict, but perhaps that was largely due to the fact that most arguments he was advising were between his younger sisters. This wasn’t a tussle over the terms and conditions of a borrowed princess dress; Archie’s enthusiasm for the mystery and the occult was reasonable enough, but it lacked any kind of nuance, like Bernadette had pointed out. The only thing that got the uncomfortable taste out of Sterling’s mouth was the idea that they could maybe, just maybe, help the situation.
His first instinct was to physically reassure Bernadette once her discussion with Archie had ended; his hands twitched at his side before Sterling ultimately decided against it, figuring that he didn’t know her well enough to cross that boundary just yet. He settled by offering her a kind, understanding tight-lipped smile before following Ruth’s lead to their bikes. He made a mental note to check in on her later if they found themselves in the same part of the library—it was only the courteous thing to do after seeing how disturbed she was, and it wasn’t like he couldn’t relate at all to what she was feeling.
“They’re more than just dusty and old newspapers,” Sterling murmured under his breath as he got situated on his bike. Ruth was a strange one. He wasn’t at all surprised that she found Archie right away, given their extensive list of obvious and subtle similarities—though part of him filled with a strange kind of longing when he watched the two of them interact. He and Archie used to be closer, like that. Growing apart was only natural, right?
He tried not to think about it on the short bike ride there. He hung back with the other two at a modest pace so not to over exert himself, fixing his zoned out, faraway gaze on the passing landscape of storefronts and bright cars and small crowds of people running their daily errands. The weight of eyes on his shoulders and his friends’ shoulders suddenly felt more palpable than ever; Graysville residents were thinking twice now, going to the absolute darkest places for possible answers. Being so aware of how visible and easy a target he was, how no matter what he did or how long he’d been a part of this community, made him feel scared. Naked in front of a crowd.
Relief flooded over him when they finally entered the library, and his worries melted away when he took a deep inhale. Soft dust and old paper and sunshine trickling through windows in desperate need of cleaning—everything a proper library should smell and feel like. This particular library felt like home in a lot of ways too, since this was one of his favorite hideaways to read and do homework and take a breath in peace.
Sterling cracked a sheepish grin at Archie’s strangely endearing compliment, feeling a subtle pride lift his posture somewhat. “Our best bet is in the newspaper stacks,” he answered brightly, enthusiastically. “They’re sorted by month and year, but if we’re lucky, the ones with big-news headlines might be stored separately, or laminated, or something.”
He glanced over Archie’s tall frame to catch Ruth and Bernadette’s eyes. “Pretty sure they’re in the back of the library,” he told them, starting to lead the way. “Let’s think of some big dates—does anyone remember when those hikers went missing on the mountain trails by the lake? I think that happened when we were all really little, but what year would that be? Could be a good place to start, maybe.”
Archie’s hands squeezed him tightly and it made Sterling think of a very necessary follow-up. “Oh. And we have to make sure we’re keeping it down, kind of,” he added, now hushing his tone just a touch. “This is kind of all we have, and if we get kicked out by the librarian, I can’t come back here. And that’d be a problem.”
“Atta boy!” Dette watched Archie’s hand lift from Sterling’s shoulder, only to clamp back down with a pat. “What would we do without the brains of the operation?” As the self-proclaimed leader, Archie was the basis of group morale. Although, recent events had Bernadette questioning that. The group had bounced back easily enough, and already they were back on track. It left Dette wondering where she stood in S.H.I.T.’s societal ladder. Continuously she challenged the benefits of having her around or what perks came along with her. She’d nearly ruined their meeting that day, and it still bugged her. Why would anyone want to be her friend?
Bernadette’s eyes met with Sterling’s as he mentioned the whereabouts of the newspapers. Quickly, she looked away with a shrug. “That makes sense…” Agreeance shifted into a hum as she tried to recall the dates of the hikers’ disappearance. It’d probably be left up to Archie, Sterling, and her since Ruth didn’t grow up there. Briefly, Bernadette glanced over to Ruth, thinking hard. Then, her gaze settled on the nape of Archie’s neck. She didn’t have to worry about noise from herself. The one they had to keep in check was him.
“1980? I think I had just turned 8,” Dette offered.
Archie clapped his hands together, straying away from Sterling. “That sounds about right. Cannibal Holocaust came out that year.” Stifled, bright chuckles filled the air, and it annoyed Dette to the core. Archie wasn’t even that bad, but after what had happened earlier, everything he did seemed to get on her nerves.
“That’s how you remember 1980?” Her brows furrowed together, and she crossed her arms over her chest.
“And my grandpa bought a camera that summer, thank you very much. Remember, Sterling? I stole it and took pictures with you.”
Bernadette knew why she was jealous. Growing up, she didn’t have best friends like that to hang out with. She had memories of her and her brother, but that was about it in terms of good ones. Desperately she wanted to be carefree. For the first time in her life, she had Ruth, but she also had to share with Archie. It kind of sucked. “Anyway, so we search the 1980 archives and narrow it down from there? That’s still a lot. Maybe we should just look at summer first?”
Dette pranced ahead, swerving around Archie and Sterling to get a head start in looking. The corner was filled with dusty, rectangular cardboard boxes with dates messily scrawled over them. The last time anyone had dug into the collection was beyond Bernadette, but now was their time to give them something. Thankfully, May 1980 was an easy reach for her, so Dette selected that as her starter. Archie offered his help after watching her struggled to carry it over to one of the tables, but she politely declined.
After dusting the top’s collection of dust and dirt, Bernadette lifted the lid revealing news from nearly a decade ago. This was much easier to distract herself with on her own than just standing around and talking. The first newspaper she procured was one from May 1st. After a quick flip through, she determined that was not the day the hikers went missing.
Although she was tempted to skip different issues, Bernadette knew she’d have to go back if they didn’t find anything and decided to be more thorough. The store was pretty big, so she expected it to have a decent headline, but it wasn’t as if she was an avid reader of The Graysville Gazette. Relief to have some duties on her own turned into breaths of boredom. Keeping her hands busy was always a perk but sifting through musty newspapers wasn’t her prime idea of fun.
She got through half of May before she discovered something peculiar. Lifting up the paper, Bernadette found herself staring right through a hole carefully carved out. “Interesting...” It didn’t mean anything. Someone could have cut an article out just to save. Even so, Dette set it aside just in case. It was pretty much the first exciting thing she’d found.