The next few weeks were busy. Incredibly so. They had puppies to raise, a house to secure, a long trip to plan, and re-plan and re-plan again. Too many possible contingencies kept popping up. Ideas and worries and what-ifs. Then they had more gear for all the what-ifs than would fit. Twice as much. So they had to look at everything again. Everything needed to be absolutely necessary. And for two or more uses if possible. Otherwise it needed to be left behind. A lot of trips to Jamesville were necessary to garner the right supplies. And to a couple of other towns, and once back to Elm Grove. Joel didn't want to leave without some pictures of his family.
Of course, as fate has a way of doing, it ignored their busy plans. The generator broke down. Twice. And the truck developed a major head gasket leak, so they had to find another one and prep it with the proper tires, winches, bush guards, and extra fuel tank. Joel didn't like the color of the new truck. It was pink. But Craig just grinned, and stuck a rainbow sticker on the tailgate when Joel wasn't looking. Joel just laughed and added his own sticker. A silhouette of a buxom, naked, and very shapely girl.
Thanks to the trip to Elm Grove, Craig was at least able to see where Joel grew up, his room, his house, even his school, at least from the outside.
It was August. Eleven months since the disappearance. Some things had changed, others not at all.
The trip now at least had a tentative direction. Really, it had one before they brought the puppies home. It happened like this:
Craig awoke with a start. His ears straining hard and one hand already on his pistol. Then he heard it again. A loud "BEEP," from the computer downstairs.
"Joel! Joel!! Wake up! The shortwave receiver. Downstairs. The automated scanner. We've got a signal!!"
They scrambled downstairs, still naked after last night's playing, and Craig turned on the monitor. There it was. In a quiet, almost businesslike font scrolling across the window of the shortwave software. "Carrier Wave Detected." Followed by some frequency and modulation information. The modulation information simply said "scanning."
Craig fiddled with something and steady static began emanating from the speakers.
"What is it? Is someone there? Is someone saying something? What's going on?" asked Joel in quick succession.
Craig kept fiddling with the mouse and keyboard. "I don't know yet. It's a carrier wave. No voice transmission. Or even data. I don't know what to think yet."
"What do you mean? What's a carrier wave? If there's a signal, then someone has to send it, right?"
Craig looked over at his naked friend, eventually even looking at his eyes. "Well. Maybe."
"Maybe? What do you mean maybe? C'mon Craig, explain this. I'm dying here."
"Ok, it's like this Joel. When you send out a radio signal, it gets sent out on a carrier wave. The middle of that wave is the radio frequency that you tune to in order to receive it. That in itself isn't really anything though. It's what you do with that wave that makes a difference. Once it's modulated with an input signal, then you've got information. Like, you can change the strength, or amplitude, of the signal, that's amplitude modulation. That's what AM means in AM radio. Another way to do it is to change the instantaneous frequency of the carrier wave, or frequency modulation. That's FM, for FM radio. There's other ways too, like single sideband and stuff. But basically it's like this. We've got a signal with nothing in it. A transmitter is on somewhere, and sending a strong carrier wave on this frequency, but that's it. No information is in it, voice, data, or anything else."
Joel looked at Craig for a couple of heartbeats, thinking this through. "Ok, I think I followed about half of that. Basically, a radio is on but nobody is there to send anything."
Craig nodded. "Well, yeah. Kinda. We just don't know if anybody is there. There wasn't a signal on this frequency before. I'm sure of that. I just finished checking the logfiles. So, yeah. Somehow, someway, something started sending a signal. We just have no idea if it was someone actually doing it, maybe turning on a transmitter and then leaving for some reason, or maybe it was turned on by a computer, like in some military or industrial compound."
"Ok....so....that means, if nothing else, somewhere there's working power. And either a working automated computer system, or somebody is actually there. Right?"
"Exactly," answered Craig.
"So, we don't know if there's someone there, but there could be. We do know this though. There's power, and a strong radio transmitter. Even if nobody is there, maybe we can use it?"
Craig nodded, smiling. "Yup, my thoughts exactly. We'll find something. That's for sure. Maybe an empty military installation, or maybe a town full of people. Even if it's just an installation with power though, that means, almost for sure, two things."
"Well, you already said one. We can make use of the transmitter ourselves, and send out some kind of S.O.S. The other thing, where's there's an installation, there's usually some kind of kitchen, or mess hall. And there's power. So almost certainly there's a working freezer. Strawberry shortcake anyone? Maybe some ice-cream?"
"When do we leave?" said Joel, smacking his lips.
"Well, it's not quite that simple," laughed Craig.
Joel sighed. "Yeah. I'm beginning to figure out it never is with this stuff. Where is this place anyway?"
"Well, that's just it. We don't know. It's kinda west. Ish."
"Westish? That's the best you can do?" Joel was staring at him bemusedly.
"Well, I've been fiddling with the directional antenna on the top of the stack. It's definitely west. Give or take a few degrees. But we don't know how far."
Joel stared at Craig. "Gee. That only leaves...."
"Yeah. A triangle containing half of the entire continent. That's OK though. I said we didn't quite know where it was, but I meant we don't know yet."
"I'm going to regret asking this, but, ok, so how do we find out?" asked Joel.
Craig grinned as if he had the answer to the universe to impart. "We triangulate."
"I knew I'd regret it. You wanna fill me in some more geek boy? And take your hand off my butt first, willya?"
Craig giggled and removed his hand. "Ok. We need to get a couple of better directional antennas. So we know almost exactly the direction. But that'll give us a direction, but no distance. The thing is, if we set up two of 'em, a good distance apart, we can, like, draw a line in the direction the signal is coming from, from each of 'em, and..."
Joel caught on. "...and where the lines meet, bingo! That's where the signal is coming from!"
"You know, you're pretty smart for a dumb jock. Too bad you weren't better looking."
After Joel was done tickling Craig, he waited for him to catch his breath, and asked, "So where do we put the other antenna then? Like, the other side of town?"
"Well, basically, the farther apart they are, the more accurate our triangulation will be, so that means another..."
"...another trip to Jamesville," finished Joel, to Craig's nod.
"Em, get out of the way. Emdy! Move!" Despite his tone, Craig waited patiently for the big dog to move away from the truck so he could deposit his armful of gear.
"I thought you said two dogs, Joel," he yelled back to his friend, coming to the truck with his arms also laden.
"Yeah, well, what were we supposed to do? And it wasn't like it was me that did it. She just kinda showed up a week after we brought Karma and Rabble home. I think after the rest of the puppies left, or were eaten by those coyotes," his tone changed considerably at that, "she just wanted to be here. With us."
Craig said, "Yeah, whatever," and grumbled under his breath.
"Oh quit grumbling. You're as happy about it as I am, and you know it. Quit pretending otherwise."
Craig just looked at Joel, trying to hold his expression neutral before laughing out loud. "Ok, busted, I admit. I just don't know how this is going to work."
"We'll figure it out. Now, c'mon, let's take a break. Want me to beat you at H.O.R.S.E. again?"
Craig groaned. The neighbor's house had a basketball net in the driveway, and Joel had been ever so patiently trying to get Craig up to speed with some basketball skills so they could play. He was getting better, but he hadn't been able to win one yet, usually not even really close, so it was a little frustrating.
"Ok," Craig said finally, "but you know the deal. If I win, then you owe me..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. A blowjob." Joel grinned at Craig. "I can't say I'm too worried though. What's the closest you've come? H.O.?"
Craig smiled, feeling a bit of determination rise in him. "There's a first time for everything. Let's go."
From a distance, they looked simply like two young teenagers playing basketball in a driveway. It was only upon getting closer that a few things stood out. First off, every lawn, save one, was overgrown, weedy, and scraggly. Second, looking a bit closer at the boys, they each sported a holstered pistol on one hip, and a rather large knife on the other. Finally, unlike most boys playing basketball in a driveway, their eyes were scanning the surrounding area every few seconds. Looking for potential dangers. They didn't even do this consciously anymore. They just did it. It had become second nature.
Craig had the ball. He was dribbling it slowly, standing near the street. He was thinking hard.
Joel, standing on the side of the driveway, was getting impatient. "C'mon slowpoke. Take a shot."
Craig kept dribbling and looked at Joel. "Just a second, I've got so many options here. Are you nervous?"
"Nervous? Why the hell would I be nervous? Now, if you ever, in your entire life, beat me, then we'll talk."
Despite the words, both boys were smiling, teasing, and jibing each other. Craig found he was having fun. He thought about that for a second. Fun. With a basketball in his hand. Just one more weird thing in a long list.
"Yeah, nervous. Because you got one letter left, and I have two. If I make this, and you don't, I win."
Joel made an exaggerated gesture of worry, slapping his hands to his face. "Oh no! I'm so scared! C'mon and shoot, so I can get the ball and finish this thing out."
"Joel, shoo Karma and Rabble out of the way, willya?" Karma was running in circles on the driveway, with Rabble hot on his heels. Karma faked left and then zigged right, gaining a few feet. Rabble continued the chase for two more feet, stopped on a dime, and dropped unceremoniously on her side and began to scratch her ear.
Craig laughed, "Oh, quit looking innocent Rabble. He faked you out good. Don't pretend otherwise." Suddenly he made his decision. He knew what he was going to do. He dribbled the ball in his right hand while making three quick steps to the right of the basket. The ball bounced three inches in front of Rabble, still lying down scratching her ear. She didn't move, trusting Craig not to do anything that would hurt her. The next dribble bounced a half inch behind her, and she still didn't move. Craig finished his approach to the basket, switched hands to his left between his legs, and jumped for a perfect reverse layup. The ball dropped through the net. Craig caught it on the bounce and fired it towards Joel. "Go ahead, Joel. Let's see what you got."
"So?" Joel said, dribbling the ball, his eyes scanning the horizon. "You know I can do a reverse layup in my sleep. Besides, I already used that shot."
"Ah, but can you do a perfect Rabble pylon approach, dribbling the ball on both sides of her, without hitting her, and getting as close as I did, and then do a reverse layup."
"Nice try Craig. She's not playing."
"She is now. Are ya chicken? C'mon Joel, let's go. Mmmm, I can feel your lips already."
Joel moved to the spot where Craig had started his shot, smiling at Craig. "Whatever dude. No problem."
Just as he was about to start his shot, Rabble stood up, stretched, and trotted off.
"Rabble, get back here," Joel ordered, chasing after her. Craig laughed loudly as Joel commenced chasing her in circles around the yard trying to catch her. Rabble appeared to be enjoying the game immensely and re-doubled her efforts. Eventually Joel had her in his arms and placed her back on the driveway. "Down. Stay!" he ordered.
She stayed and Joel moved back to the beginning, panting a bit now after his chase.
Joel dribbled twice and started his approach. The ball bounced an inch in front of Rabble's nose, causing her to look up. She didn't move but didn't seem quite as relaxed as during Craig's shot. If her tail had continued lazily wagging things may have gone slightly different. However, what happened instead is Joel's second dribble landed squarely on the tip of Rabble's now still tail and she jumped up, looked indignantly at Joel, and trotted off. Joel didn't even bother to finish the shot. He just caught the ball and turned to look sheepishly at Craig.
"Woo Hoo!!! I win! I win!!!! Yes!!!" Craig was jumping around the driveway, pumping his fist in the air while Joel watched with amusement.
"Yeah, whatever. You win. Congratulations and nicely done Craig."
Craig stopped his hopping around. "Don't worry about the bet Joel. You know that was all in fun. I won't hold you to it, I know you really don't want to be on the other side of a BJ."
Joel's smile didn't waver. "Nope. A bet's a bet Craig, and I'm good for it. I'll even be enthusiastic, don't worry. Besides, I dunno why, but for some reason the idea isn't really turning me off the way I thought it would. In fact..."
Craig looked downwards and noticed a slight tent in Joel's shorts. "Joel?"
"C'mon Craig. Let's go inside. I think I wanna pay up."
And so they did.
It was an hour or so later when they were outside again, resuming their loading and packing of the truck and the high ground clearance trailer they were planning to tow behind it. Craig was working steadily, smiling, the gear in his arms seeming to weigh less than it should. Joel, for his part, was looking thoughtful, his eyebrows creased together, as if trying to figure something out.
"I think that's the last of it." said Craig. "Tomorrow we can hook up the trailer, seal up the house, and shut everything down. Then, the day after, we leave."
Joel was busy organizing some gear in the truck bed, and he turned his head to look back at Craig. "Now that we're so close to leaving, I'm starting to get nervous. Real nervous. So much could go wrong out there."
Craig wiped some light sweat off his forehead with the back of hand. "Yeah, me too. My stomach's all in knots when I think of leaving. But you know, just as much can go wrong here. It's not that different in some ways. I can't help but wonder when we'll be back though. Or if."
"We'll be back. You can bet on it." Joel paused for a beat, conspicuously changing the subject. "I'm almost done here, what are we doing for supper?"
Craig ignored the subject change. "I know we'll be back. I keep telling myself that. I can't help thinking about it though. I keep thinking about before the Disappearance, which I haven't done for a while. Sometimes I really wish things would just go back to the way they used to be you know. Anyway, don't worry about it, I'm fine. As for supper, I was thinking we'd just thaw some ground beef and cook up some rice and veggies and make a casserole."
"Ok, sounds good. Who's turn is it to cook?"
"Mine. You finish up out here if that's ok, and I'll go in and get started."
"Ok Craig, gimme fifteen minutes and I'll be in."
Craig went inside with Rabble following, doing her best to trip him up by running in front of him.
A few hours later Craig was just pulling down the sheets to climb into bed when Joel came out of the bathroom looking preoccupied, toothbrush still in hand.
"Umm, Joel. Are you sure you want to sleep with that? Maybe a stuffed animal would be a bit softer?"
Craig laughed and pointed to the toothbrush.
"Oh." Joel blushed slightly. "I forgot I had it." He turned and deposited it back in the bathroom before re-entering the bedroom. "Listen, Craig. About earlier..."
Craig had been wondering when this was coming. Joel had looked preoccupied ever since they had gotten dressed. He held up a hand. "No, don't worry about it Joel. I feel bad enough already that I kinda talked you into it. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have done that. Don't worry, I won't ever ask again. I know how weird that must've been for you."
"No, Craig. That's not it. Well, maybe kind of. It's just, I'm a little confused here. I've been trying to figure it out ever since. Part of me, to be honest, was a bit freaked out. But...and here's the thing...another part really liked it. Really liked it. So I'm feeling a bit, I dunno, schizo about it right now."
Craig thought a minute. "Ok, lemme ask you something. If I wasn't the only person right now you could possibly have sex with, if a girl were here too, do you think you'd feel the same way? I mean, I guess I'm asking, how much of you liking it is because you really honestly liked it, and how much of it is because you really don't have a lot of options?"
Joel's brows creased for a few seconds. "Well, no question for me really when you put it that way. If there were a girl here I'd be having a hard time being a gentleman, though I would be, and I doubt, sorry about this, but I doubt I'd be giving you a second glance. I mean for sex, not as a friend. That'll never change."
Craig nodded smiling, though a part of him was dying inside. "Then there's your answer. It's lack of options. The only reason you fool around with me is because I'm here, and I'm horny, and you're horny, and we're fourteen. You don't really have feelings for me at all. That's it."
Joel shook his head. "No! No, that's not it. You make it sound like you're some cheap second choice. I don't feel like that about you. I don't. I know I've never said this, and it feels weird to say it now, but I love you, you know." He reddened slightly, but kept eye contact with Craig.
"Joel, you know I feel the same. I love you too. But I think your love for me, and, if I were to be honest with myself, mine for you, is the love for a friend. It's not, like, romantic. Or am I wrong?"
Joel's face seemed to relax slightly and he smiled, just a ghost of a smile. "No. Now that I think about it. You're not wrong. Maybe that's what was so confusing. I was mixing all that stuff up. So the fooling around then, when I look at it from that perspective, it's just fooling around. Hormones and horniness."
Craig smiled in return, ferociously hiding his own confusion and disappointment. He did not want to put that on Joel. "There you go then. Friends. With benefits."
Joel laughed and climbed into bed. "G'night Craig. Seeya in the morning."
"G'night Joel." He set his alarm and clicked off the light.
The alarm going off awoke Craig with a start. He didn't remember setting it so loud. He smiled slightly as he listened to the music, realizing that Joel must be playing a prank on him again. He didn't even realize they had a Madonna CD. He reached over and thumbed the volume slightly down before sitting up and stretching.
He glanced over and realized Joel must be downstairs already. He didn't even hear him get up.
Craig stood up and was halfway to his bedroom door, one hand scratching his balls, when he heard a knock from the other side.
He hadn't even finished forming the question in his mind about why Joel would be knocking when he heard the voice from the other side. "Craig? Craig honey, it's time to get up. You're going to be late for school."
Just as the shock of hearing his mom's voice was registering in his befuddled brain a DJ interrupted the music on the radio, "Hey there all you gals and guys on this fine Wednesday morning, it's going to be another beautiful September day in the valley with highs in the..."
Craig felt the blood drain from his face as he sat down heavily on the bed, his heart racing dangerously fast.