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By Nancy Springer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Nancy Springer
All rights reserved.
The moment before he died, my brother turned his head to yell something to me above the noise of the dirt bike. He was grinning, teasing me about a girl. "So does she like your stuff, Tuff?" he yelled, and the answer was no, she did not, but I never got to answer. Those were the last words he ever said to me.
It happened like a knife cutting my life in half. We were blasting along the Jeep trail, with me hanging on to his back and his hair whipping me in the face and the trees whacking at both of us as Dillon pushed it faster around a curve—he loved to go fast up that mountain. So did I. He throttled it higher—and there was no warning, no skidding, no sliding, just a flash of light and a boom like thunder and Dillon's head smashing back into mine. The bike flew out from under us. The engine screamed. Maybe I did, too. It's hard to remember. I don't really remember how I fell, or how Dillon and the bike fell, or how I got to my knees in the dirt. All I remember is kneeling there staring down at him.
"Dillon? You all right?"
It was god-awful quiet. The bike had stalled. Dillon stared straight back at me, but his mouth opened without speaking and there was something wrong with the look in his eyes. Then he shuddered all over.
"Dillon, goddammit, this is not funny! Get up!"
No answer. It was not a joke. I felt for the pulse at his neck and found blood instead. My hand came away from him sticky with blood. I pulled off my shirt and pressed it against the bloody place, but it was no good—he was not breathing. There was no heartbeat. I got on top of him with my fists on his chest and started shoving, hard, trying to get his heart started, hitting him with everything I had again and again and again. I don't know how long I practically beat on him, trying to make him live, but way back in my mind I already knew it was no use. He was—
No. No, he could not be dead.
"Dillon, please," I whispered.
He did not move or breathe. But he could not be dead. Probably I was being stupid, not doing the right things for him. I had to get somebody who knew what they were doing, quick. I had to go for help.
I staggered a few steps back down the trail and came face to face with the double barrel of a shotgun staring me down like two hard black eyes. No person, just the gun. I didn't understand what had happened, I was so panicked. Didn't guess it was the murder weapon. I just thought, Who would leave a shotgun there in a tree?
It would have been faster to take the bike, but I never thought of it. It was Dillon's. Maybe I didn't feel like I could touch it. I ran all the way to the paved road where there were some trailers strung out between the mountain and the river, and the first one I came to I pounded on the door. A girl opened it, but I was panting so hard I couldn't talk.
"Tuff?" She knew me from somewhere.
I leaned there in her doorway, half bent over with the pain in my chest.
"What happened?" She grabbed a paper napkin and touched my face. It came away soaked with blood. I flinched back, surprised to see all that blood.
"Your nose looks broken," she said. "Did somebody hit you or something?"
I pushed past her and got to the phone. Dialed 911. "My brother," I panted as if there was somebody listening.
"Is he hurt?" the girl asked.
"Dillon. My brother." There was somebody on the emergency line now. "Send an ambulance. He's up on Sid's Mountain, just laying there. Send help."
It was like the knife from hell kept cutting the day into pieces. I must have gone out to stand along the road and wait for the ambulance, but I don't remember doing it, or leading the medics up the mountain. All I remember is being there again, getting back to Dillon, and he hadn't moved at all.
It was—it was scary, the way he looked at me without seeing me. I got to within a few steps of him, and then I had to stop. I could not go closer or touch him. I froze like a deer in headlights, with death coming at me. The medics clustered around Dillon and did their stuff, but in just a couple of minutes they shook their heads and got up. I stood there listening to the cops talking. Three cops, and I don't remember how any of them got there.
"Double-O buckshot, looks like," one of them was saying.
I don't remember which one said what or even what they looked like, just what they said.
"Caught him in just the wrong place."
"Set up just the wrong height." The shotgun in the tree, they meant. Triggers wired back, and then a trip wire going to the hammer, with the end of the wire fastened to a black string stretched across the trail. I figured out how it worked later. Right then I was looking straight at it, yet I did not understand. Not what it was, not what it had done, not what it was meant for, not anything.
"That's the ugliest goddamn thing I ever seen."
"Son." One of them was talking to me. Didn't remember my name, so he called me "son." Wouldn't that be a hoot, if he really was my father? "Son, did you and your brother ride up here often?"
He had to ask me twice before I really heard him and answered.
"Shortest way for him to get to work." My voice came out a whisper.
"So he came through here all the time."
I nodded. Lots of the people who lived along the river used these mountain trails to get to town.
"Do you know who owns this land?"
I shook my head. Probably it was state land, logging company land, mine company land, or something, and what the hell did it matter?
"So you don't have permission to ride here."
I just stared at him. I was numb. Could not believe any of this was happening.
One of the other cops said, "It's still murder, far as I'm concerned."
"Tell that to our wimp D.A. Manslaughter is the most he's likely to go for."
"If we ever get the guy. Damn hard to prove anything. Anybody could have come in here and rigged this up."
"Maybe the detectives will find a footprint or something." He was being sarcastic.
They all laughed. I swear to God, they laughed like it was a show.
Then I must have blipped out again. Next thing I remember, the cops were gone. Dillon's body was gone—where had they taken him? The bike was gone. The shotgun was still there and I was still there, sitting down, with a medic working on my face. "You're lucky you didn't catch any pellets," he said.
I didn't feel lucky.
"Close range," he said. "Buckshot doesn't scatter as much as people think."
I wasn't listening. "Is Dillon dead?" I asked.
The way he nodded made me realize we had been through this before. "You ought to see your doctor in a couple of days," he said, taping up my nose.
Sure. Fat chance. People like us don't have a doctor. "Why is Dillon dead?"
"Shot in the neck," he said. "He probably died within a minute."
That wasn't what I meant. "But why?"
He just sighed and kept putting antiseptic on me. It stung. Good. Life ought to hurt. At least I could feel something.
"I know it doesn't make any sense," the medic said. "At least it was quick." He was a nice guy. For half a second I pretended he could be my father, but nah. Too young.
I did that a lot, pretending some man I met was my father. Dillon and I talked about it sometimes, who the hell our dad might be. Mom would never tell us. We figured we were full brothers because we were only a couple years apart and a lot older than her other kids, but she wouldn't even tell us if we were right about that. Mom was not a bad mom some ways, but some ways she was the pits. Dillon and I would joke about wanting to send her back for repairs. We would joke about dads. When we were little we would play that Dillon was the father because he was older, or we would dream up make-believe dads, all sorts of dads, whatever kind we wanted. But we didn't really need a dad or a mom. We had each other.
Oh, my Christ.
"Dillon's dead," I said to the medic. "Is Dillon dead?"
He said, just as gently as if I didn't already know, "Yes."
All of a sudden I was burning mad. "Who killed him?"
"I don't know."
I swore. No swear word I could think of was bad enough. No name I could think of to call the murderer was bad enough. "The total no-neck slime-faced ... Who did it?"
The medic said, "You better ask them." He tilted his head toward some men in suits. More cops. These ones were Sherlock Holmes types, nosing around, hunting for cigarette butts and footprints in the weeds, squinting at the way the shotgun was wired up, bossing some guy with a camera and some other guy who was stringing up a lot of yellow tape that said POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS. I could see now why the other cops laughed. These detectives were hot dogs. They wouldn't find out anything.
"It shouldn't have happened," I said. "Why did it happen?"
The medic shook his head and went off to find me a ride home.
Our trailer was six miles downstream, set between the road and the water, like all the others along this stretch of river. On the flood plain, where it could get washed out anytime, where nobody with any sense or any choices wanted to live. That's why it was cheap rent. And that's why we were river people. Not much sense, not many choices.
When I got there, the brats were hiding under the trailer, belly-down in the dirt like a bunch of little collie dogs, and the cops were trying to tell Mom what had happened. It was almost suppertime on a Saturday night, so she was drunk and didn't understand them. She thought they were saying her old man was in the slammer again. "I ain't got no money for no bail," she said.
"Mom," I said, "it's Dillon." She didn't look at me. "You get out of here," she said to the cops. "I didn't do nothing. You just keep him a few days so he don't do nothing to me."
"Ma'am," a cop said, "your boy's dead."
All she did was get mad and wobble a couple steps toward him. "Get the hell out," she said. "You got a warrant? Huh? You don't come in here without no warrant."
The cops didn't care. They had done what they got paid to do, so they just shrugged and left. I grabbed Mom by the shoulders and screamed at her, "Listen to me, goddammit! Dillon is dead!"
She swore and hit me on my sore face for yelling at her. A couple of the kids under the trailer were crying, maybe because they understood what was going on better than she did. Or maybe just because they were hungry. They were my half brothers and sisters, but I never felt all that close to them. Right then I didn't feel anything for them at all, except hate because they were little and allowed to cry.
Not that I would have cried. I got my nickname when I was five years old and tried to pat a snapping turtle practically bigger than I was. It clamped onto my hand like a truck door and broke two of my fingers. Dillon called Mom, and she had to cut the snapper's head off with a butcher knife and pry the jaws apart with a screwdriver, and all the time it hurt like hell. Dillon kept teasing me to cry, but I wouldn't. That's when they started calling me Tuff.
Dillon. All my life I would be remembering him.
"He's dead," I said to Mom.
She stood there blinking at me. "Shawn." At least she knew who I was, though she called me by my real name for some reason. "What happened to your face? Did I do that?"
"Forget my face! Dillon got killed. Up the mountain. Somebody set a gun trap and killed him."
I saw her stiffen as she finally got it. She stood there a minute, very still. "Dillon's dead?" she said.
But then she shrugged and took another swig of beer. "Huh," she said. "Well, one less to worry about."
I swear to God that is just what she said.
Something snapped inside me like a bone breaking—except it was not a bone, it was my mind.
Then the parts fell into a kind of pattern, and I knew what I had to do.
I turned around and walked into the trailer and pulled a brown paper grocery bag out from behind the refrigerator to pack in. I didn't have much. None of us did. I wouldn't need more than one bag.
I headed for the little room I shared with Dillon—used to share with Dillon—and I saw his old Garth Brooks shirt he liked to sleep in hanging down from his rumpled-up bunk, and my heart turned over. It was like he was in there.
But he wasn't. He was dead, and somebody ought to notice. I yanked open my dresser drawer and threw my spare clothes into my bag.
Mom came in. "Where the hell you think you're going?"
"I am going to find whoever killed him." I slammed the drawer shut. "When I get the son of a bitch, I am going to kill him the same way."
There was junk on top of the dresser, maybe some of it mine. I pawed through it and came up with a snapshot of me and Dillon with that damn bike, and I held it in my hand and started shaking. He was so proud of that bike. Bought it himself with money he saved. Gave me a ride on it into town every day after school, so I wouldn't have to be around the trailer when the old man came home.
"Shawn, don't be an idiot," Mom said, acting kind of sober now. "Let bad enough alone. Dillon's better off."
I whispered, "You bitch." Didn't she give a shit about anybody?
"You expect me to be sorry about him? I ain't sorry. He got off easy." She was determined not to cry for him, ever, I could tell that. Goddammit, she ought to cry for him. Somebody had to, and I wasn't going to do it. I was sixteen years old, and I was going to kill somebody, not cry.
I told my mother, "You may go to hell."
"I'm already there," she said.
No damn joke. The noise of her five bawling brats came right up through all the holes rusted in the trailer she lived in with her stick-up-the-ass old man.
She asked, "Where you heading?"
"Out of here. Anywhere but here." I put Dillon's picture in my pocket, turned my back, and went.
"Hey!" she hollered after me from the trailer door. "You might want to look up a guy named Pen Leppo."
This was strange—she wasn't the drop-in-and-visit type. She wasn't the hinting type, either, but it sounded to me like she was hinting at something. Altogether it was odd enough so that I turned around to look back at her.
"Penrose Leppo," she said. "Tell him I said hi."
She yelled like she hated me, "He's your father."CHAPTER 2
I hiked back to Sid's Mountain and walked up to the place where Dillon had died. I set down my paper bag and stood around there awhile in the dusk. The shotgun was gone. Cops must have taken it with them. Dillon gone, murder weapon gone, everything gone except trees standing there and yellow police tape shutting me out.
Birds were bedding down in the trees, chirping like nothing had happened. I hated them. I hated everything.
I whispered like my brother was there. "Dillon, I'm going to get the son of a bitch."
It didn't help. I tried to think how to do it, how to find the killer, but it was no good. I couldn't think, couldn't swear, couldn't do anything. Couldn't even scream.
The birds screamed. Crack—a rifle fired not far away. And it was not hunting season.
The bullet whistled close by me and whanged off a tree beside the Jeep trail. I jumped and ran before my mind caught up to what was happening.
Somebody was gunning, and I was the game.
He fired once more, but by then I was behind a rock pile and plunging down the mountain. It was rough country, steep, thick, not a part of the mountain where I had ever been before. Good deer-hunting country, but I didn't much like being the deer.
There was a little cabin back there. The way it was set deep in a stand of hemlocks, I was almost on top of it before I saw it.
It wasn't a real good time to stop and visit, considering that somebody was trying to kill me. Didn't look like anybody was home anyway. Dark. I ran on past, then stopped running and walked. Why should I be scared? As if I really cared whether some guy shot me.
Probably the same guy who had murdered Dillon.
I walked faster, because it did matter whether I stayed alive. I had to find out who he was and kill him.
When I got to the road I kept heading upriver, away from home, and just walked. Miles, hours, until I wore myself out and could think a little.
I thought just enough to stop at a phone booth in Quarryville and use the book to look up Pen Leppo.
Whaddaya know—he was in there. Leppo Penrose G. 216 Main DmShm. That meant Dam Shame. It was the name of the town, Dam Shame, because it sat right by a dam on the river and the dam was named Shame after some government guy.
Ten miles ahead.
Excerpted from Toughing It by Nancy Springer. Copyright © 1994 Nancy Springer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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