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Early June 2017 Millersville County, U.S.A.
With two days left before summer break, Wyatt was restless. Sleep evaded him. He had the window open, the fan aimed at his bed, churning at full speed. But the air coming in wasn't all that much cooler than the boiling stuff going out. And it smelled of concrete, tar, and whatever sat cooking in the garbage can a few paces from the windowsill — remnants of whatever Wyatt's aunt Narcissa had gobbled up and flung out the door with a well-practiced flick of her sausage fingers. A Styrofoam container slimed with sesame chicken, empty egg roll wrappers, a can of SpaghettiOs, a box of pigs in a blanket, BBQ short ribs sucked clean and bone white.
Aunt Narcy and her pile of bones hadn't always been there. It wasn't that long ago that Wyatt's mom made pancakes shaped like superheroes for breakfast and brought lemonade to Wyatt and his little brother's baseball games. She drove carpool, helped with math homework. But those days had ended eight months ago, when Wyatt's dad packed a bag, climbed into his rig like he did every month, and pulled out. But this time he never came home. No word. No call. The days passed and holidays went by — Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day. Wyatt tried every trick he knew to scour the Internet to find his dad, conducting Boolean searches, sourcing the deep Web. Not a trace. The Millersville police weren't much help. They filed a missing persons report, of course, but they couldn't even locate his truck. And since money kept appearing in his mother's bank account every month, the police assumed they were not dealing with a homicide.
"Mrs. Brewer," the lead investigator told his mother in the kitchen one afternoon, "you need to prepare yourself for the likely possibility that your husband is alive, but wanted to disappear."
The idea of abandonment destroyed Wyatt's mom. She took to her bed for days on end, no more pancakes, and eventually, no more cooking or cleaning at all. School became an afterthought. Her sister Narcy moved in, supposedly to help. But Narcy just made things suck even more. She talked trash about Wyatt's dad and made his mom think the worst. "I wouldn't be surprised if he had another family," Narcy whispered to his mother one afternoon.
Another family? Wyatt couldn't stop thinking about it in his bed later that night. He was lying there, bathed in sweat and a fog of garbage stink, eyes wide open, when he noticed a little pool of light playing on the wall, glimmering at the end of the bunk bed he shared with Cody, his younger brother.
Wyatt leaned over and peered down at the bottom bunk to see if Cody was awake. His brother lay on a sweat-stained Star Wars bedsheet in his underwear, slick with perspiration, long hair stuck to his face, twitching a little. Likely having a nightmare, a regular occurrence these past eight months.
Wyatt snatched up the phone and hopped from the bunk. "Hello," he whispered.
He could hear the smile in his friend Derrick's voice. "Of all my boyz to answer my call in a pinch, you do. I'm glad we gonna get in a year at Maple."
Maple was the local high school. Wyatt was going to be a freshman and Derrick a senior. The fact that Derrick was an all-state running back helped mask that he was also a complete degenerate. Wyatt himself had always been a little on the wild side, but his grades never showed it. Up until his dad disappeared, he'd finished each semester at the top of his class. Then, after his dad left, Wyatt turned punk with a vengeance. It didn't take long for Wyatt to transition into the kind of kid you'd watch so he wouldn't shoplift, the kind you'd walk on the other side of the street to avoid. You wouldn't think that, as an eighth-grader, he tutored high-school kids in math and computer science, specifically coding in CSS, HTML, AJAX, and some of the other basic languages. Tutoring high schoolers was how he met Derrick in fact. The jock and the renegade with a hacker's flare for math and rule-breaking. The bond was instant.
"And lemme tell you, homie," Derrick went on, "I need a friend right now. I neeeeed a lil bad boy like you I can trust. I ain't gonna lie, bro, I'm in some trouble, and I want you to help me get out. Can I count on you, homie?"
"'Til the end of time," Wyatt said, noticing he'd begun pacing, a little thrill building inside him.
* * *
Wyatt cracked the door and saw Narcy sitting on the couch watching QVC, the back of her head silhouetted in the bluish light from the flat screen. Her frizzy, short hair glowed like a deep-fried halo, her hand dipping down to the bowl at her side and then rising up to her mouth. Crunch.
The TV volume was set low enough for Wyatt to hear the chewing and lip-smacking and a hum that sounded like a moan. The tube had sucked her into the vortex, all right, but still Wyatt had to be careful. Narcy might have been slow on her feet, but she had bat ears and a voice like a smoke alarm. Wyatt needed to move ninja quiet. He dropped to his knees, pushed the door open, and crawled out nice and slow.
The hallway carpet was dirty and completely worn down in some places. The bare spots creaked if you so much as breathed on them, so he crawled on the soft, cleaner edges of the carpet until he reached the vinyl kitchen floor. Wyatt rose to his feet and padded to the mug on the kitchen counter. Rather than fish the keys out, he took the mug with him and disappeared out the back door.
Narcy's ride, an old Lincoln Town Car parked in the carport, had once been a car-service limo. Narcy had clocked over 150,000 miles on the odometer, her bulk flattening the springs in the driver side. Still, Wyatt was tall enough to physically drive the car and his father had let him tool around parking lots and back roads so that he wasn't scared to drive. The problem was getting the beast out of the carport without making any noise. He'd have to push it.
Wyatt gingerly opened the door, slid in, and put the car in neutral. He hand-rolled the window down and, reaching in to hold the steering wheel, he pushed against the doorframe. It didn't budge. He was getting ready to push again when he heard the kitchen door to the garage open behind him. Wyatt froze, bracing himself for Narcy's yell.
"Wyatt," a voice whispered. Cody. Whew. Cody stood in his tighty-whities scratching his stomach. "Had a dream. Daddy was in a deep pit and you were trying to get to him and you fell and landed on a bed of knives." Cody rubbed his eyes, blinking awake.
"It's okay, bud," Wyatt said to his brother. "Just go back to bed. Put a story on if you have to." Wyatt handed him the phone, queuing up an audiobook. "Try ... Huck Finn."
This was Wyatt's old standby. When Wyatt was young, his dad would sometimes take Wyatt and Cody on short trips. They'd ride up high in the rig and to keep the boys from getting bored, he'd play Huck Finn, over and over. It was Wyatt's favorite book now, and listening to it was how the brothers fell asleep many nights.
"Just make sure to plug the phone in or it'll be dead when we go to school in the morning."
"Okay." Cody took the phone and rubbed his eyes. "But why are you out here? What are you doing with Narcy's car?"
"Borrowing it for a quick spin."
Cody looked confused. "But you can't drive."
"Clarification," Wyatt said. "I'm not allowed to drive. That doesn't mean I can't. I need to help a friend. Come help push."
Cody was only eleven and looked young and delicate with long hair like Wyatt, but his appearance was deceptive. He was tall and strong and shared some of Wyatt's natural athletic gifts. But unlike Wyatt, the coaches always said Cody had the self-discipline of a true athlete. And so he gravitated to sports, which helped keep him out of trouble.
"C'mon and put your shoulder into it," Wyatt said.
Cody stepped toward the car, still thinking, gears turning. He shook his head. "I have a bad feeling about this. You were in my nightmare. You can't go." He crossed his arms, scowling, trying to swallow a bitter taste. "Nuh-uh. Not tonight."
"I'll be right back. C'mon, just give a push."
Cody stood there staring, unmoving. Wyatt knew it was pointless to argue with him when he got this way. "Suit yourself," he said, turning back to the car. Wyatt squatted down, leaned and pushed with every ounce of strength he had.
The Town Car inched forward, rolled a little bit, then started down the drive. Once it built up momentum, the car pretty much took off, silently slipping out into the night like a pirate ship. It moved so fast that as the car sailed down the short drive, it got ahead of Wyatt, who sprinted to catch up.
Cody ran down the sidewalk in his undies, hissing Wyatt's name. "Wyatt, Narcy's gonna kill you! Catch the dang car!" The back left bumper scraped across the rusty pickup parked on the opposite side of the street. The mash-up of the cars created a metal tearing scream.
Wyatt dove halfway into the front window, jerked the wheel hard to the right, and the tires squeaked, metal grinding against metal. He pulled himself the rest of the way through, scraping the hell out of his chest before scrambling up behind the wheel and steering the car into the center of the street. Wyatt hit the brakes and the car lurched to a stop a block from his house, a new, long scratch down the side of Narcy's Town Car to add to the plethora of dents and dings. Cody ran up on the sidewalk, jaw hanging down. "Dude," he said. "The car! Let's get it back up the street."
"No turning back now," Wyatt said, putting the keys in the ignition. The Lincoln's engine hummed.
"Wyatt, don't leave me," Cody begged. "Please. If something happens to you ... I can't lose you. Not you, too."
Wyatt looked at his brother. "Everything'll be fine. I'll be right back. You can trust me," Wyatt said. "I'll never leave you for good."
With that, Wyatt dropped the car into gear and peeled out. In the rearview, he saw Cody running on the sidewalk back up the hill toward their house, his undies glowing against the dark night.
Early June 2017 Millersville County, U.S.A.
The still air gushed in around Wyatt as the Town Car glided down the blacktop. Since Wyatt was well under the driving age and had no license, he kept to the back roads that paralleled the interstate. A thin layer of cool sweat clung to the back of his neck, little electric jolts of fear and excitement trickling through him. It was good to be out in the quiet night, Wyatt thought.
Then, without warning, two cop cars came flying up over the hill behind him, sirens squealing, racing toward Wyatt. He swore under his breath and hit the brakes. Heart hammering, he swerved the Town Car off to the side of the road, praying to God the cops would not arrest him for joy-riding and maybe let him go with a slap on the wrist.
But instead of pulling Wyatt over, they swerved around the Lincoln into the oncoming lane. They tore past, going a hundred miles per hour or more. Maybe an accident, Wyatt thought, breathing a deep sigh of relief. He swerved back onto the road, letting his heartbeat ease down as he drove on to meet Derrick.
* * *
The old rail yard had the dingy feel of a bad horror movie, full of junked parts, beer cans, rusting heaps of metal, and scattered piles of discarded clothes. And this time of night, it was dead quiet. Unnervingly quiet. Wyatt rolled the windows up and angled the Town Car down a row of train cars, moving slow, tires grinding gravel, the beams of his headlights spilling into dark, dirty, sordid spaces.
Wyatt knew the yard well. He and Cody would sometimes ride out there on bikes to smash bottles and burn the stuff left by the hobos who camped in the nearby woods and slept in the train cars in the yard when it rained. But the rail yard at night was a different thing entirely, especially when alone.
Wyatt drove in as far as he could and parked. Derrick could be anywhere. Wyatt instinctively groped for his cell phone and then he remembered he'd given it to Cody. He stared into the beam cast by his headlights. Where was Derrick?
Wyatt opened the door. "D? ... D? ... You there?"
He knew it was quite possible Derrick couldn't see Wyatt's car. Or maybe Derrick thought he was a cop — they often patrolled the yard, rousting bums.
Wyatt checked in the glove box for a flashlight. Nothing. Wyatt left the car running and got out, careful not to step on broken glass, a syringe, or even a sleeping homeless person. He thought of the time he'd found a dead animal in the middle of the yard, where it had been rotating on a spit inside a makeshift camp. The carcass of the animal was still on the spit, half- eaten, pieces of meat evidently trimmed off as the animal sizzled, licked by fire. A meal for hobos. Wyatt couldn't immediately tell what kind of animal it was. Then he saw a dog collar in the smoldering ashes beneath the spit.
After that, Wyatt swore he'd never come back. Certainly not alone. And yet, there he was. Wandering out into his own headlights.
"Derrick!" Wyatt whisper-shouted.
He heard a rustling and a low moan. He looked out into the dark woods, trying to follow the sound with his eyes.
"Hey, is that you?" he said.
Wyatt heard an unfamiliar voice. "It's me. But I don't know you." Two eyes blinked on the ground, from behind a blackened face. A bottle glimmered nearby. The hobo rocked like he was going to try to get up. Then his face wrinkled, and he growled, "Rrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!" His body trembled with rage and he began to push himself up, but his eyes rolled back into his head and he collapsed in the dirt.
Wyatt ran, hearing other stirrings in the woods, other voices waking up. Maybe half a dozen or so hobos were out in the woods, rousing.
Forget this, Wyatt said to himself. He spun around and started back for Narcy's car. And then, as if on cue, Derrick materialized, stepping out from a shadow.
"What are you doing?!" Wyatt asked.
"Had to make sure it was you," Derrick said, running at an angle, light and fast like how he ran on the football field. His muscles, slick with sweat, rippled in the high beams. He wore shorts and his legs were dirty and badly scratched. He carried a small green fanny pack.
"Man," Derrick said, "let's go. Go. Go. Go." He beat Wyatt to the car and dove into the back seat. Wyatt got in front and fired up the engine. Derrick was talking, but before Wyatt could hear him, he smelled him. The odor moved with the speed of a sonic boom. He didn't just smell bad, like body odor or a fart, he smelled like a chemical accident, acrid and faintly of burnt rubber. It reminded Wyatt of how his cat, Tony, smelled the time his mom put the cat in the trunk and drove to the vet. When they arrived, the cat was scared stiff, claws stuck in the carpet, and a horrible odor — not just pee, but pee and fear — clung to everything. That was how Derrick smelled now.
Derrick lay flat on the back seat. Wyatt rolled the window down a notch and gunned it in reverse, kicking up a cloud of gravel and dust.
"Go back to bed, ya dirty bums!" Derrick yelled out the window.
"So what's up, man," Wyatt asked when they were back on the highway. "What kind of trouble are you in?"
"I'll get to that later. For now, man, appreciation." Derrick tapped the back of Wyatt's seat. "I knew you'd come. I owe you, homie. Tell you about everything in a bit."
Derrick rested the green bag on his chest, closed his eyes, and sunk into the pleather on the back seat.
Wyatt drove in silence, listening to the radio and steering the silver front end of the Town Car into the oncoming darkness.
The song wound down and the news came on. "Time for your 10-10-Wins Weather and News report. Every hour on the hour. Tonight is going to be a hot one for the tri-county area, with temperatures reaching in the mid- to upper nineties and humidity at ninety percent...."
In Wyatt's hometown, talk radio was always the same: bad weather, cheap deals, and sports teams that could never seem to find a basket or a goalpost. Wyatt reached to shut the radio off when something piqued his interest.
"Police advise residents to be on alert after the Citgo Gas Station and Car Wash in Millersville was robbed by a masked assailant. The assailant fired two shots in the commission of the crime, critically wounding the attendant before fleeing on foot. Police and state troopers are searching the area. Local residents are warned not to pick up hitchhikers and to report any suspicious behavior. The victim was taken to St. Mary's Hospital and is in critical condition."
Wyatt's mind flashed to the cop car that had raced past him earlier that night. He looked into the rearview mirror.
Excerpted from "Camp Valor"
Copyright © 2018 Scott McEwen and Tod H. Williams.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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