Nocturnal Meetings of the Misplaced
176 pages
English

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176 pages
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Mystery surrounds the town of Summertime, Indiana, where fifteen-year-old Tommy Walker and his little sister are sent to live with relatives they’ve never met. Tommy soon makes friends with Finn Wilds, a rebellious local who lives with his volatile and abusive stepfather, who also happens to be the town’s sheriff. 



Finn invites Tommy to late night meetings in the woods, where Tommy gets to know two girls. He forms a special and unique connection with both girls. The meetings become a place where the kids, who don’t fit in at school, or home can finally belong. As the group of friends begin to unravel clues to a cold case murder and kidnapping— they learn the truth is darker and closer than they ever imagined. Even if they live to tell, will anyone believe them?

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Informations

Publié par
Date de parution 01 mai 2018
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9788827573075
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0002€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

Nocturnal Meetings of the Misplaced


R.J. Garcia
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used factiously.

THE PARLIAMENT HOUSE
www.parliamenthousepress.com

ISBN: 9788827573075

An imprint of Machovi Productions Inc.
NOCTURNAL MEETINGS OF THE MISPLACED. Copyright ©2018 by Ronda Garcia. All Rights Reserved. Printed in the United States of America.

Cover design by Shayne Leighton

Edited by C.K. Brooke, David Rochelero, Beaird Glover
Created with Vellum
This book is dedicated to my sweet, amazing mom who always believed in my crazy dreams. The world isn’t the same place without you.
Contents



1. The Drive

2. An Invitation

3. Introductions

4. Nocturnal Meetings

5. Other than Saturday

6. The Letter

7. Hate

8. Laney Serel

9. Scream

10. The Ride

11. What Can Go Wrong

12. Tommy

13. The Good, the Bad, and the Interesting

14. Infatuation

15. Silence

16. The Dance

17. Darker Hours

18. Clutter

19. A Cabin in the Woods

20. Cake

21. Loving You

22. Where R We?

23. At Night

24. Where R U?

25. Bad News

26. The Hospital

27. A Bad Idea

28. Words

29. Held Hostage

30. Talk to Me

31. My Return

32. The Fourth of July

33. The Rescue

34. The Alpha

35. Questions

36. The Cold

37. To Grandmother’s House

38. The Discovery

39. A Happy Place

40. Silence’s Mother

41. When Evening Comes

42. The Haunted Lady

43. What Followed

44. You’re Nowhere I Know

45. Secrets and Shadows

46. The Unexpected

47. Unprepared

48. Goodbyes

49. Saturday Night

50. Sfs

51. The Phantom Van

52. It’s Time

53. Hurry

54. The House of Cards

55. The End Game

56. Waiting

57. The Good Part


About the Author

Thank You For Reading

Acknowledgments

The Parliament House
Chapter 1

The Drive

Present
I was alone in a small windowless room with four white walls, sitting at a table, on one of those metal chairs not designed for comfort. I could feel every second, knowing if I looked nervous I seemed guilty, and if I was too calm, I was a run-of-the-mill sociopath.
Now and then, I glanced up at a small black camera mounted on top of the wall. Its little demonic eye beamed down on me. I thought of giving it the finger but decided against it. Finally, I rested my elbows on the table and held my head with my hands. My ankle throbbed, and my butt went numb. I had signed some paper saying my caseworker didn’t have to be present during questioning and wondered if I had signed my life away.
After almost an hour the door flew open. The detective with a hulk nose entered, in uniform. I noticed the star on his lapel. He had a wannabe superhero look, with blocky side-parted hair and broad shoulders. His imposing frame lorded over me before he sat down in the chair directly across from mine. “Hello, Tommy. You remember me; I’m Deputy Bennet?”
I nodded my head. “Yes.”
“Let’s get down to business. You and your friends like meeting late at night and starting fires. You’re really fascinated with fire, aren’t you?”
“It’s not like that. We just—”
“You’re sixteen, but you like to hang around younger kids. Kids you can influence.”
“No,” I mumbled.
“A lot of interesting things have happened since you moved here to Summertime... homicides...arson. Why do you end up at all my crimes scenes?”
“Um, I had some bad luck.” Holy crap, I was becoming like that guy who got struck by lightning seven times. No one trusts that guy. My chest ached the way my stomach felt after binge eating like it was all too much. “Can we just get this over with?” I asked.
“It’s not that simple.” He sounded calm, friendly even. The more he talked, the more freaked out I felt inside. “You see, I want to know everything you did since you moved to Summertime, so don’t leave out a thing.”
I squinted at him as if to ask, “ What ?”
“I’m going to chat with you for hours, and then I’m going to talk to your redheaded friend. I’m going to see if your stories line up.” He threaded his fingers together to emphasize the point.
I realized I was holding my breath and exhaled. Breathing was no longer a natural thing.
“Let’s start from the beginning. How and why did you come to Indiana in the first place?” he asked.
“Okay, sir, I guess it started with the drive here?” I asked, confused. What was he looking for?
“Alright let’s start with the drive,” he decided.
I channeled my inner hard-ass and told that cop only what he needed to hear. This dark story started long before my time, but the memories of my nine months in Summertime, Indiana played in my head like a 4-D movie.



Nine months earlier
My mom’s brother and his wife that we’d never met agreed to take us in. They lived in Indiana, two hours from the city. On the drive over, Isabella sank in the silence. Her oversized brown eyes stared out the car window as the skyline loomed into view. A collection of skyscrapers shot up like a crown. It was the picture on a postcard and not the Chicago I knew. After the high-rises, only asphalt greeted us. The lady, Reese, rambled on about Disney movies with a southern drawl. Yet she lived in the North, so I didn’t get it. She wasn’t beautiful or ugly, but somewhere in between. She had brown hair, pulled back in a peppy ponytail, with a clean and wholesome vibe about her.
My sister blinked at me.
“Isabella likes all those movies,” I answered for her. Being polite was kind of a sickness with me. I don’t know why. It seemed easier, I guess.
“And what do you like, Tommy?” Reese asked.
“I like Chicago,” I replied; my bitterness cutting through my obligation to be polite. Right when she stopped talking, the guy started in.
“What do you like about Chicago?” my uncle, named Holden, asked from the driver’s seat. I had only seen one photo of him before. It was a wrinkled, pissed on school picture that my mom always kept with her. He was about thirteen in the picture and a cool-looking kid. He was taller and more potato-like as a man. Some women might have found him attractive. He could have played the dumb but lovable best friend to the leading man.
I wasn’t sure how to answer him. Getting stoned, I thought, but my own head knew I was lying because I didn’t even do that very often. If I did, it happened on a Friday, or Saturday, with Isabella, safely tucked away for the night. “I like hanging out with my friends.” I didn’t have many friends.
“I’m sure you’ll make new friends, too,” the woman said, still looking in the mirror. “He mainly watches TV,” Isabella said, coming to life.
“Well, we’ve got a TV,” Holden offered up.
They seemed alright. I can’t say I relaxed. The guy was big and my main concern. I’d have to watch Isabella closely. My eyes fixed on the backseat window, watching yellow lines on grey roads, trying my best to zone out. I looked up at the Welcome to Indiana sign and felt a curious pull toward the life we were driving away from. Isabella felt it, too. She started crying, saying she wanted our mom. Reese partly turned, facing the backseat and said, “It’s alright, baby.”
I decided to tell Isabella we would see Mom soon. I told myself this. Yet a second later, I thought we would never see her again. The two thoughts wrestled in my brain.
When Isabella stopped crying, and I stared out the window. We drove by one cornfield after the next, all a steely, faded color. Was there really that much demand for corn? The farther we drove, the more convinced I became that we weren’t ever going back.
We fell into an uncomfortable silence.
Isabella shrieked, when she saw a few horses, almost jumping out of her car seat. I pretended to be happy about it. “That’s cool.”
Reese called out, “Well this is it.” Suddenly, we turned off the expressway. A sign welcoming us to Summertime further confirmed it. It was a place you would pass on the way to somewhere else. We drove past a post office, library, Mabel’s Antiques, Summertime Diner and a DQ. It looked clean and old-fashioned as if we had traveled back in time. Again, we turned away from what little civilization there was and rolled down a long country road, the street sign eerily reading Old Cemetery Road. My stomach moved with the car. Sure enough, I spied a small gated cemetery. A couple of minutes later, we slowed down at a house that had a stand with tomatoes for sale. A redheaded boy about my age sat on a lounge chair as if he worked there. Some smaller kids scampered around the lawn, all of them blond and each cuter than the next.
We pulled into a driveway, the rocks crunching under the wheels. Dust from the pebbles found the energy to drift and collapse on a flower bed. I looked up at a split-level house, composed of yellow siding with a little brick, on a big plot of land. A similar house stood next to this one, but it had a front porch boasting thick, stone columns. Only the panorama of woods lurked behind these two solitary houses.
“This is our house. Your house, too, for now,” Reese said, her voice friendly but not that phony kind of friendly. I wished she wouldn’t be so nice because I already decided not to like her.
I looked over at Isabella. Tears dripped off her face onto her neck as she hugged herself. Reese opened the car door. My sister looked at me with a panicked and tear-streaked face. A kind of pain swept through me. I managed to get the words out. “It’s okay, Izzy. Go with her.”
Chapter 2

An Invitation

The car was parked under the branches of a towering tree. The sunlight streamed in between the branches in thin, hazy shafts. Even the bark of the tree looked a strange white color. Nothing seemed real about that day.
“Come here, cutie. I bought you some things,” Reese said as she took my sister’s hand, helping her out of the car.
I got out too, feeling weightless, and slammed the car door shut.
Isabella’s tears came to a halt, and she said, “I like toys.”
“It was a lucky guess on my part.” Reese smiled, picking Isabella up.
Even the fresh air seemed suspect. Nausea moved in my stomach. It all happened so fast. The grim serenity of not being present slipped away from me. This was my new house? I considered the house. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.
The weird redheaded boy abandoned his vegetable stand and ran toward us. Before long, the boy was almost in my personal space. My feet stirred the pebbles on the drive as I backed up.
Holden grinned. “This is Finn, our neighbor. This is Tommy, my nephew.”
“Hey,” I said. Reese stood next to Holden, still holding Isabella on her hip.
He started talking, “My last name’s Wilds, but the rest of my family are Bears. You know, because my mom remarried.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. I just knew he was a clueless kid without a care in the world.
“Want a tomato?” He extended his hand with the tomato toward me.
“No, thanks.” It seemed like a lonely street, and I wondered, “Do you make any money?”
“Nah, we’re just playing store.” The stupid kid started eyeballing me up and down, sizing me up. “Oh man, I was hoping you were bigger. You’re shorter than me,” he complained. I noticed he held the tomato like you’d hold a softball.
“Let me guess why you want him to be bigger—Mudget,” Holden smirked, standing over six feet tall, dwarfing the kid named Finn and me.
Finn shrugged. “Well, yeah.”
I didn’t ask who Mudget was because I didn’t care.
Reese looked at Finn and me, promising, “You guys will be great friends.”
This made Finn smile. He started telling me how he had a dirt bike that he was working on. I guess that was cool. “We could work on it together and share it,” Finn generously suggested.
“I’m from Chicago. I can’t fix things.”
“Just keep me company while I work, and we can still share it,” the boy said. A series of nervous blinks followed the offer, calling attention to his long white eyelashes.
“That sounds good,” Reese said, her voice honey-coated, yet sincere. How did she think she could answer for me?
The kid tossed the tomato up, and Holden leaned in and caught it. With a toothy grin, Holden tossed it back to him. Several small ones from next door invaded the lawn. Reese set Isabella down, and they all began to run around. A ripple of giggles followed them. They were happy little creatures, most of them with sticky, food-crusted faces.
“Are you sixteen?” I asked the boy.
“I’m almost fifteen. Hell, I’ll drive it.” Finn turned his head and spit, maybe trying to look tough. Yet he kept his eyes wide and friendly.
Isabella was already holding hands with a blond girl around her age. It was the kind of instant friendship that only happens when you’re three or four.
“Well, Tommy has to follow the rules because he’s a ward of the state,” Holden said. Reese hissed at him and told him not to put it that way. Finn looked down.
“I’m not a ward of the state. It’s temporary,” I squeaked. An overwhelming sadness rushed in. I tried to think about something else before I lost it and did something stupid like cry.
Holden broke in. “Do you want to see your room? It’s not much.”
That helped me pull it together. “Yeah, sure,” I said, sounding casual.
Isabella ran in circles with the other small kids. I only had to say one word to get her attention. “Presents.” Isabella hurried over to me, her face lit with nervous anticipation. Reese again took her hand. Holden grabbed the large suitcase with everything we owned in it and walked toward the house. I lingered by the white Chevy Malibu that brought me to this strange new life.
Finn whispered, “If you’re interested, me and a couple of friends meet around midnight on Saturdays.” He walked away before I could reply.
I became instantly intrigued by the midnight thing. “Do I just knock on your door?” I called out.
He pivoted back around, his face full of color and alarm. “If you want to get me killed!” Walking back over to me, Finn’s voice returned to an easy whisper, but this time it had a twang to it. “Just meet me by my mailbox, would ya?” Then he started running around, waving his arms to gather up all his younger siblings. Finn rushed to pick up the smallest one, who was crawling toward the road. Looking around, I counted four.
I imagined having to take care of that many. “Holy crap,” I muttered to myself.
Reese called to me from the front door.
I followed Holden to a small room in the basement. It had a bed and beat-up wardrobe in it. There was cheap peel-and-stick flooring and dark, outdated paneling on the walls, but I lived in worse places.
Holden led me back upstairs to one of those bright and sunny kitchens. He invited me to take a seat and called Reese in too. Izzy sat next to her, not saying a word. Yet her hands fluttered on her lap like two caged birds.
“I want you to feel welcome,” Holden said but made it clear he wanted me out of the way. I had to be in bed by ten o’clock, or at least be in my room by that time.
Lines appeared by Reese’s eyes that made it look like she fought the urge to smile. Yet her thin lips bowed into a concentrated frown.
Of course, there was, “No drinking, or smoking. Ask before you go out. Always treat Reese with respect. She’s number one here. Your job will be going to school and mowing the lawn if you want to keep your cell phone.”
I felt out of place. After all, I never had rules or a kitchen table before. I nodded and agreed with whatever the big guy said.
I observed the clean white appliances, a hanging plant, and even a spice rack.
They ordered pizza for us and we all ate together, then I stretched out on the floor of Isabella’s room.
It was a small pink room, painted just for Izzy, with a tall window overlooking the backyard and woods. The window was open about an inch. Thin lace curtains billowed in and out, almost as if it were breathing. I stayed there watching it until my little sister fell asleep around ten o’clock.
Anyway, I hadn’t been able to sleep much and thought I might as well meet that kid, Finn. I texted my friend Carlos about the secret meeting. This way, at least one person would know what happened if I ended up missing or dead. Yeah, I watched a lot of true crime shows. Carlos said it might be a cult because that kind of thing was big in small towns. Finn didn’t seem dark enough.
There would probably only be Finn and another lame kid with a flashlight and comic book and it wouldn’t be worth pissing off Holden. But my brain needed a night off from thinking and trying not to think. I’d sneak upstairs and if I got caught I’d pretend to want a glass of milk. Otherwise, I’d slip out the back.
I put on my raggedy Nikes and crept up the stairs, stopping each time a step creaked. Squeezing the narrow, wooden banisters, my nerves kicked in. I was really going to do this.
I placed one sneaker on the kitchen’s tile. The lights were off, but the moon and starlight trickled in. I could see the patio, only feet away from my freedom. I heard the TV from the next room. According to my cell phone, it was already midnight. Would Finn still be waiting? I decided to go for it. I held my breath as if that would make me lighter and grabbed the handle of the sliding glass door as a man’s voice asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
I jumped, startled, bracing myself before turning back around to face him.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Holden said.
“I wanted a little fresh air,” my voice came out in an uneasy whisper.
He walked toward me in his sweat pants and a T-shirt, holding a can of beer. His expression hardened. “You saw where not following the rules got your mother.”
“Yeah, I saw.” I glumly nodded. He seemed calm, but I didn’t know if he was angrier than he let on, or what he was capable of.
It surprised me when he said, “Tommy, it will get better. I promise.”
Reese came in the kitchen, turning on the too-bright light. Her hair surprisingly disheveled, and partly veiling her face, made her look kind of pretty. She closed her pink terry cloth robe. “Do you want some milk or something, sweetie?” She squinted at me.
I ran my nervous hands over my face. “No. I’m going back to bed.” They both stared at me with blank expressions as I went by.
Back in the basement, I walked around. That was when I noticed a large ground-level window and my easy escape, but I didn’t feel like going anymore. A multicolored afghan lay folded on top of the sofa. I snatched it and walked back to my strange, new room. I sprawled out on top of the neatly made bed. I texted back and forth with my friend Carlos for a while and watched YouTube videos for hours. My cell phone read five o’clock in white numbers like it did— when pounding woke me up. I was half asleep and freezing because we kept the thermostat at fifty. I grabbed a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around my body and got up. The dawn crept in through the flimsy blinds.
I walked into the living room, rubbing my eyes with my fingers, under the fluorescent glare. I saw my mom open the door. An older, black lady in a business suit stood there, with two police officers posed just behind her. They all wedged their way in. One of the officers was Hispanic with a bone-clean head and Van Dyke. The other officer was a muscly, white guy with a big neck and bloated face.
The lady asked my mom if she was Jennifer Walker. My mom made a noncommittal noise, before saying, “Yeah.” Next, the lady told my mom her name, and that she was with The Department of Child Welfare. I took a couple steps toward them. The lady talked to my mom. “I am here for the welfare of the children.”
My mom asked her to “Please go.”
The social worker did this thing where she put her hand up and said, “Ah, ah, ah, I am here for the welfare of these children.” This time, the lady overenunciated each word.
My mom looked small and shaky. She started to slur her words a little. “I’m a good mom.” She looked over at me, her eyes with a peculiar glaze over them. Her right hand was nervously clutching at her collarbone as she said my name over and over like I could get her out of this. The police officers came out of my mom’s room.
I didn’t know what to do. “She’s a good mom,” I mumbled. I heard the patter of small, quick feet. I turned to see Isabella running to me. I picked her up. Her face never left my shoulder.
The caseworker was a fat woman made puffier by superiority. The white officer held up a small bag of crack and looked at my mom. I flinched inside. My mom always told me not to use anything stronger than pot. “You’re going with us, good mom,” he said. I hated that guy.
That was it. I felt a twist in my gut. My life ended.
I pushed the pain down until I felt hollow. Everything stopped. I guess I fell to sleep.
Chapter 3

Introductions

The yard was a nice size and neatly manicured, with juniper bushes bordering the side of the house. It was mid-February and a crazy seventy degrees. Birds made trilling sounds off in the distance. The air outside smelled like charcoal and charring meat. Holden manned an impressive, stainless steel grill. Okay, it was probably the nicest place I had ever stayed. Yet, the feeling remained, a slight rumble in my stomach from living in a world turned upside down.
“They found a dead body in those woods,” my third cousin Jessi told me, when she caught my eyes shifting to the surrounding trees. Maybe she was tired of the getting to know you chit-chat. She was around my mom’s age. She had short brown hair with tacky blond highlights and teeth too small for her face.
Izzy latched onto my arm.
Jessi realized she hit the wrong target and added, “It was a long time ago.” Her eyes moved to Izzy. Her lips twisted into an apologetic smile.
“It’s okay, Izzy. If you go back far enough in history, probably something bad has happened everywhere,” I reasoned. This may not have been comforting. “Probably some civil war guys died at a Dunkin Donuts, but the Dunkin Donuts isn’t haunted.”
Jessi’s husband Sean looked like a military guy with his hair buzzed short. I noticed his beer gut, so he probably wasn’t in good enough shape to be in the army. I got stuck sitting next to them at a picnic-type table in Holden and Reese’s backyard. Isabella sat on the other side of me, still clinging to my arm. They had two small kids who were chasing one another. Jessi warned them not to play with the hillbillies next door.
Sean broke in, “Oh come on, Sheriff Bears is good people.” He looked at me. “Have you met him yet, Tommy? He’s a badass. I once saw him snap a guy’s arm like it was a twig.”
“Really impressive,” I said with heavy sarcasm.
“I know,” he grinned, not picking up on my tone.
I laid it out in simple terms. “The guy is a sheriff. He’s supposed to protect people. He’s an asshole.” The guy was so stupid. I didn’t even feel like I was talking to an adult.
“You better not let Sheriff Bears hear you say that,” Sean warned me. “Otis Bears is someone you don’t mess with.” After a small pause, he thought of more to say. “Well, have you heard about your crazy Uncle Earl?”
“I have a crazy uncle?” I asked, mildly interested.
“He’s your grandmother’s younger brother and was a clown in the circus for a while, no, Jess?”
Jessi corrected him. “No. He delivered bouncy houses for kid’s birthday parties. Leddy’s the one obsessed with clowns. He’s not crazy. He had a nervous breakdown.”
The two bickered when their little girl toddled up to the table. Her pointy chin jutted up, and she wore the glazed expression that only a drunk or little kid could achieve, asking, “Why don’t you and your sister match?”
Innocently, she noticed that I was white, like them, and Isabella was more caramel, if you had to say a color. It struck me as kind of funny. Izzy smiled, too. I explained, “We have different dads.” The girl asked Isabella to play, and my sister gladly skipped off with her. Isabella’s S -shaped curls swayed while they ran to the tree line and stopped as if there was some magnetic field keeping them from entering the woods.
Reese came out with a big bowl full of potato salad, telling me, “You gotta try some, Tommy,” when Sean interrupted her, asking if my dad was Mexican because I had black hair and brown eyes.
Jessi reached over the table, and smacked him, saying, “He looks white.” She pointed out, “He just has brown hair and brown eyes,” as if being Mexican would have been a bad thing. Carlos was Mexican and the coolest guy I knew, next to Simon. The parents were kind of racist for sure.
I felt relieved when Holden changed the subject. Truthfully, I didn’t know who my father was. I started to think my uncle wasn’t all that bad.
Dusk pushed the daylight back into the sun when the grandparents I hadn’t even met arrived in a grey, four-door sedan. We all gathered on that dusty driveway.
My grandfather gave me a weak, clammy handshake. He was a small, nervous man. He had the face of a basset hound with the sad, humble eyes, loose jowls, and sagging neck. He was an old guy, yet it seemed at least some of this look must have accompanied him his entire life.
My grandmother nodded as if I had done something to please her, and said, “Well, look at you.” She didn’t look that old, although she had short grey hair, which was neatly tucked behind her large ears. Her eyes were bright blue with a few lines around them that ran deep, like tiny scars. Her eyebrows appeared to be drawn on in dramatic arches.
They weren’t the scary, ominous figures my mom had made them out to be. In fact, they had even bought a TV for me, and not a small one, but a big-screen TV. I fell into a state of shock when I saw Holden and Sean lugging it to the front door, as Jessi held it open for them.
Isabella commented, “They must be rich.”
Our grandmother overheard her and smiled. “The big TVs were almost the same price as the smaller ones,” she told us. She patted Izzy on the head and took me off guard, kissing me hard on the lips and said, “Damn that daughter of mine for keeping you from me.” She huffed out my name dramatically several times. It hung in the air between us. I wasn’t in the moment with her. None of them felt like long-lost family to me.
The old man slipped me a twenty-dollar bill, saying, “You’re a handsome boy.”
My grandma said, “I couldn't understand why your mother ran away from home. We did everything for that girl.”
I felt a wave of something but didn’t know how to respond.
Ending the awkward silence, Reese said, “That’s some TV. You’re going to have your own bachelor pad downstairs,” before she corralled everybody inside the house for homemade apple pie.
Later, I thanked my grandmother for the TV. She told me she worked at Walmart and got a discount anyway.
My grandmother worked at Walmart? Everything seemed weird to me. She had gifts for Isabella too, including an Easy Bake oven. Isabella relished all the gifts and attention. I just wanted the day to end.



Monday Reese registered us both for school. When Tuesday came, Reese drove Izzy to preschool, since she worked as a secretary there anyway, but I had to take the bus.
Finn and I said, “Hey,” and stood in the bright morning sun waiting for the bus. He had a split lip and it looked like his enthusiasm, from the other day, had been knocked off his face. I guess he looked as shitty as I felt.
My mind flickered between what I should say. I almost asked about his lip, but instead explained, “Holden caught me trying to sneak out.”
He eyed me and yawned in reply before saying, “I didn’t make it either. Next time.” He wore a faded flannel over a T-shirt with jeans. At least he had on sneakers, which saved him from looking like too much of a country boy. Suddenly, Finn executed an about-face and stalked off across the lawn. Only then I noticed the bus was coming and I trailed right behind him.
Once on the bus, Finn took up an entire seat, stretching out like a comfortable house cat.
I sat directly in front of him, hesitating before awkwardly stretching my legs across the seat, feeling stiffness in my shoulders. I finally asked, “What happened to your lip?”
“My stepdad. He caught me sneaking two beers from the fridge. One was for you.”
“That sucks.” He was starting to seem cool to me. I searched for something else to say. “So, will I get to meet Mudget?” I briefly grinned because the name sounded ridiculous.
“Unfortunately. If he sees you hang out with me, you will be on his list.”
Finn looked serious, but a smile again tugged at the corners of my lips. “I’ve got my ass kicked before. I’m good at it.”
“You’re not supposed to be proud of that.” His voice hit a flat note.
We stopped talking. I began to stare out the window at the forest following us. The morning light broke through the trees in ethereal rays. My sleepy brain drank in the mystery of it.
The bus slowed to its first creaky stop. Two girls in hoodies strolled onto the bus. Only one was cute enough to make me nervous. She had long blond hair and was all legs, with slender curves. It surprised me when Finn moved over, and she slid next to him. The other girl sat in the seat directly across from the super cute one.
The girl next to Finn pulled her hand from her pocket and punched him in the arm. “You stood me up!” she protested, thrusting her hands back into the pockets of her hoodie.
“Sorry. I got into this thing with my stepdad, and he took my phone,” he said apologetically. She looked at his puffy lip and let out a string of hard obscenities, finishing with, “He laid his hands on you!”
Finn grinned and blushed, liking the attention. “No, he punched me. Actually, he only slapped me. You know he has those giant pork chop hands.” Finn joked and seemed to forget I existed. Catching me eavesdropping, the pretty girl frowned at me. I briefly looked down.
She again punched Finn in the arm. “Listen, Wilds! I’m the only one allowed to punch you.” I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. Her eyes were pale green and her nose cute and a little chubby. Her lips were full and curvy. The more I looked at her, the prettier I noticed she was. “Why are you staring?” she finally asked.
“That’s Tommy. He’s cool,” Finn said. “He moved in with Holden and Reese.”
“Oh,” she replied, and stared at me, clearly deciding if I could be trusted.
I said, “Hi.”
“Well, Finn, introduce us.” This girl had darker blond hair that hung to her shoulders, with a pinkish gathering of pimples on her forehead which interrupted her otherwise baby-smooth skin. She wore thin, crooked braids at each side, making her look like a hippie. She had sweet eyes and a long nose that looked nice enough on her face. She looked a little smaller and younger than the other girl.
“That’s Annie.”
Annie smiled, showing a mouth full of wires.
Finn continued, “And the mean one’s Silence.”
“I am mean.” Silence’s almost-shy smile revealed dimples. This really took me by surprise.
I swiveled around farther in my seat to face her. Nervously, I double-checked. “Silence?” My face felt warm when I asked her.
“Yeah. Silence Harper,” she replied in a what’s-it-to-you tone and folded her arms.
“And Annie,” the other girl added.
Silence dropped her head on Finn’s shoulder. He closed his eyes as if he was used to being close to her. Was she his girlfriend? I thought Finn wasn’t the type to talk to girls, let alone have an actual girlfriend. Aside from being pretty, this girl had something special about her. I hadn’t figured it out.
Annie leaned toward me to ask, “What grade are you in, Tommy?”
“I’m a freshman, like you guys.”
“Oh no, I’m in eighth grade.” Annie explained, “I had to repeat the third grade because I had encephalitis and missed too much school. And Silence is in seventh grade.” I glanced at her in disbelief. Her shoulders slumped, and she seemed to lose her edge.
That explained how Finn could hang around a girl that cool. She was just a kid. I turned back around in my seat, no longer as intrigued. I thought it was weird how they put freshmen with the junior-high kids.
I looked out the window. It was nothing like the city. There were small houses with big yards and lawn ornaments, some of them faring better than others, with fake brick and stone. Then a run-down trailer suddenly got thrown into the mix. Everything seemed connected by narrow, tree-lined roads. I had landed in The Middle, for sure.
Finally, we arrived. The school was small compared to my old school. It was a two-story brick building, oddly square shaped. It contained the seventh and eighth grade classes, with an adjoining freshman wing. A dozen or so kids started getting up from their seats. Silence motioned for me to go in front of her. I did. She was almost as tall as me, and was twelve?
“Thanks,” I said.
She gave a half smile in reply. I overheard Annie whispering to Silence that I was cute. As far as I knew, I had never been cute before.
The girls went their way and we went ours. “What’s your locker number?” Finn asked.
“568.”
“Cool, your locker’s right by mine.”
I followed him, not really knowing what to expect. My role of Chicago public school student had been to occasionally show up and appear as disinterested as everyone else. My eyes blinked around the place. Random kids stood by their lockers. Others congregated in the middle of the hall, making it a challenge to get through. All the morning, voices around me played like a meaningless drone. Mainly I kept my head down. Although the floor looked buffed and polished, it remained dingy with its fair share of scuff marks. I shouldered my backpack as Finn and I made our way to our lockers. Each locker shined with a fresh coat of purple paint. That’s when a feeling of nervousness moved in my gut.
My initial moment of new-kid panic was interrupted when a short blond boy rushed up to Finn. He had a number two pencil stuck above his ears and twitched with excitement, announcing, “Mudget got sent home for bringing a knife on the bus.” He looked like a junior-high kid but had a surprisingly husky voice. Finn’s head dipped, a few times, digesting the information.
I asked, “Was he expelled?”
The kid replied, “I don’t know. I sure hope so.”
“Oh man, that would be awesome.” A look of uncertainty swept across Finn’s face and his cheeks burned pink and hot.
A girl came around the corner, but I wasn’t really paying attention. The blond kid’s eyes got big and he hurried off, weaving in between bigger kids. The laces of his untied sneakers skittered across the linoleum. Finn whispered, “That’s Hailee Palmer. Her dad’s the mayor.”
I looked at her. That was my first mistake.
Unlike Silence’s hair, which hung limp and lifeless, Hailee’s long brown hair flowed in soft waves, each one expertly tousled. It was hair from a TV commercial, too wondrous for real life. Silence could have been the pretty girl in the before shot that was cute enough to begin with. Hailee personified the after picture, with immaculate makeup and everything glowing. I’m weird, preferring the before in the scenario. I wanted to cut Hailee’s hair off and make her a regular person. That way seeing her wouldn’t mess me up so much.
“I know this school isn’t always friendly to new students, so let me know if you need anything,” Hailee said, smiling warmly and adult-like.
After an extra-uncomfortable beat, I replied, “I’m good,” and began fumbling with my locker. The combination I memorized didn’t work. A teasing smile played on Hailee’s lips. Nervously, I double-checked the numbers jotted across my palm.
Hailee’s opened her locker. “Are you sure you don’t need help with that?” She grinned at me, making me even more embarrassed.
“I’m sure.”
Finn interrupted my blundering attempts. “You know that’s my locker?”
My face became warm. I saw the girl walk away from the corner of my eye.
“Oh yeah, sorry,” I said, but flicked him a questioning look.
A spark had returned to his eyes, and Finn laughed. He knew it was his locker all along.
“Thanks a lot.”
“C’mon, it was funny. And you should be happy. Hailee actually spoke to you,” Finn said, shaking his head in disbelief.
Concentrating, I spun the numbers in. “Yeah, so?” I flung my locker door open.
“I haven’t talked to her since we dated in kindergarten. You know, before the social order was established. She hasn’t talked to me much since.”
I had to smile. “You dated in kindergarten?” I unzipped my backpack and grabbed the book I needed just before the bell rang and we rushed to class. It was such a small school that Finn and I had most of our classes together. I only had art with Hailee because she was in honors, I guess.
I’m not sure why, but Hailee made me feel oddly aware of my host of deep, dark secrets and social crimes, which included feeling small and insignificant, having a drug-addicted mother, and now being a foster kid and my deepest secret of all. I had never even kissed a girl and wasn’t sure I ever would.



In each class, I suffered the recurring torture of introducing myself. I had to say my name and either tell something about myself or the state where I was from. To both prompts, I replied, “I’m from Chicago.”
By fourth period, when I was asked to introduce myself, a boy answered for me, “That’s Chicago.” A few kids laughed.
Finn explained, “That’s Brandon White. He’s the guy who gives the nicknames.”
“I didn’t know that was a thing,” I whispered. In this strange, little school, it was.
I made it through my first day and week of school.
Chapter 4

Nocturnal Meetings

A sense of fragility filled the air. We were in the woods late at night without any adults. It seemed a little dangerous. The kind of dangerous that makes you know you’re alive. The wind mysteriously moaned. Some of the trees remained bare and stark, still dormant from the winter. Other trees had come back to life but started shedding from the return of the cold. It would have made an ideal setting for a horror movie.
I looked at a jet-black sky through a waning awning of leaves. The crescent moon ghosted down on us, along with a few scattered stars. We stepped on dead leaves and foliage and kept walking. After about fifteen minutes we made it to a clearing. Motionless shadows from the trees showed on the frosted grass.
The beam of the flashlight whirled around wildly as Finn shot it around the surrounding trees. Stray rays of light even touched the treetops.
“Are you sure this is where we’re supposed to meet them?” I asked.
Finn leaned back, resting his arm against a majestic oak tree, near the edge of the clearing. “Yeah. I’m positive. We always meet here.” The massive tree branches spindled out like a giant fan, some of the lower branches almost touched the ground.
Although it was the first official day of spring, the temperatures had dropped. I was the dumb kid who only wore a hoodie. Now that we stopped moving, the coldness knifed its way up my feet and ankles. Before I knew it, the chill took the rest of my body. I shifted all around in a lame attempt to keep warm. “It’s really cold,” I complained.
“You don’t have to tell me. My tomatoes died,” he said gravely.
Shivering, I told him, “You know, your blood can literally freeze.”
“It’s not that cold,” Finn replied, mildly irritated. He stepped toward me, pulling off his black ski cap and gloves, which had the fingers cut out. We were a generation so obsessed with our phones that we couldn’t even wear real gloves anymore. Finn handed them to me. Once I slipped them both on, they helped a little.
We heard a kind of rustling off in the foliage. Confusion registered on his face, mirroring my own. Finn shined the light toward the sound, but we didn’t see anything.
“It’s probably a squirrel or raccoon,” he decided.
“So, um, why do the girls say the woods are haunted?” Silence and Annie told me this yesterday on the bus. I laughed it off. Now I was shaky and somehow on pins and needles. I pushed away images of serial killers and axe murders that bounced around inside my skull from growing up watching good family shows like Criminal Minds .
Finn shrugged, saying, “You know girls. They’re scared of everything.”
Out of nowhere, I felt a hand on my shoulder. Finn screamed like a girl and I scrambled backward and almost fell! Silence and Annie stood behind us, laughing.
“Girls are scared, huh?” Silence asked, crossing her arms.
Finn blinked hard. His annoyance flashed on his face. “No fair, Si!”
Silence gloated. “You’re such a big baby.”
I smiled over at her. “Really funny, but we can’t stay long. It’s freezing.”
Silence moved in closer to me and asked, “Are you a wimp?”
“No,” I mumbled.
Annie broke in, “It is really cold. But a snack might distract us.” She ripped into a duffel bag slung over her shoulder and pulled out a lantern with a light bulb in it. She set it down and turned it on. Next, she took out a white bakery box.
She handed us each a chocolate-covered doughnut, saying, “One for you and you,” looking serious about the task. My Chicago friends would have brought something to drink or smoke. They were lame junior-high kids living out a part of my childhood I had skipped.
“Thanks,” I said.
“I love doughnuts!” Finn howled.
Annie held her doughnut with her teeth, fumbling to get the box back in her bag. We all ate in the dark, eyeing one another in a semi-circle. Everyone else had on their winter coat. Silence’s eyes fixed on mine and we both watched the other eat until she craned her neck around and whispered to Annie. The two stepped aside, conspiring in a secret conversation.
“I know what will warm us all up. Let’s have a make-out party!” Annie said, finishing with a big, uneasy smile, complete with chocolate braces and teeth. I grimaced and smiled at the same time. Annie turned shy and covered up her face with her hands, peeking at me through the gaps of her fingers.
Silence reasoned, “People in the city probably have parties like that all the time.”
“Probably, but I don’t get invited to them. I mean that much.”
“Well that way, we can keep warm.” Silence pushed the idea, walking toward me, but seemed to lose her nerve, stopping about a foot from me.
“Go on, Silence, hug him. He’s shaking,” Annie said, shoving Silence right into me. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders, keeping her head down. Hesitantly, I put my arms around her. My fingers curled under the warmth of her backpack. She lifted her head up. For an awkward second, her nose went into my lips. We both pulled away.
“Why can’t you keep him warm, Annie?” Finn quietly asked, breaking me out of a kind of spell. When I glanced at Finn, even in the dim light, I could see he looked hurt. I walked away from Silence toward him, and a look of gratitude crossed his face.
“Hey, let’s build a fire,” he suggested. I could see they had already constructed a sort of fire pit with stones from earlier visits.
“Okay. Everybody find sticks, twigs,” Silence said, getting onboard with the idea. “I’ve got a lighter.” She took out a small Bic lighter from her coat pocket, wiggling it around.
“Yeah, let’s do it,” I agreed, rubbing my gloved hands together.
I had dropped an armful of branches and sticks into the pit when Annie screamed. I rushed over. Finn and Silence were there, too. She held up a weather-beaten doll. Finn shined the flashlight on it. Its face was worn away. Its dress faded and ragged.
Silence yanked it from her and stared at it. “I thought I’d never find this again.”
“It might really be possessed. Get rid of it,” Annie nervously advised her.
“It’s pretty filthy. Should you even be touching it?” I asked. It looked like something that could have housed spiders.
“Just put it down, Silence.” Finn tried to pull it from her hands.
Silence held onto it with effort. Finn let go. A breeze toyed with a strand of her hair and made her look mysterious.
Annie shook her head in clear disapproval, her lips small and tight. “You’re not bringing that thing to my house.” She grabbed her lantern at her feet, directing toward the faceless doll. “Can’t you see it’s evil?”
Silence stuffed the doll into her backpack. “You’re stupid, Annie! Only people can be evil!” It seemed like a lot of drama about a dumb doll. It was a little funny.
They both got quiet.
“Let’s get more sticks. I’m even getting cold.” Finn’s upbeat voice lightened the mood. He turned to Silence. “That doll’s kind of creepy.”
“Just shut up. Anyway, everyone knows only the redhaired dolls are bad.” Silence smirked at Finn, as cool as ever.
He smiled, impressed. “Oh, really?”
“Come here, Chucky.” She grabbed his arm.
They were getting all touchy-feely, so I went over by Annie and started picking up more sticks. I asked her if she heard about a lady’s body being found in the woods.
“Yeah. We’re like the dumb kids in some slasher movie hanging out here at night,” she said, and started telling me, “And there were women kidnapped in this town a long time ago. And a baby disappeared.” When I asked more about it, Annie looked worried saying, “Just forget about it. I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you.” She sighed. “I talk too much.”
She hurried off, leaving me standing there. The wind had picked up and the leaves rattled around in the darkness. My body heat again dwindled to nothing and I started to shiver when I heard footsteps from behind me and Silence’s voice saying, “Let’s get this show started.”
I joined Annie on a log in front of the pit. Silence sat down next to me until Finn squeezed in between us. She didn’t complain but draped her arm over his shoulder. Finn whispered something to her and she loudly replied, “I’m not a little kid anymore.”
There was a pile of sticks in front of us in the stone pit. We all huddled up close together. Annie kept grinning at me but looked down when I smiled back at her. Silence took out her small lighter and picked up a twig from the pile and lit it. The first flame flickered to life. Silence went to work setting several other sticks on fire and dropping them in the heap. Soon we had a real fire going. It was amazing. I never saw a campfire in person. The fire crackled and popped, blazing with shades of orange and white as the warmth slowly returned to my body. The smoke drifted up. It looked like long, grey fingers. I took in the fresh smell of the wood burning.
It was one of those times that you don’t realize it, but you’re making a memory and a pretty good one.
Chapter 5

Other than Saturday

I’m not going to lie. I liked the rush of looking at Hailee. We never talked, except for an occasional “hello” by our lockers. School was just a place I had to go to. After school, I usually went to Finn’s. Somedays, I took Isabella to Finn’s house with me. All the little ones ran around like a big, happy daycare. We stuck in kid-friendly movies, nothing too intense, movies like Rush Hour, Transformers, and The Lion King, and just hung out.
The kids would climb on Finn, pretending he was a windy tree. He’d sway back and forth trying to balance himself. He had this way of making them laugh. He acted like an overgrown toddler and they loved him. Seeing him enjoy them so much made me enjoy being with Isabella more.
His mom looked like a teenager, in a way, with a few wrinkles drawn on. She had long blond hair that she would wear in braids or pigtails. She was in her bed a lot, with the TV blaring, or on her cell phone. Her bed also doubled as a makeshift changing station. A large jar of A and D Ointment and a box of baby wipes sat on the bedside table.
His mom pulled her braids out. Working her fingers through her crimped waves, she announced, “It’s my brock time. I love you, boys!” She had an accent and always pronounced “break,” “brock.” I figured she was Swedish but hadn’t asked Finn about it until I noticed a picture of his mom hanging up in the hallway. She looked young in the photo, maybe nineteen.
“Where’s your mom from?”
“She’s from Iceland. My dad met her when he was in the navy. He’s from Summertime. He married my mom and brought her here when she was pregnant with me. I could have been born in Iceland.”
“Have you ever been there?”
“Nah, I wish.”
I saw a few photos of his little brothers and sisters hanging in the hall, but none of Finn. Then I noticed a big silver frame with the photo of a boy, around our age, in it. He had a large moon face and slits for eyes. “Who’s the ugly kid?” I asked.
“That’s Mudget,” Finn casually replied.
I laughed a little. “Sorry, but your family hangs up a picture of your bully. That’s messed up.”
“Mudget’s my stepdad’s son.”
I couldn’t really read his expression. Mudget was his stepbrother? Weird.
“Does that mean Mudget visits?” I wondered out loud.
“He used to, but he hasn’t lately. My stepdad mainly complains about having to pay child support.”
That may have explained why his stepbrother had it out for him. He must have thought Finn was stealing his father-son moments. All he was really getting was his beatings.
When Finn’s stepdad Sheriff Bears would come home, the entire mood of the house darkened. Before Polar Bear would come home at five, Finn’s mom would rush in the kitchen on high alert and start cooking.
First and foremost, Polar Bear was a giant. His hair was a peculiar, pale blond. It was the same hair color that all his birth children had inherited. On the little ones, it looked shiny and wholesome. His bleached blond mane, cut too short, made him look more menacing. His powder-blue eyes added to his intimidating persona.
He told me, “Call me Polar Bear. That’s what everybody calls me if I’m not on duty.” With his size and almost-white hair color, I could see the resemblance. And it seemed everyone in this weird town had a nickname. He bragged, “I’ve been sheriff for ten long years. Let someone try to screw with my town.”
Finn’s little brother’s horseplay elevated a notch when their father came home. Three-year-old Gunther and two-year-old Aaron jumped on the expensive sectional until it quaked. The plush material was already ripping at the seams. Polar Bear looked on with approval until one of the boys cried.
His stepdad arrived home at five o’clock sharp. Isabella and I would leave. A lot of times, Finn would come with us and hang out for a while at Holden and Reese’s place.
Life with Holden and Reese was calm, for the most part, even boring. One evening when I went upstairs to get a snack, I heard Reese sending Isabella to her room. I froze in my tracks. Holden asked Reese, “What’s going on?”
“She gave her doll a bath in the kitchen sink, over the clean dishes!” Reese exclaimed.
“Come on honey, that’s what little girls do. You could just use the dishwasher,” Holden said, trying to calm her.
“And Tommy keeps wearing his shoes inside and I tell him not to. Finn takes his shoes off, but his socks are filthy. Why did we get new carpet?” Reese broke into tears, only collecting herself enough to say, “You know I like them, but I want our own babies.”
I told myself I would help more. Still, I waited; until I was sure they’d left. I slipped my sneakers off, dropping them off the side of the railing where they landed in two, small thuds on the downstairs’ floor. I crept into Isabella’s room. She rested on her bed, not sleeping, just pouting.
“Listen, Isabella, we’re going to have to be good. If Reese tells you not to do something, don’t do it. You know they can send us to a worse place. A place where people beat us and even starve us to death.”
Her baby teeth carved into her bottom lip and she started crying. Of course, she cried. I had terrified her. I knew I shouldn’t have put that pressure on her, but I couldn’t stop. “Just be good, okay?”
I shut up, sitting at the end of her bed, sulking in the realization that I was a bad person. After a couple minutes, Isabella stopped crying and wrapped her arms around herself in a type of self-hug. I squeezed her foot in a lame attempt at an apology.
The phone rang and a minute later Holden came in, saying, “It’s your mom,” and handed Isabella the phone. After only seconds, she happily gushed, “I love you, too, Mommy.”
I scrambled to my feet with an overwhelming eagerness to be upright and paced back and forth. I waited. I wanted to tell my mom I hated her. I wanted to tell her I loved her. I wanted to say so much.
Finally, I got my turn. “Mom,” I exhaled into the receiver.
Each word from my mother trickled out as hot and cold as ever. “Oh, Tommy. I miss you. I’m working on things. Mandatory drug tests are an invasion of privacy. What about my rights?”
“I would do it for you and Izzy.” From the background noise, it sounded like she was on a busy street or a bar. “Where are you, Mom?”
“Alex posted my bail. I’m staying with him.”
He happened to be an ex-boyfriend and drug dealer. I moaned, “Great. You’re never going to get us back.”
I got quiet and we said goodbye.
I ran my knuckles along my jawline and worked hard not to cry. Guys with soccer moms could never understand. No girl had the power to break your heart, the way your mom can.
Izzy said she was going to color our mom a picture and I slipped off to my basement dwelling. I felt the relief of my bed. Feeling like I had more to say, I called Carlos, but he couldn’t talk long. Lately, he liked to text me about a girl he met at his cousin’s quinceañera. I could sense us drifting apart. We hung out best in front of a TV with something to smoke, which sounded good right about now.
So, I called my only other good friend, Simon Hall. My mom had lived with his dad on and off for years, and he became like a big brother. We didn’t have much to say either, but he told me if it got bad where I was, he would come and get me and Izzy. I told him things were alright and we ended the call. I closed my eyes, feeling mentally tapped.
When I looked up, Isabella hesitated by the doorway.

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