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But racing through the humid, late morning air, Josh Sunday could barely hear himself think that thought. The roar of his brand new ATV, a powerful 4X4 Kodiak from Yamaha, pressed at his helmet like invisible hands wanting to rip his head off. The narrow, red-orange clay, one-lane road which snaked through a wide clearing in the woods was pocked and rutted and wrinkled, and whenever a tire met the uneven terrain Josh and the four-wheeler bounced as if they were on a trampoline.
And Josh loved it. Loved the noise. Loved the jolts. And, most of all, loved the speed. Yes, that was it: the noise of a powerful engine, the bone-jarring ride, and, most of all, the heart-pumping speed. Borderline out-of-control speed.
His idol had loved speed.
James Dean, the brooding loner, the brilliant actor from the 1950's, had lived fast and died young locked in his own bubble of chaos. Inner and outer chaos. Josh Sunday understood all that. In homage to Dean, Josh had named his four-wheeler "Hepcat", the name stenciled on the front fender in bright, shouting-yellow letters against the dark green background.
Years ago Josh's mother had introduced him to the shadowy figure of the late, great James Dean, for Dean had been her "heartthrob" when she was a teenager. Her collection of James Dean memorabilia -- photos, magazine stories, books, icons, and, of course, tapes of his movies -- was extensive. She belonged to three different James Dean fan clubs and ritualistically watched Rebel Without A Cause once a month.
The sudden thought of Dean excited Josh. He squeezed harder on the throttle and the 387cc four-stroke engine responded with thegrowl of a mysterious beast clawing at the earth in pursuit of some prey. And the woods which crouched on either side of the narrow road became a blur, a warm smudge. And the voice of the clear, running water of a nameless creek which wound parallel to the road seemed mute, for Josh could not possibly have heard it over the thrum and clamor of his race against himself.
Because that's what it was.
A race against himself.
Josh slowed. Hepcat bounced, and as its speed decreased, its roar shifted to a metallic buzz. And Josh began to think about his father.
This summer would be different.
Yes, he was determined that it would be.
This summer he would win his father's respect.
Something he had never won.
And he often wondered why.
Joshua Byron Sunday -- his mother had appropriated the middle name "Byron" from James Byron Dean -- was 15, and he was not used to losing. Despite being the product of a broken home -- his parents having divorced when he was 7 -- Josh had been the very definition of success. Consistently an honor roll student at a rigorous high school in Atlanta, he excelled at everything he devoted his energies to, from the classroom to athletics to social life. He knew that he would have his pick of colleges to attend when he graduated, and he was a high school girl's dream, with Luke Perry handsomeness which ensured that the only time he was lonely was when he absolutely chose to be.
As icing on the cake, both of his parents had achieved financial success -- his mother as owner and operator of a line of fashionable boutiques and his father as one of the most ambitious real estate developers in the South. Josh wanted for nothing that money could buy. In fact, for his sixteenth birthday, approaching in September, his mother had promised to track down and purchase a mint-conditioned Porsche 550 Spyder, a ghostly twin of the very auto James Dean had crashed in a fatal accident in 1955.
But Josh Sunday wouldn't crash his.
He had everything going for him.
He could have written any summer ticket that struck his fancy. He could have taken a cushy job at an ATV dealership in north Atlanta, or he could have taken the position his mother had pulled strings for him to get as a male model for a large retail clothing store. Atlanta, or "Hot Lanta" as it was known, would have offered him a summer of girls and fun and easy living.
Instead... instead, Josh chose the isolation and humidity of east Alabama, following his father to his latest big-scale construction project: "White Oaks", a 200-acre subdivision carved out of a section of primitive, southern woods known as "Hawk's Blood".
It had been wholly Josh's decision to come. J.J. Sunday had released his son from the dictates of the custody agreement which called for Josh's summers to be spent with his father and the school year to be spent with his mother, Kaylene Brimlett, in Atlanta.
J.J. Sunday was a cold, hard man who believed Josh was soft and spoiled. So, naturally, when he agreed to let Josh stay with him he issued one stipulation: "No free ride. You come to Alabama, you work. You got that? In this ole world you got to work hard and be dependable and sometimes you got to be a man and fight and find out what you got inside. That's how a man like me got to be a man like me. You understand any of this?"
Yes, Josh believed he did.
And he knew that he had something inside him, powers of being -- something -- he had never tapped into. He wanted to know what those powers were. And he wanted his father's admiration. His love.
At the beginning of the summer Josh had moved in with his father and Edward, his father's Carib housekeeper, in an impressive, model home at the entrance to White Oaks. And Josh had gone to work for Sunday Enterprises, Inc. as a "go for", using Hepcat in his role as a courier of blueprints, billings, receipts, and whatever other day-to-day documents might need to be delivered from one of the many work sites to another.
Josh had been on the job two weeks.
He believed he was beginning to impress his father with his dependability. And he believed that his father was beginning to see how much Josh appreciated the difficulty of J.J. Sunday's current project, for the development of the Hawk's Blood woods had drawn the opposition of many of the ecology-minded citizens of Goldsmith, Alabama who saw White Oaks as a rape of the ancient, pristine woods.
Some of those citizens had even picketed the development. And just a few days ago there had been an incident involving two of J.J. Sunday's workers who had returned to a work site at night only to be attacked by several men. One of the workers, a brick mason, had been severely injured in the assault, beaten and nearly strangled to death.
Josh had admired his father's response to the incident: "I'm no coward. I won't let something like this make me turn tail and run."
And so as Josh cut through the late morning heat, increasing his speed slightly, he felt proud to be carrying some important documents on the rear rack of Hepcat, documents J.J. Sunday needed to see before noon. Mounted on the front rack of Hepcat was a high-powered rifle, a Remington with a scope. Though not wholly comfortable around weapons, Josh kept the rifle for one simple reason: his father had given it to him.
Like a colorful demon on wheels, Hepcat churned menacingly over the road kicking up dust as Josh confidently guided the swift machine, oblivious to the watchful silence of the surrounding woods.
Until he saw it.
And began instantly to slow down.
It was loping along not fifty yards ahead, sniffing the road, alive to the realm of its senses and yet curiously indifferent to the approach of the four-wheeler.
The animal had more than a lean and hungry look. To Josh, it seemed somehow to be searching for more than food. Somehow it seemed to be searching for a way to continue to belong to an environment on the verge of disappearing.
Dust billowed up around him as Hepcat wound down. Gripping the handlebars, Josh watched the coyote. Yes, it was the same one he had seen along this road and even close to the work sites during the last week or so. Construction workers had reported seeing it, and the handful of new residents of White Oaks had expressed some alarm over whether young children might be threatened by it. And Josh recalled that his father had tried unsuccessfully to shoot it over near the two double-wide trailers which served as headquarters for the construction project.
Josh took off his helmet and continued to watch.
The easy, fluid movement of the coyote held a certain fascination. The animal not only blended with the earthy colors of the tall grass hugging the road, but it also seemed an integral part of some underlying mystery of its surroundings. At one with the flow of Hawk's Blood woods.
For Josh the natural backdrop suddenly became like one of those "holusions" so popular at malls, the repetitive pattern of chaos which hid something real and distinct beneath the surface. Something. A figure. A different reality.
In this case, an animal.
Josh was nearly mesmerized as the coyote darted in and out of the grass, and then at one point turned its head and its dark, ever-alert-for-danger eyes met Josh's. And in the silence and solitude of the warm morning, the animal and the young man connected. Josh sucked in his breath.
"You're a loner, too," he whispered.
But then he thought of his father -- of something which would please him. Keeping an eye on the coyote as he climbed off Hepcat, Josh considered his next action. Then he glanced down at his rifle. Yes, he reasoned, this would please his father.
The coyote returned to its foraging, yet remained in sight. And Josh lifted his rifle from the front rack and moved closer. The coyote caught the scent of danger. Suspicious of Josh's movement, the animal slipped into the tall grass.
Josh felt a sting of disappointment.
He had started to embrace the pleasing image of showing his father the dead coyote strapped to the rear rack of Hepcat. For a few seconds it appeared that the opportunity had evaporated. Then, a moment or two later, a flicker -- something moving up a gentle, vine-covered slope onto a ridge of tall pines.
The coyote stopped to look at Josh. It had crossed the creek, the belly of its coat still glistening with droplets. And it did not seem to realize that it was still in range of a high-powered rifle.
Josh raised the weapon and clicked off the safety. He squinted into the scope as it brought the coyote and the backdrop of the woods dramatically closer.
Josh took a deep breath.
The coyote was in the cross hairs of the scope.
His forehead sweating, Josh fingered the trigger. He took another deep breath.
"Clear shot. Can't miss," he whispered.
The coyote stood its ground more than fifty yards away. It seemed only casually interested in what it saw: a boy holding a rifle.
The silence was intense. Sweat trickled down onto Josh's eyebrow as he positioned the cross hairs so that they met at the coyote's heart.
Josh gritted his teeth.
And blinked. And that was all it took.
A drop of sweat burned in his shooting eye, and by the time he lowered the rifle and rubbed that eye and regained his aim the coyote was gone.
But something else was there.
Copyright © 2001 by Stephen Gresham