Authors: Jennifer L. Holm
JENNIFER L. HOLM
For my mom—
who saw it all
For my brother Jon—
who knows what really happened
enny Carson! Get inside this instant and finish your breakfast!” Twelve-year-old Penny Carson shrugged. She knew her mother would call her again in a few minutes. Besides, she had better things to do.
She was sitting on the curb with Mac McHale. They were just killing time in that perfect part of the day, when it was cool and there was still dew on the lawns, before the June heat knocked them over.
School was out, and after a year of bells telling her where to be every minute, it suddenly seemed important to Penny to do nothing. Nothing that required any strenuous thought, and certainly nothing that involved fractions. And sitting on the curb watching Mac fry ants with his new magnifying glass definitely counted as nothing.
Mac had cleverly placed a scrap of toast with jelly
as bait on the ground, and the ants kept on coming despite the fact that their comrades were going up in smoke all around them.
“They’re not very smart, are they?” Penny observed.
The sound of a car door opening and slamming shut made Mac hunch his shoulders a little and focus his attention on the sizzling ants.
“Come on, Angus, let’s get moving!” a voice rang out. It was Mac’s mother. She was the only one Penny had ever heard call him Angus and not be beaten to a pulp.
“Where are you going?” Penny asked.
“Dentist,” Mac said in his typically laconic way. Penny felt a little sorry for the dentist.
Solidly built, with a mop of reddish-brown curls and fiery green eyes, twelve-year-old Mac was the undisputed tough guy of their little group, their own private bully. He was always getting into fights, so often that his mother had become friends with the triage nurse at the emergency room.
“Angus, I mean it. Get moving!” Mrs. McHale hollered out the car window. “I don’t have time for this.” Mrs. McHale was a divorced mother. Mac’s dad had left years ago, and Penny never saw him around.
From all accounts, neither did Mac.
Mac looked at the slow-backing station wagon and shrugged in a resigned way.
“Can I borrow the magnifying glass while you’re gone?” Penny asked.
Mac narrowed his eyes, considering. “Don’t break it.” Then he handed the silver-handled beauty over to her.
“I won’t,” she promised.
“Angus!” Mrs. McHale yelled, her voice rising a notch.
Mac rolled his eyes. “Gotta go. See you at the fort later.”
“Right,” Penny said.
She watched as Mrs. McHale’s station wagon disappeared up Mockingbird Lane, passing cookie-cutter split-level and two-story colonial houses, blacktop driveways, and neatly manicured lawns. Penny turned the shiny magnifying glass over in her hand carefully. The glass was thick, and bulged out like her baby brother Sam’s belly.
On the street, the ants were still circling the jelly-covered toast, blindly following one another in manic little lines. She poised the glass over the toast to catch the sun, and as the glass caught the light, she heard the
low thick rumbling of a revving engine. She looked up to see a sleek red Trans Am with tinted windows rolling smoothly down Mockingbird Lane as if it had a perfect right to be there.
Penny wondered who the car belonged to. She knew what everyone drove. The last person to buy a new car had been Oren Loew’s father, and it was a flashy sort of Jaguar that her mother said he was buying because of a midlife crisis. But the Trans Am was something else. For starters, it wasn’t the kind of car a dad would buy, or more to the point, it wasn’t the kind of car a mom would
a dad to buy, midlife crisis or not.
She watched its careful progress down the block. With its jacked-up wheels and custom hubcaps, it was a striking contrast to all the tame-looking sedans and minivans in the driveways. It seemed to slow down as it approached, as if casing the block.
Was it a robber?
she wondered nervously. The Albrights’ house had been robbed the previous summer when they were down at the Jersey shore, and Benji’s little sister, Becky, had had her piggy bank stolen.
The car came to a gentle stop across the street in front of the Bukvics’ house, the engine idling. The driver’s window rolled down, and a lightly haired
masculine hand languidly appeared to flick open an antique-looking silver cigarette case. The nails on the hand were thick with grease, the fingers streaked with grime. Another gritty hand appeared to remove a cigarette and tap it once on the case. And then a lighter was conjured up, a flame sparked. The hand cupped the flame. A head bent, inhaled, lit the waiting cigarette with much-practiced ease. The cigarette glowed in the darkness of the car like a burning eye.
Penny leaned forward, squinting harder, and then she caught sight of the back of that hand—and the skull tattoo. She gasped audibly and dropped the magnifying lens, which struck the curb and shattered.
She had seen a picture of him, years ago.
They had been goofing off, playing at her best friend Amy’s house. Amy’s mother had been on the phone downstairs, so they had taken the opportunity to sneak into Amy’s older brother’s room and rifle through the treasures of a fifteen-year-old boy’s desk. It was there they had found the small, carefully clipped photo from a newspaper article. It had been tucked in the back of the top drawer, behind piles of rolled-up tube socks. The article had been cut away, but the caption remained:
Penny remembered that photo now, remembered the shape of the boy’s head, capped with dark hair, and the thin, worn jean jacket he had been wearing. She remembered how his eyes had stared out at her from that photo, dark and glittering and unreadable. His hand had been curled around something at the edge of the photo, the menacing skull tattoo grinning from the back of his hand.
The same exact tattoo she was looking at right now.
Now, as his head swiveled toward the sound of the breaking magnifying glass, she knew it was him. It had to be.
“Penny Carson! Get in this house right now and finish your breakfast!” her mother called. “Now!”
The hand in the car flicked a finger, as if dismissing her, and Penny leaped up and ran inside.
Penny’s family was already sitting at the breakfast table in the sunny yellow kitchen. Her father was studying the paper, and her mother was spooning baby food into Baby Sam’s mouth, or at least trying to. Sam was spitting out every spoonful in a
very determined way.
Penny slid into her seat and looked at the plate of scrambled eggs in front of her. Across the table, her brother Teddy was wolfing down his eggs. How could she even think of eating at a time like this? She had just seen Caleb Devlin!
“Teddy!” she hissed.
Teddy looked up sleepily from the open comic book he was reading and stared at her through brown eyes framed by thick glasses. His mousy bowl-cut hair jutted out comically in all directions, tousled from sleep.
“Guess who I just saw?”
Teddy’s jaw dropped, revealing a mouthful of scrambled eggs.
“Teddy, close your mouth,” her mother said.
His mouth snapped shut like a turtle’s, and his face went a little pale. Teddy, at ten, was small for his age, and anxious. “For real?” he mouthed silently.
Penny, whose heart had slowed to a steady thump-thump after the initial shock, nodded. But was she sure? It was like seeing the Loch Ness monster, or Bigfoot.You thought that snaky head in the water was
a monster … but was it? And Caleb Devlin was worse than a monster. Worse than any vampire or mummy or creepy-crawly slimy creature.
Caleb Devlin, the legendary kid who had terrorized an entire town, had once lived down the street in a shabby-looking ranch house at the end of a long dirt driveway that led off the cul-de-sac. The house had tired reddish-brown siding the color of a hot dog left out too long in the sun. His parents still lived there, but Caleb had been gone for years now, packed off to a juvenile home.
Mr. Cat, Penny’s orange tabby, meowed plaintively at the back door.
“Somebody please let the cat out,” her mother said, looking at Penny.
Her pediatrician father shook himself from the paper and looked at Penny, trying to assume a stern expression. “Listen to your mother, Penny. Be a good girl or there won’t be any surprises on your birthday.”
Her birthday was next week and she was looking forward to it. She had requested a new bicycle—had ripped out a picture of the one she wanted and put it on her mother’s tiny desk by the kitchen phone. It was
hot pink, with a handlebar brake, cool orange reflectors, and a bright, shiny horn. Penny had been riding her mother’s old three-speed for the past year. It was an ugly army-surplus shade of green, and the gears always got stuck in second.
Penny had a pretty good feeling that she was going to get the bike. She had certain things going for her, after all. As the oldest child and only girl, she didn’t have to suffer hand-me-downs like Baby Sam eventually would. She had her own bedroom, with pink dotted-swiss curtains and a canopy bed. Penny suspected that the bike was already in the storage shed behind the house, waiting for the big day.
Mr. Cat meowed louder, his tail rising in a threatening way that said he was going to do something bad on the carpet if someone didn’t let him out soon.
“Penny, it’s your cat, and if I have to clean up that carpet one more time, he’s going back to the pound,” her mother said, shooting her a look that said she meant business.
Penny got up and walked over to the screen door, where Mr. Cat was meowing madly. The cat caught sight of Penny and purred. She knelt down and scratched him behind the ears.
“Good cat,” Penny said.
She opened the screen door and he streaked out into the backyard, dissolving into the dark shadows of the woods behind the house. Despite loving Penny, Mr. Cat sometimes disappeared for days at a time before wandering home for a cuddle and a free meal. There were a lot of orange kittens in the neighborhood, and her mother said Penny should have named the cat Mr. Gigolo.
“Mom …,” Penny said, sliding back into her seat.
Across the table, Baby Sam spit out a chunk of baby food with a happy gurgle.
“Come on, sweetie,” her mother begged desperately, waving a spoon at Baby Sam’s open mouth.
“Mom …” Penny said. The stupid baby took up every single second of her mother’s attention, and lately she wondered if her mother even knew that she still lived in the house.
“What, Penny?” her mother said absently.
“What did Caleb do that got him sent away?” Penny asked.
Her parents exchanged a look.
“Gotta go, hon. See you tonight. If the answering service calls, I’m at the hospital doing rounds, so have them beep me.” Her father abruptly stood up, grabbing his white lab coat. He was out the kitchen door.
“Mom?” Penny pressed.
“I honestly have no idea, Penny. He was already gone when we moved here,” her mother demurred, wiping the baby’s mouth with a towel. It looked disgusting, with dribbled milk and baby food.
The phone rang shrilly.