The air outside fairly tinkled with the crisp, biting cold. The ground felt brittle and crunched beneath their shoes, transferring cold directly to their feet. Their breath billowed out like huge plumes of dragon's breath in front of them, the slap of the sudden frigidity taking their breath away. Dillon slapped his hands against his upper arms, his flashlight casting a beam of red light across the underside of the tree canopy over them.
JD shone his light around the front yard as they descended the wide steps at the end of the broad porch in front of the old Victorian, laced with its gingerbread decorations and beautifully coordinated colors. The lace curtains hung like specters in the frosted windows, draped like ancient cobwebs to each side of the black openings. The dead leaves and dried grass protested their movements, announcing loudly their approach as they moved down the walk toward the edge of the yard.
The quiet street was poorly lit at best, with a single, yellowing old streetlight languishing in its ornate light post a few houses down. Most of the other houses in the neighborhood were newer than this one. JD wondered if, at one time, this was all one property for the wealthy 19th century family that built the old Victorian. His red beam illuminated the hedges lining the sidewalk beyond, now barren of leaves, its dense tangle of limbs defiantly trying to shield their depths from view. To their right, a gargantuan, ancient old Maple and its companion, a massive and equally aged Oak, stretched their limbs out over the greater portion of the yard, their intertwining branches casting mysterious, sinister shadows over the yard.
A slight breeze rustled the debris on the ground, and from the corner of his eye JD saw Dillon jump in start. He stifled a giggle, and began to move toward the side yard to the right. The houses across the street and in adjacent lots were quiet, some lit warmly with amber glow emitting from curtained windows, or were dark and shut up, as though they didn't want to face their strange, old neighbor who would share her stories of yesteryear.
JD panned the beam around the yard slowly, casting its red circle over the shrubs, dried and sleeping, along the side of the house beneath the tall, narrow windows which bayed out into the yard. The baleful windows reflected the light back at him, with a creepy shifting of shadows and illumination of the interior of the house's maw.
"JD ... why is the light red, dude?"
"It helps your eyes stay adjusted to the dark," JD said softly, almost absently.
"What ... what the hell we lookin' for, dude?"
"I don't know yet."
"How can you not know?"
"What do you mean?"
"Dude, do you know what you're doin' or don'tcha?"
"What are you yammering about??"
"Everytime I ask what we're doin', what we're lookin' for, what you're tryin' to see, or any o' that crap, you gimme 'I dunno'. What the hell DO you know, JD? How the hell you gonna solve shit if you don' know whatcher doin'? Did you get ANY trainin' on this crap before you started doin' it?" Dillon narrowed his eyes suspiciously at JD as he finished his tirade.
JD sighed, shaking and lowering his head.
"Dillon, please listen," he said slowly. "I don't know what we saw in the house. It could --"
"Coulda been a GHOST, THAT's what it coulda been!"
"Keep your voice down, Dillon. It's late. I was GOING to say, it could have been anything. Neither of us were watching the screen directly -- YOUR fault, might I add -- when whatever happened occurred. I CAN'T know what to look for until we get some kind of clue as to what it is I'm looking FOR. Understand?"
"So you don' know shit, do ya?"
JD shut his eyes and shook his head with a pained expression.
"We know the screens flashed, and that's all."
"We're lookin' for ghosts, though."
"No, we're looking for explanations."
"But it could be a ghost."
"I don't think so."
"But you don' know that, right? For sure, I mean?"
JD set his jaw. "Not yet, no."
"So it COULD be a ghost. Right?"
"Okay, if it makes you feel better, then it could be a ghost."
"I thought you said you don' believe in ghosts."
"You just said it could be a ghost though."
"No, you were insisting it was."
"But didn't you just say that?"
"Do you WANT me to slap you?"
"I'm jus' sayin' is all, you just said it could be a ghost."
"Listen closely: It's not a ghost. I don't know what it is precisely, but it's not a --"
There was a rapid crunch on the ground, and they stopped to listen when a sudden jolt against both of them on the back and a tiny "Boo!" whispered in the cold dark.
Dillon screamed. He screamed loud and long, like a movie murder victim, and JD's heart stopped cold as he whirled quickly with the flashlight, trying to shine the beam on Dillon. Dillon had jumped so hard he fell backwards, crashing into the skeletal remains of a bush, the snapping branches and skittering gravel and dirt as his feet kicked and his arms flailed lost beneath his terrified wail.
JD snapped the light around and shone it directly on a face, laughing and eyes watering with the tears squeezed from them.
Dillon's cry of fear finally faded into echoes ringing down the quiet suburban street, and the sound of the uproarious laughter came through.
"Wendy!" JD snapped. "What the hell are you doing?? You nearly scared Dillon to ... uh-oh."
Lights began to snap on in the darkened houses around them. Curtains parted in those with lights still on, dark silhouettes pressing faces against panes and cupping their hands around them for better visibility.
Dillon was nearly weeping, whimpering in the clutches of the bush's claws, floundering to get up, his breathing shallow.
Wendy was still in hysterics. Her long auburn hair cascaded out from under her watch cap, and in the dark only her face was visible in the dimness above her black turtleneck sweater under a dark jacket. She tried to speak but couldn't form sentences.
"C'mon," JD whispered in mild panic, "we've got to get inside. Someone's going to call the police."
Dillon still couldn't speak while he slowly extracted himself, twigs and branches tugging viciously at his clothes. Wendy nearly fell over, weak in her laughter, as she followed behind JD toward the front door, unable to draw a breath.
They stumbled inside, and JD shut and barred the door behind them. Wendy's green eyes watered and she wiped them with her sleeve, leaning hard against a wall in the foyer while she began to collect herself.
"Oh my God, Wen," Dillon said, throwing his hands outward in disbelieving disgust. "Oh my frickin' GOD, Wen. I can't believe it. Why, Wen? Why you gotta hurt me? Why?"
Her laughter was just subsiding when she started again, and she collapsed against Dillon's chest, hugging him tightly.
"Naw," he said in playful faux anger, not returning her embrace, "naw. Don't EVEN. No way. You scared the shit outta me, Wen. I'm so not huggin' you. Naw."
She clutched him tighter, still laughing but a bit more in control.
"Aww, poor Dilly," she said, her voice captivating JD immediately and pulling his gaze away from the sidelight, where he'd been watching for police. Her voice always pulled him from whatever he was doing. Her touch, her voice, her very scent -- he could not resist her, could focus on nothing but her when she was near. It was slightly annoying to him. He was always very, very focused. He could be so intensely focused, in fact, that he could tune out everything else around him. It was how he got through school, how he did his work, how he said his prayers ... but he could never block out Wendy.
"I can't believe you did that. You're such a bitch, dude. You scared me so bad, I gotta go change my drawers."
Wendy was still hugging him close, her face turned toward his now, cheeks pink and flushed from her uncontrollable laughter.
"I'm sorry, Dilly," she said, stifling her laugh, "I would've sworn JD was going to hear me coming."
JD shook his head. "Dillon was yapping. I couldn't hear anything."
"Did I scare you too, baby?" Wendy said, tilting her head toward JD and winking, smiling broadly. She was so sexy when she did that. He hated it; it made him melt.
"Uh ... no. Don't be ridiculous. You didn't scare me, DILLON scared me."
Dillon laughed. "Scared YOU?? Dude, if it was up to you I'd still be out there gettin' killed or whatever. You just -- took off, left me there!"
"I didn't 'take off', I just saw you were all right. It was only a bush, Dillon."
"DUDE! If Wendy was, like, a vampire or a werewolf or somethin', you'd've so left me there ta die!"
"Well, it was only Wendy."
"Only Wendy?" she said, laughing in shock. "Well, it's always nice to see you too, Jaded!"
She called him "Jaded" whenever she felt he was being too intellectual, too distant, or too ... JD. It also irked him, and she knew it.
"What do you guys have so far?" she continued, still holding Dillon around the middle, laying her head against his chest. His arms went around her now, as he calmed down.
"A ghost!" he said excitedly. "A GHOST, Wen! There was this flash, and JD didn't know what it was, an' --"
"Oh, sweetie," Wendy said slowly, stroking his jaw gently. "No, no ghost."
Dillon was confused. "Huh?"
"It was me, love." She pulled her flashlight out of her jacket pocket and shined it at him playfully. "I flashed this at the window while you guys were arguing to make you come outside and get me."
"You did ... it was jus' ... aw, SHIT."
She giggled again.
"JD didn't know, though." She eyed him devilishly. "He only thinks he knows everything."
JD shook his head.
"You might've ruined a whole night's work, Wendy," he said quietly. "I am trying to conduct an investigation here."
"Dude, we ain't doin' NOTHIN'. We're sittin' around, watchin' boring ass nothin' happen. It's dull, dude. And now that we got Wen messin' with stuff, we ain't even got what we thought we had."
He looked confused for a moment, then looked up at JD. "Yeah. That."
"I told you it wasn't a ghost, Dillon. I never thought it was."
"You thought it was a CAR, dude."
"You were wrong."
"So were you."
"But dude, I don't think I know everything."
"I don't either."
"Sure you do. Just like that Bible thing."
"What Bible thing?"
"You know, where you was sayin' the Bible said somethin' it don' say."
"What are you -- oh, you mean about the spirit being absent from the body?"
"Yeah. You couldn't even remember that, man."
"You couldn't either!"
"That's 'cause it don' say that."
"That there ain't no ghosts, dude!"
"What are you guys talking about? Did I miss something?"
"Dillon, I can't remember the chapter and verse, but if you read the book of Thessalonians you'll see --"
"Not this again."
"You guys, what's going on??"
"Dude, it's not there, that's why you don' remember it."
"It's there, Dillon, it's there. It says that to be absent from the body is to be present with the --"
"No it don't."
"Yes, it does."
"No, it don't. It says that it's BETTER to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. Second Corinthians 5, verse 8."
JD stared at Dillon, who was sitting on the bottom step of the stairway, tying his shoe. Wendy was watching JD, who was staring agape at Dillon. She smiled.
"Your turn, JD. We're waiting."
"You knew it?" JD said stunned. "You knew it all along and you didn't correct me?"
"Dude, I told you it wasn't there. You didn't listen. You never listen. You jus' ... kept talkin'. That's what you do, man. That's why nobody calls you back, dude."
"JD? Your response?" Wendy said, giggling.
"Wendy, please," JD said irritably. "Why didn't you tell me you knew it, Dillon?"
"Dude, you told me. You already knew I knew. Er ... yeah. You knew ... I knew. Wait ... you knew, and I knew, so you knew that I knew ... yeah. You knew I knew."
"How did I know? How was I supposed to know you knew?"
"You asked what I studied, dumbass. I told you."
"You told me but you never indicated you ..."
"JD, you're a dick, man. If you paid attention to people like you pay attention to all the gizmos you got in the pub, you'd know."
"What pub?" Wendy said. "You have a pub?"
"I don't have a pub. What pub, Dillon?"
"You know, that little room over there with all your tweety crap in it."
"Oh, the parlor?"
"Whatever. The haunted room."
"It's not haunted, it was Wendy."
JD drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was trying to process everything he'd heard. Most of the time, he didn't give a lot of credence to Dillon on factual matters, but he'd just been humbled by his longtime friend. Wendy considered making a smart-ass remark, but refrained.
"SO ... how's the stake-out goin', boys?" she smiled, swinging her arms and rocking on the balls of her feet.
"It was fine until you disrupted it," JD said solemnly.
"YOU ... you're a bitch," Dillon said, waving his hand at her dismissively. "I ain't talkin' to you no more."
"Aw, I'm sorry, Dilly," she cooed, hugging his arm. "I was just having some fun with ya. Forgive me? Pleeeeeease?" She batted her eyes at him.
He shook his head and grinned. "I hate you. I so hate you. You scared the shit outta me."
More eye-batting. "Pwease? Pwetty pwease?"
JD ignored the banter as they laughed and cajoled. He focused his senses ... somewhere in the parlor, there was an audible beep.
One of the instruments said something was happening.
Ready to go on to Part 4?