This is the prologue of my novel, Foreign. Each Friday I’ll publish another chapter of the book.
Six weeks before the event.
“You see, attraction very rarely will only pertain to what a person looks like, or even what their personality is like. There are myriad factors that influence your attraction to somebody. Simply your presence can be enough to attract someone else. This effect has been tested and the subconscious feelings you have can be predicted very easily in a controlled environment.” Dr. Delbert explained.
Meanwhile, my heart was beginning to beat just a bit faster. Social Psychology was just minutes from ending and I knew what I had to do. I had been waiting to do it for quite some time now. Today was the day. Justin and I had planned it out. All I had to do was ask.
Dr. Delbert continued, “Students in an experiment were asked to rate their levels of attraction to various photos of people. Sure enough, the students rated higher levels of attraction for those students who had come to class more often. It’s as simple as that. Just the mere repeated presence of somebody made them more attracted to another.”
“The exposure effect isn’t the only phenomenon about attraction we have tested. From as early as 1974, psychologists have also tested the excitation transfer hypothesis. In essence, any time our physiology changes, we can attribute those feelings of arousal with feelings of attraction. For example, Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron conducted a field study in British Columbia, above the Capilano River. They had men walk across a small, rickety bridge a few hundred feet above the water. At the end of the bridge, they met a woman. Similarly, they had other men walk across a much lower, more sturdy, and wide bridge before meeting the same woman. This woman told each participant that she was a research assistant in the study and gave them her phone number. Which group of men was more likely to call her?”
A few people mumbled some answers.
The professor continued, “That’s right! The men who crossed the river on the high bridge were more attracted to the research assistant. Their hearts were already racing, and they already felt many of the same physiological responses they would during attraction. So if you want somebody to be attracted to you, take them on an exciting date. Just make sure it’s so exciting that somebody gets hurt!”
With a few chuckles, the class was dismissed.
“Ok, see you on Monday. We’ll be going over chapter 9, Conformity. So read up. Have a good weekend!”
We all started to funnel out the main exit down in the front of the lecture hall. This was going to be tough. She had been sitting in the second row while I was in the back. Slipping through the streams of students like an Alaskan salmon, I had to reach her before she left the building. I quickened my pace.
Out the main door, I glanced down the hall to the right: no sign of her. To the left: no sign either – no wait, way down at the end of the hall.
Dang, she’s fast!
Almost at a jog, I continued to pursue her. Little beads of sweat forming on the top of my forehead.
Oh no, not now! Why do they always crank the heat in here?
Only about ten feet between us. I would have called her name, but there were too many people around. I didn’t want to make a scene. I needed to get closer to make a move.
As she strolled through the exit of Huestis Hall my hand caught the door just as it was closing. Filled with a number of butterflies I never knew I had, I opened to the door to my destiny.
“Hey Tamara,” I said.
She stopped, turned around, her light brown hair blowing slightly in the cool afternoon breeze.
This was it. Now or never. I had gone past the point of no return. I had to go for it now.
“You can call me Tammy, Mark. Nobody uses my full name.”
Crap! Strike one. It’s ok. I can recover.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t know.”
“That’s ok… So…uh… what’s up?”
This is so awkward. I just gotta jump in and go for it. No getting around it.
“Yeah, so I was wondering…”
“Yeah?” she encouraged.
I’m losing her. Crap! Why do I always do this? Just ask her, you fool!
“Ok, so my friend, Justin, and I were gonna hang out tonight. See, he’s a really good photographer, and we were gonna go hike up Buck Mountain and watch the sunset tonight. He’s gonna try to get some great pictures of the valley with the mountains silhouetted in front of the sunset. Heidi Alvarez is gonna come with us, too, if you know her.”
“Uh, no, I don’t think I’ve met her before.”
“Oh, well, neither have I actually. But, Justin says she’s cool. Well, anyway, would you wanna come with us? We could leave at about 5. Get some dinner on the way and come back later tonight.”
“Mark, I’d really like to go, but some of my friends and I are going to that party on 15th and Alder at Daren and Spud’s place. Apparently a lot of people are planning on going tonight.”
Damn it! Strike Three! I’m screwed!
“Oh, ok. Well, have a fun time, I guess.”
“Come with us, Mark! It will be great. A lot of cool people’ll be there.”
“Nah. No thanks. I’m not a huge fan of big parties like that. Actually, I gotta get going. It was good talking to you, Tammy. Have a fun night!”
“Thanks. You too… Well, see ya.”
Even though it was totally out of my way, I walked in the opposite direction from her. I needed to get some distance. If she were headed home, it would be a long walk, because so was I. We live in the same apartment complex. While walking, I grabbed my phone and commanded it to “call Justin mobile.”
“Dude, Heidi said yes! It was great. She seemed totally excited about our idea for the evening. Everything is going according to plan so far. I’m just on my way to my 3 o’clock class. Then I’ll be done for the day. I can come home, get you, we’ll pick up Heidi, then Tamara, and we’ll be all set – oh yeah, you were supposed to ask her, right? How did it go? Did she seem as excited as Heidi?”
“Yeah, about that. She said no.”
“What?!? Are you serious? Why? What was her excuse?”
“She said she and some of her friends are going to that party at Daren’s.”
“Are you serious? That’s so lame! I mean, come on. How unoriginal? Who would go to some lame-ass party with a bunch of drunken idiots instead of climbing a mountain? Dude, if she’s that dumb, then screw her.”
“Yeah, I guess. She asked me if I wanted to go with her, but I said no. I didn’t feel like going to a party tonight.”
“Dude, are you messed in the head? If she wanted you to go to the party with her, she was at least slightly into you. You should have gone!”
“You just told me that parties are lame and unoriginal.”
“Yeah, but when a hot girl asks you to come to one with her, that’s a totally different story. You should go with her.”
“Nah. I don’t wanna go out of my way and seem too desperate. I think I’m just gonna go home and play video games tonight, or maybe see what Eric and Jason are doing.”
“The two of them and Neil are all going up to that show in Portland tonight. If you stay at home, you’ll be on your own, man.”
“I guess that’s how it’ll be then. Ok, well, I’ll see you when you come home from your class in an hour or so.”
“I still think you should go with Tamara to the party.”
I hung up.
Well this bites!
The walk home took longer than usual because I didn’t want to encounter Tamara. So after about 25 minutes I finally saw my apartment complex at the end of the block and was relieved to know that I made it home without running into Tamara again. Once inside, I sat myself on the couch and decided to take a nap.
I woke up at the sound of Justin slamming the door behind him as he came inside.
“Hey man, what’s the scoop?” he asked.
“Wha? Oh, uh, I dunno… What time is it?”
I sat up, rubbing my tired eyes just as Justin sat down in the chair next to me.
“Dude, you been crying?”
“No! Of course not! I was asleep until you slammed the door as you came in. If my eyes look red it’s cause I just woke up and I was rubbing them.”
“Uh huh. Sure. Well, I just came home to pack for tonight really fast. Then I gotta bounce and go pick up Heidi. You sure you don’t wanna come with us?”
“I’d be a third wheel if I went now.”
“Naw, you’d be a wingman. Come on. It’ll be a good time. You know all you’re gonna do is just play video games all night like a loser if you stay here.”
“So then come with us. You can play video games whenever.”
“Can we stop at a 7-11 on the way so I can at least get like a hot dog for dinner?”
“Course. Ok, I’ll be back in three minutes and then we gotta go.”
“Should I bring anything?”
“Nothing I can think of. I got it all under control. Just relax.”
Three minutes passed by and we were out the door. We were walking down our porch and I looked across the yard to the adjacent apartment building. Tamara’s light was on. She was probably getting ready for that stupid party. Oh well. The night wasn’t all a loss. At least I was going to get a Big Gulp and hot dog on the way. Could be worse.
About ten minutes later we had crossed the river and we were waiting outside of Heidi’s apartment. I had obligatorily moved to the back seat of the Subaru like a good wingman. I heard the door open and a gorgeous girl with long wavy brown hair walked toward the car. She was as close to a 10 as I’d seen in a while.
How does he do it? He always gets these hotties and then he dates them for like a week. And I can’t even get one girl to go out with me!
She opened the front door of the car (Justin wasn’t the type of gentleman to open it for her) and the car suddenly began to smell like a Bath and Body Works store. She introduced herself to me and I nervously said “Hey” in reply.
“I thought you’d said we were going to be alone tonight, Justin!”
“I did, but we had a change of plans. I’m sorry. It will still be great. Don’t worry about it. Mark goes shooting with me all the time.
Heidi didn’t look convinced.
A few minutes later, pulling into the 7-11 parking lot, and Heidi looked even less convinced that it would be an epic night. “It will be just a second. Mark needs some dinner,” Justin explained.
Man I feel lame right now.
I hopped out of the car, picked out my go-to dinner: Cheetos, a Big Gulp, some gummy worms, and a hot dog that had been sitting on one of those greased rollers for longer than anybody cared to know.
Heidi’s fresh, fruity smell in the car was quickly overpowered by a strong smell of grease as I brought my dinner back into the car with me. Heidi made no effort to hide her disgust, but Justin wasn’t discouraged.
“Alright, you guys ready for an epic night, tonight?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. Gotta be a good wingman. Heidi shrugged.
“Good. We’ve got a little over an hour until sunset. We’ll have just enough time to get to the mountain, and get set up for when the sun sets.”
The 45-minute drive actually went better than I thought it would. Justin is a master at getting girls to warm up to him. By the time we were driving up Mt Tom Road, Heidi had told us all about her days in high school as a cheerleader in El Camino High School, why she came all the way up to Eugene for school. I couldn’t help but notice that she had been holding Justin’s hand while he drove for the last twenty minutes. Man! He’s got her wrapped around his finger!
We pulled off the side of the road, next to a slope. To our right, up the mountain higher, there was a radio tower and some kind of shack. Trees surrounded us, so we were probably going to have to walk up the side of the mountain to get to where Justin would have a better view for his shot.
Golden beams of light danced between the trees as the low sun tried to peak through between them. It was already gorgeous. Justin’s definitely gonna score tonight.
“Hey, can you help me carry my stuff?” Justin asked me as got out.
“Sure.” The wingman’s got your six, bro.
Like a pack mule, I carried Justin’s tripod and camera bag. Justin put on his backpack, and used his free hand to hold Heidi’s as we began to walk. You’re welcome.
“Ok, everybody ready to do some climbing? We’ve gotta get above these trees to a clearing, up by those antennas.” Justin pointed up toward a clearing on the hill above them.
“How long do you think it will take?” Heidi asked, frowning as she looked at the climb in front of her.
Justin reassured her, “It won’t take long. And if it gets too hard, I’ll be here to help.”
Heidi followed Justin as he began climbing up the hill. Stumbling a bit on some of the rocks, she tried to act like nothing happened.
“I’ll be here to help?” That’s the corniest thing ever! But man, she must really be into him. She’s willing to act interested in climbing a mountain for him. Damn. Why can’t I get girls to do that for me?
There wasn’t much of a trail, so Justin walked along the hill, gradually climbing up it, causing miniature avalanches under his feet as he strafed the mountain. This just made it that much harder for us, because the dirt was already loose by the time we got to it. Fortunately, the climb wasn’t very long, and not all that steep.
Heidi obviously hadn’t dressed appropriately for the evening. “Ew! I’m getting dirt in my shoes, and the ground’s slippery. Justin, can you give me a hand?”
He stopped and turned around. “Sure. What do you need?”
In a less annoying voice, she asked, “Maybe you could carry me up this part? I don’t want to ruin my shoes.”
Justin looked at the remaining portion of the hill, tried to conceal a sigh, but then turned back toward Heidi, “Sure. Why don’t you come here, and I’ll grab you.” He took off his backpack, and handed it over to me, as if I weren’t already carrying enough of his crap. She gave a coy smile, walked toward him and jumped on his back.
Ok, even though she’s super hot, it’s official, Heidi’s super annoying. World of Warcraft would have been better than this.
At the top of the mountain, we still couldn’t get a good view of the Willamette Valley to our west because of all the trees on the slope we had just climbed. Justin told us there would be a clearing to the south. Now hand in hand, they walked in front of me as we came close to the radio tower. By the grace of God, the flirt-fest between him and Heidi appeared to be subsiding for the moment.
Justin stopped. Looking up at the tower he blurted, “Oh my God! I’ve got an epic idea!”
Epic isn’t always a good thing…
“I can’t believe I’ve never thought of this before,” he continued.
“What?” Heidi asked.
“Why walk all the way down to the meadow for a good shot of the valley, when we can climb higher? Look! There’s a ladder on the antenna. It looks like it goes all the way up to that platform up there,” he explained.
“Are you serious, man? I mean, I know you’re trying to impress Heidi, and all, but look at that thing! It’s like a hundred feet high. Besides, would your tripod even fit up there, especially with the three of us?”
Glaring at me with a you’re-supposed-to-be-my-wingman look, he said, “We’ll just have to get cosy, then.” He ran over to the chain-link fence. “I knew it! No barbed wire! Alright, give me a sec.” And he scaled the fence.
“Now what?” This is idiotic.
“Just hand me your stuff over the fence and I’ll grab it,” he answered.
“I’m not climbing over that thing,” Heidi stated. “I’m wearing a skirt. I don’t want you guys looking up my skirt… well, maybe you could, Justin. Still. It’s not happening.”
Am I even here any more? This girl is ridiculous.
“Baby, you’ll be ok. Mark can help you over on your side, he won’t look anywhere he shouldn’t. I promise. And then I’ll be here to catch you. It’s going to be worth it when we get to the top. I promise.” He reached his hand to the fence and she held onto it.
“Ok. Since you say I’ll be alright. But if my skirt gets ripped, I’ll be pissed. It’s from Banana Republic.”
“By the way, man, did you tell her what we were doing tonight? She could have dressed differently if she had known.”
Justin replied, “I know. I screwed up. I’m sorry, hon. I should have told you.”
Hon? Man, that climb up the hill must have been an eventful one.
After a few minutes of struggling to get all the baggage over the fence, and then all of Justin’s crap he had me carry (see what I did there?), I hopped over. Each of us carried some of Justin’s stuff over our shoulders and we started up the ladder on the radio antenna.
With Justin leading, Heidi in the middle, and me at the end, I had a sudden realization about twenty feet up. (No, it wasn’t that I could look up Heidi’s skirt if I wanted to…) In fact, it was lot more grim than that: one wrong move from any of us, and we’d be dead.
I decided not to say anything. Justin wouldn’t want to turn back at this point, and it would only make Heidi more nervous. I just prayed we didn’t make any wrong moves.
Focusing on the next rung in front of me, I finally reached the platform on the antenna. My toes tingled with adrenaline as I stood up on the platform. This was harder than I had imagined, as the tower swayed lightly in the wind.
As frustrated as I had been, this view was worth it. At over 3000 feet up, we could see past the city of Eugene, the low sun reflecting on the Fern Ridge Reservoir, even beyond the foothills past it, and maybe even the ocean.
“Dang, dude! You can even see the sunlight on the ocean! That must be fifty miles away. This is unbelievable. I never thought we’d be able to see past the reservoir, let alone the whole valley.” I was stunned.
Ninety minutes and two hundred pictures later, Heidi was wearing Justin’s jacket, and the sun had set a good half-hour earlier. The only light now was the soft amber sky fading into deep purple, the simmering lights of Eugene in the valley, and an annoying light down by the door of the shack at the foot of the radio tower. I could have stayed up there all night, but I think Justin had other plans for how the evening would unfold.
“Well, I’d call that a success,” Justin pronounced. I asked him, “You think after some Photoshopping you’ll be able to use those shots for some prints to sell?”
“Shit man, I’ll hardly need Photoshop, the light was so perfect tonight.” He responded. “Let’s head back to the car and find some way to celebrate.”
“I’ve got a few ideas,” said Heidi.
“I can’t wait to find out what they are, “Justin replied.
All three of us on the original side of the fence, Banana Republic skirt in one piece, none of us had fallen from the ladder and it was hardly 8pm. The night might still be salvageable. We might even be back in time for me to do a raid in Molten Core. I’ll have to see if the other guys have logged on tonight.
Just as we got settled with all of Justin’s gear, a large man burst through the door of the shack near us. I couldn’t see more than his form because of the bright light right next to him.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“Huh?” Justin asked.
“I said, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Are you stupid and blind? Jesus!”
“What the hell are you talking about, asshole?” Justin retorted.
The man stepped out from the door, allowing the light to illuminate him… and the shotgun in his hand. “You climb over my fence, right past the no trespassing sign, then climb up my radio tower, do God knows what up there, come back down here, climb over my fence again, and call me an asshole?”
“Yeah man. Why do you have a gun?” Justin wasn’t backing down.
“Because you’re gonna give me the memory card in your camera before you leave, or I’m gonna have to put you down.” He pumped the shotgun.
“Sorry man. I can’t let you have it.” He said, taking a step toward the man.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “He’s got a friggin shotgun!”
“Yeah, and I have my intellectual property. It’s not like he’s gonna let us go back up there again for another shot.”
“Damn right,” the man said. “Now give me that card.”
Almost with a bit of regret in his voice, Justin said, “I can’t let that happen.”
And then everything got crazy. In one motion, Justin reached for the man’s gun with his left hand, deflecting it up toward the sky. Instinctively, the man shot into the air. As I saw Justin going for the gun, I tackled Heidi, getting her to the ground (I’m getting more action with her than Justin is!) to get her out of the way of any gunfire. While I did this maneuver, Justin pulled his hand out of his right pants pocket, revealing a pocket knife. The kick of the man’s gun threw his arms up and back, revealing his belly. Justin thrust the blade into the man’s left side. The man dropped his gun from the shock of the knife, but managed to bring his weight forward, toward Justin. Sort of falling on Justin, the larger man brought him to the ground. The force of the impact knocked the wind out of Justin while the the man regained his senses. He allowed his bodyweight to slam right into Justin’s chest. Justin dropped the knife as the man struck him.
I left Heidi lying on the ground a few yards away, and scrambled for the gun. It was our only chance. I could hear the man trying to strangle Justin, using his weight to bear down with both of his hands on Justin’s neck. This meant the gun was totally free. I grabbed it off the ground right by the doorway, some of the man’s blood pooling next to it. I retreated back from the doorway and also from the guys as they struggled. The shotgun looked like a standard pump action twelve gauge. Pulling the pump back, the empty shell flung out from the side as a new shell was loaded into the chamber.
Looking down the site of the gun, I knew I was stuck. There was no way to get a good shot. With the spread of the shell, I’d hit both the guy and Justin unless I were aiming straight down. And even then, I wasn’t sure if it would blow through the guy and into Justin at that close of a range.
“Shoot him! Shoot him you idiot! What are you waiting for?” Heidi screamed from my right. Doesn’t she see?
Justin’s voice gurgled and his left arm and legs flailed, trying to get out of the grip of the large man. Paralyzed in my indecision, all I could do was watch as my friend was slowly being strangled to death. If only I could find his knife!
My sites still focused on the man, Heidi invaded my field of vision as he landed on top of the guy, stabbing him with Justin’s knife. The man cried out, and let go of Justin’s neck. Then his cry changed.
A blinding light flashed all around us, burning into our vision. As the flash faded, it retracted into a pin-point light right above the man’s head, who’s cry from when he got stabbed sounded like it was a digital recording paused, stretched out. Heidi clambered away from the body she had just stabbed in utter terror. I continued staring, motionless.
The sound of the man’s cry sounded like it was being torn from his body toward the bright light. And then the sound was gone. Not long after, I swear it, the guy looked like he got sucked right into the light. Then the light vanished.
And he was gone. It was just the three of us. Justin wheezing on the ground, covered in blood, Heidi on the ground, kneeling a few feet back, clutching the bloody pocket knife, and me on the opposite side, standing with a shotgun aiming at no one.
Justin’s cough snapped us back to reality. “Dude, are you ok? Can you breathe? Can you talk?” I asked.
“Shut. Up. Gimme a min.” He managed, between some coughs.
Heidi crawled over to him, tears starting to run down her face. She grabbed him, and pulled him into her arms. As she held him, she dropped the knife out of her bloody hand. It hit the ground next to a small puddle of blood. As I scanned the ground from the doorstep to where they were, blood was everywhere. The image of a crime scene flashed in my mind.
“Guys! I hate to break up whatever kind of moment you’re having, but we gotta get out of here, and fast.” I said.
Justin broke off the embrace. “You’re right. What do we do with the gun and the knife?”
“We gotta take it with us. We can’t leave it here. I can get all your stuff, too. You think you can walk, or even run? We gotta get to the car,” I said.
“I think so. Just give me a sec to get up and get my breath back,” he said.
We threw our stuff in the back of Justin’s car, and I decided to drive. I think I was in the best shape of the three of us, which wasn’t saying much. I was pretty shaken up. I have no memory of the roads I drove to get us back to Eugene.
Driving down the mountain, through the forest, we tried to piece together what had just happened. Justin was sitting in the back with Heidi. They were holding each other close. She was shaking.
“So did you guys see the same thing I did?” I asked?
“I don’t know. I killed that man. I stabbed him and killed him,” Heidi said.
Justin corrected her, “We don’t know that. He wasn’t dead when that, that thing made him disappear.”
“So you guys saw that, too?” I asked.
“Yeah, man,” Justin answered. “How could we not? That flash so bright at first I thought I was dying or something. He had been strangling me for a while because you couldn’t shoot him.”
“Thank you! Finally, somebody acknowledges why I was standing there. I didn’t want to blow you away too!” I felt vindicated.
“Yeah, but you coulda done something other than stand there!” Heidi yelled at me.
“Fine. I get it. I screwed up. Let’s just try to figure out what happened.” I already felt bad enough.
Justin moved on. “So what do you think that was?”
“Man. I don’t know. I’ve never heard of anything making somebody disappear before. I wonder how big that flash was? Like could people in the valley see it? Or other people on the road?” That was the most I could offer.
“Good question. We’ll have to check the news and the internet tonight. And maybe ask around. Man. Scary as hell.”
“Seriously, though. But dude, we can’t ask anybody anything. I mean, first of all, look at us. We gotta lay low for a while, and I mean a while. I think Heidi should come with us to our place. Once we get inside, we can get cleaned up and figure out what to do from there.”
Justin agreed. “You okay with that?” he asked Heidi.
“Yeah. It makes sense. I can’t let anybody see me like this.”
“We’ll have to wait until nobody is around our apartment, and sneak in for the night. If we can do that, I think we’ll be ok. We can get cleaned up, you can borrow some of our clothes to get back to your place the next day. Justin, you’ll probably have to lay low in our apartment for a while until your neck heals. It’s probably gonna look terrible tomorrow.”
Justin said, “Yeah. And then we’ll have to figure something out for these clothes, the gun, and the knife. I guess a first start is doing what we can to clean it all.”
I continued, “Maybe we can burn the clothes somewhere? Will that get rid of DNA and stuff? And I think if we just clean your knife, we could probably just throw that away somewhere. I don’t know about the gun, though. It could be registered to that guy. So we have to make sure it doesn’t get found.”
“Yeah dude. I hear ya. But I’m whipped right now. I can’t think about much more. Can we work on this tomorrow?” Justin asked.
“I guess. We gotta figure it out ASAP, though. You guys can chill. I’ll do some more thinking while we drive to town.”
“Ok. I might sleep a bit before we get back.” Justin said.
Heidi asked, “Speaking of sleep, where will I sleep when we get to your place?”
“You can sleep anywhere, I guess,” I offered.
“Why don’t you sleep in my room with me?” Justin gave me a wink through the rear-view mirror.
Still a wingman, after all this.
For Chapter 1, click here.