Nobody was exactly sure when The Van showed up. My younger sister, Lucie, insisted that it showed up in the middle of the night, but she was also unaware of the existence of the days of the week. At age six, she believed that all miraculous things happened in the middle of the night. Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, The Easter Bunny, they all showed up in the middle of the night and performed their magic, unannounced, unseen, always diligent, always clean, and their magic was hers, too. Lucie had recently received a quarter in the tiny pocket of her tiny Tooth Pillow, so she knew that she was right. To her, the middle of the night was an endless world of possibility.
My Mother thought that The Van showed up on a Tuesday. She couldn’t recall exactly, but she made some “calculations” based on other weekly occurrences, like the visit from the garbage man and when Mr. Silas, the neighbor across the street, conducted his weekly car wash. She didn’t remember it being there on Sunday when Old Silas washed his ‘75 Buick Regal, and she would have remembered it, too, because she always watched him wash his car. He made such a production out of it, a tremendous white smile splashed across his crinkled brown face, the yellow towel over his bare shoulder, the oversized headphones, laughing to himself and talking to his “Beautiful Baby” and kissing each gleaming side mirror twice at the end. No, she definitely would have noticed it then.
However, she thought she recalled seeing The Van on Wednesday morning after the garbage truck clamored by and woke her up. She swore she heard the garbage truck hit something and she ran to the large window in the front room of the house to look (“It wouldn’t have been the first time ya’ know!”). Yes, she was pretty sure she noticed it then because she was looking for all the possible things the garbage truck could have hit. Good. Now that narrowed it down to a couple possible days, and so of course, in order to gain more insight and come up with an accurate answer, she conducted some calculations based on astrological hindsight. It was definitely on Tuesday. She was a Taurus, and she was always sure of these things.
My Father wasn’t so sure, either about my mother’s calculations or about when The Van showed up. He was rarely sure about my mother’s calculations on any subject, particularly those involving astrology. He wasn’t sure what all the signs meant, or what time frame each represented, or what it logically had to do with anything. Then again, he wasn’t sure about a whole lot of things in this World. He usually started his sentences with: “Well, let’s see now, it could be…” He liked to include other people in his decisions by using the word “let’s” and then pausing, looking at them directly in the eyes, as if he was waiting for the other person to contribute the answer. Maybe it was because he was a teacher and enjoyed engaging others in healthy critical thinking exercises. Or maybe it was because he was unsure of so many things.
I couldn’t remember exactly when The Van showed up either, but I first noticed it on Saturday morning when I had to mow the lawn. As I pushed the mower out of the garage and into the side yard, I saw it parked across the street in front of Mr. Silas’ place. It was a white van, with no hubcaps and deep scratches on the side. Overall, I thought it was a pretty normal looking van, although a little rough compared to the other cars in the neighborhood. It had a large mirror on the driver’s side, like an extra mirror that extended beyond the normal mirror. Maybe the smaller one was cracked, I thought. As I wandered further out into the street to see if the mirror was cracked, I caught sight of a person inside the van, with long, spiky hair. I decided not to look creepy and went back into my driveway, pretending that I was picking up some garbage. I picked up some cigarette butts and a flattened paper cup.
I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman in the driver’s seat, but whatever it was it had long, wiry hair that stuck out in an unnatural way. I glanced over several times, trying to be inconspicuous. I had never seen this van in our neighborhood before, or anyone with long spiky hair like that, but I didn’t think too much of it at the time. Perhaps they were friends of Mr. Silas? I dropped off the trash and went about mowing the lawn, sneaking peeks whenever I got the chance, but I never saw anybody get in or out.
When I went back inside, I took several more peeks through the curtains at The Van. I could still see the someone inside, and for two more hours the person still remained inside. I could still see the black silhouette of their hair jutting out, and after trying several different viewpoints, I could see that they had a baseball cap on as well. Funny thing is, they hadn’t seemed to move at all the entire time. Maybe they were sleeping?
I tried to forget about it for awhile, but I couldn’t wait to take another peek. I tried to watch TV. I tried to read my mom’s sexy celebrity magazines. I drew some silly pictures of people jumping over ridiculous things. I tried everything to get my mind off it. When I checked back later that evening, The Van was still there, and the person inside had still not moved. That’s when I decided to ask Lucie.
Lucie was a trustworthy enough source. Like most kids, she noticed a lot of things that other people missed. She always seemed to know where lost things were, and she always seemed to know relatively when things happened, despite her lack of calendar knowledge. She could at least give you a fairly accurate timeline of events. And something as unusual as this would not slip past her sponge-like observations. I would lean on her…
“Hey Lucie, have you noticed that white van across the street?” I casually asked her in a playful voice, trying not to reveal any suspicious elements of my speech pattern that might alert her that I was somewhat concerned. I walked quickly past her and tousled her hair, trying to further distance myself from any seriousness, the physical separation representing emotional distance.
“Yeah! I saw it like five times!” she declared proudly.
“Oh yeah?” now from the other room, “Five times! Wow! That’s a lot…”
No response for a minute. I could tell she was trying to figure out how many ‘five’ was, whether or not it was a significant number.
“It showed up in the middle of the night,” she blurted out, again proudly, a special piece of information that only she knew. She came strutting into the main room, big tight-lipped smile, eyes closed.
“Oh yeah? How do you know?” I challenged her.
She coughed it all up, everything she knew, and she never suspected for a minute that I was digging for details. Of course, a sizable amount of the information was either irrelevant or easily refutable, like the “fact” that it came from the Moon, but she had a few reasonable notions. I couldn’t decide whether or not to ask her if she had noticed the person inside, or if she had seen them get out of the van at all. I really wanted to know, but I thought it might betray my intentions. I didn’t want her to know that I was kind of freaked out by the whole thing.
“You sure know a lot for a little kid,” I changed the angle. I knew she hated being called a little kid.
“I’m not a little kid! I’m six and almost seven!” she countered adamantly.
“Oh I’m sorry Miss Lucie! I forgot how old you are now! Geez, you could almost be my mom,” I tousled her hair again and bolted past her towards my room. I could hear her complaining behind me.
“No I could not because Mom is your mom! And she’s my mom, too…”
I quickly shut my door and locked it. Damn little kid would follow me right in. I picked up the phone and called Stevie. He lived a few blocks away and was always down for a good sneak-out mission.
“Hey Stevie Nicks! What are you up to tonight? Chasing any white-winged doves around?”
“What do you want, asshole? And dude, don’t call me that anymore!”
“Oh yeah. Sorry, Stevie. Anyways, I got a mission for us.”
“Oh yeah? Another one of your awesome missions? Since the last one turned out so great…”
The last “mission” I proposed didn’t go all that well. We snuck out to throw salsa-bombs at the houses of some jerks from school, but when we tried to sneak back into Stevie’s house, which required the use of a plastic chair to get to the only unlocked window, the chair broke and shattered and Stevie’s Father came outside with a gun. We ran like hell. Stevie ended up falling into a drainage ditch up to his neck in nasty water. I ripped the ass of my pants open climbing over a chain-link fence, and in the process of getting caught on the top of the fence, fell several feet onto my shoulder and hip. We both got caught by our parents and were grounded for two weeks.
Stevie showed up a little after midnight, tapping lightly on my window with a wispy branch. It was supposedly an “old spy trick” he had learned. I thought it was stupid, certainly unnecessary for this situation, but I liked his effort. I slid the window open and he tumbled inside. Brushing off his jacket for no reason except for humility, Stevie stood up and said something about “the trip over.” I didn’t acknowledge the joke, and instead asked him about The Van. He had no problem skipping over the missed joke and enthusiastically admitted that he had noticed The Van on his way over.
“Yeah, I saw it outside. It was weird because I thought I saw someone sitting inside it and I thought maybe they saw me, so I ducked into the bushes as soon as I could. I don’t know why, really...”
“Did they move at all?”
“I don’t know… I don’t think so. After I jumped into the bushes I didn’t look back. How long have they been sitting out there?”
“I don’t know. The Van has been parked out there all day and there’s been somebody inside it every time I’ve looked. It’s really freaking me out. That’s why we’ve got to do this mission.”
“We’ve got to find out what’s going on! Why is this person just sitting in there?”
“I don’t know! But who cares?! It’s not our problem. We can’t just walk up to somebody’s van when they’re sitting in there. They might call the cops! Or get out and mace us or something!”
“Dude, they’re not going to mace us. We’re not going to approach the actual van. We’ll just stroll by and see if they move. And then maybe throw some rocks at them or something. I think they might be dead.”
“Dead!?! What the hell are you talking about J.B.?!?” Stevie was screeching in a high-pitched whisper now, like he had just had the wind kicked out of his guts. I wasn’t sure why I said that.
“Settle down…” I began to realize what a crazy leap it was from going on one of our “typical missions” to dealing with the possibility of a dead body, and I had to reel Stevie back in.
“… I’m just kidding! I don’t think they’re actually dead. They’ve been sitting out there all day and I just want to find out what they’re up to. It’ll be simple. Nothing dangerous. I promise.”
I had to reel myself back in as well. Having had a week to fester, my imagination had crawled to some pretty extreme ends, and now I was scrambling to assess what the real possibilities of this mission might be. I was faced with the responsibility of leading somebody else into my own imaginary world, a possibly dangerous world. I hadn’t really thought about the long-term consequences of finding a dead body, hadn’t thought about the impact that it might have on a person’s life. And now I was lying to my friend because I was scared to face it on my own.
“You don’t have to go along, man. I mean, it’s probably nothing,” I started to allow Stevie an exit, but wondered if it would come off as an insult to his bravery, “Let’s just forget about it. Maybe I’ll call the police if they’re still there tomorrow.”
“The police? What do you mean? What’s going on, J.B.? This sounds pretty goddam serious to me!” Stevie, still hissing, but calmer now, with less desperation.
“Yeah, I don’t know. Maybe it is,” I broke down, recanted my lie, “OK, honestly, that Van has really been out there for like a week and I’m freaking out. And there’s been somebody inside every time I’ve looked. So maybe I should just call the police.”
“Dude, are you crazy?! Of course you should call the police! What if there’s some psycho in there waiting to kill your whole family?”
“Whoa, man! No, I don’t think there’s anybody alive in there. I mean, nobody is going to sit in one place for a week before they commit a crime and let everybody get a good look at them.”
“Well, maybe if they’re a goddam psycho! Then they don’t care about anything!”
“No way! Nobody could just sit in one place for a week without eating or going to the bathroom or anything…”
“Psychos could.” Stevie said this with textbook certainty, which reminded me of why I liked him so much. We were both nerds. His imagination was equally given to flights of fancy. He believed in ghosts the same way I did; he got caught up in conspiracy theories the same way I did; he sought danger the same way I did. We could not let sleeping dogs lie. Our curiosity would probably kill us one day. We were “Cat Nerds.”
Cat Nerds have to justify their toughness in ways that others do not. The Jocks and Skaters and Cowboys and Motorheads and Gangsters at school, they all had straight-forward means of proclaiming their machismo. But Cat Nerds, we had to prove ourselves by facing danger, even if it meant making up that danger in the first place. If it was real in our own heads, that’s all that mattered. We could make a dangerous situation out of almost anything because we could imagine possibilities that nobody else would think of, let alone believe. The difference was, we actually believed. We believed in everything, which made our world more dangerous.
Of course, that also made us more gullible. We were easy targets at school, but true Cat Nerds don’t care about that stuff, because all it meant was more challenges for us to overcome, more chances to prove that we weren’t afraid of anything. To us, more possibilities meant more danger, more conspiracies, more excitement, more imagination. Our minds never stopped exploring, even though we knew that some of us would get lost along the way, some never to return. The risk was worth the risk. We held these worlds of possibility as a secret from all the other tough-guys at school. We hid this secret behind crooked smiles and outdated clothes. We had an implicit agreement: The Code of Cat Nerd Society- “We Never Turn Down A Challenge.”
I could see the gears of the Code grinding and spinning in Stevie’s head right now, possibilities being imagined and categorized, nothing rejected, suspense being built with each turn of the gear’s tooth until reaching a point past equilibrium with Fear. No going back now…
“Shit… OK… Let’s check it out.”
Stevie was in.