Small towns can be a little weird. In this one, weird is nothing.
Raymond is new in town, and he's not happy about it. Coming from the big city to this backwater burg feels like a punishment. There's just no excitement! But Lewis, a local boy desperate for a new friend, is determined to show him that there's more to this place than it seems. When all else fails, he points out the old, abandoned army laboratory called Cobalt Ridge. It looks pretty interesting, and Lewis' grandfather has a key!
Surely there's no harm in taking a little look. What's the worst that could happen…
Weird Nothing: A Novella is the extended and completed story upon which the webcomic of the same name was based. Developed by Joseph R. Lallo and Adam J. Hall, this novella contains the entire plot of the intended "first arc" of the webcomic.
My own contribution to the bundle, Weird Nothing is a testament to how effectively story can flow from art. Adam J. Hall, a fan of my Book of Deacon story, had reached out to me about collaborating on a webcomic. He showed me two character designs as examples of recent pieces he'd been working on. Both were young boys, no history or characterization attached beyond what I could read in their faces and visual personalities. The raw character present in his art caused a tale of broken realities and cold war technologies to come tumbling out. This remains one of my favorite collaborations. – Joseph R. Lallo
Ray clacked the buttons on his handheld and entered the final level of his game. He'd started the trip by downloading a fresh new metroidvania. Now he had only the final boss to go and they weren't there yet. It had been that kind of trip.
The SUV swooped along the mountain road at a ruthlessly conservative speed. Despite the "best in class storage space" that had inspired his father to purchase it, it was both loaded down and loaded up with the necessities that they couldn't part with long enough for the moving company to handle them. Matching luggage formed a well-engineered and securely strapped tower on the roof. Ray's dad, in all of his bespectacled, professorial glory, drummed at the wheel and listened to the droning voice of public radio as it fought to get through the mountains. Ray's mom had a paper map open and was pleasantly marking down their progress with a red sharpie despite the fact they had a GPS. She claimed it 'made it feel like an adventure.' Ray was nine years old and even he thought that was childish.
He picked up the fast-food cups that were populating the six cup holders (also best in class) that he could reach from his seat. Finally he found one with some soda left and gave it a slurp. Despite living sugar water and grease for any meal he had any control over, Ray remained rail thin and so similar to his father he may as well have been a prototype. Knowing the face glancing at him in the rear-view mirror was what he could expect from adulthood didn't improve the boy's sulky mood.
"We're nearly there, son," said his father.
Ray didn't look up. The missile pickup hidden in the floor of the level demanded his attention.
"You've been pretty quiet, kiddo."
"I'm in mourning. Yesterday was my last day as a part of the civilized world. We're moving to the woods."
His father raised an eyebrow. "I think that's a little overdramatic."
"Are there more trees than people?"
"Well, it's famous for its forest, so—"
"Then it's the wilderness. Is there a late-night taco place that delivers? What if I want a chimichanga at 1am?"
"Probably not, but—
"No place without midnight fast food counts as civilization. Period. I'm surprised my cellphone even works. Even if it is only 3G."
His father sighed. "This is a great opportunity for the whole family! Your mother and I both got great jobs at the college. And it's safer. Back in the city there were criminals walking the streets.
"Yeah. Now we've got bears. Big improvement, Dad."
"You'll have a chance to make new friends."
"If I wanted friends, I would have made them at my old school."
"Raymond, someday you're going to realize life is a lot easier when you have someone you can rely on. On that day, you'll be glad you listened to your old Dad, right kiddo? … Ray?"
A pair of earbuds was shielding Ray from any further parental wisdom.
"Aren't we a few years early for the moody teenager phase?"
"He was always a gifted boy, dear. Skipped two years of classes, remember."
"Apparently he skipped childhood, too."
The SUV crested over a hill, revealing a scenic vista below. Flanked by pine trees was an idyllic little town. Scattered two-story houses formed neat little rows, all roughly identical except for colors and the tiny touches the average homeowner adds to a house before giving up and sticking a lawn gnome next to the sprinkler head. Each was surrounded by a sprawling lawn and ringed with a white picket fence. At the center of the town was a cross street with small Mom and Pop stores, a theater, and assorted other small-town conveniences. The whole place had the Edward Scissorhands feel of a town built by a committee following a template labeled "wholesome neighborhood." Beyond it was a strip of forest and a single, towering, slate-blue mountain with a fenced off military base nestled against it.
"Well, here's the town," Ray's dad reached back to nudge him. "Take those ear buds out, we're almost there. Wait until you see the house!"
"Let me guess, it looks a lot like that one. Or that one. Or that one," Ray said.
They pulled up to the driveway of a house that was distinguishable from the others primarily due to the "For Sale: sign with the word "Sold" plastered across the front.
"And look at this! The neighbors are here to greet us. Wait'll you meet them, they're a great bunch," his Dad said.
The father got out to shake hands with a portly and jovial gentleman waiting to greet them. Ray stayed behind in the car with his game system.
"... And wait until you meet his son," his Dad said.
A sound rattled Ray out of his game-induced stupor by what sounded like a raw pork chop slapping against the window. He looked up and was startled by the face of a chubby little boy smooshed against the window.
"Gah!" Ray yelped.
"Are you my new neighbor?" the boy mumbled gleefully.
Ray turned his head aside, looking askance at the over-enthusiastic stranger.
"I sure hope not," he said.
The boy opened the door and held out his hand.
"Pleased to meet ya, neighbor. I'm Lewis. Lewis Banks. What's your name?" he said.
Ray gave the offered hand the same look he would have given a moldy hunk of cheese thrust in his direction."
"Raymond Niven," he said.
"Raymond," he corrected.
"I'm gonna show you around town, okay Ray?"
"Raymond. And I don't really want to. I've got to set up my computer, so—"
"Hey Dad, can I show Ray around town?" Lewis shouted.
"Fine with me!" Mr. Banks turned to Ray's father. "How about you?"
"But I don't really want to. I've got to check my—" Ray objected.
"Sure," his dad said. "It'll keep you busy while we unload the stuff. School starts tomorrow. It'll be good to spend some time outside."
"But I really don't want to! My desk is—"
"Come on!" Lewis proclaimed. "All the cool stuff's this way."
Lewis marched down the street. Ray paused and looked around.
"… I am talking right now, right? People can hear me, right? … Fine."
The boys made their way through the main street of town. Lewis marched ahead of Ray with the air of a tour guide.
"So this is the town center," he said with a magisterial spread of his arms.
Ray gave the meager street a doubtful look. "How can you tell?"
"Well look at it! All of the really great stuff is here. Over there's Miss Smith's Candy Store. That's Mr. Wilson's theater. There's the Church."
"What kind of church?"
"The regular kind. Across the street is the O'Malley bookstore. The market is next to that. That belongs to Mr. Richards. Here's Mr. Middleton's Record Store."
Ray squinted through the window. "Your record store has actual records in it."
"Dad says he managed to not sell anything just long enough to be able to stick the word "vintage" on the sign and 'bilk hipsters.' So what do you think of the town? Pretty neat, huh?"
"It's… wholesome. Like living in a big bowl of oatmeal. Just a big bland mushy blah."
"Oh yeah?" He crossed his arms and glanced about in a minor panic, seeking something impressive. "Well check this out!"
He rushed down an alley to a parking lot behind the record store. A safety railing blocked off a steep hill that led down into a belt of pine trees. Just visible on the other side was a dilapidated set of barracks and a large office-type building with the word laboratory just visible.
"Wow. What is that place?" Ray said, genuinely interested for the first time in the tour.
"Hah! I knew that'd get you." Lewis cocked his head triumphantly. "That's the old, abandoned army base and lab. Morningvale was built for fighting the Russians in World War III."
"And then it didn't happen. So this is a leftover from the fifties. One giant anachronism."
"So it's… like… a big spider with bad eyesight?"
Ray stood in dumbfounded silence for a moment, hoping for some sort of indication this was a joke.
"No. Anyway. I guess that's kinda cool. I bet it's full of scientific instruments and stuff. Can we go check it out?"
"Well, I don't know if we can go there. It's kind of—"
Ray smirked and nodded, fully expecting the excuse.
"It's, it's kind of," Lewis stammered. "Kind of my Grandpa's thing! He'd know how to get in there. Come on!"