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I couldn’t see his face.
He was running along a mountain trail. Running desperately. Pursued by black grasping shadows that were little more than holes in the air, but there was no mistaking their intention. The boy was in unspeakable danger and he needed my help.
I opened my eyes.
Curtains fluttered at the dark window. Freezing air whispered through a crack in the frame, but I was drenched in sweat, my heart pounding.
Just a dream? No. I had no idea who this boy was. He appeared to be about my age. But I knew this much with iron certainty:
He was real, and he was headed my way.
CHAPTER 1: JUST ANOTHER TUESDAY
The importance of an orderly mind . . .
Will West began each day with that thought, even before he opened his eyes. When he did open them, the same words greeted him on a banner across his bedroom wall:
#1: THE IMPORTANCE OF AN ORDERLY MIND.
In capital letters a foot high. Rule #1 on Dad’s List of Rules to Live By. That’s how crucial his father considered this piece of advice. Remembering it was one thing. Following Rule #1, with a mind as hot-wired as Will’s, wasn’t nearly as easy. But wasn’t that why Dad had put it on top of his list, and on Will’s wall, in the first place?
Will rolled out of bed and stretched. Flicked on his iPhone:
7:01. He punched up the calendar and scanned his schedule. Tuesday, November 7:
• Morning roadwork with the cross-country team
• Day forty-seven of sophomore year
• Afternoon roadwork with the cross-country team
Nice. Two runs sandwiching seven hours of Novocain for the brain. Will took a greedy breath and scratched his fingers vigorously through his unruly bed head. Tuesday, November 7, shaped up as a vanilla, cookie-cutter day. Not one major stress clouding the horizon.
So why do I feel like I’m about to face a firing squad?
He triple-racked his brain but couldn’t find a reason. As he threw on his sweats, the room lit up with a bright, cheerful sunrise. Southern California’s most tangible asset: the best weather in the world. Will opened the curtains and looked out at the Topa Topa Mountains rising beyond the backyard.
Wow. The mountains were cloaked with snow from the early winter storm that had blown through the night before. Backlit by the early-morning sun, they were sharper and cleaner than high-def. He heard familiar birdsong and saw the little white- breasted blackbird touch down on a branch outside his window. Tilting its head, curious and fearless, it peered in at him as it had every morning for the last few days. Even the birds were feeling it.
So I’m fine. It’s all good.
But if that was how he really felt, then what had stirred up this queasy cocktail of impending doom? The hangover from a forgotten nightmare?
An unruly thought elbowed its way into his mind: This storm brought more than snow.
What? No idea what that meant—wait, had he dreamt about snow? Something about running? The silvery dream fragment faded before Will could grab it.
Whatever. Enough of this noise. Time to stonewall this funk-u-phoria. Will drove through the rest of his morning routine and skipped downstairs.
Mom was in the kitchen working on her second coffee. With reading glasses on a lanyard around her thick black hair, she was tapping her phone, organizing her day.
Will grabbed a power shake from the fridge. “Our bird’s back,” he said.
“Hmm. People-watching again,” she said. She put down her phone and wrapped her arms around him. Mom never passed up a good hug. One of those committed huggers for whom, in the moment, nothing else mattered. Not even Will’s mortification when she clinch-locked him in public.
“Busy day?” he asked.
“Crazy. Like stupid crazy. You?”
“The usual. Have a good one. Later, Moms.”
“Later, Will-bear. Love you.” She jangled her silver bracelets and got back to her phone as Will headed for the door. “Always and forever.”
“Love you, too.”
Later, and not much later, how he would wish that he’d stopped, gone back, held on to her, and never let go.
Will reached the base of their front steps and shook out his legs. Sucked in that first bracing hit of clean, cold morning air and exhaled a frosty billow, ready to run. It was his favorite part of the day . . . and then that droopy dreadful gloom crept all over him again.
#17: START EACH DAY BY SAYING IT’S GOOD TO BE ALIVE. EVEN IF YOU DON’T FEEL IT, SAYING IT—OUT LOUD—MAKES IT MORE LIKELY THAT YOU WILL.
“Good to be alive,” he said, without much conviction. Damn. Right now #17 felt like the lamest rule on Dad’s list.
He could blame some obvious physical gripes. It was forty-eight degrees and damp. His muscles creaked from yesterday’s weight training. A night of slippery dreams had left him short on sleep. I’m just out of whack. That’s all. I always feel better once I hit the road.
#18: IF #17 DOESN’T WORK, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS.
Will hit the stopwatch app on his phone and sprang into a trot. His Asics Hypers lightly slapped the pavement.
1.4 miles to the coffee shop: target time, seven minutes.
He gave #18 a try.
Starting with Mom and Dad. All the kids he knew ripped their parents 24/7, but Will never piled on. For good reason: Will West had won the parent lottery. They were smart, fair, and honest, not like the phonies who preached values, then slummed like delinquents when their kids weren’t around. They cared about his feelings, always considered his point of view, but never rolled over when he tested the limits. Their rules were clear and balanced between lenient and protective, leaving him enough space to push for independence while always feeling safe.
Yeah, they have their strong points.
On the other hand: They were odd and secretive and perpetually broke and moved around like Bedouins every eighteen months. Which made it impossible for him to make friends or feel connected to any place they ever lived. But, hey, what do you need a peer group for when your parents are your only friends? So what if that messed him up massively for the rest of his life? He might get over it, someday. After decades of therapy and a barge full of antidepressants.
There. Blessings counted. Always works like a charm, thought Will dryly.
Will had shaken off the morning chill by the end of the second block. Blood pumping, his endorphins perked up his nervous system as the Valley stirred to life around him. He quieted his mind and opened his senses, the way his parents had taught him. Took in the smoky tang of wild sage and the oxygen-rich air of the orchards lining the East End roads, wet and shiny from the rain. A dog barked; a car started. Miles to the west, through the gap in the hills, he glimpsed a cobalt-blue strip of the Pacific catching the first beams of sunrise.
Good to be alive. He could almost believe it now.
Will cruised toward town, down lanes of rambling ranch houses, grouped closer together as he moved along. After only five months here, he liked Ojai more than anywhere they’d ever lived. The small-town atmosphere and country lifestyle felt comfortable and easy, a refuge from the hassles of big-city life. The town was nestled in a high, lush valley sheltered by coastal mountains, with narrow passes the only way in on either end. The original inhabitants, the Chumash people, had named it Ojai: the Valley of the Moon. After hundreds of years of calling Ojai home, the Chumash had been driven out by “civilization” in less than a decade. Tell the Chumash about “refuge.”
Will knew that his family would move on from this nearly perfect place, too. They always did. As much as he liked the Ojai Valley, he’d learned the hard way not to get attached to places or people—
A black sedan glided across the intersection a block ahead. Tinted glass on the side windows. He couldn’t see the driver.
They’re looking for an address they can’t find, Will thought. Then he wondered how he knew that.
A faint marimba ring sounded. He slipped the phone from his pocket and saw Dad’s first text of the day: HOW’S YOUR TIME?
Will smiled. Dad with his Caps Lock on again. Will had tried to explain texting etiquette to him about fifty times: “It’s like you’re SHOUTING!”
“But I am shouting,” Dad had said. “I’M WAY OVER HERE!”
Will texted back: how’s the conference? how’s San Fran? He could text while running. He could text while riding down a circular staircase on a unicycle—
Will pulled up short even before he heard the rasp of rubber on wet pavement. A dark mass slid into his peripheral vision.
The black sedan. Shrouded by exhaust, throttle rumbling in idle, dead ahead of him. A late model four-door, some plain domestic brand he didn’t recognize. Odd: no logos, trim, or identifying marks. Anywhere. A front license plate—generic, not California issue—with a small US flag tucked in one corner. But that was no civil service car pool engine under the hood. It sounded like a hillbilly NASCAR rocket.
He couldn’t see anyone behind the black glass—and remembered: tinting windshields this dark was illegal—but he knew someone inside was looking at him. Will’s focus narrowed, sounds faded. Time stopped.
Then a marimba broke the silence. Another text from Dad: RUN, WILL.
Without looking up, Will slipped his hoodie over his head and waved a faint apology at the windshield. He held up the phone, shaking it slightly as if to say, My bad. Clueless teenager here.
Will thumbed on the camera and casually snapped a picture of the back of the sedan. He slipped the phone into his pocket and eased back into his stride.
Make it look like you’re just running, not running away, Will thought. And don’t look back.
He trotted on, listening for the throaty engine. The car tached up and peeled off behind him, turning left and heading away.
Then Will heard someone say, “Fits the description. Possible visual contact.”
Okay, how did that voice get in his head? And whose voice was it?
The driver, came the answer. He’s talking on a radio. He’s talking about you.
Will’s heart thumped hard. With his conditioning, he had a resting pulse of fifty-two. It never hit triple digits until he was into his second mile. Right now it was north of a hundred.
First question: Did Dad just tell me to RUN (from San Francisco?!) because he wants me to stay on pace for my target time, or because somehow he knows that car is bad news—
Then he heard the sedan a block away, stomping through its gearbox, accelerating rapidly. Tires screamed: They were coming back.
Will cut into an unpaved alley. Behind him the sedan burst back onto the street he’d just left. Before the car reached the alley, Will veered right, hopped a fence, and jammed through a backyard littered with the wreckage of Halloween decorations. He vaulted over a chain-link fence into a narrow concrete run along the side of the house—
—and then, damn, a vicious blunt head burst out of a dog door to his right; a square snarling muzzle shot after him. He leaped onto the gate at the end of the run and scrambled over, just as the beast hurled its body into the fence, jaws snapping.
Half a block away, he heard the twin-hemi yowl as the car raced to the next corner. Will paused at the edge of the yard behind a towering hedge and gulped in air. He peeked around the hedge—all clear—then sprinted across the street, over a lawn, and past another house. A wooden fence bounded the rear yard, six feet high. He altered his steps to time his jump, grabbed the top, and leaped over, landing lightly in another alley—three feet from a weary young woman juggling a briefcase, a coffee flask, and her keys near a Volvo. She jolted as if she’d just been Tasered. Her flask hit the ground and rolled, leaking latte.
“Sorry,” said Will.
He crossed the alley and raced through two more yards, the sedan rumbling somewhere nearby all the while. He stopped at the next side street and leaned back against a garage. As his adrenaline powered down, he felt faintly ridiculous. Thoughts and instincts argued in his head, tumbling like sneakers in an empty dryer:
You’re perfectly safe. NO, YOU’RE IN DANGER. It’s just a random car. YOU HEARD WHAT THEY SAID. PAY ATTENTION, FOOL!
Another text from Dad hit the screen: DON’T STOP, WILL. Will motored down open streets through the outskirts of the business district. The team should be waiting at the diner by now. He’d duck inside and call Dad so he could hear his voice. But he realized he could hear it RIGHT NOW. Reminding him of a rule that Dad repeated like a fire drill:
#23: WHEN THERE’S TROUBLE, THINK FAST AND ACT DECISIVELY.
Will pulled up behind a church and peeked around. Two blocks away he saw the team, six guys in sweats outside the diner, RANGERS stitched across their backs. They were gathered around something at the curb he couldn’t see.
He checked the time, and his jaw dropped. No way that could be right: He’d just covered the 1.4 miles from home, steeplechasing through backyards and fences . . . in five minutes?
Behind him, the snarling engine roared to life. He turned and saw the black car charging straight at him down the alley. Will broke for the diner. The sedan cornered hard behind him, swung around, and skidded to a halt.
Will was already two blocks away. He flipped up his hood, stuck his hands in his sweatshirt, and casually jogged up to the team.
“Whaddup,” he mumbled, trying to keep panic out of his voice.
The team mostly ignored him, as usual. He blended in, keeping his back to the street. They parted enough for him to see what they were looking at.
“Check it out, dude,” said Rick Schaeffer.
A badass tricked-out hot rod sat at the curb. It was like nothing Will had ever seen before, a matte black Prowler slung long and low on a custom chassis, with a slanted front grille and wheels gleaming with chrome. Bumpers jammed out in front like Popeye’s forearms. The manifolds of a monster V-8 burst out of the hood, oozing latent power. Baroque, steam-punk lines, crafted with sharp, finely etched venting, lined the body. The car looked both vintage and pristine, weirdly ageless, as if there were countless miles on this clean machine. A stranger’s ride for sure: No local could have kept these hellacious wheels under wraps. It might have come from anywhere. It might have come from the nineteenth century by way of the future.
Will felt eyes find him from behind the diner window. They landed hard, like somebody poking him in the chest with two stiff fingers. He looked up but couldn’t see inside; the sun had just crested the hills behind him, glaring off the glass.
“Don’t touch my ride.”
Will heard the voice in his head and knew it came from whoever was watching. Low, gravelly, spiked with a sharp accent, bristling with menace.
“Don’t touch it!” snapped Will.
Startled, Schaeffer jerked his hand away.