The rising sun at their back, the silhouette of the mountain stands like a sentinel over the town. The trail on which Willow and James are running this Saturday morning in Stone Mountain Park, which James notices is still, and without birdsong, is still, without the jaunting of squirrels, even mosquitoes and moths lie low. James and Willow pass the enormous oak tree--the two-mile mark on their run. The oak has grown to the point that its limbs stretch across the trail, beyond the sidewalk and hang above the middle of the road.
“That tree always seems as if it’s watching us,” Willow points out. “You would think ts limbs were reaching to snatch us off this trail.” Willow peers at it accusingly. The leaves of the oak tree stir as if a breeze had come across them. On this morning, there was none. But James could swear he glimpsed a human face beyond the branches with glowing amber eyes.
The sun many times plays tricks on vision at this time of the morning, thought James. And Willow would likely reiterate the point if he brought it to her attention. He saw the face for an instant. He’s not sure what he saw. It's likely some rodent wary of them disturbing the peace in the park. Give us a description? Did you recognize this face? Are you on any medication, authorities would ask?
“I’m determined to find out what’s going on in this town,” James said. He figured he would bring up the subject to find out if Willow’s father, an Air Force officer ever mentioned anything to her or if she overheard anything to do with military operations concerning the disappearance of some of the town’s residents and the uptick in unidentified flying objects.
James thought it timely that Willow and her father, Colonel, Tico Deroga transferred to Stone Mountain Air Force Base the same time the first handful of UFO sightings occurred. Willow was six years old when they arrived. Something strange occurred not long before she and the colonel came to town.
It wasn’t an issue to have early summer type temperatures--75℉ to 80℉ on occasion, in November and December. But during the last week of this particular November in question, the temperature rose from approximately 61°F to over 133℉. From one Friday at 11:00 AM to the following Friday at 9:40 PM the temperature topped out at 135° and remained.
Many died in the heatwave that week. And the wildlife...it was as if they knew. The birds a couple of days before the rise in temperature were nowhere to be heard or found. Black bears, coyotes, foxes, some smaller rodents were reported to be going on a strange migration. The fish only moved about at the bottom of the lakes and refused any bait. And those that resided in rivers left flyfishers working on form alone...for they were long gone. The National Weather Service reported we must continue to keep climate change, especially global warming from becoming worse but stated it couldn’t explain such an extreme jump in temperature.
It was a mysterious period, a painful period. Some of the people who had loved ones die, also had family members and friends mysteriously disappear. And then ten to sixteen months later they returned. They not only reappeared but they returned as an updated model if you will. They returned faster, stronger, smarter.
The heatwave occurred seven years ago. All of those that died were adults. Those that disappeared during the heatwave and reappeared a year and a half later were young, seven to nine years young. The euphoria died down weeks later and it was then we began to see the changes. We were beyond grateful. But the changes. We expected some trauma. What came about? There were no obvious signs of trauma. Those that reappeared, we can tell you, were well adjusted, as far as we could tell.
The area elementary schools would benefit in a myriad of ways. The teacher's jobs became easier because the students that returned after the heatwave learned much faster. Much faster to the point, that all teachers needed to do was to give them a syllabus and work for the school year would be turned in the next day. The grade point averages rose. The teachers, principles, and superintendent loved it, except for those who had children in the school system, like me, that didn’t read a four hundred or more page text instantly, as well as, decipher formulas the same.
“There’s more going in this town than meets the eye,” James relays to Willow. “Have you noticed,” says James “That a decade ago Stone Mountain High was at best good in most things. Now it is top-ranked in over 97% of every competitive event including debate tournaments, chess tournaments, video game tournaments, football, and basketball. And you know who’s leading the charge?” asks James.
Willow had led the track team to four state championships and four national championships. She’s been winning state championships in track, soccer, and basketball since she was nine years old. The state high school associations and the USOC United States Olympic Committee and the IOC International Olympic Committee lowered the age requirement so she could compete at the highest level. She currently holds five Olympic and world records. She broke them at ten years old and she lowers them in every World Championship and Olympic event. She currently holds ten world and Olympic gold medals. Willow knows James believes she isn’t normal, but it doesn’t matter. She is on a mission. But James doesn’t believe her mission has anything to do with sports and education.
“I can’t be your in-road to the Air Force or Project Bluebook, James. My father’s in the military, not me.”
“After ten unexplained years why isn’t anyone willing to discuss, what’s going on right in front of our eyes?” asks James.
“Nobody wants to be branded a nut job,” replies Willow.
“You’re the voice of the status quo in this town...listen,” says James as they hurdle a fallen tree and splash through the big puddle beneath it. The image of the face James saw minutes ago beyond the branches of the oak is reflected in the puddle. He recognizes the face...he thinks. It is the face of a boy who was last seen eight months ago riding his bike in town with friends. James, a summer camp counselor, recognized him as one of his camp regulars, James caught the image, but when he looked next to the trees and among the bushes where the image of the boy would have been there was no one.
“The uptick of U.F.O sightings,” says James. “The disappearance of those three fourth-graders two years ago, two weeks before the summer break, and then their return. And the kid from summer camp that disappeared nine days after the summer camp ended.”
“I know,” replies Willow. Had us in curfew lockdown for almost two months. We searched woods and abandoned warehouses we wouldn’t have thought existed in Stone Mountain.”
“Think about it. The Levi's call; the Amber alert go out over our TV, telephone, car radio” says James. “The whole world and these three families are looking and pleading for the return of the girl and two boys. The three of them then mysteriously show up the weekend before Labor Day, the following year, claiming they had no idea where they’d been, claiming they had no idea they’d been missing.”
“At least that was the preliminary report,” replies Willow. “Look, James. The truth of the matter is those kids could have been experimented on. They could, later on, show psychological signs of trauma from the event. But to this point...as far as we know, they haven’t.”
“All is good between the parents,” says James. “Okay...No divorce or custody issues. Then in a whisk of the wind, these kids are gone and then returned not to the skate park they vanished from, but on top of Stone Mountain, and that’s not strange to you?”
“James this mountain has been here for millions of years and it will be here for 300 million more. Let it go. Those kids who went missing are returned and doing well. One of the boys broke two Olympic swim records, freestyle, and butterfly as a ten-year-old. The girl tied the 100 meters and the 200-meter track Olympic record at nine. So I have my work cut out for me. The other boy, who just turned ten is the top chess player in the world and undefeated. So I’m happy for them.”
“Are you...Willow, they’re doing things...breaking records adults twice their age who’ve practiced for over a decade haven’t been able to accomplish and that seems normal to you?”
“James. Why are you asking so many questions now? Just go with it. Plus every once and a while you come across a generation of phenoms who take the human race to another level. The Nadia Comăenci, Serena Williams, Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps of our lifetime. It’s been like that forever. The next generation learns from and improves from the previous generation. You said yourself. Your brother can no longer beat you at basketball. You’ve beaten him at...what’s the pro football game, Madden. You’ve beaten him several times lately. You feel you can run more miles and run those miles faster now than when you and he used to run together. We’re simply seeing the natural progression of the next generation.”
“I'm asking, Willow, because...,” James replies as the trail inclines and they weave between boulders and dodge briars. “I was mesmerized and amazed that kids our own age, like you, leaped three to four generations in talent in ten months. I could understand if in ten to fifteen years they made the leap. But to go from above-average to outpace the best in the world in ten months at ten years old, it’s unprecedented. They were taken and a vastly improved model on the human race was returned, Or maybe what we’re seeing is another species altogether wrapped in skin layers.”
“You’ve gone way off the deep end. Are you serious right now?! Tybee Island, the Carribean Islands, Hawaii choose one because you need a getaway. And if what we’re seeing is an advanced species wrapped in a human shell, how the hell would we prove it. Slice open their chest and crack their skulls. Imagine we gather these...how many abductions has it been? Thirty, thirty-five and ask to run intensive tests on the kids because we or society believes they’re not human. And this fresh off them just being returned. The thought of it would cause a riot, not to mention the actual attempt.”
Willow and James run further up the mountain and move beyond the canopy of trees. Beams of sunlight skim down the mountain and blinds them momentarily before a familiar image comes into view. A young boy about nine years old. “Marcus?” James calls and picks up his pace toward the image. “You alright...Where have you been? We’ve been looking for you for...almost a year?” Marcus turned toward James.
“Hey, what’s up, James?” replies Marcus.
“Where have you been?” James asks, again. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine. And nowhere. Why?”
“Nothing,” says Willow placing her hand on James’ arm. “We’re just out for a run...didn’t expect to see you so early in the morning.”
“Hey Willow,” says Marcus as he and Willow give each other a shoulder hug. Willow saw what James had seen beyond the branches of the oak tree earlier. She knew Marcus was returning. Willow suspected James saw Marcus' image in the trees. His reflection in the big puddle.
Marcus returning to Stone Mountain after being missing for nine to fifteen months is more foundation for what James has been trying to figure out. More foundation for what he was trying to convince her of. That global warming was creating the perfect environment for an invading species. He wanted her to discuss that the alien species expected to invade with a million ships and cause mass destruction is here. Here causing climate change and replacing us a handful at a time. He wanted her to admit she could see how that could be true.
He wanted to ease her into admitting that she and her father are helping to transition Earth’s climate, to change the planet’s environment to make it more conducive for a new species, such as those who were taken and returned. James wanted her to admit that she was helping the colonel transition alien beings into human shells until the polar caps are fully melted and climate change is complete. He wants her to admit that she’s not the Willow Deroga that was born in Mesa, Arizona seventeen years ago. He wants her to admit she’s a shell.