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The Last Place on Earth
By Carol Snow
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2016 Carol Snow
All rights reserved.
ONE DAY HENRY was there, and the next he wasn't.
I assumed he was home sick. Well, playing sick, more likely. When it came to faking an illness, Henry was a master. True, he'd had his slipups, like the time he gargled hot tap water before taking a thermometer from his mother, only to have his temperature come in at 109 degrees. But that was an exception. (To Henry's credit, his argument about the thermometer's "defective engineering" was so convincing that his mother wrote a letter to the manufacturer.)
Most of the time, Henry managed to convince his parents that his cough, headache, nausea, and/or fever were reason enough for him to stay out of school ("I'd feel really bad if I gave it to the other students"), but not serious enough for him to see the doctor. His parents would phone the excuse into the attendance office and head off to their Very Important Jobs in pet insurance and contracts law, while Henry would pass the day downloading music onto his MP3 player and teaching himself the guitar.
Had it been a normal day, I would have sent Henry a text — Hope it isn't fatal — and Henry would have replied right away with something like, Pray for me. And bring me my homework. (Please.)
But there was nothing normal about this day, because there had been nothing normal about the night before. I was all set to act like nothing had happened, if that was how he wanted it, but I wasn't prepared to find an empty desk in our first-period class (Spanish II) or in any of our shared classes that followed (AP European history, honors chemistry, dance, advanced geometry, honors sophomore English). Henry might be lazy, but I had never taken him for a coward.
"Where's Henry?" the girls in dance class asked, as they always did.
"The usual," I said.
Henry was the only boy in dance class, which was exactly why he'd signed up. Anyone who didn't play a sport was required to do two years of physical education or dance.
"I'll take the one where the girls wear spandex shorts and tank tops," he had said.
As for his own clothes, he'd talked the teacher into letting him wear basketball shorts and a T-shirt. Of course he had.
"You want to take one of these for Henry?" our chemistry teacher asked, giving me an extra packet. Only a month into sophomore year, and our teachers had figured it out: Henry would be absent a lot. I'd take his work. Henry would catch up without any problem.
It made me crazy, how easily Henry pulled As without even trying. Sick or healthy, I never missed a day of school. I never forgot a homework assignment. I never left a paper till the last minute. And yet my GPA was lower than Henry's. Not by a lot, but still.
Henry, Henry, Henry.
"I think you're secretly in love with him," my mother said back in ninth grade, when we first started partnering up for school projects, sharing inside jokes, and exchanging endless texts.
"We're just friends," I told her.
But we weren't just friends. We were best friends. And best friends don't disappear without saying anything. Which must mean that our best-friendship was in jeopardy.
By the end of the day, after checking my phone during every passing period and lunch, I still hadn't heard from him. I won't be the first to text, I swore.
And then, of course, I thumbed a message before I had a chance to talk myself out of it: I have your chemistry packet.
Text sent, I had nothing to do but wait for a reply. Because there was no way I was going to text him again.
Well, unless a whole hour went by without a word.
Will you just answer already?
Still no word.
You promised things wouldn't be weird.
Things are weird. Let's call a do-over. Last night didn't happen. OK?
Finally, at five o'clock, with my mounds of homework not yet begun, I called him and got a recording: "I'm sorry. But the number you are trying to reach is not in service."
I felt cold all over. And then I laughed. No wonder Henry hadn't returned my texts — his phone wasn't working! I should have known there was a good explanation. Henry wasn't a coward. Our friendship hadn't turned weird.
In my room, I found my laptop buried under last night's pajamas and booted it up, positive I'd find a message waiting. I didn't.
"I'm taking some homework over to Henry," I told my older brother, who was sticking three frozen burritos into our vintage microwave. Our kitchen, also vintage (which sounds so much better than old) was red-and-white tile. It looked like an In-N-Out Burger.
"Mm," he grunted, pressing in too many minutes. Peter was the king of the exploding burrito.
"Yeah, so tell Mom when she gets home."
Chemistry packet in hand, I let myself out the rickety gate that led to the horse and jogging trail behind our house. The trail wound around a murky pond and then led to a street that led to another street that led to Henry's house. By the time I reached what Henry called the Fortress (picture light sensors and triple locks and a security system with video cameras), I was sweaty and dusty and out of breath.
Though it was big, Henry's house was not what I would call pretty. In fact, it was what I would call ugly. All hard angles and sharp lines, the Fortress was painted an icy white and roofed in blue metal. The gray-blue trim helped, but not much. The one soft touch that Henry's parents had added, red roses under the windows and salmon bougainvillea along the sides, had been planted for security purposes only. An intruder would think twice before braving those thorns. The bees were a bonus.
I climbed the familiar steps to a front door so big that it never failed to intimidate me. Or maybe it was the discreet video camera mounted above the door that made me squirm. I ran a hand over my sweaty forehead and pushed the doorbell. Chimes echoed: Ding-DONG. Ding-dong-DING. Averting my eyes from the video camera, I looked instead at the weatherproof sign planted among the red roses: A-1 SECURITY. ARMED RESPONSE.
It did not make me feel better.
I waited for footsteps. Don't let it be his mother. I was still wearing what I'd worn to school: a rock band T-shirt, denim miniskirt, and artfully torn black tights. Mrs. Hawking would not approve.
No one came. But maybe Henry had his headphones on. Maybe he was watching TV.
I pushed the doorbell again, listened to the dings and the dongs. Still no answer.
The late-afternoon sun reflected off the windows. Not that I could have seen inside anyway; Henry's parents kept the blinds drawn at all times. A flash of color caught my eye: A stained glass sun-catcher, shaped like a shooting star and attached with a suction cup, hung between the blinds and a living room window. That was new. Or maybe I'd just never noticed it before. How like Henry's parents to put something pretty (well, pretty-ish; actually, it was kind of tacky) behind the window blinds, where they wouldn't even see it.
Finally, I pulled my phone out of my pocket. In all the time we'd been friends, I'd never called Henry's home number. There had never been any reason to. Besides, I wouldn't have wanted to risk talking to Henry's parents. ("May I ask who is calling? ... Oh. Daisy." Here his mother or father would insert a disapproving silence. "Henry is rather busy right now.")
But Henry's parents were clearly out of the house. The phone rang four times, and just when I expected a machine to pick up, it rang a fifth time. And a sixth. After eight rings I gave up and slipped the phone back into my pocket. Despite the heat, I shivered.
I shuffled down the steps, paused, and turned back one last time in the hopes that Henry would appear. But the door remained shut. The house appeared deserted, but then it always looked like that: mean and lonely.
As I made my way down the front walkway, I glanced over at the driveway. Not that I expected to see a car there — Henry's parents would never leave their vehicles potentially exposed to thieves and vandals and goodness knows what — but ...
I froze. A newspaper, wrapped in orange plastic, sat in the middle of the gray pavers. I crept toward it as if it were something alive. Something that might bite. A lizard, maybe. Or a rabid possum.
I tried to quiet my mind. Maybe it wasn't the daily paper. Maybe it was some kind of free circular tossed there during the day.
But no. Hands shaking, I picked up the bundle, reached inside, and pulled out the Orange County Register. I checked the date: today.
That was when I knew: Henry was gone.
A DAILY PAPER in the driveway. So what? It doesn't seem like much, I know. But Henry's parents believed that a newspaper left out was an advertisement that no one was home. In other words, an invitation to thieves.
The Hawking family left town at least once a month to go camping or fishing or something else nature-related. Whenever they were gone, they paid a neighbor kid to take the paper away by seven in the morning. One time a kid didn't get it until eight thirty, and they fired him. How did they know he was late? Video footage, of course.
You'd think they'd just put their mail or newspaper on vacation hold. But no: Someone who worked at the post office or newspaper might have ties to a crime ring. Before you knew it, intruders would be crawling through their windows. (Assuming they could get past the thorns and bees.)
Henry thought it was funny that his parents were "bat-crap-crazy paranoid." Up till now, I had done my best to laugh along, but it was hard. Henry was the best friend I had ever had. I wanted to like his parents. I wanted them to like me. So far, it wasn't happening.
Now I had to wonder: Were they as crazy as we'd thought? Or had they known something all along?
"I'm worried about Henry," I told my mother, back in our red-and-white kitchen. She had just come in from her day job and was scarfing down a cup of soup before she headed off to teach a jewelry-making class.
"I'm sure he's fine," she said when I told her about the newspaper. "The universe will look after him."
That was one of my mother's favorite sayings, right up there with "Everything happens for a reason" and "Things have a way of working themselves out."
Peter wandered into the kitchen. "We're out of toilet paper again."
"Did you put it on the shopping list?" my mother asked.
She shrugged. "Last time I went to the store, I forgot the list."
* * *
The next morning, my mother agreed to swing by Henry's house on the way to school. There were now two newspapers in orange plastic sitting in the driveway.
"I'm sure there's an explanation," my mother said.
I was, too. But I was terrified the explanation would be something awful.
By second period, AP European history, I was in such a frenzy that I broke down and spoke to Gwendolyn Waxweiler. "Have you heard from Henry?" I tried to sound casual, but my voice cracked.
Gwendolyn, sitting on the other side of Henry's empty chair, dropped her gaze to the ends of my hair. Bored one day last summer, I decided to see whether cherry Kool-Aid really works as a hair dye. It really does, especially if you have previously lightened your hair with Sun-In. And the color doesn't come out. So now I know.
She said, "I haven't tried to make contact with Henry." That was the way Gwendolyn talked, as if she were from outer space and hadn't quite figured out normal human speech. She had known Henry for longer than I had — they had gone to the same small, private elementary school. Their parents were friends, and the families did stuff together. Like barbecues! And campouts! And ... killing defenseless animals!
No matter what I said, Henry would defend man's right to hunt: "At least these animals had a good life until they were shot. Unlike the cow that died for your hamburger." (Perhaps it was growing up in that In-N-Out kitchen, but as much as I wished I had the inner strength to go vegan, I loved nothing more than a Double-Double and fries.)
Still, whatever Henry's arguments about man-versus-animal, he seemed to fall suddenly ill every time his parents scheduled a hunting trip.
"He's just got a cold or something, correct?" Gwendolyn said, as our teacher, Mr. Vasquez, began his daily PowerPoint presentation.
I shrugged and turned my attention to the first slide:
THE BLACK DEATH
1347–1351 first struck Europe
Death estimates: 1/3–2/3 of European population
Bacterial infection: now curable by antibiotics
Henry found history fascinating, but even though Mr. Vasquez was cool, I always left his class feeling slightly depressed, and not just because it involved a good two hours of homework a night. If our lesson wasn't about disease, it was about war. The kings and queens may have had a good time (as long as they kept their heads), but for the rest of the population in medieval Europe, life was miserable, and death came early, often, and in a whole bunch of disgusting ways.
Two seats away, Gwendolyn took notes with one hand. With the other, she fiddled with her thick braid. Gwendolyn's hair was strawberry blond. It would take Kool-Aid really well.
Usually, Gwendolyn ignored my existence entirely, but she kept glancing over at me. Finally, a few slides later ("Forms of the Plague"), when Mr. Vasquez paused to let us copy down some more depressing facts, she leaned over Henry's desk. "Does he not respond to your phone calls?"
I copied the first line from the slide:
1. Bubonic Plague: Most common variant. Carried by rats; spread by fleas. Swellings (buboes) on neck, armpit, and groin. Mortality rate 30–75%. Typical life expectancy: one week.
"Have you been to his house?" Gwendolyn whispered.
I paused. Should I tell her about the newspapers? No. I wanted someone besides my mother to tell me that I was overreacting. That everything was going to be fine. Gwendolyn's family was just as bat-crap-crazy paranoid as Henry's. She'd tell me that the abandoned OC Registers were a sure sign of calamity.
"Yesterday afternoon," I said. "No one answered the door. But it was kind of early — his parents wouldn't even be home from work yet. And Henry could have been sleeping or listening to music or something."
She nodded, looking less than convinced.
I copied down the next line from the slide.
2. Pneumonic Plague: Attacked respiratory system. Spread by breathing infected air. Mortality rate: 90–95%. Typical life expectancy: 1–2 days.
"When did you last talk to him?" she asked.
"Night before last."
"And everything was normal?"
That was a weird question. Especially since Henry was so not normal the last time I had seen him. But how could Gwendolyn know that? Oh no. Now I was getting bat-crap-crazy paranoid. Maybe it was spreading, like the plague. Were there any flea-bitten rats around?
"Sure," I said. "Everything was normal. I guess." I copied down the third plague variant.
3. Septicemic Plague: Attacked the blood system. Mortality rate: near 100%.
"I'm sure everything is fine," I told Gwendolyn, willing my words to be true.
She didn't say anything, just twisted her strawberry-blond braid with renewed vigor.
"The universe will look after him," I added.
At that, she dropped her braid. "Are you kidding me? The universe looks after no one. We're all on our own."
* * *
Peter's beat-up little car, pale yellow with gray doors, was waiting in front of the school when I got out. Most of the time I walked home — it was just over a mile — but if it was hot outside, my mother would tell my brother to get me.
I grabbed the handle and pulled hard. The door creaked open. I slid into the bucket seat, which was black vinyl laced with pink leopard-print duct tape. The duct tape had come with the car, as had the Jesus stickers on the rear fender. Henry and I had spent a lot of time trying to visualize the previous owners.
"Need to stop for coffee," Peter mumbled, pulling away from the curb. His eyes were puffy. He needed a shave.
"Did you just get up?" I asked.
He shrugged. "Not just just, but — whatever."
Another one of my mother's mottoes (there were hundreds) was "I trust my children to make the right choices." That worked okay for me. I chose hard work and responsibility. Which sounds incredibly boring, but there you go. Then there was my brother. After finishing high school in the spring, Peter had mostly chosen to binge on Netflix and sleep through lunch. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Last Place on Earth by Carol Snow. Copyright © 2016 Carol Snow. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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