Thunder. Then, fear in a cold wave. Bill saw thick, black smoke, squat fuel drums linked by flame, men in white running. He hefted the heavy fire hose. The heat on his face was suddenly unbearable.

"It’s gonna BLOW," he yelled, and it did. And then he was on fire. "Wendy. Oh, Wen–"

Headlights. Bright, coming right at Wendy, from her side of the road. Try to swerve. Can’t. Too close

"Bill," she screamed. But he was far away, engulfed in flame.
Jack Melton found himself suddenly awake, sitting on the edge of his bed, the covers thrown back, breathing rapidly, blinking at the lightning that flashed outside his bedroom window.
"Wendy," he said to no one, then, "Bill." Jack shuddered in the air conditioning. Both dead, all these years. And tonight it was as though he had been there with each of them, when it happened, that one day, fifteen years ago. He had thought of them often through the years, had dreams about them from time to time, but…not like this.
"Not a dream," he muttered. But it had to be. What else? Never mind he’d felt the fire in his lungs, saw the headlights in his eyes. It had to be a dream.
"Damned reunion." He closed the drapes to the storm outside, and returned to bed alone.
Fourteen hours later, Jack carefully knotted his tie, slipped on his suit jacket, and surveyed himself in the Holiday Inn mirror.
He was rather pleased with his appearance, he had to admit. If anything, he was slimmer than fifteen years ago and the dark pinstripe, white oxford pinpoint button-down and regimental tie made him look more so. The afternoons spent walking up and down the beach a few weeks earlier had tanned him to a pale brown, and bleached his dark brown hair so that it had sandy highlights
"Well, you look healthy, and I hope you are," he told the mirror, "and prosperous, even if you’re not." He picked
up the brown bag from the dresser and turned to the door.
There was a time when he’d looked forward to his fifteen-year class reunion. Bringing Susan. Showing her off.
But Susan turned out to be–or became–a tight-assed, sexually suppressed Junior Leaguer who didn’t like Statesville, didn’t like the hours his law practice required, but who thought his rise through the ranks to junior partnership was much too slow, his earnings much too meager for the lifestyle she wanted.
Not the person he thought he’d married five years ago. Not someone like Wendy.
The divorce earlier that year shouldn’t have been a shock, but it was. It hit him like a tornado hits a trailer park–with complete devastation. Oh, legally, it was small potatoes. He and Susan had no children, and dividing their property was easy enough. But almost before Jack knew what was happening, the house was sold, he was living alone in an apartment, and Susan was in Charlotte, where she worked for a public relations firm. And Jack was alone.
He had planned to skip the reunion, all things considered. But a week ago, Dave and Sheila, good old friends still living in Glen Arden, phoned him, insisting.
Well, he’d planned on using this weekend to write a brief; but here he was, after all. Dave and Sheila wanted him to stay with them, but he preferred the new hotel off the interstate. He wasn’t ready, yet, for a big dose of someone else’s happy marriage.
He drove to the Elks’ Lodge with the radio at full blast. Golden oldies. Elvis was singing "Heartbreak Hotel."
On the way, Jack noted the new restaurants, new office buildings, new subdivisions. Even Brainerd County was growing up. Glen Arden had never been more than a wide spot in the road. Now it had grown almost to the Martintown line. New development. New real estate deals. New lawsuits. Legal business. Maybe he should have come back here.
Jack shook his head. No. He would still have been Jack Melton, stuck with everyone’s high school notions of how Jack Melton should look, dress, and act. No good for him and no good for Susan. He smiled at the empty passenger’s seat. If Susan hated Statesville, she would have loathed Brainerd County.
Elks’ Lodge was just outside the Martintown city limits. It was a sprawling, one story brick building with a gravel parking lot at the rear, one of the two Brainerd County places where you could get a drink. The Country Club was the other; but Martintown Senior High School Class of ’70 was holding its 15th year reunion there. Little Glen Arden High had to make do with what it could get–and what it could afford. Same as always.
As Jack parked behind the Lodge Building, he saw a thundercloud building on the ridge to the west.
Jack frowned up at the sky. Not again. The Statesville nights had been filled with thunder and lightning all that July, and his sleep had been restless with nightmares. He shuddered, thinking of last night’s storm and last night’s dream
Someone had strung a banner across the front of the Lodge: G.A. CLASS OF ’70–LAST OF THE JOHNNY REBS. True enough; in the Fall of 1970, school consolidation had brought the opening of West Brainerd Comprehensive High School; and so Glen Arden High and Martintown Senior High, heated rivals on the gridiron, were memories.
Like my marriage, Jack thought. But I’ve pieces of paper to prove they once existed.
Inside, a folding table held nametags and booklets listing the members of the class, where they now lived, and other vital statistics like jobs, spouses’ names and hobbies. Behind it sat Laura Perkins and Trudy Smith (except their name tags said they were now "Watkins" and "Boatwright"), girls he remembered with more or less ambivalence.
"Jack Melton," Laura gushed as she found the tag with his name emblazoned in black amateur calligraphy, "You haven’t changed a bit."
"Uh, thanks." Jack thought he looked a great deal more mature and self-assured. Laura, though, had changed; she was now a blonde and was a great deal fatter.
"Where’s Susan?" She was asking.
"Susan?" The heat rose on his cheeks as though he’d been slapped.
"Laura, Sheila told us, remember?" Trudy chided, sounding genuinely embarrassed.
"Oh…Jack, Dave and Sheila are looking for you. Over at the bar."
Thanking them, Jack took the booklet and found the Banquet Room. Of course. The damned booklet. He’d signed up for this thing months ago. He stopped to look up his entry. There it was: "Spouse: Susan. Spouse’s age: 30. Spouse’s occupation: Journalist." (He hadn’t wanted to enter "unemployed.") Evidently no one had bothered to change it, or maybe the books were already printed. Jack swore softly. Now he’d have to explain Susan’s absence to just about everyone.
There was nothing fancy about the Martintown Elks Lodge. Its Banquet and Ball Room was big and damp, its cement floor covered with tile except for the parquet dance floor at the rear, its cement block walls painted a depressing green-grey. Ceiling fans stirred the air conditioning. Folding tables dotted the front of the room, each covered with Confederate gray paper table cloths and sprinkled with alternate place settings of "Rebel" blue and red paper napkins. A wet bar lined the wall to the right, three-quarters of the way to the back.
Dave and Sheila stood behind it. Dave was dumping ice from bags into something behind the bar, while Sheila set bottles of soft drinks and mixers on the bar.
Jack and Dave had been in Scouts together, and he’d been in class with Sheila through all twelve grades. He’d dated Sheila a few times before she and Dave had become an item during their senior year. They’d kept up, more or less, through the years.
Dave and Sheila Jones were a case history of Southern Middleclass Americana. Dave was a programmer for one of the furniture companies, and taught data processing at the community college on the side. Sheila was a part-time secretary at Southern Bell and a full-time mother. They had a ranch-style home, built on land deeded by Dave’s father. Two kids. Two cars. A boat. A bathroom with matching "His" and "Hers" towels. They’d even grown matching potbellies, if you allowed for their difference in height. His and hers.
Dave wiped his big hands on a towel and reached one across the bar to Jack, while Sheila came around for a hug.
"You’re looking sharp, boy," said Dave, himself dressed in khakis, sport shirt without tie, and a blue blazer.
"He sure is," agreed Sheila. Then, stepping back, she eyed Jack critically. "Jack, you’re too thin. And I swear you’ve got some grey in your hair."
"At least he has hair." Dave rubbed his head. It shone even in the dim track lighting over the bar.
Sheila’s round face, framed by her dark pageboy cut, was still soft and concerned. "Dave, we’re sorry about the booklet. There wasn’t time to change it."
"I understand."
She brightened. "Have you seen the dedication?"
"No." Jack opened the program book to its first page, and read:
"This is very good," he said. "Who wrote it?"
"The committee, together. Glad you like it… Jack, you’re pale. What’s wrong?"
"Nothing. I need a drink."
Jack mixed a gin and tonic, and stood with Dave and Sheila, listening to them tell about their kids, and stopping from time to time to greet someone’s face, sometimes recognized and sometimes not, while part of him returned again and again to memories of Bill and Wendy.
Bill Barnes was Jack’s best friend, even counting Dave; and Wendy Morgan, Bill’s girlfriend, was the sweetest, prettiest girl in school. They were a real storybook match: Bill’s family lived in a tiny house on Lake Logan; his father worked at the tannery. Wendy’s family lived on the lake, too, but in a huge new house built by her doctor father, with a dock and pool. But Bill’s limitless energy, which led him to good grades, after-school jobs, and practically building his own car out of junk, coupled with his dark good looks and complete optimism, charmed everyone, even Wendy’s dad–to a point.
Wendy was, as they said, "really tough-looking," meaning beautiful. Almost as tall as Bill, she had flashing green eyes, a glorious mop of almost-blond brown hair, a deeply curved body, and long, long legs. Jack thought her absolutely the most desirable creature in the world, as did every other teenaged male in Brainerd County, but she had eyes only for William S. Barnes, Jr.
Bill never did anything the easy way. His grades were good enough to get him into college, but not on a scholarship. So he decided, in the middle of Vietnam, to enlist in the Navy. "I get the G.I. Bill when I get out," he said. "Then I go to Engineering School." By Bill’s standards, no problem. Wendy would go to Agnes Scott as planned, she’d wait for him to finish his military obligation, and they’d get married. She’d teach, he’d go to college, and they’d live happily ever after.
But a month before their high school commencement, they rewrote the script. Wendy learned she was pregnant. In Brainerd County, even in 1970, this meant they "had to get married."
And Wendy and Bill wanted to get married. For Bill, it was no big deal; he was used to the hard way. Wendy would go to community college, and he’d send money from his Navy pay.
The script was being edited, but no major rewrite.
Wendy? Wendy was in love with Bill, in love with being in love, and in love with the idea of being a mother.
Wendy’s father had other ideas. He wanted Wendy to get an abortion, quit seeing Bill, and head for Agnes Scott. That was the rumor, and Bill later confirmed it.
But true love prevailed. The talk was that Wendy and her mother spent a tear-filled night with Dr. Morgan, closely followed by a visit to the Morgan home by old Fr. Creighton from St. Thomas Episcopal, who told the doctor abortion was murder. (That alone wouldn’t have persuaded Wendy’s father, but the fear the garrulous priest would tell the whole Vestry might have.)
In any event, Bill was married to a radiant (and barely showing) Wendy exactly one week after graduation in June, and Bill left for boot camp three weeks later. Happy ending after all.
Then, in November, at college, Jack heard the news. Bill had reported to Newport News, had been assigned to his first ship, and had died, along with three other seamen, in a jet fuel explosion. Freak accident. Around the world from ‘Nam. Nothing left of him.
How did Wendy take this? No one would ever know. A drunk driver had collided with her head-on, on Lake Logan Road, on the same day. At almost the same hour.
So no G.I. Bill. No engineering degree. No baby. No happy ending.
Jack, like most of his classmates, had attended the joint funerals. He’d thought about Bill and Wendy often through the years, about Bill’s good nature, about Wendy’s efforts to fix Jack up with girlfriends and cousins that never quite worked out…
"Hello, Jack Melton."
He almost recognized the voice, and he sure recognized the woman.
Her nametag said she was Libby Stillwell, but Jack remembered her as Libby Morgan, Wendy’s first cousin. She still looks a lot like Wendy, Jack thought as he stepped forward into the obligatory hug. Not quite as tall. Dark hair and coloring where Wendy was fair. Eyes brown, not green. But the same deep-bosomed body and tapering legs, the same aquiline nose and high cheekbones, the same generous mouth.
Jack remembered her as one of Wendy’s fix-ups that hadn’t worked. Libby was a sophomore who hadn’t dated much, a shy girl who remained shy when out with him. Later, she’d dated Guy Norris, the class president, and had gone steady with Bluto Blevins, a heavy, arrogant redneck who played linebacker on the football team. Jack couldn’t figure that
out, but 1969 and ’70 were before Smart Women, Foolish Choices, so he had to coin his own term. The Jerk Syndrome, he called it. Smart, pretty girls liked arrogant jerks.
"Hey," he said, stepping back to admire Libby in a black silk party dress that flared at the waist, showing a pleasing amount of cleavage above and leg below. "You’re two years early, aren’t you? Unless you got a retroactive promotion to the Class of ’70?"
"I’m here with Guy Norris," she said. And, noting Jack’s raised eyebrows, "Yeah, I’m divorced, too. Two years ago, but no bad scars, no complications. No kids." Her smile softened. "I’m sorry, Jack, to hear about you. Sheila told me."
"I’m all right."
"Boy, you tryin’ to steal my date?" Guy Norris draped a raw-silk-covered arm around Libby’s shoulders.
"If I could, I would," Jack said, truthfully. The Jerk Syndrome lives on, he thought; but he continued, "How are you, Guy?"
"Doin’ great. Still batchin’ it, for now. Say, I hear you’re back to single status yourself. Too bad. You know what they say, though: ‘Shit happens.’"
Jack sipped his G & T. The more things change, the more things stay the same. Guy Norris had never been one of his favorite people. Oh, Guy could be pleasant enough, if he wanted to be. Downright charming, in fact. That charm had taken him from class president and "Most Likely to Succeed" through college and graduate school to the presidency of a local savings & loan at age 34, all with relative ease. Just like high school. Grades. Girls. Honors. I guess Guy just can’t help but be smug.
"Yeah, Guy, it sure does."
Libby’s brows curved down, and then back up. "Sit with us, Jack?" she asked.
"I’d sort of promised Dave…"
"Oh, bring them over, too," Guy interrupted. "We’re at the table over there." He pointed. "C’mon, Lib, there’s Steve."
"See you later, Jack." Libby waved with her fingertips, then gave him a smiling backward glance over a plump, brown shoulder as they walked away.
Jack moved slowly back to the bar. His face was hot. Irritated at blushing like a teenager, he poured another drink. He felt…disturbed, somehow. Not just because Libby thrilled him. That was part of it, but there was something else. Something disquieting. She looked too much like Wendy. He remembered last night. The dream was still vivid. Strange.
He shook his head and found Dave at his elbow.
"Jack, are you sure you’re all right?"
Dinner was wilted salad, followed by overdone steak and potato. Jack sat at the end of the table, next to Dave and Sheila, and across from Guy and Libby, picking at his food, more interested in his conversation with the Joneses and, when the opportunity arose, with Libby, than in eating. Guy, across the table, wolfed the contents of his plate while keeping up a mouth-filled monologue about himself, his hobbies, and his frustrations with accountants, bank examiners, and overpriced lawyers–this last looking directly at Jack.
"What do you do, Libby?" Jack finally broke in, unable to decide whether she had been looking at him as much as he to his embarrassment, had been unable to quit looking at her.
Her wide mouth curved in a crooked smile. "I’m a CPA."
Her eyes rolled to an oblivious Guy.
That was when they first heard the thunder, low, rumbling, and distant.
"In for a storm, looks like," Dave observed. "Your windows up, Jack? Jack?"
The first rumble brought Jack’s hand, drink and all, to a halt midway between table and mouth. He sat staring over Guy’s head, his stomach cramping, his breath suddenly short. This, just for a moment, then he was all right again, his breathing normal. He made his hand behave as he sipped his drink.
"I was trying to think," he said finally. "Yeah, they’re up."
He stole a glance at Libby. Her brown eyes were intent on him under narrowed, plucked dark brows. Her right hand rested on the table, tightly clutching a wadded cocktail napkin.
The thunder resumed, louder now.
Norris pushed back his chair. "Hope this dies down. Don’t want it to spoil my speech." As class president, Guy had to make the welcoming address before the disco started. Someone dimmed the lights at the end of the room where the deejay was setting up. The thunder rolled again. Jack’s hands clenched in his lap, involuntarily.
"Well, better get this over with." Norris rose, turned back to Libby. "Save the first dance, honey."
She smiled up at him. "Sure."
Guy walked to the deejay’s microphone and called for attention.
"Fifteen years is a long time," he began. Then the lights flickered; a roar of static erupted from the mike, followed by a roll of thunder, then by laughter. Guy rolled his eyes at the ceiling.
"A long, long time." He launched into his speech. The rumbling outside continued
Jack paid little attention. When the lights flickered, something happened. A chill washed over him as though he’d stepped into a cold shower; he felt the goosebumps rise on his arm under the starched cotton shirt. He started to pull his jacket on, but an odd lethargy wouldn’t let him. He felt detached, as though what was going on around him was a dull TV show, and he was too tired to change the channel.
He stole a glance across the table at Libby. She was turned in her chair, appearing to watch Guy, but he saw her breasts rising and falling with rapid breathing, and her eyes were elevated as though she watched something over Guy’s head. Her lips were slightly parted.
Guy droned on, accompanied by blasts from the weather outside, and by the thumping of the rain on the roof. The top of Jack’s head began to tingle. He scratched it, but it didn’t stop. The tingling ended, as though a door in his head, long unused, had been worried open.
Then, with a pleasant rush, as of an old friend hurrying in out of the rain, something…someone was with him in his head. Someone alien, but familiar, friendly. Welcome.
Jack smiled dreamily. "Bill," he murmured.
There was more thunder. Then the fear came in a cold wave. Jack saw thick, black smoke, squat fuel drums linked by flame, men in white running. He felt heat on his face and a heavy tube…a fire hose…in his hand. There were more men in white behind him.
Then there was an abrupt flash, the lights went out, followed closely by the crash of a thunderclap, and the visions were all of him.
"It’s gonna blow." he yelled, hurling himself out of his chair onto his belly. He heard, close by but far away, a woman–Libby?–screaming. Then he was burning; he was on fire, beating his clothes, his hair; he was breathing fire. He was burning, burning.
The lights came back on.
He was on his back, his hands still feebly patting his chest and shoulders, weak with the memory of pain. He blinked up at a bald mustached man bending over him. Who was this? Then he knew.
"Dave, help me up," he said
Dave extended a hand, and he rose to look around. He was looking for Wendy.
And he was Bill Barnes. And he was Jack Melton. But Bill was in control.
To his right, a pretty woman with dark hair dressed in ringlets, wearing a black silk dress, stood sobbing softly, shaking her head and weakly pushing away a paunchy blond man in an open-neck shirt who sought to gather her in his arms.
He knew her. He walked to her deliberately.
"Wendy," he said. The ballroom was otherwise silent.
She raised her head, batted tears from brown eyes. (Brown, not green!) "B-Bill?"
A blond man stepped between them.
"Libby, just what in the hell is going on?" he demanded.
Bill/Jack flushed hot with sudden anger. Bill didn’t have much time. He stepped forward to take the woman’s arm.
"Norris," he said calmly, "I’m going to talk with my wife. One more word out of you–just one–and I’ll beat your ass worse’n I did that time behind Murphy’s store."
Norris’ red face went white around his thin lips. "What?" He drew back a fist, then found his arms enveloped by Dave Jones’ bear hug.
"Guy, I don’t know what’s going on, either," Dave hissed in his ear. "But you’re going to stay out of it. Hear?"
Bill (Jack?) took Wendy’s (Libby’s?) arm and tugged toward the door leading to the vestibule.
"This way," he said gently.
The reunion crowd, silent still, parted before them. They reached the vestibule and stood beside the table that still held stapled booklets. Outside the rain came in huge drops that splattered on the asphalt drive. Thunder rumbled low, farther away now. From the corner of his eye, Bill saw Guy Norris came to the door to be pulled back by Dave and two others. He heard the low murmur of hushed conversation from around the corner in the ballroom.
No matter. He was with Wendy. Wasn’t he?
He took her hands, looked long into strange-familiar dark eyes. "Wendy, it is you, isn’t it?"
It was Wendy’s smile, all right. "In the flesh," she said.
Then they were kissing, arms wrapped around each other tight, and it was like the night before leaving for boot camp.
"We haven’t been apart, really, have we?" he said when at last they drew back a little.
"No." Her eyes were downcast, modest now. "But it’s not the same." She moved into his embrace again.
"How long do we have?" he asked into her hair. "This night?"
She shook her head against him; her hair tickled his nose. "No, I don’t think so. Not even that. I think we have only this storm."
She pulled away, smiling now, and tugged his hand "Let’s make the most of it. Let’s go outside."
He laughed low, shaking his head. Wendy, always wanting to do something crazy.
"In that?"
"I want to feel the rain again. One last time. Come on."
The rain soaked them in seconds. But she was right. It felt good.
They ran quickly around the building to stand beside Jack’s car. Then they let the rain wash over them and held one another in sodden embrace. They kissed again, and they talked, and kissed again
"Bill," Wendy said at last, the rain lessening. "Our baby. She still needs to be born."
Wendy nodded against his shoulder. She raised her head.
"Bill, do you feel Jack with you?"
"Yes. It’s like he’s watching us. Libby?"
"Uh-huh. I don’t think they mind…I don’t think this is just for us."
Then they embraced again. Holding tight to one another against the wet metal of Jack’s Rabbit. Holding tight for one last time while the rain slowed and the thunder receded…
A cool breeze lifted Jack’s thick, sodden hair. A whip-poor-will sang in the woods behind the parking lot. Libby snuggled closer against him.
At the same moment, she knew, too, and stepped back out of his arms.
"They’re gone," was all she said.
Jack nodded. "Go inside?" He wanted to say more couldn’t.
"Yes, I think so." Her tone was crisp; but as they started back, she moved to his side, let him put his arm around her bare, wet shoulder.
Libby’s hair, soaked now, hung ringlet-free down her neck and bunched wetly at his sleeve. Her dress hung translucent down to the flaring skirt, leaving her breasts outlined boldly in the outdoor lights. Jack touched his own head with his free hand, feeling the rain-plastered hair. When his hand fell to his side, water dripped from his sleeve. He chuckled in spite of himself.
"Uh, I guess we’ve got some explaining to do…"
She stopped, turned to him. "Jack Melton, we’ve got nothing to explain. Not one thing. Besides," she was laughing now, eyes bright, "who would believe us?"
He smiled back. "I don’t know. They saw what they saw. Some will."
"Who cares? I’m proud it was us. Aren’t you?"
His arm was back around her shoulder. "Always."
Inside, the disco had started. But several of the crowd waited in the vestibule, talking. Dave and Sheila. Guy Norris. A few others.
They looked up wide-eyed as Jack and Libby, soaked, entered through the wide metal and glass doors. Their conversation stopped
"Hello," Jack said, smiling. No one asked what had happened
Norris shoved past Dave to confront Libby.
"I’m taking you home now," he said. "You’ve embarrassed the hell out of me."
Jack shook his head
"I’ll take her home, Guy." I hope. He turned his head to Libby, eyebrows raised. She smiled–Wendy’s smile still–and nodded.
They turned and walked back to Jack’s car in silence. The rain was all gone now. A nearly full moon made the wet gravel shine.
At the door to his car, Libby looked back at the lodge.
"You know," she said, "Guy really is a jerk."
Jack’s engine started immediately. He had forgotten to turn off the radio. The Monkees were singing "Daydream Believer."
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