Justin stood on the sidewalk gripping a backpack strap slung over his left shoulder, and the handle of a duffel bag with is right. He looked down to the ground, took in a deep breath that completely filled his lungs and made his chest expand to its maximum capacity. As he exhaled, he let out a brief sigh. Slowly, he lifted his head and looked up at the house with the blue front door. “This is not going to be good”. He thought. “What kind of torture would it be? The rack, the iron maiden, no it was going to be much worse. It was going to be the spotlight. With way too many sets of judging eyes staring at me. Asking me questions like, do you have a girlfriend yet? What’s your major again? What do you plan to do after college?”
Again, he looked up at the house. The old white Victorian with the blue trim and took another deep breath of the not quite spring air. His black shaggy hair flopped in the spring wind. His torn blue jeans let in a little of the cool air. His college sweatshirt held in his warmth. He recalled sitting on the wooden front porch when he was a young kid. Him and his cousin playing Uno, and Barbie’s, though he would never admit to the latter. He remembered riding his bicycle up and down the sidewalk. He also remembered popping a wheelie and seeing his front tire roll off the forks of his bike. This lead to some rather large facial scrapes and two chipped front teeth. Sometimes, when he was feeling brave, he would venture to the Dairy King on the corner and buy himself a coke float, sometimes by himself and sometimes with his little cousin tagging along. Overall Justin recalled that the main street in his tiny hometown was a nice place to grow up. In his younger teenage years, he had no idea why he was made to live in such a boring and desolate place. Now as an young adult, he realized that boring and quiet equal’s safe. That, is what every parent should want for his or her children. Kid’s need a safe place where neighbors talked to one-another, and everyone knows you buy you parents last name. There were many years of being referred to as “The Thomas boy”.
“Ok well let’s get this over with,” he grumbled to himself. Taking a final deep breath, he steeled himself and made his way toward the house. He walked up the stairs and to the blue door with the rectangular windows showing lace curtains on the inside. He released his grip from the backpack strap and stretched is hand toward the round brass door handle. Before he could grasp it, the door violently flew open. Standing in the doorway was an imposing figure. In front of him was a large man. Standing 6 foot 6 bearded, and with just a hint of a beer belly stood a flannel-wearing giant. The giant took a questioning look at Justin. A look that said, I am not sure if you are friend of foe so make yourself known. After a second, a smile crept across the man’s face revealing a row of mostly strait white teeth. The man jumped forward snatching Justin off the ground and lifting him off he feet into a bear hug, baggage and all, which was no small feat as Justin was over 6 foot himself. The man began to speak in a gruff and beer soaked voice “There’s my college graduate”. “Well not quite yet” Justin replied in a slightly strained and out of breath voice. The man dropped him back onto his feet, causing his duffel bag to fall to the ground. The giant was Justin’s uncle Paul, the man who he had lived with and raised him since he could remember. “I still have a little more to go and at least one paper to write. Uncle Paul, who’s here”. Justin asked he peaked over the man’s shoulder. “Everyone” he replied. “Most of your aunts and uncles were able to come. You know the Thomas’s, any excuse to get together they take it. You know most everyone will be out to your cousin Kimmie’s wedding during your graduation so this was the last change to get together”.
The man grabbed the duffel bag and ushered Justin through the door. He walked into the hallway and tossed his backpack onto the small wooden loveseat to his left. Placing it next to the duffel bag his uncle had just deposited. Looking to his right he saw a dining room filled with familiar cheery faces. In attendance was his aunt Barb, the wife of the giant who had also raised him. His uncle Gale and aunt Connie, Judy, Steve, his grandma and grandpa, were all sitting around the dining table chattering and laughing. Simultaneously the chattering stopped and they all looked toward Justin. “Ahh the target has been acquired, apply the spotlight.” They all began to get to their feet, the men grunting as they did so. The first to reach was aunt Barb. Planting a big smooch on his cheek and giving him a sturdy hug. “She smells like home” Justin thought to himself as he closed his eyes and squeezed back. “Hey handsome good to see you, I hope you’re hungry”. One by one the reminder of the party gave kisses and hugs. Last, of course, was his cousin Kate. She was a tall brown haired girl, or woman at the age of sixteen she is still a little in-between. She was nearly six foot herself and cute. Not what you would call high maintinece but cute, the kind of cute that can easily fight through the understated and worn clothes she always preferred. Obviously, she got her height from her father but her looks from her mother. “Hey freak”, she said as she let out her typical crooked smile. “You learn anything at school yet, or you just wasting our parents money?” she said. “Not yet, just too hard to study between and the chicks, drugs, and parties. With any luck I can get my GPA up to a solid 1.0 soon” Justin said without smiling. Of course, this was all sarcasm. Justin had a solid 3.7 even without fully applying himself. As for the parties and girls, he was always more of a loner. Maybe there were some lingering trust issues from after his parents died. Kate playfully punched him in the stomach. “You better get some pumpkin pie before I eat it all”.
Through the night, the questions came and Justin dutifully answered. “My major is journalism. I plan to get a job in Austin with a paper. Too many girls to count, but I’m taking my time.” Eventually the group began to disperse. Justin helped distribute the leftovers, gave his thanks and goodbyes, eventually he made his way up to his old room.
Setting his bags aside, he collapsed face first onto his bed and gave out a moan. “Home at last” he thought. Just then, a soft thump came down onto his head. “Hey nerd, mom told me to give you some fresh towels for the morning. Dad is attempting to fix the hall closet. It’s been a six month project so far.” Said Kate. “Hey you got anything planned for tomorrow night?” she said. “Sleep, why” he said. “Well if you are not too busy Matt and his sister and I are going to get pizza at Tiffany’s.” she said. “You’re still dating the moose?” he asked. “Yep, sure am, and you better watch your mouth or I’ll make you sit next to Haley all night.” She said. “Fine, he not a moose” he said. “He’s an oaf.” Justin thought but did not say aloud. Justin really did not mind Matt but always found him to have a relaxed brain. He envisioned Matt’s thoughts as a tugboat on the thick-mudded Mississippi river. Secretly Justin had been a little jealous of Matt and Kate as he thought they might end up together for the long run. He felt they balanced each other. Matt was sensitive and kind, while Kate could be cold snarky enough for both of them. Matt’s little sister Haley developed a crush on Justin at the age of twelve and had increased aggressiveness over the last two years Kate had been dating Matt. Justin felt confident he could resist all of her fourteen-year-old advances. “OK I’ll go but I need to work on getting a new idea for a story. This is my only week to get something rolling.”
The next night, the group setteled into a large pizza with a side of breadsticks and cokes. All except Haley who had recently been texted by a friend, that Coke gives you pimples. This was a major development and a warning, which must be taken seriously. In the world of a puberty impendent young girl this was serious. Eventual the chomping of pizza turned into conversation. Mostly about small town activities and Matt’s latest jokes he heard from the auto mechanic shop where he worked after school and some occasional googley eyes from across the table. “You gonna graduate soon” Matt asked Justin directly. “Yes, after I write my last paper” said Justin. “What’s it gonna be about?” said Matt. “Ugg the gonna is going to kill me!” thought Justin. “Not sure yet, need to find something interesting. A news story about our town would be perfect. Unfortunately nothing ever happens here.” Matt leaned forward toward his sister. “You get enough to eat little girl” he said with a very gentle tone. Justin again reminded of the balance. His sister never sounded this caring. “Yeah I’m fine” Haley replied without looking up from her frantic texting. “I got something for you to write about.” Matt said. “This should be good.” thought Justin. “Last week the guys at the shop were talking and windowless van that came in for repair. They called a umm?” Justing could almost see the tugboat pulling as hard as it could through the muddy Mississippi water. “A Jackrabbit van, they called it a Jackrabbit van. When I asked what they meant they told me it was a child molester van like the one the Jackrabbit daycare had when he was a kid. He told me there was a daycare out in Erie you know only a couple towns over. This couple converted an old ranch into a daycare. All of a sudden kids started telling stories to their parents, crazy stuff like molestation, orgies, and satanic worship. Anyway, the cops raided the place and charged the owners. The old man who owned the place shot himself, not sure what happed to the old woman.” “Hopefully she offed herself too the bitch” said Kate. “Honey” Matt said. “Well that stuff pisses me off fuck those people they should be shot. Sick fuckers.” Kate looked across the table to Haley who was now looking up from the cell phone with her mouth hanging slightly open in surprise. “Sorry short stuff.” Said Kate. Again, Justin thought of the balance. “You know, that’s not bad, if it’s true.” Justin said. “Apparently the tugboat eventually gets to port” he thought. “You know your name is Justin, like Just-IN, like this just in and you want to be a news reporter. That’s kind of funny.” Said Matt. “And the tugboat is back in the mud” thought Justin.
The next morning after stewing on it for a while Justin decided he would look into the Jackrabbit story. Best place to start was the library. “It must have been in the papers.”