“If I were an animal, what kind would I be? Well, that’s a really interesting question, Josie. I have a lot of favorites. Obviously, no animal is nobler than the dog.”
Josie, who is running ahead of me, glances back and gives me a knowing look.
“But I think I’d be a falcon. They can dive at speeds up to two hundred miles an hour. How cool would that be? Falcons fly and hunt wherever they please. They rule the sky.”
Josie gives a yip and takes off after a squirrel. Okay, I admit it, Josie’s my dog. I’m talking to my dog. Maybe it’s pathetic, but I don’t have anyone else to talk to.
And Josie’s terrific company, let me make that clear. I have great respect for dogs in general and Josie in particular. We got her when I was five, and she’s always been my best friend. Since we moved here when school ended in June, she’s my only friend.
Here is upstate New York, in what everybody calls the Finger Lakes region. That’s because there are eleven long, narrow lakes that look like skinny fingers. Most of them have Iroquois Indian names, like Seneca, Canandaigua, Keuka, and Cayuga. I can’t remember them all.
The lakes were made by glaciers during the Ice Age, but there’s an Iroquois legend that says they were formed when the Great Spirit reached down and pressed his hands into the earth. Which is kind of cool to think about, except I can’t help wondering if there’s another legend that explains why the Great Spirit had eleven fingers.
I like to picture those giant hands reaching down from the sky. In my mind, they’re always hairy, with five fingers on one hand and six on the other.
Anyway, I’m not saying I was Mr. Popularity at my old school, but I had buddies. I miss Kevin Bowen the most. He and I did practically everything together. We were known as “Owen and Bowen.” I’m Owen, obviously. Owen McGuire.
Take it from me, you don’t want to move at the end of the school year. Because then there you are in a new place where you don’t know anybody, and you’ve got the whole summer ahead of you.
We only moved a few hours away, but it feels really different here. In Buffalo, our house was in a neighborhood with a lot of kids. But now we live in what you’d have to call the boonies. There’s Seneca Lake to the east, the highway to the west, and everywhere else, nothing but woods and farm fields. I like living in the country and seeing all the deer and turkeys and woodchucks, but it would be nice to see some people, too. Especially another twelve-year-old kid.
When we first got here at the end of June, I rode around on my bike to check things out. That’s when I discovered the trail I’m running on now. It’s seven miles long, and follows the path of a stream that runs between our lake, Seneca, and Keuka Lake. The stream has cut steep cliffs through the woods, and it’s cool and shady down there. That makes it a perfect place for running, which I’m doing every day. The school I’ll be going to in the fall has a soccer team for grades seven and eight, and I plan to be on it. I decided I might as well use this long summer on my own to get in shape and practice my footwork.
So Josie and I have been running every day for three and a half weeks, going about three miles up the trail and three miles back, sometimes even more. We’ve seen a lot of amazing stuff. Like one day Josie came toward me howling like a crazy thing, chasing a wild turkey. It flew down the trail right at me, madly flapping its wings, and just missed the top of my head. I could feel the rush of air from its wings in my hair.
Another day a black bear was standing in the trail ahead of us. Josie and I both stopped dead in our tracks.
We looked at the bear, and the bear looked at us. I glanced down at Josie, and every hair on her body was standing out so stiffly she looked a lot bigger than her normal size.
“Easy, girl,” I murmured. She gave a funny little growl, and the bear ambled away. It didn’t seem to want anything to do with us, but we headed back the way we had come, just in case.
Then, two days ago, Josie ran ahead and started barking at something on the path. I nearly had a heart attack when I saw it was a snapping turtle as big as home plate. Josie was dancing all around it, lunging in and out, yipping with excitement.
“No, Josie!” I cried, but she didn’t stop. “Josie! If that thing clamps its jaws onto your nose, you are going to be very sorry!” I warned.
Finally, I was able to grab her collar and drag her away, but I could tell she wanted to go back there in the worst way. There are some things she’s not real smart about.
I don’t know the names of every single tree and plant and bird and animal we’ve been seeing on our runs, but I know a lot of them. When I was little, my mom gave me a set of field guides. She and Josie and I used to take long walks, and when we got home, we’d look up everything we’d seen in the books. I have guides on birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, wildflowers, rocks and fossils, insects, and stars. The one on stars and planets is my favorite. It was Mom’s, too.
It was Mom who really taught me to notice things. So I keep my eyes open on my runs with Josie. I recognize the teeny heart-shaped tracks of fawns and the handlike prints of raccoons. By now I know the squawk of the great blue heron that we scare out of its favorite minnow-hunting spot, and the musky smell foxes leave behind. I like to look for trout and suckers in the pools of the stream, and Josie keys me in to every squirrel, rabbit, and woodchuck we pass by.
When you’re running along through all that nature, it’s easy to see how everything belongs. Every animal and plant has its place in the big picture. So things that don’t belong really stand out, like a soda bottle, or candy bar wrapper, or a deflated Mylar party balloon. It ticks me off that people throw stuff like that around, and I’ve made it my mission to pick up trash I see and carry it out if I can.
Up ahead, I see something white lying off the path near a patch of raspberry bushes. Josie goes over to it, sniffs, then picks it up and runs along with it in her mouth.
“Josie, come!” I shout. She’s always finding stinky dead animals and scraps of food people have left behind, stuff she thinks is wonderful. This looks like a paper towel or a napkin, maybe. At least it doesn’t look like anything too disgusting, not that that would have stopped Josie.
She comes and I say, “Sit, Josie. Drop it.” Josie is a German shorthaired pointer, a hunting dog, so she’s supposed to surrender whatever she retrieves to me, her owner, the mighty hunter.
Amazingly, she sits at my first command and drops what I see now is a piece of white cloth.
There’s red stuff on it. I start to pick it up, wondering what the red is. Paint?
Whoa. Gross. Quickly, I throw it back to the ground. The red stuff is, I’m pretty sure, blood. The cloth is soft and stretchy, and has a ragged edge. It looks like it was torn off the bottom of somebody’s T-shirt.
Yuck. I’m not carrying that out, never mind my good intentions about trash removal.
I start running again. Being on the trail makes me think of all the outdoor things Mom and I used to do together. I remember a clear winter night when I was eight years old. Dad was working late. Mom got me all bundled up in my snowsuit and hat and mittens and boots, and we went outside and lay down on our backs in the snow and stared up at the sky. I barely even felt the cold because I was really noticing for the first time how enormous the sky is.
Mom told me how far away the stars are and I couldn’t believe it. I asked, “Where does it end?” Mom said she didn’t know. I kept trying to picture where the universe stopped, but I couldn’t do it. You can’t picture nothing, because as soon as you do, it’s something.
Then Mom said, “There are eight hundred thousand galaxies and billions of stars and planets out there. I like to imagine that one of them is the sun in a solar system similar to ours.”
I liked imagining it, too.
When we finally got cold and went inside, we read in the field guide to stars and planets that the number of stars is so huge that “the statistical possibility of other solar systems definitely exists.” I memorized that sentence. The book also said that telescopes have shown that there are millions of galaxies beyond ours.
Mom said, “Nobody knows exactly what happened to create the Earth’s solar system, Owen. But I don’t see any reason to think it happened only once. It’s such a small view of things, don’t you agree?”
I did. I certainly didn’t want to be the kind of person who had a small view of things. To me, it was logical to think there would be life beyond our one little planet. Actually, it seemed crazy to think there wouldn’t be.
After that night, I read everything I could about space, spaceships, space travel, people’s accounts of their encounters with aliens, you name it. I became convinced that not only is there life on other planets, but that they’ve been trying to contact us. Mom thought so, too.
Thinking about Mom is making me miss her, so I take a pretend head shot and resume my conversation with Josie. “Yes, Josie, you’re right. I learned all my cool soccer moves from Dad. You know the goal we have set up in the yard where we practice taking shots after dinner? I’m getting pretty good, don’t you think? I can’t wait for our trip to Alaska in August. Yeah, you can come, too. Didn’t we take you along when we camped in the Rockies and went fishing in the Everglades?”
Josie sniffs when I say this. She knows it’s all a lie. Dad and I never go on cool trips together. There’s no soccer goal in our yard. I’m just learning to play, and Dad doesn’t. Play, I mean. Not soccer, not anything. Today is Sunday, and where is Dad? At work. He’s always been the World’s Most Dedicated Accountant, but it seems to me he started working even more after Mom died.
It was a car accident. A snowy January night a year and a half ago. She skidded into a tree on her way back from work. I was home when it happened, watching the storm out the window, urging the snow to come down faster and heavier so school would be canceled.
I don’t even remember if it was or not.
For Dad and me, a huge, jagged hole suddenly opened up in our lives. We just tiptoed around it, as if maybe it would go away if we pretended hard enough.
It didn’t go away. It just got bigger and deeper.
Dad and I don’t talk about it. It’s just the way it is.
I don’t want to think about all that, and besides, Josie has gone racing ahead—too far ahead. She’s really fast. For every mile I go, I bet she does five or six. She needs the exercise. As long as she gets a nice, long run every day, she’s what I’m sure anyone would agree is the perfect dog. She’s good even if she has to be cooped up for a couple days, but it’s hard for her.
I can relate. After all, I’ve told her, I have to go to school.
I whistle and she comes back—with another scrap of the same T-shirt-like material in her mouth. It has a smear of bright red blood on it. When blood is still red instead of brown, it’s, like, fresh, right?
I look around uneasily, but there’s nobody else in sight. This is starting to freak me out. Let’s face it; blood is creepy stuff.
Josie has taken off again, and I shrug and follow her. I wonder if it’s a person or an animal that’s bleeding and then realize it’s a stupid question: animals don’t rip up their T-shirts to blot their cuts. Probably somebody sneezed and got a bloody nose, or got scratched while picking raspberries. But what if it’s something worse? I wonder if I should get help.
When we moved and it looked like I was going to be on my own for most of the summer, Dad gave me a cell phone. I could call him now. Or 911. But is this an emergency? I’m not sure. I take the phone from my pocket and turn it on. No reception. It must be because of the high cliffs on both sides of the stream.
I put the phone away and scan the ground. The trail is soft and moist here and I see footprints. Feeling like a real tracker, I stop to study them. They have the pattern of sneakers or running shoes, like the ones I’m wearing, but since they’re only partial prints I can’t get a sense of the size. Josie comes over and examines them, too, but doesn’t seem to find them very interesting. They’re not animal tracks, after all.
Then I notice that the person who made the prints has left the trail. There is an old, dilapidated mill ahead on the left. On the right is a meadow of tall grass, and it’s clear someone has recently moved through it. I follow the path of broken, mashed-down stalks of grass, wondering what in the world I’m doing, but doing it anyway.
Josie apparently thinks this detour from the trail is great fun, because she bounds ahead of me, making her own path through the undergrowth. The meadow ends at a steep shale slope, and I can see an avalanche of thin, crumbly stones that were sent cascading down it by the person ahead of me, who I’m beginning to think of as “the bloody guy.”
So I climb the slope, too, annoyed by the ease with which Josie manages the slippery shale incline that has me on all fours, panting and clutching at anything that looks solid. It’s like climbing a sand dune, so with each step I slide back half a step.
When I get to the top of the hill, I see a house that seems to be abandoned. There are no cars, and the grass is overgrown. Beyond the house is a cornfield, a monster cornfield, and alongside that is an equally huge wheat field. Both of them stretch as far as I can see into the distance.
The guy’s track leads right to the edge of the corn.
It’s late July and we’ve had a lot of rain, and the cornstalks are already higher than the top of my head. They are planted right up to the edge of the yard, crowding the house, standing in silent rows and shimmering in the hushed, hot, humid air. I stand at the edge of the field where the bloody guy went in, wondering if I should bother to follow him.
I take a few steps into the corn, and that’s all it takes to feel as if I’ve been transported to an entirely different world. The plants are so high and so thick that things look the same in every direction. I feel swallowed up by the corn. I fight back a panicky claustrophobia and realize that I’d never be able to find the bloody guy in here if he didn’t want me to—and it’s pretty obvious he doesn’t want me to, since he seems to be purposely hiding from me.
I want to get out of that cornfield as fast as I can. I’m about to turn and retrace my steps when I hear a sound coming from out of the greenness growing all around me. I cock my head and listen closely. There it is again. Breathing. Hard breathing.
The bloody guy is in the corn, and not far away. He has to know I’m here, and yet he isn’t saying hello or asking for help. He’s hiding. And panting.
A breeze stirs the corn. The tops sigh gently, and the lower, more dried-out leaves make a clacking sound against each other. Suddenly I’m more spooked than I’ve ever been in my life. I turn and run out into the open air and across the farmyard. “Josie! Come!” I call. I slip and slide down that shale cliff, land at the bottom in a tangle of limbs and loose rock, then get up and run, run, run back down the trail, wanting nothing but to put distance between me and whoever is breathing out there in the corn.
Excerpted from Signal by Cynthia C. DeFelice.
Copyright © 2009 by Cynthia C. DeFelice.
Published in 2009 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.