He reread the letter, then lay on the bed, looking up at the ceiling.
As much as he liked Scott, he wished Roberto was here instead.
He missed his friend.
He missed California.
But he was getting used to McGuane, and already his feelings of homesickness had faded from the peak intensity of that first week or so. He broke out his English notebook, ripped out a page, and wrote Roberto a reply, describing his own first day of school, what the kids were like here, Scott. He embellished and exaggerated, made everything sound a lot more exciting than it actually was. He considered telling Roberto about the
but he didn’t quite know what to say or how to describe it, and he decided to save that for another time.
It cheered him up, writing, and he felt good as he addressed the envelope, slapped a stamp on it, and carried it up the drive to the mailbox. He popped up the little red flag on the box to signal the postman that there was outgoing mail, and then jumped as a hand smacked the back of his head.
“Loser,” Sasha said.
She started down the drive to the house, swinging her backpack, apparently having forgotten that he even existed, and he was tempted to run after her and smack her in return. Maybe knock her backpack into the dirt, but even though she was a girl, she was still bigger than he was and could easily kick his ass, so instead he waited by the mailbox until she was halfway to the house before following.
He walked slowly, looking down at the ground, kicking small rocks ahead of him. His birthday was coming up soon, in a few weeks, and he found himself wondering what they were going to do about it. Ordinarily, his parents took him and a group of friends to Chuck E. Cheese or someplace like that, someplace with pizza and video games, but this year there were no friends to take. Scott, maybe, but that was it. He half hoped they’d simply ignore his birthday this year. The thought of going someplace with just his family depressed him, and he didn’t want anyone from school to see him sitting in some crappy restaurant with Babunya and his parents and his sisters like . . . well, like a loser.
He’d rather not celebrate his birthday at all than be humiliated.
But his parents probably had something planned, and he thought that he’d better let them know he just wanted a quiet celebration at home before they went out and made reservations at some embarrassingly public place.
It was Friday, and although there were Fox shows he wanted to watch, when Scott called after dinner asking if he felt like hanging out, checking what was happening around town, Adam agreed to come over.
He knew his parents wouldn’t want him to go, so he put the best spin possible on it as he presented the plan to them. “Scott asked me to come over,” he said.
His mother frowned. “Now? It’s getting dark.”
“I don’t want you wandering around out there at night.”
“I’m not a baby.”
“Why don’t you just stay home?”
“I thought that’s why we moved here. So we could do things like this.”
“There may not be gangs in McGuane, but there are coyotes, snakes, drunk rednecks, who knows what all.”
“And perverted cowboys,” Sasha said, grinning.
“Sasha,” his father warned.
“Scott was born here. He knows this town. And, besides, we’re not just going to ‘wander.’ I’m going to his house, we may walk down to French’s and get a milk shake or something, and that’s it. Then I’ll come home.”
“Why don’t you have your father drive you?”
Adam grimaced. “Why don’t you just hang a big sign on my back that says ‘Mama’s Boy and Wuss’?”
“We could do that,” Sasha said agreeably.
“Knock it off,” his father said. He turned toward Adam. “What are your
“That’s it! That’s the plan! God!”
His parents exchanged a glance.
“Be home by eight-thirty,” his mother said.
“That’s only an hour and a half!”
“How much time do you need to get a milk shake?”
“It’s that or nothing,” his father said. “Take it or leave it.”
“I’ll take it.”
His father grinned. “If you’re five minutes late, I’ll be out in that van looking for you, asking everyone I see, ‘Do you know where Adam Tomasov is? His mommy wants him to come home.’ ”
Teo burst out laughing.
Adam kicked the sole of her tennis shoe as he walked by, pretending to be annoyed, but he was secretly pleased. Things had gone a lot smoother than expected. He grabbed his comb and wallet and was out of the house before his parents could change their minds.
Scott was waiting for him on the low wooden fence that encircled his yard. From inside the set-back house came the loud, angry voices of a man and a woman arguing, and Scott said, “Let’s hit the road. My old man and old lady are going at it, and, believe me, you don’t want to be around when that happens.” He jumped off the fence and led Adam across the street and through the yard of a darkened home abutting a dry ditch.
They hopped into the ditch and followed it behind a line of houses and buildings, emerging in the field behind the high school. Scott led the way through the school grounds onto Malachite Avenue, and they walked down the sloping street toward the center of town.
“Can you believe this place is so dead?” Scott said disgustedly. “The whole town closes up at six. What a fucking hellhole.” He looked over at Adam. “I bet it’s not like this in California.”
Adam laughed. “No, it’s not.”
But he went on to tell his friend how they wouldn’t be able to walk around like this at night in Southern California. There were gangs and drive-bys, sickos and psychos.
Scott was incredulous. “You can’t go out at night?”
“Well, you can if you have a car. I mean, my dad or my sister could drive us places like movies or malls or something. But you can’t, you know, just wander around like this.” He grinned. “This is bitchin’.”
Scott nodded, smiled. “Yeah, it kinda is.”
They reached the shopping district and walked down the intermittent sidewalk through the center of town. There were lights on in a few of the stores, but French’s was the only business actually open, and even it was devoid of customers. They stopped by the restaurant, bought two Cokes and split an order of fries to go, then continued on, eating out of the greasy bag they passed back and forth.
At the park, Scott sat down on top of one of the picnic tables. Adam tossed the empty bag into an adjacent trash barrel and leaned against a chain-link backstop. The park seemed different at night, its contours changed, its boundaries expanded by the darkness. They were the only ones here, but while that would have been a plus back in California, where any gathering of two or more people at night signaled possible gang activity, in this place it only served to heighten the disquiet that Adam felt. Leaning against the backstop, he was facing Scott, facing the street, but the bulk of the park was behind him, and he didn’t like having all that empty darkness at his back. Casually, he moved over to the picnic table, sitting next to his friend.
He hadn’t planned on bringing it up, but Scott said, “This place is creepy at night.”
Adam played it cool. “Yeah,” he agreed.
“It’s supposed to be haunted, you know.”
Goose bumps popped up on Adam’s arms.
“A long time ago, two miners were supposed to’ve gotten into a fight. One killed the other one, and before the sheriff could get out here, a lynch mob hung the killer from a tree.” He gestured around. “Supposed to be one of these trees here in the park. Ever since then, people’ve said this place is haunted.”
“You ever seen anything?”
“No. But I’ve never been here at night before, either.”
There was a sighing in the leaves at the top of the closest cottonwood.
Scott leaped off the picnic table. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Adam quickly followed suit. “Wise decision.”
They ran back out to the sidewalk and hung a left, slowing down only when they were safely in front of buildings again, past the periphery of the park.
Scott bent down, breathing heavily. He grinned. “I didn’t want to say anything,” he said. “But you felt it, didn’t you? There was something there.”
“I just wanted to test it. I was too chickenshit to go there myself at night, but I figured with two of us . . . well, I didn’t think I’d get that scared. And I knew I’d get an honest reaction from you, especially if I didn’t say anything about it.” He looked over at Adam. “You were freaked, weren’t you?”
“Yeah,” Adam admitted.
They remained in place for a few moments, catching their breath. From somewhere far off came the sound of a car engine, followed by the sequential barking of dogs up the canyon. Adam felt good. This was more fun than hanging out at the mall or going to a movie any day. This was
He thought that maybe he’d ask his parents if Roberto could come and visit during Christmas or Easter or next summer. He knew Scott and Roberto would get along, and he knew that Roberto would think this place was totally kickass.
He glanced over at Scott. “So what now? What’s the plan?”
“I don’t know. We could—”
Scott broke off in midsentence, his head jerking to the right, and Adam quickly followed the direction of his gaze.
There was movement in front of the mining museum across the street.
His heart jumped almost all the way up into his throat, and his first thought was that it was a ghost, a vampire, a monster, but he saw almost immediately that it was only a group of high school students, hanging out.
There were no lights here, no streetlamps, merely light from the moon and dim illumination from inside the closed assaying office next to the museum, but that was enough to see by, and he noticed now that a group of tough-looking teenagers about Sasha’s age were leaning on the oversized mining implements arranged in the small open space in front of the building. The four girls all looked the same: dyed black hair, black clothes, black lipstick, pale skin, broad white-trash features. Of the three boys, one had long, stringy hair and was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, one was bald and shirtless and heavily tattooed, with pierced ears and nose, and one had a spiky punk haircut and was wearing a creased leather jacket far too heavy for this weather.
He and Scott started slowly forward, moving up the sidewalk the way they’d originally been headed, away from the park, away from downtown, trying to be inconspicuous, trying not to attract attention.
A loud male voice rang out from the direction of the museum. “Well, well, well! What do we have here?”
Adam looked at Scott, who stopped, turned around. They both faced the building across the street.
The bald pierced guy laughed loudly. “If it isn’t the pussy posse!”
The rest of the high schoolers joined in the merriment. “Get ready to run,” Scott whispered.
Adam’s mouth was suddenly dry, and panic threatened to rise within him. “What?”
“Just follow me.”
Scott moved into the street, into the open, away from the shadows of the buildings, and held up a middle finger. “Fuck you!” he called. “And fuck your mama, too!”
He took off, dashing back onto the sidewalk and up the hill, darting into the small space between the hardware store and an arts and crafts shop. Heart thumping crazily, Adam chased after him.
There was the sound of running feet behind them, boots pounding on pavement.
“You’re dead, fucker!” one of the boys yelled, and a girl laughed drunkenly. “I’ll kick your ass so hard your fucking sphincter’ll be pressing out your lips!”
Scott kept running, and Adam followed, moving as fast as he could, feeling the night air burn into his lungs, the muscles of his legs straining so hard they threatened to cramp at every step. He had never been this close to actual danger, had never physically pushed himself to this extent, and the irrational thought occurred to him that he might keel over from a heart attack.
But he knew he couldn’t stop. He had to keep going, and he was right behind Scott as the other boy slid down the rocky slope that led from the back of the downtown stores to the dry wash at the bottom of the canyon.
There was no noise directly behind them anymore, but from the top of the slope came an angry male voice. “I’ll get you, you little shit!”
The two of them scurried through the darkness of the canyon floor, occasionally bumping into rocks and brush but not slowing or stopping for anything. Scott was little more than a gray blur in front of him, and they ran for what seemed like an hour before reaching a road that crossed the wash and led up to McGuane’s east residential district.
They waited for a moment, listening to discover whether they were being followed, but Adam could hear no noise above the ragged sounds of their breathing, and he sat down on a rock to rest. Scott plopped onto the sand.
“What’re we going to do?” Adam demanded.
“What do you mean?”
“What if they see me walking home from school or something? What if—”
“They didn’t see you at all. And they won’t even recognize
in the daylight.” He waved a hand dismissively. “I’ve done this a thousand times.”
Adam wasn’t sure he believed that, but he wanted to, and he was willing to let his friend have the benefit of the doubt. In his mind he went back over every second of the incident, and the more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that Scott was right. Hell, the high schoolers hadn’t even chased them down the slope. They’d only run across the street and behind the buildings before stopping. It had been nothing more than a laugh for them, a joke.
Most of them were probably so high they wouldn’t even remember it tomorrow.
Scott let out a wheezy, winded laugh. “Had enough exercise for one night?”