Sarah was about to give up hope of finding Susan Spenser, then she came across an old address book with a slip of paper inside that held Susan’s name, address, and phone number.
She called the number expecting the phone to be disconnected, but instead a woman answered. She had been Susan’s landlord years before, but she had another number, more recent, with a DC area code to try.
Susan Spenser put the phone down. She surveyed the cluttered, one room efficiency that she could barely afford in Wheaton, Maryland. She imagined Sarah lived in a nice apartment with a view of the New York skyline complete with a boyfriend or even a husband. By now she might well have a few children with a live in housekeeper or nanny. Things might have been different for her if she had not been so damaged by the time she had left New Mexico for college.
Her problems, however, had started long before she met Sarah at Smith. It began in Chicago, when she was fifteen years old. Her parents uprooted her from the comfortable life on Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive and transported her, kicking and screaming, to an isolated sheep and goat ranch in the middle of the Jemez Mountains of Northern New Mexico. After the accident, the ranch a burned out hulk, her parents and the little girl dead, she’d moved often, rarely holding a job for longer than a year at a time. Between the drugs and the abusive boyfriends, and the lack of close friends or relatives to set her straight, she fallen into the trap of poverty.
Susan didn’t have the guts to tell Sarah that a trip to New York was beyond her financial means. Instead, she borrowed the $ 15 for the one-way ride on the Chinatown bus to the city. Whatever money left to her after her parents death, was long gone. The ranch remained unsold and the property taxes unpaid for years.
“You look great,” Sarah lied noting the chalky color of her complexion and the sadness in her eyes. They were the same age, but Susan looked ten years older.
“I don’t feel great.” She was always tired and there was a pain that would not go away in her lower abdomen. Without health insurance, she hesitated to see a doctor.
“Come on, let me show you around,” Sarah was excited to see Susan after so many years.
Sarah took her first to the Top of the Sixes for drinks, then to a small restaurant near Gramercy Park for dinner. Once back at her apartment, they both kicked off their shoes. Sarah talked – about the job, about Teddy Rothstein, about living in New York. Susan listened quietly. She had barely said a word since dinner.
“Still the wild one, Sue?” Sarah probed as she sat comfortably on her over stuffed couch, her legs tucked underneath, sipping brandy.
“I barely can afford a movie, much less a bar Sarah,” she answered letting her voice trail off. “It’s as if I’ve fallen into a deep well and every time I am almost to the top, I fall back in and have to struggle to climb out again.”
Sarah didn’t quite know what to say. Her world was filled with successful people, not failures, even if she felt sometimes like a failure herself.
“You’ve done well Sarah.” Susan looked around at the expensive furnishings.
“I’m getting too old for the work; this show is a wake-up call for me. Soon, I’ll be on the graveyard shift; then, it’s time to quit.”
“The networks like pretty new faces; I’ve been around too long. I’m getting stuck with the early morning shifts; next year, it’ll be worse. I’m too much a reporter to want to be an actress mouthing other people’s words. And I’m too liberal in spite of my rather conservative up-bringing for WNN’s rather more right wing, corporate, viewpoint. WNN isn’t a network that takes chances, letting its show hosts make up their own questions for the talking heads they have on unless they are fully in the mold of the owners, the Markson brothers Libertarian philosophy of limited government, low taxes, and Republican-Calvinism. Let me see,” she paused thinking about why she hated her job, at least the one she had now, “I’m also bored, tied from getting up at two in the morning five days a week, lonely,” then she added, “but of course the money is good, but there’s more to life than money.”
“Money would be nice,” Susan said with a laugh looking around with a bit of envy.
“After you left school, what happened?” Sarah asked.
“It’s a long story, how much time do you have?”
“All the time in the world,” pouring another glass of brandy and handed it to Susan.
Winnie brought along shovels, rakes and several handheld GPS devices to map the exact locations of the meteor fragments. She also carried a high quality digital camera to document the site and collection baskets. Sarah had a budget of $ 10,000 for the segment, which was more than WNN usually spent on human-interest stories, but objects falling out of the sky had recently become bigger stories after the latest sighting of a meteor that had caused panic across the entire North American continent until it landed harmlessly in the North Atlantic. The trail of bright light had been seen by more than 50 million people. She rented an RV in Albuquerque that slept four; Winnie and the students would sleep in tents for the trip to the ranch about an hour and a half away.
Sarah flew Susan Spenser in from Washington to Albuquerque. She even convinced Randall to pay Susan $ 1000 for the use of her property and the loss of pay too.
“Look familiar?” Sarah asked Susan as they turned off the main highway and onto Route 4, a narrow road that wound its way up through the Jemez Valley towards Los Alamos fifty miles away. They passed through dirt-poor trailer parks that sat between the road and the river. Route 4 wound through the Jemez Pueblo with its adobe houses and grinding poverty. The road climbed gradually past soaring red rock walls and into a forest of junipers, pinion and ponderosa pine. Susan, however, had only painful memories of long hours spent with her mother traveling through these mountains to get groceries in Los Alamos fifty miles away or to shop in Albuquerque, another fifty miles. As they climbed higher, following the river, towards Jemez Springs, bright sun gave way to gray storm clouds, further darkening Susan’s mood. As they passed into the higher elevations the trees become tall and substantial as Pinion Pines gave way for Ponderosa Firs and Aspens. Susan stared mournfully when they passed the entrance to Jemez Regional High School. There she had been a duck out of water – an Eastern snob among sometimes barely literate New Mexicans, Anglos, Indians, and Mexican immigrants children. She couldn’t remember a single name or face in her graduating class. The education had been second rate, and the graduation rate had been in the low 50’s with most dropping out in their junior year. She was admitted to Smith as a legacy from her mother and the nearly perfect straight A’s from this New Mexican high school.
“Odd looking place, New Mexico,” Don Evans, one of the two cameramen, remarked as the large vehicle negotiated the twisting, turning, narrow road. It was his first time in the Land of Enchantment, and he was less enchanted by the spiritual nature of the varied landscape of the high desert and mountains, with perennial bright blue skies than trying to keep the large vehicle on the road.
“Gets worse,” Susan said sharply recalling her first look at this moonscape so many years before. For the first weeks, when her parents were working to fix up the ranch and get her settled in, she’d barely spoke to them. She’d moped around the dilapidated old sheep ranch. Sometimes, she’d climb to the top of the rise, just above the ranch, and sit for hours, staring blankly into space at the distant dry peaks.
Don Evans, who was driving the SUV, missed the turn-off for the ranch. They had to turn around and ask directions in Jemez Springs. Recent rains rutted the unpaved dirt forest road, so it was slow going for the big van up the steep incline. After two miles of rough driving, they came to the rusted metal gate. Susan had the key and unlocked it. Three quarters of an hour later, after covering less than three miles, the road made a sharp turn to the right and started to descend. Susan asked Sarah to stop the van on a low rise just above the last quarter mile to the ranch. Getting out, Susan stared in the direction where the ranch house had once stood down below.
Sarah motioned to the others to wait and remained next to Susan.
“I don’t know if I can do it Sarah.”
“I was such a shit to them, to Molly too.”
“You were young.”
“No fucking excuse.” She rubbed the tears from her eyes and turned towards Sarah. “I’m okay now. We better get down before it gets dark.”
The light was fading as the sun set behind the cliffs that, at one time, surrounded the house and barn.
The vans made their way slowly down the road choked with native grasses and brush.
“Where shall we set up the tents?” Winnie asked.
“You decide. The house was over there and the barn behind it.” Susan pointed out the obvious.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked noticing Susan clutch her abdomen, then let go.
“Nothing, just a pain, comes and goes,” but the words didn’t help. Her period was late again. She felt bloated and had put on weight over the past year. She had read articles about ovarian cancer in women in age.
“You okay?” Sarah asked.
“Nothing really, I’m just out of shape.” She found a seat on an old log that had been left at one end of the property. Sarah sat next to her.
“You didn’t like living here, did you?”
“I hated it.”
Winnie marshaled the students like a General. One large tent for collection and examination; a second tent was for sleeping. The third tent open on three sides, housed the cook stove and folding tables. A small electric generator provided light and power to the electric cook top and thermoelectric refrigeration unit. By seven o’clock, Winnie had cooked a hot meal.
“Not bad for roughing it,” said one of the camera crew sitting down near Sarah on a folding chair. He stared at one of the undergraduates openly.
“This is business, not pleasure Freddy, so keep hands off the co-eds.”
“You’re no fun boss.”
And she was the boss. If this failed to produce the desired ratings, it might be her last hurrah too.
After dinner and conversation, the group broke-up. Sarah watched Susan walking alone at the edge of the ruins of the ranch house. There was only some rotting wood. The summer monsoon rains that fell in torrents and then disappeared almost immediately into the parched ground had driven the ashes into the soil. The foundation of the house was still there; adobe bricks take a long time to return to the earth from which they were formed.
“Not much left, is there?” Sarah said quietly.
“Only the ghosts,” Susan walked back towards the campsite.
The next morning work started in earnest almost at first light. Using stakes and strings, Winnie laid out a search grid. Stakes were placed along major axes of the house and string, drawn from opposing stakes, creating a matrix of ten-foot by ten-foot squares covering the entire surface where the house had stood. Don Evans filmed the work. The other cameraman filmed Sarah interviewing Winnie about her past experience in hunting for fragments from Greenland to Antarctica. Susan wandered off lost in her thoughts as she remembered all the hours of her lost childhood stuck in this semi-wilderness, angry and upset at her parents and at her lot in general.
Hours passed, and so far nothing of importance had been found. The burned timbers were carefully moved away and the debris cleared layer by layer. Using metal detectors the students combed the ground, their eyes searching for the telltale fragments of ferrous rocks.
The failure to find anything worried Sarah; she paced back and forth nervously. Winnie had warned her that often the shards were almost micro sized and difficult to discover. Much of the falling space rock was lost in combustion disappearing before it reached the earth.
“Find anything?” she asked hopefully.
“Lots of stuff, but none of it makes sense, I’m afraid. Looks like some kind of impact,” she pointed to how the top of the roof had caved in, “but the house was burned afterwards. I guess to make it look like the meteor destroyed the entire structure, still smells of less like kerosene more like aviation fuel.”
“What are you saying? It was arson that destroyed the house and the barn?”
“Might have started with the hot rock, but after that someone put a torch and some kerosene to it to make sure there was nothing left. I’d bet a thousand dollars that the barn was destroyed afterwards by kerosene, probably some kind of jet fuel, likely JP4 or JP5, I would guess.” Winnie pulled a piece of charred timber from the rubble and held it to Sarah’s nose. It still smelled of kerosene, we’ll get it analyzed when we return to school.”
“That was clearly arson.”
“You say that it was blown apart from the air, and then burned?”
“That’s my guess.”
Sarah felt suddenly sick. Randall would have her head. “I’m sorry to have dragged you out here.”
“I could be wrong.” Winnie said staring at the students still searching in the debris. “What’s odd is that something fell on the house, blew it apart. If it wasn’t a meteor, then it was something like a meteor. Maybe some space debris that someone or some government just didn’t want to be held responsible for. ”
They worked until dusk and then the students, exhausted from the search, collapsed on their mattresses until dinner. Sarah dished out the food that she and Susan had prepared. Without any evidence of a meteor, there was no reason to stay on tomorrow.
The next morning Winnie sent the students to clear the middle part of the fallen structure more carefully. Susan was nowhere to be found. Don Evans put his camera down. He walked over to where Sarah watched.
“Lots of film, not much to show,” he said. “Randall will be pissed.”
“I warned Randall; but he wanted to do it. His problem, not mine,” Sarah stated but she suspected that Randall would conveniently forget that she had warned him of the risks of not finding anything.
It was after lunch that Sarah noticed a sudden knot of students around Winnie near the center of the grid, where the middle of the house had once stood. Winnie was studying the ground on her hands and knees.
“Did you find something?” Sarah asked, as Evans came running up with the camera.
“Something, don’t know what,” she pushed aside the ash and dirt. “Look at that?”
Sarah looked. It was a small round object not much larger than a grape fruit. It was about a foot deep in the dirt.
Sarah moved away describing what she saw as Evans pointed the camera towards where Winnie held the object they’d found. Sarah hoped there would be enough light for a clear shot, but she would take more shots once they were back in the tent.
“What is it?” Sarah asked Winnie.
“Damn if I know, but it was part of what hit the house.”
Sarah knelt down into the dirt as Evans filmed. Winnie, kneeling next to her, dusted off the last remaining sand and lifted the sphere from where it lay. It was surprisingly heavy for its size. She studied it in the bright light of the noonday sun.
“Weighs about seven pounds, perfectly spherical,” she showed it to the camera. At one end there was something that was decidedly un-meteor-like; it was a round socket into which an electrical connector once fit. “Let’s get this thing cleaned up. Chris, Laura,” Winnie called out to two of the students. “I want you to work backwards from this spot, about ten feet in all directions, pick up everything that isn’t dirt or ash, mark where you found it on the grid sheets. The rest of you come with me.”
She led the small group towards the command tent. Winnie brought out solvents and started to clean the carbon off the sphere.
“Definitely man-made,” Winnie examined it under the halogen lamp in the collection tent.
Winnie carefully cleaned the outside of the sphere with solvents. “We’ll do some more tests, but there’s no evidence of high explosives in the debris, so it was simply kinetic energy in the warhead that collapsed the roof and started the fire.”
“How do you know?” Sarah asked.
“If it held explosives, then this would not be in intact and we’d get some residue on the wood. My guess is that it was a missile test gone badly,” she said, continuing to clean the surface. Winnie showed Sarah what was engraved on the surface. Sarah read the words slowly -- Drapper Labs, MIT, Project NorthStar, Mil Spec. SSGS12-3.
“Get a good close shot of this, Don,” Sarah pointed to the sphere. “I’ll add the voice-over later when we edit.”
The name NorthStar was familiar, but she couldn’t recall why. Only later did remember the picture on the wall in Carlton office.
“In what quadrant did you find these in?” Winnie asked, as the two students came in with small pieces of blackened ceramic material.
“B-10 and B-13 both are about fifteen feet from the point where we found the sphere.”
“Good work. You have a map, Laura?”
Laura showed her the diagram. It looked like a crude version of a spider web. Each square had a mark. Winnie studied the points and the pattern. Then she looked up. “Reminds me of the Columbia accident,” she said thinking back for that wild goose hunt in the deserts of West Texas, “we hunted for weeks for scraps this big.”
“We’ll do some simulation analysis back in Ithaca, but I’d say it had a very steep trajectory and was traveling very fast when it hit. Unlikely to have come from an aircraft Sarah,” she looked at the sphere as she spoke, “hardly enough kinetic energy to have destroyed the house like it did. And the burn marks we found on the upper rafter timbers could only come if the heat shield was burning. These are bits and pieces of heat shield. Likely, whatever struck the house started out well beyond the atmosphere?”
“What do you think Susan?” Sarah asked after leaving the tent.
“I came out after the accident. I didn’t spend more than an hour walking around here with the Sheriff. They only found two of the three bodies, but I didn’t care. I accepted the possibility that my sister was likely buried under the rubble or had burned up in the fire. It was over. I was free of them at last. Fuck!”
Susan stopped. The time to lie was over. “My sister, strange isn’t it, how you try to forget the bad things Sarah. She was not my sister; she was the child I had when I dropped out of Smith. Of course I wasn’t her mother, I had met her only twice or three times in my life after giving birth. But I think you know the truth don’t you? She wasn’t my sister. You of all people should know that.”
It all made sense now. Susan had left pregnant, it was too late for an abortion. The girl was three when the accident had occurred.
“She was your daughter, wasn’t she?”
Sarah placed her arm around her friend and hugged her tight.
“You remember when I left Smith at the end of our junior year?”
“You were pregnant,” Sarah answered having figured out the truth, “why didn’t you just get rid of it.”
“It was too late; really I wanted an excuse to leave. I was failing there. God only knows who the father was. Could have been a half a dozen boys from Amherst or U-Mass, I wasn’t selective about who used me. I had the baby, and I handed it to my mother and left. I came back once when Molly was three for a few days, about six months before the accident. Some mother, right?” She was shaking. Sarah tightened her grip, but it didn’t help. It didn’t stop the sobbing.
Sarah moved her cot outside; the cold night air was bracing. She buried herself in the mummy bag, pulling the straps tightly around her to try to keep warm. A rustling sound caught her attention. There were black bears in the area and the last thing they needed was one in the camp. Sliding out of the sleeping bag, she reached for the flashlight.
At first, she saw nothing in the darkness, just a vague shape near a pile of black plastic trash bags thirty feet from the RV. Sarah pointed the light towards the garbage dump and she saw him, a small man, hunched over the bags. He started to run.
He tripped on the cameraman sleeping under the stars fifty feet from where he started his escape. Sarah caught up and knelt down to help him. He was an old man, by his looks, an Indian.
“Are you okay?”
He didn’t speak, but instead held his hands up over his face.
“Let him go Sarah,” Susan said coming up quickly, “I know him.” Behind her came Winnie and a few of the co-eds. “I know him.” She repeated.
“Ben,” she said kneeling, so that she was on eye level with him, “it’s me, Susan? Do you remember me?”
He looked at her through dimming eyes. How many winters had passed since the child went away? She was the young girl who he had called Thunder because of her anger, but she was too old to be the child that was taken away.
“I see your face,” he said starting to rise, but then stumbled. Susan helped him to stand.
It was late when Sarah asked the old man the question that had been left unsaid while he ate. “The night of the accident, were you here?” She could see him tense. He didn’t speak, as if he were trying to remember or to forget that night. When he spoke, he spoke, his voice was a mere whisper.
“The wind was blowing hard that night. It came down the canyon, I saw the light streak across the sky from the north, then the sound, like thunder rolling, but there was no rain. The night was clear, only the wind. Fire lit the sky.” He looked around at the ruins that were just beyond the edge of the row of cars and camper buses. “The roof was gone; your father always said it would kill them someday. I tried to get them out, but it was too late, they were buried, dead in their beds.”
“And the barn?” Sarah asked.
“It was there,” he looked over towards the ruins, hidden in the dark shadows and only lit by the light of the full moon, where the barn had stood.
“What happened next?”
“Noise, like beating wings, fast from over the mountains, many copters came from the sky. I ran from the house, hid over there, in the pines, and watched. Thump, thump, thump,” Ben repeated the sound of that night etched deeply into his memory. “The fire died in the house and they searched the building. They had strong lights. It was like day. They looked through the house first, then the barn.”
Susan saw him stare at the barn.
“The girl was in the barn. They brought her to the Chief.”
“The child?” Susan asked shaken, “Molly?”
“The girl with golden hair,” the Indian said adding detail, “they carried her to the Chief. He flew away.” Ben pointed towards where the helicopter had gone to the West.
The next morning Sarah made him retell the story to the camera.