Authors: Blaise Lucey
Table of Contents
To my family and friends, who have showed me that there’s more than one way to live life and a million ways to be happy.
There was a man inside the tornado. The boy was sure of it. He squashed his face against the train window to try and get a better look, but his mother pulled him back. “He’ll see you,” she hissed, her voice taut with fear. The boy looked up at her, then back across the prairie as a sea of gray clouds rolled over the sky, casting shadows like faces on the grass. The man had disappeared, but the tornado had come closer, whirling across the prairie and scattering violet flowers through the air.
“Do you think we got away?” the boy’s father whispered to his mother.
She shook her head. “There’s no getting away from them. We can only keep running.”
The train ground to a sudden, sharp halt, gears grinding against the rails. “Folks!” the conductor rumbled through the speakers. “There’s uh . . . there’s someone on the tracks!”
A panicked murmuring arose as people tried to peer ahead, leaning out of their seats, whispering to one another. Next to the boy, his parents turned white, their breaths coming in short, halting gasps. His mother’s hand clamped his shoulder until it started to hurt. He knew they were afraid—he could feel it in his mother’s touch—and he wondered why, what they had been running from since before he could remember.
“Evelyn, what are we supposed to do? How can he keep finding us?” the boy’s father asked through his teeth.
His mother exhaled slowly. “They must still think we’re involved.” Her eyes fell onto the boy, reflecting the sea-gray sky beyond the window. “We made our choice, but it didn’t matter.”
The boy’s father shot out of his seat. A white knife flashed in his hand.
, Michael!” his mother exclaimed, reaching to put a restraining hand on his chest. The boy’s father shrugged away from her touch. “He’s going to keep hunting us, no matter what. It’s time we ended this, once and for all.”
“He’s gone!” The shouts arose at the front of the train, then spread as others quickly took up the chorus of questions. Where was he?
was he? Was he hurt?
The boy pressed his face back to the window, trying to get a glimpse of the vanishing man—and froze. The man stood about ten yards away, staring back at him with a crooked grin. His face gleamed red, like it was full of fire, and his dark, curly hair stayed still as the wind picked up and shrieked outside the train. He brought his hand to his lips in a
motion. He could only watch, paralyzed, as the man began to walk toward him.
Shadows fell like a blanket over the windows. Passengers started to scream. The whirling tornado made the earth shake, and the roof of the train creaked and groaned. The boy watched the man walk closer and closer, in no apparent hurry, clearly unaffected by the tearing winds.
The boy’s mother shouted something. His father lunged and grabbed him, hauling him back as the train shuddered in the wind. His mother let out a sob.
The tornado tore past the man outside as if he wasn’t even there. For one moment, everything went still, the train no longer moving, caught in a surreal and deathly calm.
And then there was a horrible grating noise, and the train went spinning off the rails. The boy heard his mother scream his name as the force of the wind sent him flying out of his seat, away from the window. But she sounded so far away, as if she was underwater, her screams disappearing into bubbles that would rise to the surface.
And then there was nothing but the wind, a cold howling emptiness in his ears.
Jim shot straight up in bed, his heart racing, the curls along his forehead damp with sweat.
“Jim!” His father exclaimed from the doorway, his mustache turned down into a frown. “I’ve been yelling for five minutes. You’re going to miss the bus!”
“Good,” Jim muttered, tossing aside his sheets. He closed his eyes, wincing at the bright sunlight glittering in from the window. He couldn’t believe summer was already over.
“I’ve been telling you to set an alarm,” Michael Blest reminded his son. “Doesn’t your stupid smartphone have an alarm thing? It should, considering how much it cost.”
“Yeah, my ‘stupid smartphone’ has an alarm thing. I just didn’t set it.” Jim rubbed at his eyes with the palms of his hands as he looked across the uneven wooden floorboards of his room, covered in shirts and jeans and socks scattered in random piles, trying to find clothes that would be at least somewhat acceptable to wear in public.
“Well, you’ve got about ten minutes before the bus comes, so hurry up, okay?” Michael’s eyes were rimmed red around the edges, bloodshot and dry. Stubble peppered his face and his skin was pale. The thin wisps of black hair left on his head stuck up in almost every direction. Except for the fact that he was wearing a pair of wrinkled khakis that were too short and a collared shirt, Michael looked like he had just woken up, too. Or like he’d had a late night. Jim sighed. He appreciated when his dad tried to be a parent, he really did, but sometimes he just wanted to be left alone.
Summoning all his effort, he stood up and stretched. “Dad,” he said, shooting Michael a pointed look. “I’m up, okay? You can lay off the whole alarm police thing.”
His dad rolled his eyes and, without a word, went downstairs, where he proceeded to clank around in the kitchen. Jim closed the door and grabbed a crumpled pair of jeans from the floor. He hopped around, shoving his legs into them, rifling around in his dresser for a shirt. He found a blue one with a faded logo and just a small rip in the armpit that seemed cleaner than the rest.
He slid in front of the chipped mirror propped against the wall on top of his bureau, trying to smooth his blond hair out of his eyes. As his reflection shifted, he caught sight of the shimmering, tangerine sunlight again and felt a small pain in his chest. All he wanted to do was capture the moment, turn it into colors on paper, like he did almost every morning in the summer. Taped flimsily to his walls were paintings of all the different sunrises and sunsets he had seen for the last three months, watercolors that formed a Frankenstein mural of blues and purples, oranges and reds. Finally, his eyes rested on the painting from his mom, propped up in its bronze frame and glowing with the morning sunlight. He ran his finger across the glass, looking at the strange, red-white sunset she had painted years and years ago. In the middle of the picture, she had painted Pearlton High School.
That was where Jim was headed now: Pearlton High School, also known as his own personal prison. The thing is, she had painted it before they had even moved to Pearlton. Before she had even seen it.
“She was really excited to move here, you know,” his dad had told him once. “To see you grow up here.”
Jim blinked and let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. His eyes flicked around to all the sunsets he had painted, all his efforts to somehow capture a memory of his mom by doing what she had done. But why had she wanted to come here, to this miserable suburb of St. Louis? He had tried his best to see the beauty in Pearlton that she must have seen, but all it had done was make him want to get out.
“Three more years,” he muttered. He had made it through Pearlton Elementary and Pearlton Middle School. He had survived his freshman year at Pearlton High School. Sophomore year would be just the same. He could do it, and then after three years, he could get out and never look back.
“Jim!” his dad roared from downstairs. “What are you doing up there?”
“Mentally preparing!” Jim shot back. He flung open the door, took the stairs two at a time, and slid across the black-and-white tiles into the kitchen. He went to the fridge to grab some bread and make toast, glancing at the mess of the kitchen table as he passed: the pile of envelopes and unpaid bills, the mugs half-full of old coffee, the magazines sticky with food. In the sink was a stack of beer bottles, glittering like a bunch of green jewels. His dad’s buried treasure. That explained how hungover he’d seemed this morning.
“Wait!” Michael came into the kitchen from his bedroom, holding up a highlighter-yellow backpack in his arm, the tag still flapping on it. “I got you a new backpack for school.”
Jim was about to ask if looking like a dorky bumblebee was a new fashion statement, but he swallowed the words just in time. “Thanks,” he managed. His dad may have spent the whole night drinking, but he still managed to get a backpack along the way, somewhere. It was more than Jim had expected.
He reached out and took the backpack from his dad, handling it the same way he had picked up the burning bag of dog crap Shane’s minions had left on his doorstep yesterday. Complete with a note that said,
A present from everyone at Pearlton
. “This is awesome, Dad.” He hefted the bright yellow bag over his shoulders.
Michael smiled. “I know it’s tough sometimes, not having all the stuff the other kids have. I thought starting the new year with at least one new thing would bring you some good luck.”
“Right,” Jim said.
There was an awkward silence, and for a brief moment, Jim thought again about his mom. What would she say if she could see the two of them now?
Outside there was a flash of yellow.
. Jim turned around. “Crap. Gotta go, bye!”
“Don’t forget that tomorrow you have to—”
Jim slammed the door behind him, already running, hopping over the patches of weeds that had long ago grown over the garden in the front yard. He blinked against the crisp morning sunlight and waved his blindingly yellow backpack at the bus driver as the guy pulled away from the curb. Luckily, the color caught the driver’s eye and the bus slowed to a stop, halting the morning traffic behind it.
Jim flushed as the cars behind the bus started to honk. From the windows, he saw the same sneering faces from last year. For the thousandth time, he wondered why those kids made such a point of making him feel bad about himself. Brad Fechter was as much a loner as Jim was, and they never did anything to him. Was it because he was poorer than all the other kids? Or because his dad made such a spectacle of himself in front of the neighbors, showing up to work at the Pearlton Deli hungover? Once he’d overheard a couple of Shane’s friends saying that Jim would turn out to be just like his father. What did that mean? That Jim would drink every night, too? He stepped onto the bus, bracing himself for the inevitable comments.
“Dim Jim, there he is!”
“Starting the year off right, as usual!”
“What’d you do, man, get a backpack that’s brighter than the sun so you could force the bus driver to—”
Jim plugged in his earphones and the sounds vanished, replaced by the throbbing beat of a dubstep song. He staggered to an empty seat as the bus lurched to a start. Almost immediately, he took out his notebook and started doodling. He didn’t even know what he was drawing, but he let the pen guide his hand, and soon forgot about everything else. He didn’t look up as the bus took him through the leafy suburbs of Pearlton toward the high school.
But after only a minute, the bus jerked to a stop again. Jim rocked forward, clutching his notebook and his pen. He poked his head out from behind the seat, and his eyes widened at what he saw.
A guy and a girl, about his age, had stepped onto the bus. The girl was apologizing or something. He took out one earphone and let it dangle on his shoulder to hear her.
“—And our mom didn’t know which stop was, like, a good one so she just kind of dumped us out when we saw the bus. We’re new, sorry, sorry!”
She turned her dazzling smile away from the driver, who was nodding, and looked around the bus. Jim swallowed heavily. The girl and the guy must be brother and sister, he thought. They both had the same shiny dark hair, the kind you always saw in shampoo commercials, and they were dressed in clothes that were definitely more expensive than what anyone else was wearing. The guy wore a sweater over a popped collar—Jim had never seen anyone do that in real life—and khakis, while the girl was dressed in a flowing dress and knee-high brown boots.
As she looked over the people clambering to introduce themselves, the girl’s eyes hit Jim like a lightning bolt. His cheeks turned red and he ducked, terrified that she would come over. And a little disappointed that she didn’t. When he thought the coast was clear, he looked over the bus seat again, feeling like a prairie dog poking its head out of a hole.
The popular kids at the front of the bus had moved in for the kill. “You must be Gunner and Claire!” Shane proclaimed. He slapped the guy on the back as Shane’s girlfriend, Maria, complimented the girl’s outfit.
“Yeah,” the boy twin, Gunner, said slowly. “How’d you know?”
“Oh, word gets around.” Shane grinned and motioned to the seat next to him, as if he was offering them a great honor. “You can sit with us.”
Jim slumped back in his seat. He tried to remember another time Shane had been so friendly to new kids at school, but couldn’t. Maybe it had never happened. Then again, no one as good-looking and obviously rich as Gunner and Claire had ever shown up at Pearlton before.
He looked out the window at all the Pearlton houses poking up behind neat lawns and recently paved driveways, shiny cars and picket fences. He wondered what people thought when they passed the untamed wilderness of his own yard, or saw Jim get onto the bus from his rickety little house. No garage, no garden, no picket fence. He looked down at his backpack and felt a stab of guilt. His dad was trying, or at least, trying to try.
The bus suddenly went dark as it entered the tunnel that led underneath the highway, and Jim jumped. A shiver ran down his spine. The shadows were pressing on him, the darkness closing in on him, pressing him down—he shoved his hand into his pocket and fumbled for his smartphone. This, most of all, was why he had mowed lawns all summer so that he could afford it. He had wanted his smartphone as a casual guardian against the dark.
Jim turned on the flashlight, and the tiny beam of light pierced the darkness. He tried to hide it, because he knew what everyone would say when they remembered that he was afraid of the dark, but when he aimed it at the backpack, he realized that the thing had reflectors all over the straps. The light burst out from his seat like a tiny bonfire.
“Hey, looks like Jim’s still scared!” Shane called out. “Jim, how old are you now, like fifteen? I’m pretty sure any fifteen year-old who’s still afraid of the dark needs to get professional help.”
Everyone laughed. Jim narrowed his eyes at Shane’s blocky face, which was just visible in the darkness at the front of the bus. The smartphone’s light quivered on the dusty window next to him. He turned away, trying to ignore the taunts.
It doesn’t matter
, he told himself, clutching tight to his phone as the bus rattled out of the tunnel and burst into the sunlight again.
“What? Nothing to say?” Shane challenged. Jim felt his neck getting hotter. “Jim, you wimp! Aren’t—”
“Shane,” a girl said. “Weren’t you going to tell us about your new car?”
There was a moment of silence as Shane turned around. “Oh, yeah!” he exclaimed. “So my dad had to order it from L.A., since all the colors here totally blow . . .” His voice faded into conversation again. Jim looked up and saw the new girl, Claire, standing in her seat, nodding as Shane proudly told her about his parents.
Then her soft brown eyes met Jim’s, and she smiled slightly. He held his breath until she finally looked away. His heart raced. A girl had never smiled at him before. Ever. Claire had distracted Shane from making fun of him, hadn’t she? What did that mean? He kept his eyes on her, hoping she would turn around again, but she didn’t.
He glanced back at his notebook and realized that he’d already sketched out the outline of her head, her neck turned toward him. He bit his lip and began shading in her eyes, her small upturned nose. He didn’t even have to look back up—he was already drawing from memory.