Calling Home

Calling Home

by Michael Cadnum

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An Edgar Award Finalist: A troubled teen accidentally kills his best friend and tries to cover up his crime

When the muggers come for Peter, he runs as fast as he can, cradling the 6 pack under his arm like it’s the most valuable thing in the world. He looks over his shoulder for his friend Mead and sees he isn’t running away. He’s dancing with the muggers, dodging their attacks until all the thugs can do is laugh. Mead has a spark of life in him that shines through the ugliness of the 2 boys’ lives. But Peter envies him, and each night, he numbs the pain with alcohol. It’s a hard life, and it’s about to get worse.
When Mead smashes Peter’s prized bottle of cognac, Peter punches his friend in the face. Mead falls, hits his head, and dies. Unable to live with himself, Peter sinks deeper and deeper into an alcoholic haze as he tries to hide what he’s done—by impersonating the boy he killed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504019743
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 09/29/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 140
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 13 - 17 Years

About the Author

Michael Cadnum is the author of 35 books for adults and young adults. His work—which includes thrillers, suspense novels, historical fiction, and books about myths and legends—has been nominated for the National Book Award (The Book of the Lion), the Edgar Award (Calling Home and Breaking the Fall), and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (In a Dark Wood). A former National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, he is also the author of award-winning poetry. Seize the Storm (2012) is his most recent novel.
Michael Cadnum lives in Albany, California, with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Read an Excerpt

Calling Home

By Michael Cadnum


Copyright © 1991 Michael Cadnum
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5040-1974-3


Impersonating the dead is easy, but easy like swimming underwater for the first time, thinking, when it's done, how easy it was, and how ridiculous it was to be afraid.

There is something intoxicating about it, too. The very wrongness of it changes the body, warps it like too much water surrounding the body, and nearly crushes it.

It's easy to begin. All it takes is the hand. The simple, human hand, left over from the days when we were birds, and could fly. The hand lifts the receiver to the ear, and the hand drops the coins into the secret places in the telephone that make it live.

The forefinger touches buttons that are always warm, like buttons on a thing that is alive. The body not only swims, but rises to the surface where everything is greasy with streetlight. And something important — essential — is different now.

A miracle. A dead person walking. And breathing, too, the old stiff lungs swelling like two grocery bags.

The phone rings once.

There are little speckles on the line, noise specks, like rotting in the system somewhere. Nothing is exact. Things blur; there are no straight lines.

It rings a second time, and the second ring is worse than the first, because it means that this is really happening, the whole thing really happening, and it is one more ring away from hanging up and running.

Because parts of the body want to run. The lower lip shivers and the thumb has a tremor in it like there's a vibrator stuck up inside it somehow. So the hand takes itself up to the thin steel cable that connects the receiver to the phone and runs itself up and down the length of it, loving the feel of the hard steel coils.

Third ring. It eases. Perhaps no one will answer. Except that if no one answers there will have to be another first time. So one screen inside says, in big green letters, ANSWER!

The fourth ring begins but it is snapped in two. A noise surrounds the silence in the air, a halo of the reverberating phone bell at the other end of the line.

Her voice says, "Hello?"

Sounding normal, like nothing's wrong. Like it could be a television repairman calling to say the Magnavox is fixed, and that's all the worry she has in the world, anyway. Just a broken television.

And it is easy. The breath swells both lungs and comes out through a voice just like his. "Mother," it says.


"Mother, I'm all right."


There were the four of us. First Mead and I, and then Angela and Lani, and we all enjoyed each other's company, although most of all we enjoyed being with Mead.

Mead was never unhappy. Even when I saw him once escaping a couple of muggers he was laughing, like it was a great joke, something these two grizzly bears in black leather had decided to do just for the fun of it.

It probably was, but for their fun, not Mead's. It was on Thirteenth Street, near Bella Vista, and Mead and I had just bought a six-pack of Coors from the One Stop where they never argued about I.D. I had the beer under my arm, and the two guys stepped from the total dark into the half dark of the streetlight.

"Give us a dollar, my man," said a voice, almost a friendly voice, if you didn't know better.

I ran. No hesitation. I was off, beer under my arm heavy as a car battery, feeling the fingernails of a big hand snag and slip off the back of my jacket.

After half a block I turned, because Mead's steps were not behind me. He was dancing with his adversaries, or at least it looked like it, lunging and skipping and eluding. And laughing while the two swore and swiped at empty air. And then they were laughing, too, and it was all a kind of no-equipment-required sport, a little urban tag to brighten the night.

When he pranced up the street toward me, I grabbed him by the arm and pulled him along. "You could have gotten yourself hurt," I said.

"They were just fooling around," he said.

I didn't bother to tell him that they were in no way just fooling around. It would have been a waste of time to tell anything to Mead. He was quick in everything he did, and sure-handed, as though he could never make a mistake.

Mead and I liked to drink together, sitting in the abandoned cellar of the empty house next door. But we liked to hike together, too, and get poison oak in the Oakland Hills. Once Mead made a slingshot in metal shop. It was a stout letter Y with a touch loop of elastic. Mead had a pocketful of ball bearings. We wandered up the creek bed in Dimond Park, Mead plinking at bottles and beer cans. He never missed. When a bottle burst, it was as though he willed it to explode. There was never any doubt, no hesitation. He aimed, pulled, and glass tinkled.

Mead handed me the sling, and I aimed at a half-buckled Coke can. The ball bearing plinked off a rock. Another kicked up dust. I handed the sling to Mead.

"You just need a little practice," he said, going out of his way to be kind.

"Right," I agreed. "A little practice."

A jay squalled through the air, and Mead aimed and the strap snapped.

Then he froze, and sank slowly to his knees, staring. "No," he whispered. "I didn't mean to do that," he said looking up at me. "I didn't mean it."

The jay was warm and limp, open-eyed, two bright blue fans of wings still spread. Mead held it, as though he could toss it into the air and it would come to life again.

That was the end of the slingshot; I never saw it again. The next time I saw Mead, he had a red book in his hand, even though we were walking up Shepherd Canyon where we had agreed to meet. I had brought a jug of Gallo, and we walked together in silence. I had been waiting for a while before Mead dropped through the brush beside me, and the Hearty Burgundy was already half gone.

Mead stopped, and flipped through pages.

"Is that your address book, or what?"

"That bird we just saw. The one with the white flashes in its tail. It was a junco. Look."

His forefinger indicated a bird. There were squeaks in the bay trees around us, but I had not seen anything.

"Of course," he said, "just knowing the names doesn't mean much. But I'm going to learn all the birds around here."

I didn't say it, but it was plain that he felt he owed the birds something — attention, if nothing else. He told me whenever he saw a red-tailed hawk or a grebe, or whatever, not in a bookish or scientific way, but as if it was something that mattered, like seeing a meteor or a lightning strike.

Lani liked to hit fungoes to him. Mead had a glove that was falling apart. He'd had it since sixth grade, and the leather was so worn the glove folded flat, like a book, probably from Mead putting it under his mattress for years. He would leap horizontal for a ball, and hang there for a moment before falling. Never crashing, but descending to the grass, as though he were made of balsa wood, or paper, not human, hurtable material. Whether he caught it or not, it was fun, and funny, to him.

Angela would bring some of her father's liquor, businessman-quality scotch or bourbon, and we would sit in the park, on the grass, while Mead folded paper airplanes, or threw eucalyptus seeds at a paper cup. We all talked, Angela about the kind of car she wanted when she was rich, Lani about her knuckleball, or her piano lessons, which she both hated and loved, but sometimes we just watched Mead fool around, making a kazoo out of a piece of grass, or owl cries with his two thumbs pressed to his lips.

"How do you do that?" Lani would ask.

Mead would shrug, laugh, and show us. Lani would manage a bleat, a cross between an owl and a goat. I would make nothing, only a long whoosh of air like an imitation wind cave. Angela wouldn't even try. She didn't want to muss her lipstick, and besides, she was smarter than the rest of us and knew almost no one could copy Mead.

Lani wouldn't drink, and looked at Mead and me like we were crazy when we took a chug on a liter of Jack Daniels. Angela would sample it, and dab at her lips with a Kleenex. I would grow numb, and stare at the sky, the world swinging like a trapdoor when I closed my eyes. Mead would just grow a little more bright-eyed, and go home for his basketball, so we could shoot baskets after the two girls had gone.

Angela's family was Italian. I used to joke about the Mafia, and she never laughed when I did that, and so I stopped. Lani was black, and her father was a lawyer. Angela was my girlfriend, although I preferred talking to Lani. Lani was no one's girlfriend. She had no use for men in her life, or sex, or anything like that. She didn't have any strong dislikes for males. She just didn't want one, the way some people don't want a computer. Mead was the same way about girls. He liked them, the way he liked dogs and cats and Uno bars. He didn't take them seriously.

Mead's father had been hit by a drunk driver while he was crossing the street to go jogging around Lake Merritt. One leg had broken into eleven distinct fragments. He had always been a nervous man, smoking and cracking his knuckles, but now he was a nervous, frail man. He was quick-eyed, one of those people who make you nervous because they are so tense. Not unhappy, just tense. He looked like a slightly gray version of Mead, leaning on a cane with a great pink rubber stopper on the end of it to keep it from sliding.

Mead was proud of his father. He never said so, but he would mention if his father was going to have an operation, and you could tell he respected the way his father took the pain and didn't complain. His father sat on the porch smoking, inert like a very old man, watching the world go by, but you never heard him sound bitter. When he had a heart attack, he joked about it, the way Mead would have joked, but after the heart attack Mead became serious for days, quiet, the way he had become about the jay.

"My heart's not in the right place," his dad said, chewing a fingernail, or stubbing out a cigarette. "I'd go for a walk with you guys, but my heart's not in it!"

Mead's mother was a big, soft-voiced woman who loved her husband too much to show him much sympathy. "You have a rotten sense of humor, Gordon," she'd say, in the tone of a high compliment. "Have the doctor put your sense of humor in a cast."

Angela told me one afternoon that she expected Mead's father to die.

"What a horrible thing to say," I protested.

"It's not like I want it to happen. He just doesn't look like he has what it takes."

"I like Mead's dad —"

Angela rolled her eyes. "He's okay. I didn't say I didn't like him or anything like that. He's just real sickly."

"Don't say anything like that around Mead."

"I wouldn't say anything like that to Mead. I'm not crazy. I do have some respect for people's feelings. You're a very strange person, Peter. You have these great areas of real hypersensitivity, and then you have other parts of your brain that are made of solid rock."

"I just don't want Mead to get upset," I said.

All of our lives were going well. Reasonably well. My studies had faltered. "Studies" was a word Mr. Tyler used. The way I would put it was that I had gone from an A student two years ago, to a D student, and I didn't know why. But Lani had the piano, Angela had her face, and Mead had whatever it was Mead had. Life, and happiness.

And it was all about to end.


My mother was on the phone. The fact that she was using her cheerful, cute voice told me she was talking to one of her boyfriends. "You silly. What makes you say that?"

I sat on the bottom step and tied my shoes.

"Oh, stop it. Don't be mean to me." She turned her face, aglow with virtual baby talk, toward me. Her face went blank and she shut the door.

It was nearly dark out. The freeway made its usual rumble in the distance. Ted switched on the lights in his basement across the street. The top of his head paused in the window just above the line of geraniums. He was intent on something, probably something in his hands, a transformer or one of those intricate little electric motors that are made so well but look so ugly and leave that thin, yellow oil all over your fingers.

I slipped along the sidewalk beside my house, brushing the fuchsia. I put my hands over the top of the fence and hiked myself over, into the backyard next to mine. My feet shushed among the dried weeds. I could barely make out the old hose that coiled in the middle of the dried-up lawn like a reminder to someone who did not exist that the place should be watered. The window with the one hole in it the size of a hand, the one I had made with a ball bearing, glowed orange with the sunset. It was the only glass left in the entire house. It bothered me to see it. It wanted to be knocked out.

The padlock was black and looked like it would be able to protect something, but all I had to do was jiggle it in my hand and it dropped open. I unhooked it, and looked back at the dried-up backyard, actually thinking that someone might be watching, even though we always came here and no one ever saw us, or would have cared even if they did happen to see us. This was a dead house. I couldn't even remember who had ever lived here; the house did not count any more than a bum you see walking along Franklin Street counts. You don't say hello or meet his eyes; you ignore him as if he wasn't there.

I hung the padlock on the latch; it dangled there like a sex organ on a robot and the sight of it aroused me in a way that made me feel dirty. I stood on the basement steps for a moment, thinking that the place was not a good place that night. It smelled of wet concrete and house rot; its wetness soaked into me. I dug into my pocket for the matches and panicked. They weren't there. I patted my pocket and felt the cardboard of a matchbook and bent it pulling it out.

I touched the match to the candle stub, and the flame burned with a sizzle. My shadow was huge, and I shivered as I knelt to drag the boards away from our liquor cache. It was always cold in the cellar, and mice or rats or other creatures I could not stand to think about were always scurrying around the abandoned house above.

We had two bottles. One was a bottle of Christian Brothers Tawny Port from One Stop, a bottle that didn't even count, it was so low-rent, and then there was a prize, so special it still had a businessman's card Scotch-taped to it, with a signature scrawled on it, a heavy brown bottle of cognac Angela had smuggled out to us before her father even knew it existed. I had been saving this for two days, and tonight Mead and I were going to drink it.

Mead was late. He was often late. It wasn't negligence that would make him dance, panting, to a place half an hour after everyone had gone home. He was always so busy, so caught up in things.

I opened the bottle of Tawny Port, and the wine went down without a struggle. The batteries were dead, so I couldn't listen to music. I sat there in the silence, drinking port, feeling less and less cold.

He took a long time. The empty house above me made that big not-sound things make when you pay too much attention to them. Mead did not show up, and then he continued not to show up, and I kept drinking. As I drank, I began to get angry. Mead had no right to fool around all the time, and never show up when he was supposed to.

He had no right to waste my time.

The door rattled, and candlelight gilded Mead. "You should have seen it!" he said. "A power line got knocked down in an accident, and firemen had to block off the street. There were gigantic sparks. It's almost fixed now. You ought to come look. They have this giant cherry picker —"

"I've been sitting here for an hour, waiting before I started on the cognac, and you've been out watching firemen."

"A car hit a telephone pole. Nobody was hurt — which is a miracle. But it was a dramatic moment. You can still come watch."

"Dramatic moment! You could be drinking cognac, and you're watching a dramatic moment."

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," he said, too quietly.

I dug at the cognac seal with my fingernails, and pried the cork. "Angela stole this especially for us, and you're out there watching firemen like a little boy."

Mead held forth his hand. "Let me have the first taste," he said.

"You don't deserve it."

"Let me —"

I lifted the bottle, and drank.

"There are other things in life than drinking, you know," said Mead.

The gulp of brandy had me gasping. "I'll drink this all myself, then, and you can go back out and watch the Big Men."

"Let me have some now," he said.


Excerpted from Calling Home by Michael Cadnum. Copyright © 1991 Michael Cadnum. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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