July 8, 1955
The men in the black sedans first arrived in Grover Springs, South Carolina the day Caleb Crane turned eighteen. Caleb was at Jolene’s beauty parlor when the strange cars drove past, not because he needed a haircut, but because his heart raced every time he was near the young beautician.
It was at his mother’s funeral that Caleb first noticed how pretty Jolene was. She had been the one bright spot in the saddest day of his life. Instead of the usual solemn face and Caleb-I’m-so-sorry-to-hear-about-your-mama handshake, Jolene smiled brightly at Caleb in the receiving line and told him how much she admired his mother’s beautiful hair. “Hon, she had the thickest, softest, most beautiful auburn hair I ever had the pleasure to cut and style!”
Caleb watched as Jolene placed a warm towel on Doc Parrish’s face. He was looking forward to the day his beard filled in enough to warrant a shave from her.
“So, whaddya say, Jolene? You gonna let me take you to the picture show this weekend over in York?” Caleb asked as he rolled up his hot-rod magazine.
Jolene placed a dollop of shave cream in a mug and replied, “Caleb Crane. You know I don’t date younger men.”
Caleb was expecting this argument from her; he’d heard it before.
“But I’m a man now. And six years ain’t that much. You told me yourself your mama is a few years older than your daddy.”
“Yeah, and you see how that turned out.” Jolene popped her gum as she put a brush into the mug and began mixing the shave cream into a lather.
Doc Parrish smiled under the towel on his face. He had noticed how the beautician looked at the young man and knew it wouldn’t be long before she went to the movies with him. Doc’s own wife had played hard-to-get many moons ago and she had looked at him in the same way.
Jolene took the towel off the doctor’s face and started applying the thick lather to his chin. Then something caught her eye in the salon mirror.
Caleb tossed his hot-rod magazine aside and looked out the picture window at the front of the beauty shop. He watched as three black sedans pulled up in front of the red brick building across the town square, the building where his father worked.
Jolene put the shaving mug down and joined Caleb at the window. They saw two men dressed in stiff black suits get out of the middle car and hastily enter the building. Two other men, dressed in olive drab combat gear, got out of the first and last cars, then flanked the short caravan with their arms crossed over their chests, heavy black boots planted in strong, wide stances. Jolene wondered how they could stand the heat in those oppressive clothes.
Doc Parrish picked up a towel and began wiping the shave cream off his chin. He joined Caleb and Jolene at the picture window. “Friends of your father, young man?”
Caleb shrugged. “I don’t know, sir. Maybe they were in the war together.”
“Look, hon.” Jolene pointed at a tall man in the main doorway of the building across the square. He was gesturing in the direction of the beauty parlor.
“It’s your father, Caleb. He’s waving to us!” She smiled and waved back enthusiastically.
“I better go see what he wants,” Caleb said as he grabbed his cap. “But you owe me a birthday haircut!” He winked at Jolene, then ran across the square.
Father and son huddled in the doorway while the men in combat gear, who hadn’t moved since they had stationed themselves, continued to stand guard near the black sedans. After a couple of minutes, Caleb’s father went back into the building.
Caleb sprinted across the square to the beauty parlor, cracked open the door and said, a little out of breath, “Dad is calling a town meeting. Five o’clock. At Fancy’s diner. Doc, bring the missus and Jolene tell the rest of your family. I gotta let everybody else know!”
Caleb ran back across the street, grabbed his bike from the rack at the side of his father’s building, then took off toward Penelope Inman’s house.
“What do you think those men want with Mayor Crane, Doc?” Jolene asked as she fanned herself with Caleb’s hot-rod magazine.
“I don’t rightly know, Jolene,” the old doctor replied in his tired drawl. “But I’ve never known anything good to come from men in black.”
Dean Crane placed a bouquet of zinnias on his wife’s grave.
Sue Ellen Crane had loved her flower garden when she was alive, said she felt close to God when her hands were turning his earth. Zinnias were her summertime favorite because, when planted close together, their many colors reminded her of a kaleidoscope.
“I wish you could be here for this, Sue Ellen,” Dean said to the gray tombstone. “I never thought I’d have the opportunity to serve again. And now the whole town has a chance to make a real difference to the future generations of this exceptional country, a chance to ensure we remain the world’s leading superpower.”
He looked at the watch Sue Ellen had given him the Christmas after he returned home from the second world war. In fifteen minutes he would face his town and ask them to sacrifice once more.
“I don’t think there will be much resistance, but I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.”
He traced the letters of his wife’s name on the tombstone as the sun shimmered across the polished stone. Dean recalled how beautiful her hair had been, sparkling as if it had little flecks of mica in every strand. Some mornings, when he was still influenced by the heaviness of sleep, he could see her sitting at her dressing table, sun peeking through the window seeking out her lovely hair.
Dean Crane knew he had to be strong for his children, his stoic mother-in-law had made that clear. But after Sue Ellen died he didn’t feel he had much to live for anymore. Until the men in black came to Grover Springs.
Would the town agree?
He kissed his fingers then touched his wife’s tombstone.
“Wish me luck, darling.”
Fancy’s diner started filling up around four-thirty that afternoon. News of the morning visitors had rapidly spread through the smallest town in South Carolina and everyone was eager to hear what the men in black had wanted with Mayor Crane and why this meeting had been called.
Fancy, the mayor’s niece, was busy pouring iced tea and coffee and serving her mother’s macadamia nut cookies to the curious townspeople of Grover Springs. Even though most of her patrons spoke in hushed voices, Fancy could feel the anticipation in the air, like jittery little sparks that zapped her as she passed each table.
Mayor Crane entered the diner at five o’clock sharp. The overhead fan creaked and pushed the humid air around the room as he counted heads to make sure all the townspeople were accounted for. Fifteen, including himself. Two missing.
The mayor smiled and greeted everyone as he walked across the diner to the booth where his son, Jolene, her brother David, and Skeeter Inman were sitting. Mayor Crane leaned over and whispered in his son’s ear, “Where are your nana and sister?”
Caleb turned away from the others at the table and said quietly, “Bethany Ann was actin’ out again. Nana’s tryin’ to calm her down.”
The mayor slipped off his jacket and stepped to the front of the room near the register. He asked Fancy for a glass of iced tea, then loosened his tie. He looked over the expectant faces that made up his town and realized he needed to start the meeting, with or without his mother-in-law and daughter present.
Dean Crane asked the townspeople to stand for the pledge of allegiance.
Everyone, except Diane Parrish, stood and faced the flag that was in the left front corner of the diner. Then they placed their right hands over their hearts and said in unison, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
The mayor then turned to Phillip Hogan, the preacher of the First Baptist church, and asked him to say a prayer.
The reverend dabbed a little bead of sweat from his upper lip with his handkerchief then said, “Let us pray.” The townspeople bowed their heads.
“Our most gracious and heavenly father. Thank you for the beautiful day you provided for us today and thank you for the opportunity to meet with family and friends here this afternoon. We are humbled to be in your presence. Please be with Mayor Crane this afternoon as he guides the good people of this town through this meeting and beyond. God, bless us and bless our families, especially those who are no longer with us. And God bless the United States of America. Amen.”
“Amen,” echoed the townspeople.
“Thank you, Preacher Hogan for that heartfelt prayer,” the mayor said. “Now, please, everyone, take your seats.”
Where were Helen and Bethany Ann?
Mayor Crane cleared his throat, took a sip of iced tea, then addressed his neighbors. “First of all, I’d like to thank Fancy for keeping the diner open this afternoon so that we could have this meeting. I know she likes to get out of here early on Fridays.”
“I’m happy to, Uncle Dean.” She smiled and glanced over at David Gilfillan.
“I won’t keep you waiting because I know you’re all wondering what transpired earlier this morning at my office…”
Just then the mayor’s mother-in-law hurried into the diner with his young daughter. The girl’s face was flushed, her cheeks tear-stained, and her strawberry blond hair looked like a sparrow had tried to build a nest in it.
The old woman offered a quick apology, then set the girl up at the counter with a small pack of Crayolas and a Mickey Mouse coloring book. She pulled a dirty Raggedy Ann doll out of her bag, placed it on the stool beside the child, then sat down at the table where her brother, the country doctor, and his wife, Diane, were sitting.
The mayor cleared his throat again. “Thank you, Helen.”
Helen nodded as her face turned an embarrassed shade of pink. Why did the child have to be so difficult? Her Sue Ellen had never had fits when she was a little girl. Goodness gracious, no.
Everyone slowly returned their attention to the mayor.
“Thank you all for coming to this meeting on such short notice,” the mayor said as he looked at each of his neighbors. “I’m afraid this isn’t going to be easy to explain, but I’ll do my best.”
The mayor felt thirty eager eyes staring at him; his daughter was too engrossed in her coloring book, trying with all her might to stay inside the lines as she colored Mickey’s ears cerulean blue.
“As you know, I was paid a visit today from outsiders. Well, outsiders to this town, but not outsiders to our country. I was visited by two agents of the CIA.”
“I knew it!” Frank Madden, the mayor’s brother-in-law, said as he hit the diner table with his palm. His wife touched his arm and quickly whispered something to the excited man. Frank put his hand back on his lap, but his ice-blue eyes twinkled.
Mayor Crane nodded to Frank, then said to the rest of the group, “I need to bring the whole town up to speed on a few things, although, I won’t be able to divulge everything because much of this is classified information.”
“Classified? Heavens.” Penelope Inman picked up a laminated menu and began fanning herself.
Susan, Penelope’s daughter, rolled her eyes and whispered across the table, “Mother, please.”
“I know this is going to be a lot to digest, but I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get through this without interruptions. At the end of this meeting, you are going to have some things to think about, and some decisions to make. I’ll be in my office all day tomorrow, so don’t hesitate to come talk to me if you need clarification on something or have any concerns. I will honestly answer anything I am able to. Agreed?”
He looked around the diner and took the people’s dazed stillness as a yes. The room was eerily silent except for the whirring of the overhead fan and the angelic hums from the little girl at the counter.
“Now, you all know I served in the second world war,” the mayor said as he began pointing out several people. “So did Pastor Hogan. And Penelope’s John, God rest his soul.” Penelope bowed her head.
The mayor locked eyes with his brother-in-law. “Frank was there, too. While my brother-in-law was bravely fighting the Japanese for control of Guam, I was sequestered with a group of scientists working on a completely different type of mission.”
Caleb sat up taller. His father never talked about the war.
“Now, after the war ended, I thought that was that. I missed my wife and was looking forward to coming back to Grover Springs to raise our family and enjoy some peace and quiet. But then things went south with the Russians and we ended up in Korea. During this time the government once again asked for my help on a certain top secret mission.”
The mayor paused to take the pulse of the room. “I’m not trying to scare you.”
“I’m not sc-scared, Mayor C-Crane, Mayor C-Crane!” a toothy Skeeter piped up in his halted speech.
Penelope Inman turned around and slapped the back of her son’s head. “John, Jr., don’t interrupt the mayor.”
The young people at Skeeter’s table giggled.
The mayor smiled and said, “I know you aren’t, Skeeter.” He gestured to Penelope that everything was all right.
“Even though the conflict in Korea has come to a halt, the American government has reason to believe our problems with Russia will continue to escalate, and not just here on earth. The U.S. government has collected and verified intelligence that the Russians are on a path to dominate us in space.”
The preacher’s shy nephew, Hayward, suddenly began coughing. He had been drinking his lemon water during the mayor’s last statement and it must have gone down the wrong way. Preacher Hogan patted the young man’s back a few times.
“You OK, Hayward?” the mayor asked.
The embarrassed man nodded coyly.
The mayor continued. “We have secretly been carrying out operations in space for some time. Now, I can’t get into many details, but in order to stay a step ahead of the Russians, we need to go deeper out. Up until now, we assumed anyone we sent on a longer mission would have to sleep until they reached their destination, stay in a type of, what they call ‘stasis’ because of the time involved traveling and the stress put on the body during transport. This stasis keeps a man’s body in a long sleep state, keeps his body essentially suspended until he reaches his destination. However, this means our men in space cannot be productive, cannot gather information, cannot prepare experiments or detect threats, nor send reports back home in real time while they are in the state of stasis. And we need information from every leg of the journey if we are to stay ahead of the Russians.”
Becky Gilfillan stood and said, “Wait a minute, Dean. Are you talking about putting a man on…on Mars?”
Dean Crane looked at her and said gently, “Farther than that, Becky. Much farther. But that’s all I’m at liberty to say.”
Becky shook her head in amazement and floated back down to her seat. What would this mean for her children, Jolene and David? What would it mean for the farm? Her rocky marriage? What was the world coming to?
“Recently,” the mayor continued, “our scientists think they have come across a way to put a person into what they’re calling a ‘living’ or ‘permanent’ stasis.” The mayor looked over at the doctor. “Doc, here, can tell you that up until now we have focused on illnesses only after they take hold in the body, and often, by the time a contaminant is detected, the body’s environment has degraded so much there is no hope for eradication of the disease.”
Doc Parrish nodded. He knew too well how true the mayor’s last statement was.
“But this new research focuses instead on prevention, on propping up the immune system with a vaccine that can, theoretically, keep the entire environment of a person’s body in perfect running order, therefore making it impossible for a contaminant to take hold in the first place. This would prevent any decay or aging in the men on a long mission, and instead of having to sleep all the time, this new vaccine would allow the men to function on their regular sleep cycles. They would remain fully productive and responsive, and able to send reports to the government in real time during their wake times.”
Dean knew this was a lot of information, so he paused to give his neighbors a chance to take it in. He was about to resume his speech when a chromatic swath of crayons flew across the room. Bethany Ann pounded the counter and yelled, “Ice cream! I want ice cream”
“Not now, Bethany Ann,” her father said through a tense jaw. His mother-in-law shook her head.
“Ice cream! Ice cream!”
Fancy stepped in and said, “Oh, it’s all right, Uncle Dean. I’ll get her some.”
The townspeople waited patiently while Fancy took a half gallon from the back freezer. She scooped some chocolate ice cream into a bowl then put a single spoonful of ice cream into a coffee cup. She grabbed a couple of spoons then set the bowl in front of the girl at the counter and the coffee cup in front of the seat where the child’s doll was sitting.
The mayor’s daughter picked up the spoon and eagerly shoved it into her bowl but her father interrupted her. “What do you say, Bethany Ann?”
After a slight pause, the child looked down at her lap and said in a squeaky voice, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Sweetie-pie.” Fancy smiled at her cousin and placed a napkin on the counter by the bowl.
“Thank you, Fancy.” The mayor took a sip of tea.
“Mayor, excuse me,” the minister spoke up, “but what does all this ‘space’ and ‘stasis’ talk have to do with us, or Grover Springs?”
“I was just coming to that, Preacher Hogan. I wanted everyone to understand, though, the stakes and how quickly our interactions with the Russians are deteriorating. The United States needs an edge, and we need one fast. In looking at the data, the government has determined our little town would be the perfect incubator for a ‘living stasis’ experiment. We’d be the flagship experiment, so to speak, the control group, providing ongoing information for the scientists to compare to their findings from the space group. Why Grover Springs? Because Grover Springs is perfectly contained within a mile radius, so it would be easy to control environmentally and wouldn’t require much manpower to defend. We have a wide range of subjects and ages represented, in varying stages of health. We are a mostly self-sufficient town and seventeen persons make for a manageable case study. Also, I am familiar with parts of the space program from my work in Korea. I have the proper clearance and would be able to manage the experiment from our end, represent the town’s interests, and report to the government.”
Jolene spit her Juicy Fruit gum into a napkin and said, “Wait a minute, Mayor Crane. Maybe I’m dumb, but what does this…’living stasis’ mean, exactly? What would happen to us?”
“Thank you, Jolene,” the mayor replied. “That’s a very good question. To put it in non-technical terms, this ‘stasis’ state means that your body will stay the way it is for as long as we run the experiment.”
“You mean I won’t get old? I’ll stay the way I am now?” The young woman couldn’t believe it was possible.
“That’s right. Our bodies will not change.”
Jolene grinned and bit into a fresh stick of Juicy Fruit.
Doc Parrish cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt you, Mayor, but does this mean we would not be subject to illnesses?”
“That is correct, Doc, as long as we stay under the protected parameters of Grover Springs and take the vaccines on the prescribed schedule we will not succumb to any known illness. And any illness we currently have will be halted in the stasis process. Not cured, mind you, but sufficiently suppressed.”
Doc Parrish gently squeezed his wife’s hand under the table.
The mayor looked around the room at the wide eyes of his friends and family. He knew this was a lot to decipher, in fact, he was still processing the implications himself.
“I know I’m giving you a lot to think about tonight, but I want you to go home and discuss this with your families. Like I said, I will be in the office all day tomorrow and welcome the opportunity to address any questions or concerns you have. We will meet back here, same time tomorrow afternoon, to vote on whether we will commit to being a part of the experiment. I told the CIA agents this afternoon I would need unanimous consent from the town to commit to the proposed experiment.”
Bethany Ann jumped off her stool and ran to Mayor Crane. She tugged at his limp shirt, “I want to go home, Daddy! Home!”
The mayor picked up his tired little girl and brushed the matted hair off her forehead. Bethany Ann snuggled her head into the crook of his neck and began sucking her thumb.
“Our country needs us, folks,” Dean Crane said as he lightly bounced the girl in his arms. “Please give this some serious thought. And do not hesitate to come see me tomorrow. Meeting adjourned.”
The townspeople sat transfixed for several minutes, as if already playing with the idea of stasis.
The Sinking of Bethany Ann Crane will be released early summer 2018.
K. Kris Loomis is the author of After Namaste: Off-the-Mat Musings of a Modern Yogini as well as several other nonfiction books about yoga and meditation, a travelogue about her time spent living in Ecuador, and a collection of short stories, The Monster in the Closet and Other Stories.
When Kris isn’t at her standing desk writing, she’s usually off playing chess, folding an origami crane, or practicing a Beethoven sonata on the piano. She lives in South Carolina with her husband and two cats.
You can find out more about Kris and get updates on The Sinking of Bethany Ann Crane by subscribing to her author website, www.kkrisloomis.com, or by connecting with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram @kkrisloomis!