December 26, 2044
Monday, 9:30 PM
New Jersey coast
The evening of the event that would change the world
The air at the ocean is never still.
Or so he had always believed, until this very moment.
The darker clouds were still distant on the horizon, so Kid Carlson tried to rationalize. It is just the calm before the storm. The words rang empty and he found no comfort in them. To the contrary, his body shivered from a spasmodic chill. There was something more, something he could not pinpoint. In truth, he had felt uneasy since dinner earlier that night with his girlfriend, Sara Hyland, and her father. He knew the food was not the culprit. The disturbance radiated from a point deeper inside than his stomach.
Sitting in a beach chair under the pier, rows of stained and weathered pillars ran out to sea, creating a tunnel to view the silhouette of unimposing waves. The tide was rolling in, but hardly cresting. Were it not for the deep, muffled rumble, Kid would not even know he was at the Atlantic Ocean. He pulled his maroon knitted hat tighter on his head to fend off the bite of the sub-freezing, stagnant air. Turning his eyes, the sky beyond the pier was like a dome of solid concrete.
A log in the fire pit crackled and popped, creating a small explosion. Kid looked up, afraid that the spark would reach the Casino Pier above them. Convinced that the pier was safe, he turned to his girlfriend of nearly nine months sitting next to him. Sara was so lost in thought that she did not even react to the loud pop. He grabbed her hand as she stared at the gift-wrapped jewelry box on her lap.
Sara smiled at him, but could not hold it. Her mood was atypical, at least for her, and it caught Kid off-guard. She always found the positive in life, and people and even tough circumstances. He caressed her gloved hand, and just wished that he could take away her pain and sadness. He would shoulder it if he could. It would be hard for him to explain, but he sometimes felt like her guardian. It certainly wasn’t because Sara was mentally or physically meek. Quite the opposite.
Kid glanced at one of the other couples, who were fighting over the last 12-ounce bottle of hard lemonade. His friend Jessie Kellen, known simply as Jess, had barely taken a sip when his girlfriend, Maria Stefano, snatched the bottle from his hand. Jess and Maria had been dating for four years now, since they were both juniors in high school, but they already acted like an old married couple. Kid had been friends with both of them for a long time, and he marveled at how opposites attract. Maria was fun-loving and boisterous, while Jess was grounded and low-key, and didn’t smile much. But they had a level of comfort with each other that was admirable and often humorous.
“I still can’t figure out why there were military checkpoints set up at the bridge,” Jess noted. “I’ve never seen that before.”
“They checked all of our driver’s licenses,” Maria responded as she took a swig of the hard lemonade, “so they must be looking for someone.”
“I wonder who, and why? Just another waste of government resources,” Jess bemoaned as he snatched the bottle back.
Although he appeared to be grumpy all the time, Jess seemed particularly agitated tonight. That tended to happen when Jess felt the presence of the government in any form or fashion. Kid could not count how many times his friend had complained about the taxes being taken out of his paycheck to fund what he referred to as the bloated, bureaucracy of government. His friend seemed content with his position as the night crew chief of a local supermarket, so Kid could see Jess lodging the same complaints 20 years from now.
“Speaking of government resources, listen to this one,” Brian Mitchell started. “Yesterday, I got off at the wrong exit in New York City with Heidi…”
Shame you didn’t leave her there, Kid thought, and then reprimanded himself for his negative reaction. Brian was a long-time friend and Heidi Leer was his first serious girlfriend. They had been dating for six months, but Kid still had a hard time dealing with her.
“… and we were stuck in traffic for hours because of a huge demonstration in Central Park,” Brian continued. “More than 300,000 people were there to protest that Utopia Project.”
“We didn’t even know they were having a protest. We should have just skipped going to the city.” Heidi’s Brooklyn accent emphasized the disgust in her voice.
“I’m just tired of hearing about it with every news feed, and having to listen to that big-mouth reporter, Lily Black. She thinks she is all that,” Jess blurted out as he poked a log in the fire. “For the last week that’s all we’ve heard about. Can’t we talk about the new line of Sea Rays that are coming out in the spring? One of them even had a flex-skeg. You can turn it on a dime. ”
Kid knew that Jess would rather talk about boats. Jess’s entire family lived to do three things when not at work- camping, hunting and boating. Jess grew up on a lagoon with ocean access and always had boats, so he regularly used nautical terms that Kid, and most of the group, had never heard before.
“A flex what?” Maria asked as she tried to grab the lemonade bottle. Jess jerked his hand away before she could secure it.
Ignoring Jess’s attempt to divert the conversation, Brian continued, “I hate to say it, but the hullabaloo about the Utopia Project is not going to simmer down any time soon. Not since they’ve discovered that other countries were participating in that project with us, including Russia, Britain, China, India and Japan.”
“Three large ships with more than 20,000 people.” Jess shook his head. “Did they really think that project would stay hidden forever, even off the coast of Greenland?”
“I don’t know, but it did for nearly 20 years. Anyway, it wasn’t hidden. More like disguised. Even the Prime Minister of Greenland believed the ships were being used for experiments with vegetation, and climates and atmospheres. Not people.”
Jess shrugged. “I’m not even sure what they are doing to the people on those ships, or if it has been verified.”
“The memo that got in the hands of that reporter Lily Black came from someone inside the project, and the authenticity of that document has been verified,” Brian responded. “They published the entire memo, and basically, the people in that project are raised as mindless zombies, like the walking dead.”
Brian was a good friend, but he sometimes sounded like a know-it-all. And now that he was working toward a bachelor’s degree in political science and was so in tune with world events, he was more of a know-it-all than ever. Somehow Jess didn’t come off that way, even when he used nautical terms Kid had never heard before.
Heidi asked Brian, “Didn’t those protesters say they were going to march on Washington, DC, tomorrow?”
“Say it? They were screaming it! Since that controversial presidential election in 2020 there have been many civil crises in our country, but their goal is to recreate the one from 2025, which worked in shutting down a similar government project.”
Sara muttered, “The CCP.”
“What?” Brian asked.
“Oh, nothing. Just mumbling to myself.” She sat forward in her chair and stabbed at the sand with the toe of her shoe. Kid didn’t know what was bothering his girlfriend, but she appeared uncomfortable, so he thought she might want to get away for a few minutes. He abruptly stood up. “Not that I don’t want to hear this, but I need to stretch my legs. I’m going on top of the pier.” He offered Sara his hand.
Brian waved to acknowledge Kid’s words and kept telling the story to the others, “Anyway, when we were in New York I realized the truck was almost out of gas and…”
“Leaving in the middle of the story Kid? That’s kind of rude.” Heidi rolled her blue eyes and crossed her arms.
“You would know rude.” He did not miss the irony that Heidi had also interrupted. “I wasn’t really paying attention anyway. I’m a little out of it tonight. Is that alright with you?”
“You know, if you weren’t a friend of Brian’s, I’d tell you to go to… never mind.” She failed to disguise the loathing in her voice.
“I have to say, Brian,” Kid glowered at Heidi, “you really know how to pick ’em.” For no reason in particular, there had been friction between Kid and Heidi since the day they met. Heidi claimed that she just wanted to be accepted among Brian’s friend group, but yet she could not help being combative, especially toward Kid. It came as no surprise when Brian noted that she didn’t have many friends, and that she was even alienated from most of her family.
Sara jumped in and said, “If y’all don’t mind, I’ll go with Kid. I could use the walk myself.”
Kid’s growing contempt was instantly diffused by his girlfriend’s polite, southern accent. It had that effect on him.
“No problem. He’s all yours,” Maria answered as she swiped the lemonade bottle from her boyfriend’s hand.
“Lucky me,” Sara responded.
Maria chuckled and lifted the bottom of the bottle to the sky over her waiting mouth. Not even a single drop came out. As the smile evaporated from her face, Jess laughed for the first time that night.
Sara took Kid’s hand and stood up. Her other glove still held the jewelry box.
Walking together, he asked, “Why don’t you just open that box now? It’s been weighing on you all night.” He didn’t use the word melancholy, but that was the most accurate description of her mood.
“I can’t. You heard my father at dinner. He was adamant, really adamant, that I can’t open it until the exact moment that he proposed to my mother on December 26 at the beach a long time ago.”
“I know. Not 11:02, not 11:04, but exactly 11:03 p.m.” Kid smirked. “He’s so particular and to the minute. Like his coffee pot being set on auto-brew for 5:56 a.m. So what do you think is in there?” He pointed.
“I don’t know. Maybe Mom’s wedding ring?” She gazed at the box, almost reverently.
Kid didn’t know either. But more than anything, he knew that the jewelry box held the spirit of her mother, who died the day she gave birth to Sara. “Why don’t we put it in Brian’s glove compartment for now, so that you don’t accidentally drop it off the pier?”
She seemed reluctant to let it out of her sight. “Will it be safe there?”
“Yes. It will be fine.”
She relented and handed it to him.
“Just don’t forget it.” Kid walked over and opened the passenger door of the truck. The small box, covered in red rose wrapping paper, fit perfectly in the glove compartment.
“Trust me, I won’t,” she said as he closed the vehicle door. “I know I am kind of lost in thought tonight, but so are you. Are you alright?” Sara asked as they held hands and walked up the beach toward the boardwalk.
“Yeah, I really wanted to check out the ocean from the top of the pier. It’s hard to see through the pillars underneath.” He thought he sounded convincing.
“Right.” She sighed. Translation: I don’t buy it for a second.
“And I wanted to be alone with you, even if just for a few minutes,” he added.
“I don’t know how long we want to leave the crew under the pier without their fearless leader.” She nudged him with her elbow.
He looked at her with one raised eyebrow. “Don’t think so. We don’t have a leader.”
“I don’t have to be a psychologist to diagnose the one affliction you clearly suffer from.”
“Denial!” she blurted out.
He paused. “I don’t see it.”
“That’s the problem,” she said and chuckled.
Kid also laughed, but mechanically so. Her comment resonated and he felt a discomfort somewhere deep inside. It was true that everyone seemed to look to him, whether it be friends, family, teammates or even bandmates. But he always worried about letting people down.
On top of the pier, the various amusement rides, game booths, and food stands were all boarded up and closed for the winter. “This place is a frozen ghost town,” Sara whispered, as if worried that someone might overhear. She turned and leaned on the wooden rail at the end of the pier, which extended nearly 200 feet out to sea.
“It’s off-season.” Having grown up in a small town just across the bay, Kid knew the extremes of this shore resort, which was around 45 miles north of Atlantic City, New Jersey. Although quiet in the winter, Seaside Heights was an overcrowded madhouse every summer. He shivered as he also leaned on the rail, and said, “I guess it’s a far cry from sunny Augusta.”
“I might still be there, were it not for that satellite project my father got roped into,” she noted.
Just a few years prior, Sara’s father, United States Army General, Eric Hyland, had been transferred from Fort Gordon in Georgia to Fort Dix in New Jersey. After having spent her entire life in Augusta, Georgia, Sara had to enroll in a new school, in a different part of the country, for her junior year of high school. Kid could only imagine how difficult that transition must have been. He knew that she still sometimes got homesick. She had many friends in Augusta, and kept in touch with almost all of them. That included members of the theater group, teammates from volleyball and softball and co-workers from the restaurant she worked at, among others. She was such a good person, and such a caring person, that she established bonds very naturally, and very deeply. Kid knew that firsthand.
“But I think we’ve talked enough about government projects tonight,” she added.
Kid smirked. “Brian is probably still going down there.”
For a long minute they both stared out from the edge of the continent. The ocean loomed before them like a massive audience in a large dark auditorium.
“I recognize that one,” she noted. Kid turned to her, uncertain what she was referring to.
Sara brushed his long, brown hair off of his shoulder and face. His cheekbones, which everyone described as prominent, were numb to the casual petting of her gloved hand. She finally clarified, “You were humming a song, that new one you were working on. I think you called it ‘Angels Never Cry’.”
“Sorry. I didn’t even realize I was humming it.”
“Sorry? Don’t be sorry. I love that one. I know you are working on getting your business degree, but I just hope you finally give music a shot. You’ve really got it in you. I see it and feel it. So does Bull the Bouncer and he sees bands all the time.”
Kid smirked. “Love that guy.” Bull was the big, Greek bouncer who guarded the door at the Stone Pony music club in Asbury Park. Over the summer, Kid played there a few times and was featured on the holograph circuit. His band, Airstrip One, was on stage in New Jersey, but with the holograph technology, it appeared as if they were concurrently playing live in several clubs around the country. The quality of the image was stunning. Kid’s cousin in Virginia had gone to a club in Richmond to see Airstrip One and said the hologram was so vivid that the band members looked more real than half of the live patrons in attendance. But Kid and the Greek bouncer had become fast friends, and for Airstrip One’s second gig, Bull ran on stage and introduced Kid as, ‘the Jersey Shore’s next musical legend.’
“Thanks Sara, but even if someone really has the music in them, that alone doesn’t guarantee success.”
“But you have such a conviction for it. And you’ll never know if you don’t give it a shot.”
“True. Wait, I have conviction?” he asked. “How many full academic scholarship offers did you pass up to follow your dream?”
He was transfixed by her hazel eyes. They, along with her full, red lips, were a perfect offset to her pale, yet somehow healthy-looking, skin. Her father, General Hyland, more than once had quipped that she could thank the Irish wing of the family for her fair complexion.
“Well, technically four.” Sara was majoring in Drama and Theatre at school in Maryland. Her number three class rank in high school had afforded her several academic scholarship opportunities, but she remained guided by her love of the arts. When she wasn’t acting or performing, she was painting.
“But you have to pursue what makes you passionate.” Leaning up and bridging the gap between her five-foot seven-inch frame and his six-foot frame, she planted a gentle kiss on his lips.
Under the pier, the embers in the fire sizzled and started blinking out.
Mike and Mark Norris, two stocky identical twins, finally returned after having left to go to the bathroom. They were accompanied by Mike’s girlfriend, Cathy Conroy.
Jess glanced up. “What took you guys so long?”
Mike was quick to point at his brother. “I told him not to eat that cheap burrito from the Quick-Fix."
Turning to Cathy, Jess asked, “How do you put up with those two?”
She just smiled and looked away, reminding him of why Kid called her ‘Chatty Cathy.’ The girl hardly ever said a word. But Mike had told Jess in confidence that Cathy was quiet and socially awkward because she was physically and emotionally abused as a child.
The connection between Cathy and Mike made sense to Jess, because both Norris brothers were also abused, at least physically, by their father. The dad wanted his sons to be tough football players, and took it too far. Jess couldn’t count how many times both brothers came to football practice with bruises and cuts they did not get playing football for the school team.
“Alright, I’m freezing now.” Heidi stood up and stretched her five-foot-eight, slender frame. She rubbed her cheeks with her gloves and warm, visible breath shot out of her mouth in wisps.
Brian pointed. “And we went from two-foot waves to five-foot waves in just a few minutes.”
Jess turned to look and jumped to his feet. “Jesus! When did that change? We need to get out of here and fast.”