When a chance yard-sale purchase nets five boys a Willie Mays rookie card worth $4,000, their lives seem to narrow and intensify. The boys devise a "last man" contestthe winner gets the Mays card, and the losers get zip.
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Hey, Alibi! You tired yet?" Albert looked up and saw Nick glance back, grinning, from the lead position. Despite snickers from the other bike riders, Albert ignored him. He was used to Nick by now.
"Huh, Alibi?" Nick said. "Those skinny legs of yours need a rest?"
"Wiry," Albert said. "I call them wiry. As in steel." More snickers. "How's your mouth, Sponge Brain?" he said. "Tired yet?" He heard Yuno force a laugh. Not much of a laugh, but better than nothing.
Nick accelerated. As usual, everyone else followed their leader, strung together like boxcars behind a runaway engine. Albert leaned forward, pedaling hard, staying close but not moving out of the order. He knew his place by now, earned over the hundreds of miles they'd put in during the summer. He was content that he wasn't last. And he wasn't about to let Yuno, who was struggling noisily to keep up, move past him in the pecking order — ever.
Albert turned his baseball cap around to keep it from flying off and tried to concentrate on the ride.
Nick, the self-proclaimed leader, had dreamed up nicknames for everyone else; he hadn't given himself one. Albert had dubbed him Sponge Brain, but it hadn't caught on.
Behind Nick was Mike "Princess" Dye, who had come all the way from England. Mike wasn't very fond of royalty — or his nickname.
Next in line rode Joey Zemo, who'd grown up in Wyoming. On the day Joey'd moved into the apartment complex, Albert and Nick saw him being chased onto the hood of a parked car by a shoebox-sized dog with legs the length of pickles. Nick soon had a name for Joey: Small Dog.
Albert thought "Alibi" wasn't the worst of the lot, although he wasn't happy with the reason he got the name. So what if he liked to read? So what if his excuses for staying in his apartment hadn't been real good? It wasn't that he didn't like to horse around or get into sports. It was just that reading was an inside, solitary kind of thing.
Behind Albert was Lester "Yuno" Lambert, who had pretty much earned his own alias. Nearly every sentence from his mouth contained at least one "you know."
By now this trip was a ritual. The first time, two months ago, it had been just a spur-of-the-moment idea. On one of the first nice days of summer, Nick had asked Albert, Princess, and Yuno if they wanted to ride their bikes to a pool on the Stillaguamish River for a day of swimming. Albert wasn't too sure at first. Fourteen miles, mostly uphill, sounded like a long trip, especially on legs more accustomed to traveling in a car. But he wanted to make friends — his old friends were two hundred miles away in Portland — so he said yes.
They saw the countryside and swam and explored. They built a raft that sank like a submarine. Mostly, they laughed a lot. They had such a good time that they went back the next day. And the day after. And the day after that. They'd hardly missed a day since.
A week after they started going, Joey moved in, and Albert asked him if he wanted to come along. He did, and that was it; that was the group. Five boys whose families had just moved to this small Washington town had come together to make the most of their situation.
And they were doing it, even though none of them would have chosen to be here if they'd had a choice. They'd given up friends and familiar schools and homes of their own. They'd come to a place of strangers and strange schools and temporary, company-sponsored housing in the Riverbend Apartments, where everything was clean and modern but nothing seemed like home. They were here because their dads or moms had taken jobs with SoftEdge.
The giant software company had pulled up its shallow roots from the congestion of Seattle's eastern suburbs and moved north to Granite Falls for fresh air and growing room. SoftEdge built its sprawling facility just outside the old city limits.
The boys left trees and pastures behind them and reached the original section of Granite Falls. They sped past the quiet storefronts of the old business district, past old houses in old neighborhoods, and rounded off a sharp "L" in the road. They whipped past Granite Falls Middle School, Albert's everyday destination in less than a month. He tried not to look at it. He wasn't ready to think about school yet.
If they had been biking here before SoftEdge arrived, they already would have been out of town. Now they just changed neighborhoods, old to new. Wide streets branched off the main highway. The entrance to each street had the name of a housing development on a big, rustic sign. WHISPERWOOD, the first one said; MOUNTAIN VISTA, the next one. Houses and condominiums and apartments could be glimpsed through the trees.
They pushed on, and Albert felt himself running out of gas. He shouldn't have tried to finish that book the night before. But he wasn't about to tell Nick to slow down. It was the kind of complaint that Nick would turn into a nasty barb in no time. No, Albert would keep his mouth shut. He could maintain this pace as long as any of the other guys could.
He glanced behind him, making sure Yuno hadn't gained any ground. Head down, Yuno was pedaling furiously, his shorter legs and pudgy body working as hard as they could. "I think I can," Albert heard him say between gasps.
Albert could see the entrance to the last housing development a block away. A woman was hammering something onto the streetsign post.
MOVING SALE, the sign said. Nothing important. But he was tired, and that made up his mind for him.
"Moving sale, Nick!" he yelled out, trying to sound excited rather than exhausted.
"So?" Nick shot back, easing off on the pedals.
Albert had to come up with something good — something other than he needed a break. He thought for a moment, his mind racing.
"Baseball cards!" he blurted out. If anything could make Nick stop, that was it.
Nick stopped ten feet from the woman. The others coasted up.
"Baseball cards, huh, Alibi?" Nick said, barely breathing hard. "Or did you just need a rest?" He looked at Albert, waiting for an answer, while the other boys glanced back and forth, not sure whose side to take.
Albert decided that he wasn't the only one who was tired.
"Or did you just want to look for some books?" Nick made the word sound like some slimy, smelly, unrecognizable object that the dog had dragged in. Certainly not something any normal person would like.
"There really could, you know, be some baseball cards, Nick," Yuno said.
Having Yuno stick up for you was about as cool as letting Nick catch you reading a book, or belonging to the Chess Club.
But books, now. The idea of a treasury of used books was something that definitely did appeal to him.
"I have some," she said softly, looking at Albert curiously. He stared back at her, wondering how she'd known what he was thinking. She brushed a wisp of brown hair from her forehead and pushed her shirt sleeves up.
"Books?" Nick said. "You've got books for sale?"
"And baseball cards," she said.
Nick grinned, but avoided looking at Albert. "Yes!" he said.
"You really do have baseball cards?" Small Dog asked.
"A whole tackle box full," she said.
"A big tackle box?" Nick asked.
"A very big tackle box."
"For sale?" Small Dog said.
She nodded. "For sale."
Albert glanced at Princess, who was watching the conversation with amusement. He still didn't understand the fascination with cardboard pictures of men who played a silly game and spit tobacco.
"Is your kid selling 'em?" Nick said. His voice was suddenly a notch higher, his breathing quick and shallow.
She looked at Albert. "Is your friend always this excitable?"
"Sometimes he's worse."
She smiled. "My kid isn't selling the cards. I am."
"Can we see them?" Albert said.
"Sure," she said. "You guys can be my first customers. I'm just a few blocks away, if you want to follow me on your bikes."CHAPTER 2
In two minutes she pulled up in front of a nice two-story house that looked much like the other nice two-story houses they'd passed. A SOLD sign sprouted from the front lawn. In the garage was an assortment of furniture, boxes of lawn tools, sporting goods, and other items that people accumulate.
"My name's Maggie," she said, hurrying up behind them. "If you guys will help me get this stuff into the driveway, I'll dig out those baseball cards. The exercise will be good for you, anyway," she said, grinning.
Now Albert understood: the old Tom Sawyer routine. Did she really think they were stupid enough to fall for something that obvious?
Before she could finish her last sentence, Nick was in the garage, and in an instant he was joined by the other three. Even Princess, who didn't know Mickey Mantle from Mickey Mouse, was helping. Albert stayed where he was.
Maggie gave him a questioning look.
"I read Tom Sawyer," he said. "Twice."
She looked at him blankly. "Oh — you think I —" She laughed, a nice, easy laugh. "I just thought as long as you were here — but I suppose it seems like I planned it, doesn't it?"
"Uh-huh." Albert still wasn't sure she hadn't. Until she smiled again. Then he was convinced. He walked into the garage. By the time he and Princess horsed out all the bedroom furniture, the other guys had emptied the rest of the garage and were standing next to some likely looking boxes in the driveway.
"Thanks, fellas." Maggie pulled back the flaps on one box, grabbed out several books — books, Albert thought — and shook her head. "Wrong box." She looked at Albert, but he pretended not to notice. He could come back later. By himself.
But Nick had noticed. "Something for you, Alibi."
"And maybe she has some coloring books for you, Sponge Brain," Albert said.
"Yeah," said Yuno. "And maybe, you know, some crayons."
"No coloring books, no crayons," Maggie said. "No kids," she added, almost to herself.
She peeked inside a second box, and then a third, and Albert was beginning to wonder if she even had cards. Maybe his Tom Sawyer theory was right after all.
"Aha!" She opened up the fourth and hoisted out a huge metal tackle box. She swung it awkwardly onto a table, which wobbled with the extra weight.
Albert watched the guys converge on the box, attracted like steel shavings to a giant magnet. He pushed his way into the group. Nick flipped up the latch. Albert wondered who was going to make first claim on the cards. He thought he knew.
Slowly, reverently, Nick lifted the lid, revealing a package wrapped in thick brown paper.
Small Dog and Nick eased the package onto the table.
Nick gently tore away a section of tape, spreading the paper apart beneath it, just far enough for a look.
He lifted out a card. Before anyone else could see it, he popped it back in the package and smoothed down the paper and tape.
Albert had watched Nick's eyes grow wide. Now Nick was taking too much time with the package so he wouldn't have to look up and give himself away.
"How much do you want for these, uh, Maggie?" Nick asked. The words came out in a croak. His hands kept stroking and patting the package. He began shifting his weight from foot to foot. Albert thought Nick was about to wet his pants.
"The whole box, you mean?" she said, looking amused.
Nick nodded and pulled the package closer, shielding it from reach.
"Aren't you going to look at the rest?" she asked.
"I'll take my chances," Nick said.
"What's this 'I' stuff?" Albert said. "We've got just as much right to the cards as you do."
Yuno chirped up. "Yeah, Nick. What's this 'I' stuff?"
"Yeah, Nick," Small Dog and Princess said in unison.
"I thought you guys were friends," said Maggie.
They fidgeted, letting her comment dangle in the air.
"We are," Nick said finally.
"Then I think you should be able to share in the purchase." She paused for a moment. "If you want to buy them. How much do you think they're worth, Nick? You had a peek."
Nick's face moved through a whole series of contortions. "The one I saw was worth about seven dollars."
Albert was sure he was telling the truth. He could see it in Nick's eyes.
"And how many cards do you think there are?" Maggie asked.
Albert started running estimates through his mind.
"Quite a few," Nick said.
"Hundreds," Albert said, seeing their chances of buying the cards reducing from unlikely to zilch.
"So do you think there might be one more seven-dollar card in the collection?"
They all looked at her as if she'd just asked whether they'd find cheese in a pizza parlor.
"Chances are," Nick said.
"Probably several more." Albert knew there was no point in being cute about it. But Nick gave him a dirty look.
"Probably a lot more." Yuno smiled at Albert. Nick shifted his glare to Yuno, who ignored him.
"A whole pile of 'em," Small Dog said.
"A bloody tackling box full." Princess looked pleased with himself.
"Tackle box," Albert said. "For fishing."
Maggie laughed. "You guys wouldn't do very well buying a used car, but I think you all agree that there's probably at least one more seven-dollar card."
They nodded their heads.
"So why don't I make it fourteen dollars?"
Albert watched looks of surprise cross the guys' faces as her words registered.
"Two times seven's still fourteen, isn't it?" she asked.
"It is." Nick reached in his pocket. "It is," he said again, as the others fumbled in theirs. "Two times seven. It makes sense."
"Not when there could be two hundred seven-dollar cards," Albert said. "Or even some better ones." He felt an elbow in his ribs and ignored it. "Why only fourteen dollars?"
"A long story." Her smile faded. "Let's just say my ex-husband found other interests. He asked me to sell his things for him."
"But won't he be mad?" Albert said.
"I hope so," she said, looking as if she meant it. "What do you guys think? Am I being too harsh?"
Everyone stared at her, then at the ground, too embarrassed to answer.
"I hope you guys see a lesson in this story."
"Don't ever let your wife get your baseball cards," Nick said, grinning.
"Well," she said, ignoring Nick, "if you guys are done examining my motives, I think it's time to show me your money."
They all had some money, but they only came up with a total of $12.75.
Nick looked at Maggie. "One of us can ride home real quick and —"
"Close enough," she said.
She held out her hand, and they filled it with money. She shook each one of their hands.
Albert was the only one with a rack on the back of his bike, so he was given the honor of transporting the cards. After they'd carefully slid the package back into the tackle box and fastened the lid, they set it on the rack. Maggie gave them some twine to secure it.
"You sure you won't fall, Alibi?" Nick said, as he checked the box for the third time.
Albert couldn't believe him. "You want to ride my bike?" He watched Nick pause.
"No, you go ahead. But be careful."
Albert had just turned toward the street when a car pulled up and blocked most of the driveway. Albert aimed his bike at the narrow space left and swung his leg over the bar, ready to head out.
"Mr. Rockwood," he heard Nick say from somewhere behind him. Something in the way he said it made Albert stop in his tracks.
The driver got out, unfolding his long, wiry body until he stood tall next to the small blue sedan. Albert could hear his own heart thumping.
The man smiled. His eyes were an icy blue. His hair was steel gray, cut in a flat-topped buzz. He held his arms slightly away from his body, as if his muscles were too tightly strung to relax, as if he were ready to pounce. Albert put one foot on a pedal, set to ride.
"Mr. Spellman," the man said, starting up the driveway. His voice was low and gravelly, but boomed out ahead of him. "Are you having a good summer?"
"A good summer?" Nick found his voice. "Yeah, I've been having a real good sum —"
"That's nice, Mr. Spellman," Mr. Rockwood said. "You should enjoy it while you can. School will be starting again before you know it."
He kept walking, looking at Maggie now, not acknowledging the rest of them as he marched past. "These boys behaving themselves this morning, ma'am?" he asked. "Not giving you any trouble, are they?" He stopped at the table and smiled again, his teeth white against skin reddened and weathered by the sun.
"Trouble?" she said. "You mean like robbery or something?" She smiled and shook her head. "You must not know these guys."
"Maybe not," he said. "But I've known a lot of guys just like them."
"Really? Just like them? I doubt that."
He stared at her, and she stared right back, until he looked away, at the boxes and piles. "You have any books?" he said.
Albert couldn't believe it. The last thing that he expected was this guy to be looking for books. And now he was going to be picking through Albert's books.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last Man's Reward"
Copyright © 1996 David Patneaude.
Excerpted by permission of Albert Whitman & Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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