On the day the leaves began to fall, Jim Sparks hung himself from a rafter in his condemned barn. The sun was warm but the air was cool; a prophecy of winter in the breeze that shook the first honey-colored leaves from branches that would soon stand naked, all angles and lines, snow-draped modern art adorning the prairies.
Morning dawned sudden and crisp, robed in fog that crowned the fields with ribbons of silver and left geometric patterns of shimmering frost reflecting light like diamonds. But by the time the clock passed twelve, the afternoon had melted into a reluctant autumn warmth. It was the sort of day when you could not help but turn your face toward the sun; a day that could not be duplicated in a year of days.
And he killed himself.
The wind sighed audibly through the barn when Lucas Hudson stepped out of his tiny import, a rusty blue thing that had become a sort of inside joke in a town staunchly dedicated to everything domestic. Gravel crunched beneath his tattered sneakers, and he shielded his eyes with strong, surgeon’s hands as he surveyed the scene before him.
Jim’s property was a graveyard of gutted engines and frozen pizza boxes that seemed incapable of finding their way into the dented, metallic garbage can that lay half buried in the weeds beside his front step. The disarray stretched across five acres of unkempt lawn and sagging buildings bordered by an aging farmhouse against the eastern fence, and a grayish barn with peeling paint along a northwest line of poplars.
Lucas stood on the driveway and looked past it all. He leaned into the slight breeze, absorbing warmth through his sweatshirt, and watched the golden cornfields dance.
Everyone hated Jim Sparks, and the phone call that had summoned Lucas didn’t inspire the quintessential emotions of pity, regret, or even shock. Instead, he felt numb. Cold. It wasn’t surprising that the man who seemed to resent every aspect of his existence in this small town had finally done what many had always expected him to do. Truth be told, most people thought he’d simply leave rather than take the more permanent way out. But suicide accomplished the deed: Jim would never face another insidious rumor.
The sound of his name made Lucas start, but of course it was Alex. His friend had summoned him here, had torn him away from Jenna when they had actually been having a conversation—words exchanged that meant something. But it was impossible to say no to Alex Kennedy. He was a force of nature, a grown man with the soul of a child. It didn’t hurt that he was also the police chief, even if the title seemed a bit presumptuous for a village as small and sleepy as Blackhawk, Iowa. Lucas had often thought the decorous, hardworking citizens of his hometown would likely do just fine regulating themselves.
Alex loped across the sloping lawn, his usually grinning mouth set in a serious half smile to convey the gravity, the tragedy of the situation.
“Hey.” Lucas shortened the distance between them in a few long strides. He tried to return Alex’s wan smile, but it came out lopsided and faded the moment his mouth managed to take shape. Lucas knew he looked like he had tangled with shadows in some rough back alley, and he ran his hands through his thick, dark hair before stuffing them in the pockets of his gray hoodie.
“Thanks for coming,” Alex said, lifting an eyebrow but apparently choosing to ignore Lucas’s uncharacteristic dishevelment. He offered his own brand of sympathy in a quick thump to the back. “I know this is usually your only day off.”
“And I don’t usually act as coroner,” Lucas reminded him. But Alex didn’t bother to respond.
They walked in silence to the barn, a leaning affair with broken windows that snarled at the world through shards of glass clinging fanglike to the rotten frames. The midafternoon sunlight poured through wide cracks between each and every board and sprinkled dust across the shaded east-facing entrance. Though Alex called it a barn, the building in question had once been a stable, and the wide, high doors seemed to frame the past. Lucas could almost imagine the carriages, buggies, and sleighs that had long ago passed through the now sagging arches. It was surprisingly charming in its age and fragility. Never mind the squad cars, the haphazard yellow tape, the sounds of people talking gravely within.
“Why didn’t you call Elliot?” Lucas finally asked, pausing in the shadow of the haymow.
“Out of town. Vacation.”
“So who’s taking care of the morgue?”
“Someone croaks, we gotta send them to Fairfield,” Alex explained.
Lucas sighed. “You know, there are other doctors in town.”
“I think the Townsend brothers got their licenses in Mexico.”
Lucas’s laugh was a soft snort, but at least he laughed. “Oh, you owe me big, Kennedy. This is hardly in my job description.”
“Yeah, well, you know.” Alex lifted the heavy latch and pushed the door open, stooping to secure it with a rock the size of a small melon. The action didn’t necessarily shed light into the barn.
Lucas stepped tentatively into the shadow of the old building and gave his eyes a moment to adjust to the dusty, filtered light. The two town cops called to the scene were talking in hushed tones out of Lucas’s range of vision, but a quick scan of the inside of the slanted barn revealed as much clutter as could be expected from Jim Sparks. There was junk everywhere—piles of old firewood, small farm machinery, moldy hay bales.
And yet, a few reminders of the former glory of the Timmer Ranch clung to the landscape like artifacts from some era beyond memory. There was a brass plate with the name Philadelphia etched in sweeping strokes above a corner stall. And two long, curved bale hooks, covered in rust that could be mistaken for ancient blood in the dying light. Reaching to touch a lone harness that was draped from a nail near the door, Lucas caught a whiff of leather. And then he made out a clearing. Between an old tractor and the first animal stall, a body hung limp and motionless only two feet off the ground.
Lucas maneuvered around an abandoned axle and surveyed the scene before him. Jim had knotted a pretty handy noose; the spine traveled across the front of his throat and tossed his head back at a grotesque angle. His face was a cruel shade of bluish purple, and his tongue lolled thick and offensive out of blood-speckled lips. A rickety wooden chair lay upturned and off to one side of the body that swung almost imperceptibly like a broken, bloated pendulum. And the beam itself, the rafter that held Jim Sparks in death, ran bent but sturdy from one end of the barn to the other, cutting a crooked line that seemed to say, “At least I can do this.” Lucas suddenly felt tired. He was expecting horror of nightmarish proportions. What he got was something altogether pathetic and horribly, wretchedly sad.
“How did they find him?”
Alex made his way past Lucas and stood with his forearms on the half wall of the stall in which Jim dangled. He looked like a spectator at a county fair, examining the qualifications of a late entrant. “He didn’t show up for work last night. You know he works the late shift at the plant in Fairfield? Well, some guy that splits his hours got ticked that he didn’t show and decided to come by and give Jim hell. The barn door was open, swinging in the wind . . .” Alex looked over his shoulder at Lucas. “He called the city office from his cell phone and took off. Can you believe that? Called the city office, not 911.”
Lucas smiled faintly, aware that in spite of his seemingly gruff disposition, Alex was a teddy bear in disguise. Lucas had it on good authority that his best friend got choked up watching Disney movies with his daughters, and he didn’t believe for a second that Alex was as nonchalant about the grisly scene before him as he tried so hard to convey. “You okay?” Lucas asked him, dropping his voice conspiratorially.
“Fine.” Alex shrugged.
“Seems like a bit of a cold thing to say.” Lucas sloped an eyebrow. “There’s a dead man hanging a few feet from your nose.”
“I don’t see you crying,” Alex huffed.
“Fair enough.” Lucas sighed. They obviously weren’t going to have a brotherly heart-to-heart, and since he didn’t know what else to say, the clock ticked off a few seconds of awkward silence. Finally Lucas passed a hand over the five o’clock shadow along his jaw and swallowed a groan. “Let’s get this over with so that I can go home.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Alex muttered.
Lucas still felt hesitant but joined Alex at the stall. “Was there a suicide note?”
“Not that we’ve found. There’s not much in here and we went through the house already. Couldn’t find a thing of value. You know, I think we’re going to have to torch the whole place. Jim Sparks lived like an animal. Honestly, you should see the shit he has in there. Garbage piled high . . .”
“Signs of a struggle? You know, unusual scratches, flesh under his fingernails, extra footprints in the barn?”
Alex snorted and indicated the numbered red tags that littered the barn floor like macabre confetti. “You telling me how to do my job, Hudson?”
Lucas held up his hands in defense. “Never. I’m just saying, I think it’s pretty obvious it was a suicide.”
“Look, it’s my job to treat the entire farm like it’s a crime scene right now. This is a homicide until we can prove otherwise. Do I have to bag the hands for a forensic team? Or are you going to do your job?”
Lucas never got a chance to respond. As if on cue, two cops emerged from the darkened tack room that was half hidden behind a sagging row of whitewashed bee boxes. They held out a camera to Alex. “We took pictures. But only because Kennedy made us,” the younger one said, winking at Lucas. “I think it was a waste of time. Nice to meet you, Dr. Hudson.”
They shook hands, and Lucas smiled even though he could tell Alex was irritated by the cavalier way his cops insisted on handling the situation. Blackhawk was a small town, but Alex took his job very seriously, following the letter of the law with admirable diligence and an almost old-world sense of honor. Well, to a point. It seemed there was sometimes a little wiggle room within the defined code. But it took a veteran to know when to bend and when to stand firm. The two young men who rounded out the police force were nothing but rookies. Kids, really. Two boys who grew up within Blackhawk city limits and knew little more than the character and quirks of the 2,587 people who called their wooded corner of northwest Iowa home. Their world was finely bordered.
Alex’s frustration was understandable, but Lucas didn’t feel like hearing a speech. Before the police chief had a chance to lay into the uniformed boys, Lucas said: “Let’s get this over with. I’m documenting, you guys have to take him down.”
“You might want to take a few moments to investigate the circumstances and, seemingly obvious or not, try to determine cause of death,” Alex prompted with a grunt. “And, of course, you’ll want to confirm that he is, in fact, deceased. I can’t do that, you know. The coroner has to.”
Lucas felt his shoulders stiffen. “Get me something to stand on,” he said, his words sharp and just a little too hard. He had acted as coroner on only a handful of occasions, and they had all been run-of-the-mill, small-town stuff. An elderly lady who died in her sleep. A middle-aged man who died of a withering cancer in hospice care. Lucas was an excellent doctor, arguably wasted on the monotony of rural life, but this was unprecedented. Jim had knocked him a bit off his game.
It took awhile to find something that would work for him to stand on. There were no ladders, no boxes that looked even remotely sturdy. All that was available was the same chair that Jim had used, and after a few moments, with a heavy sigh, Alex righted it beneath the body. He held out his hand before it, palm up, and backed away so Lucas could do his job.
The barn seemed to shift as Lucas climbed onto the chair, but he couldn’t tell if it was because the rotting piece of furniture was old and feeble or because the reenactment was making his head spin. He paused a few seconds to get his balance, and did everything he could to avoid looking directly at the body before him. Finally, he took a deep breath and turned to face Jim head-on.
With deft fingers, Lucas probed the rigid neck. It was cold and still, smooth-firm like molded plastic. No pulse, no breath, no life. Rigor had already begun to set in. Bending a little, Lucas took Jim’s hands in his own and studied the stiff curve of his thick fingers. Nails bitten down to the quick, tobacco stains creating muddy rivers in the whorls of his fingerprints. He was a nail-biter, a smoker, but beyond the obvious, his hands were clean. There were no wounds, no sign of a struggle, in fact, no indicators of anything beyond his bad habits. He wore no wedding ring, no watch on his wrist to mark the bittersweet passage of time.
Lucas sighed. “He’s dead,” he confirmed unnecessarily. “No signs of struggle as far as I can tell.”
“Death by asphyxiation?”
“I’m pretty sure his neck is broken,” Lucas said. “But I’m not entirely sure how. He didn’t have far to fall, and it takes at least a four-foot drop to break the neck.”
“Maybe he jumped,” Alex guessed, pointing to the high platform of the hayloft about them.
“Then what was the chair for? More likely he just really wanted to get the job done. He threw himself with some serious force.”
Alex seemed to consider something for a moment, but apparently it was too implausible to imagine that foul play was involved. “Let’s just get him down,” Alex said. “I think our best bet is to have two men on the ground to hold his body. I’ll cut the rope.” He produced a bone-handled hunting knife, originally ivory-colored but now stained tea brown and anything but police issue. “Let’s do it.”
Lucas and Alex switched places, and the police chief began the slow process of sawing through the thick woven rope.
Progress was slow, and made even more tedious by the utter silence that amplified the dull scratching of the knife. Each piece of rope that spun off the homemade noose made a soft snick that seemed like an echo of the sound Jim’s neck must have made when it broke. Lucas saw each pop as a snapshot of Jim’s sad life: his beat-up, mustard-yellow Chevy truck, the stray mutt that followed him around for a few weeks until it was mangled by a car, the bottles of Black Velvet that he bought on the first Monday of every month. The imaginary scrapbook was so sad, so rife with loneliness, that for an aching moment, Lucas’s arms longed to encircle Jenna. The specters that haunted the shadowed barn drew his attention like a magnet, but Lucas gave his head a hard shake and focused his attention on Alex so that he didn’t have to wrestle unseen demons.
Alex was completely engulfed in the task before him as he adjusted his weight on the chair in order to get at the rope with his other hand. His movement on the worthless piece of furniture tossed the balance to one of the shorter back legs and the flimsy chair began a teetering roll on three legs. Lucas hopped off the stall gate and made a lunge to steady Alex, but he was too far away and past the point of rescue. In an instant, Alex counterbalanced, grabbed for Jim’s body, stopped himself in horror, and went flying backward off the chair. As he hit the ground with a nauseating thud, the three men maneuvered around the now swinging body of Jim Sparks and crouched down to offer help that was too late.
Alex was grimacing and clutching his right elbow, but he assured everyone he was fine, punctuated with a few choice words and “Get the hell away from me.”
“Come on, Alex,” Lucas coaxed, “let me take a quick look at you. Did you hit your head?”
But Alex was already getting up. “I’m fine. It’s just that piece of—” He shrugged off their steadying hands and swung back to kick the toppled-over chair. As his foot made contact with the seat, a sharp crack split the air and was almost immediately joined by Alex’s yelp. The chair hadn’t moved.
Lucas joined Alex and bent down to see what had held the piece of furniture so tightly in place. “Foot okay?” He asked quietly.
The chair was sticking out at a forty-five-degree angle to the ground. The back left leg had dug a deep gash in the hardpacked earthen floor of the barn and was now securely rooted in between the dirt and what looked like a thick tree branch.
“Looks like you’ve got quite a bit of leverage,” one of the young officers quipped from over their shoulders.
Alex didn’t respond to the jab, but leaned in closer to the foot of the chair and carefully dusted dry earth off the branch.
“So there’re roots underneath the barn. Big deal.” The other rookie cop turned away and proved himself gutsy enough to grab Jim’s body and stop its dancelike sway.
“I don’t think it’s a tree branch,” Alex mumbled. “Too far away from anything growing nearby.”
“Sounds ominous,” Lucas quipped.
“Mysteries R Us.” Alex waved him closer. “Take a look at this.”
Lucas crawled down on his hands and knees and studied the object. It was barely peeking out of the ground, a hint of grimy hardness in a parallel line with earth. Only a couple of inches were exposed, but Lucas could tell that it extended far beyond eyesight and deep underground. Dirt worn as smooth as cement banked both sides—if the chair hadn’t disturbed its hardpacked grave, the incongruity beneath the barn floor might have never surfaced at all.
Reaching out a tentative hand, Lucas brushed the dirt away with his fingertips, revealing a grayish white surface that was comparatively smooth despite tiny pockmarks that dug minuscule basins across the exterior. He clawed at the dust with his nails until they began to split, then he turned to Alex with a sigh.
Alex handed it over without a single cynical comment.
Lucas scratched and dug, prying chunks of earth away with each vicious slash. Within minutes, he could tentatively wrap his fingers around it. He pulled gently. It didn’t give an inch. Pulling harder produced the same effect: nothing.
“What do you think it is?” Alex cut in.
In the corner of his mind, a shadowy thought was beginning to materialize in smoky, elusive wisps. Lucas brushed more dust away, touched the object again, and realized with a paralyzing jolt that the doctor in him had always known what it was. His subconscious perceived it even when his mind refused to believe. “Oh, God.” Lucas whispered it—a prayer, an invocation, a heartfelt, aching plea—because he knew . . . he knew what lay beneath the feet of the community’s infamous outcast.
“Lucas, come on, don’t get all melodramatic.”
It was through a fog that Lucas managed to mumble, “I think we’re looking at Angela Sparks.”
A tangible quiet descended on the barn. Disbelief, thick and poisonous, choked each man as they stared at what they now knew to be a bone. A human bone. Moments trudged by before Alex found his voice. “I thought Jenna was helping her get out of town.”
Jenna Hudson was deep water. Mysterious, flowing, dark. She had stormed into Lucas’s life late in his residency and had affixed herself indelibly, ineradicably in his mind before she ever made it to his heart. Jenna, with her baggy jeans, piled hair, bare feet. She wore her own skin as if it was an afterthought, something that she had just tossed on as she swept out the door. She claimed him without meaning to, without really seeming to care if he was hers. But he was, and from the first moment, she knew it.
Jenna was all eyes. Blue so bottomless it was navy, almost black. And it was those eyes, in the face framed by curls that appeared to flow out of everything that was her, shadowy enough to be coal, that demanded all of Lucas. He had never been in love before, and he never bothered to question if he even knew what love truly was. He simply married her.
The first time Lucas told Jenna that he loved her, they were getting groceries. It became a Sunday ritual early in their relationship; the resident and the social worker, too busy during every other imaginable hour even to contemplate something as unnecessary as grocery shopping. And yet they found themselves spending hours as they discovered new delicacies, chased each other down aisles, and intentionally avoided every bargain. Their cart overflowed with chocolate cherry bordeaux ice cream, thin wedges of expensive cheeses, sprouted wheat bread trucked in from the organic bakery downtown.
Jenna was standing over the vine-ripened tomatoes, touching and carefully pressing and easing the chosen few into a clear plastic bag on the day it finally happened. Lucas was leaning over the grocery cart, indulging in his new favorite pastime of simply watching her.
“You know I love you.”
It was a casual statement, and Jenna didn’t even seem to notice. He thought about saying it again, about reaching over the tomatoes to touch her, make her feel his skin pressing against her hand, maybe even pull her close. He didn’t. It wasn’t until she had fastened the bag with a green twist tie and gently laid the crimson treasures in the bottom of the cart that she said, “I know.”
She didn’t say it back. She didn’t have to.
By the time Lucas proposed to her, Jenna still hadn’t managed to utter the words, but it didn’t matter. He knew how she felt, or at least he was convinced enough to believe that his love was enough for them both.
He asked her to marry him the day her grandmother lost her driver’s license. After her mother died, Jenna lived with her grandmother, Caroline, in a tiny flat that was closer to Milwaukee than Chicago. She drove over an hour each way just to get to work at the hospital. But her commitment to Oma dictated that she stay with her as long as she could care for the spunky eighty-five-year-old.
Lucas was with Jenna when she got the call that Caroline had been in an accident. The hospital where she had been taken was a good forty-five-minute drive, but Lucas and Jenna abandoned their date and sped to her side. The accident turned out to be a fender-bender, and Oma suffered no more than a bruised knee where her leg slid into the console inches from her seat.
When Caroline saw her granddaughter, the tears that were threatening to spill trailed one at a time down her wrinkled cheeks.
“Oma, why didn’t you stop at the stop sign?” Jenna asked.
Caroline’s answer solidified what they had known for some time: “I thought I stopped. I mean, I stopped in my mind.”
The officer who arrived at the scene pulled Jenna aside and gave her Caroline’s driver’s license.
It was in the kitchen of the flat, after Caroline had bathed and relaxed enough to fall fitfully asleep, that Lucas got down on one knee. It felt strange, even to him, as the cold of the linoleum floor seeped through his jeans and into his very bones. Jenna was sitting with her legs under her in an uncomfortable wooden chair, warming her hands on a cup of black coffee and looking into its depths as if answers waited for her in the dregs.
He hadn’t planned it this way. They were supposed to be bundled up beneath the lights of Navy Pier overlooking Lake Michigan. Her cheeks would be pink from the wind and a scarf would be knotted at her neck as she said something playful to him. He would have taken out the ring when she wasn’t looking. She would have turned away from the water and found him there. She would have laughed and said, “Yes.”
Instead, she raised tired eyes to look at him almost sadly. She asked, “What are you doing?” And he said it again, “I love you.”
It was the first time he saw her cry. Jenna put out her arms and he shuffled over to her, still on his knees. She wrapped herself around him, legs and all, and held on as if she was afraid of being swept away. “Are you asking me to marry you?” He was shocked to hear the disbelief in her voice.
“Yes,” he said.
She said it back. “Yes.”
When they moved to Iowa to follow Caroline, Lucas left the city with no regrets. She was with him, all five foot two inches of her, and nothing else mattered. They moved into a century home on the outskirts of a town that boasted no more than one grocery store and enough gossip to last at least a hundred lifetimes.
Blackhawk was nestled against the hills that marked the border between Iowa and South Dakota, and the muddy Big Sioux river ran a trembling line between the trees less than a stone’s throw from the invisible marker of the official city limits. The cobbled main street of Blackhawk’s picturesque downtown ambled past pretty houses with Dutch lace curtains and a hodgepodge collection of small-town amenities. There was a crumbling brick bank, an equally dilapidated police station, a café, a tiny library that specialized in interlibrary loans. But Blackhawk’s claim to fame was a trio of antiques stores that boasted sagging shelves of what Lucas considered junk, but which people came from miles around to admire and procure for dusty corners in their own homes.
The streets were cracked, the trees ancient and gnarled, the people reserved. Blackhawk was nothing to write home about, situated in the proverbial middle of nowhere. Sioux Falls was a forty-five-minute drive away. Omaha could be reached in two and a half hours, Minneapolis in four. But the Hudsons weren’t known for doing anything halfway, and they threw themselves into their new life with the same passion they directed at everything else.
Jenna started Safe House, a domestic violence aid center that specialized in helping victims of abuse begin new lives. Lucas was always stunned by the number of women who saw Jenna every week. Bustling metropolis or quiet village, violence seemed to know no boundaries.
And Lucas himself, making what he believed would be a temporary adjustment to small-town life even more easily than his wife, joined Blackhawk’s medical clinic and worked alongside two other doctors diagnosing strep throat and setting broken bones.
For the first few years, Lucas felt like he was camping, on vacation from normal life. Or on an extended mission trip like the three months he had spent just outside of Tegucigalpa, giving wide-eyed orphans their first taste of medical treatment. They had hated the needles. But then two years in Blackhawk turned into four, and four into eight, until a decade had passed and then a momentous dozen years—one-third of his life—and he was officially a small-town resident.
It wasn’t necessarily the life he had always dreamed of, but Jenna was the woman he had always dreamed of.
She was more than enough.
The first time Meg Painter met Dylan, he was crouching behind the raspberry thicket in her backyard. It was the Fourth of July, after the barbecues and the fireworks, when the night was dark and still and quiet but for the occasional chirp of an early cricket and the screams of a dozen neighborhood kids. As their parents sipped wine spritzers around the Painters’ brick fire pit, the kids tiptoed through the adjoining yards of Ninth Street Circle NE, erupting in a frenzy of mock terror when they tripped over a comrade lying in ambush.
“Bloody Murder!” the shout would rise, if the discovery had not rendered the poor adolescent speechless or if the would-be murderer was too slow to seize his victim and slap a silencing hand over her gaping mouth.
Most of the time, the detection was quick, painless, and punctuated by frantic shrieks that quickly multiplied as the cry went up. “Run! Bloody Murder! Run!” And from every corner of the block they would come, tripping, stumbling, falling headlong into the warm grass in their haste to elude whatever dark shadow loomed behind them.
The front porch was sanctuary, and though the kids who gathered to play midnight games were probably too old for such frivolity, the darkness seemed prime to entertain the ghosts of their waning childhood. They sometimes ended up crawling on hands and knees after they fell in the last few yards to safety, then dragged themselves up the porch steps to slump against each other and replay the most entertaining bits of their exploits: who tripped whom, or accusations of a kiss stolen in a shadowy, secret corner.
Someone passed around a pilfered can of Bud Light that he had lifted from the cooler without detection, and they took turns sipping the half-warm beer, pretending that they liked it. Meg’s older brother, Bennett, had his hand on her best friend’s leg, but Sarah didn’t seem to mind. And in the farthest corner of the porch, a knot of boys passed around a pack of cigarettes and lit up like they knew exactly what they were doing.
It was all a little perplexing to Meg. The lukewarm beer, the throaty laugh that didn’t sound like Sarah at all, the innocent game that felt altogether different because a year had gone by since the last time they played it. They were older, all of them, and the knowledge of it seemed to crackle in the air around their heads like electricity.
Although it felt awkward, Meg tucked her long legs beneath her and forced a laugh of her own—a grown-up, sexy laugh that came out sounding hollow and all wrong. Some girls could pull off a sexy laugh at fourteen. Meg apparently wasn’t one of them.
“Where’s Dylan?” Sarah’s older brother, Jess, called from across the porch. He flicked the ash of his cigarette over the railing and picked his way around the strewn bodies of his friends to sit on the steps next to Meg. “What’d you do with the new kid, Megs? Out with it.”
“Dylan?” Meg repeated. Jess was grinning at her, and she could see an outline of herself reflected in lamplight of his eyes. She looked small, crouching. Sitting up a little straighter, she said, “I haven’t seen him. I don’t even know who he is.”
That wasn’t entirely true.
Meg had glimpsed the new boy—a recent Phoenix transplant and the only unknown in the midst of a decade-old summer tradition—when everyone was walking through the outdoor buffet to fill their plates with burgers still sizzling from the grill. She bypassed the potato salad, baked beans, and greasy chips in lieu of two hamburgers, fully loaded. It was while she was squirting ketchup on the second bun that something shivered down her spine and made her look up. The yard was dotted with blankets, lawn chairs, and people, but she found him almost instantly.
Dylan was balancing on the twisted limb of a low-lying amur maple, his sun-browned legs tangled in the branches so he wouldn’t tip off backward. He was staring at Meg, holding a glass of lemonade loosely in his hands as if he had forgotten he was holding it at all. There was a shock of dark hair falling across his forehead, tickling the edge of his eye, and he gave his head a little flick that could have been interpreted as a longdistance hello. When he realized that Meg was looking at him, he grinned. It was sudden and bright, a flash of brilliance that surprised her so much she almost took a step back, even though he was fifty feet away.
She glared at him, and made a point to avoid him for the rest of the night. And she’d done a pretty good job of it until Jess started accusing her of tracking his whereabouts. As if she cared.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know who Dylan is,” Jess smiled, leaning close. “All the girls know who Dylan is.”
Meg didn’t mean to tip away from her childhood friend and neighbor, but the back of her head met the porch pillar and Jess laughed.
“You’re like a little sister to me, Megs. That’s why I gotta keep an eye on you.” He took a quick drag on his cigarette and caught Meg watching. “Not for you,” he said, tossing it into the bushes. “Bad business, smoking. Bad for your health.”
“But not for your health?” Meg snapped.
Jess just laughed. “Come on, we’d better find Dylan. City kid probably wandered into the cornfield and got lost.”
The group of kids left the security of the porch and spread out in every direction, avoiding the warm light of the fire pit and the raucous conversation of their parents. At first Jess stayed close to Meg’s side, but then one of the other guys tagged him in a run-by and they ended up careening into the darkness amid a flurry of shouts and the pounding of bare feet.
Meg wasn’t much interested in finding Dylan, and didn’t really care if he had tried to hide in the cornfield. She had grown up her whole life with a field in her backyard, and she knew that the horror stories weren’t true. There were corn snakes in the plowed rows, but not much more, and if you were stupid enough to wander in too far, all you had to do was pick a row and follow it to the end. You’d come out eventually.
She was on her way back to the porch—to the single empty beer can and the sudden, bewildering understanding that some magic switch had been thrown and she was all at once half woman instead of all little girl—when she felt a hand snake around her ankle. It was so abrupt, so unexpected that she couldn’t even gasp. The world stopped spinning in its orbit.
In the moment that she paused, Dylan grabbed her wrist and yanked her to the ground beside him. There was a patch of earth behind the raspberries where grass refused to grow, and she landed on her seat in the dust, a fine cloud of dirt mingling with the faint, tart scent of ripening berries in the air around her.
“Why aren’t you screaming?” he asked.
Because I can’t, she thought. She wondered if he could see her eyes, the way her stare betrayed a mixture of shock and awe.
“I’m Dylan Reid,” he told her, a smile in his voice. And she knew that he was grinning at her again because she could see the moonlight shimmer off the straight row of his teeth. “It’s nice to meet you, Meg Painter.” He reached for her hand. When she wouldn’t close her fingers, he held her hand in both of his and pumped it up and down.
“I didn’t feel you,” Meg finally whispered, finding her voice. “I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t feel you.”
Dylan didn’t seem at all perturbed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She didn’t say anything.
“You can feel when someone is nearby?” Dylan guessed. “A sixth sense?”
“A tickle,” Meg whispered almost against her own will.
“A tickle?” he repeated, a laugh threatening in his light tone.
Without thinking, Meg punched him in the chest, hard.
But he didn’t flinch. “Good arm,” he commented. “What do you mean ‘a tickle’?”
Meg sighed. “I just know. Okay? I know I’m not alone. I don’t know how else to describe it.”
“You’ve never been caught unawares?”
“I let myself get caught sometimes,” she admitted.
They were quiet for a minute, and in the silence she tilted her head toward the bushes. Someone was getting close. Meg could hear their tentative footsteps as they gave the raspberries, and their infamously sharp thorns, wide berth. She didn’t want to be discovered, curled on the ground with this unsettling stranger, so she took a deep breath to shout. Now that the mystery of Dylan’s appearance was wearing off, Meg found that she was more than able to yell her little blond head off. But before she could form a word, Dylan’s hand fell across her mouth.
“I caught you,” he told her. “I caught you fair and square.”
Furious that he would dare to restrain her, Meg wriggled and kicked and bucked until he let go. She tumbled back a little and felt a thorn tear a shallow cut along the back of her bare arm. “It won’t happen again,” she snapped. “It will never happen again.”
She scrambled to her feet and was screaming before he could utter a single protest.
The next time Meg saw Dylan was when school started in the fall.
From first grade through eighth, Meg rode her bike to school rain or shine. In the early years, it was a My Little Pony bike with a purple banana seat and a basket sporting faded plastic flowers. After she hit a growth spurt the summer she turned eight, Meg graduated to her brother’s discarded Freestyle BMX, a rusted hunk of metal with bent handlebars and stunt pegs that led to her first broken bone—her right arm—after she tried and failed to do a double peg grind on the handrail of the library steps. Six weeks in a hard cast did much to dampen her Freestyle ambition, and when Meg was pronounced fit for regular activity, she continued to ride like the wind, but shrewdly decided to cut short her stunt career.
Meg seemed almost incomplete without the shiny black bicycle beneath her, but the pivotal jump from junior high to high school demanded a change of equal consequence. When September rolled around, Meg determined to grow up a little, not necessarily because she wanted to, but because life was plodding on with or without her. Jess, her sensible, older neighbor who had only just given up his glasses for contacts, was smoking, and Bennett, who used to aim spit wads at Sarah’s hair, suddenly decided he’d rather twist his fingers through the auburn ends. The world was overbright, hard and shiny and foreign. What choice did she have but to at least try to navigate the unfamiliar territory?
With special care, Meg cleaned her beloved BMX in the frigid spray from the garden hose, and then parked it in the back of the shed for the winter. On the first day of school, she set off for Sutton High on foot. Backpack slung over one shoulder and long waves pulled away from her face in pretty tortoiseshell clips instead of multicolored rubber bands, she had to admit that she felt a bit older with every step. More mature. Ready for something that required a deep breath, maybe a little resolve.
Meg never intended to attach those feelings to Dylan. But then a car pulled up beside her when she was halfway to school.
It didn’t occur to her to be startled; Sutton was small, and there had never been reason for her to be wary before. Even when she heard the car door open, Meg barely paused. Out of the corner of her eye, she registered a faded pickup truck, noted that she didn’t recognize the driver, and kept on walking.
“Meg Painter!” someone called.
She looked up at the sound of her name and felt a little ripple of alarm melt across her shoulders. But on the far side of the unfamiliar pickup, she could just see Dylan leaning over to shout out of the open driver’s-side window. A teenage boy was behind the wheel, and he didn’t even bother to glance at Dylan as he hopped out of the passenger side and gave the creaky door a hearty slam. The truck squealed away, and Dylan was left standing in the middle of the empty street, staring at Meg with a half smile nipping at the corner of his mouth. It was a teasing look, filled with thinly veiled mirth, as if he had just remembered an inside joke and couldn’t stop himself from smirking.
Unsure how to respond to his sudden presence, Meg studied him for a moment and tried to settle the irregular thrum of her heart. She didn’t know if she was scared or excited, and, pulled taut between annoyance and anticipation, Meg finally settled for throwing him a haughty look and continuing on her way. But Dylan drew his backpack over both shoulders and took off after her, jogging across the street and over the curb, where he met her on the sidewalk and fell comfortably into step with her hurried pace.
“Did you feel me?” he asked conversationally. “A tickle?”
“You didn’t, did you? It’s Ghost in the Graveyard all over again.”
“We call it Bloody Murder.”
She walked faster.
He lengthened his stride. “I’ve snuck up on you twice now.”
“You did not,” she told him. The moment he appeared beside her, she had promised herself she wouldn’t let him know that he got to her, but it was impossible not to respond when he was so obviously egging her on.
“You can’t read me.” Dylan elbowed her side gently.
Meg felt sure the gesture was meant to be lighthearted, conspiratorial, but her skin prickled where his arm had glanced it.
“You said it wouldn’t happen again,” he pressed.
In a flash, Meg remembered. All at once she was irrational, furious, and without pausing to think, she threw down her backpack. She didn’t really even know what she meant to do. Her hands were balled into fists and she wasn’t afraid to use them, but Dylan grabbed her wrists and held her fast.
“If you think I’m going to let you hit me again, you’re nuts,” he told her. “You bruised me last time.”
“I did?” Meg bit back a grin in spite of herself and tried to rearrange her features to appear stern.
“And if we’re going to be friends, you’ve gotta relax a little. I can’t have you going off the deep end every time I tease you.”
“Friends?” she parroted, picking out the one word in his mild reprimand that held meaning for her.
Dylan raised an eyebrow good-naturedly and gave a slow nod as if he was assessing her. “Yup, I think so,” he said.
“What makes you think I want to be friends with you?” Meg jerked her wrists out of his grip and took a quick step back.
“Hey,” Dylan shrugged, pulling the dangling straps of his worn backpack tight. “I’m not gonna put a gun to your head.” And he breezed past her, stepping over her discarded pack and using his long legs to his advantage. He was halfway down the block by the time Meg snatched her belongings from the ground and went after him.
She didn’t want to chase him, she didn’t want him to look over his shoulder and see her running, hair fanned out behind her and eyes hopeful as she came. But she did. And when she drew up next to him and opened her mouth to say something, anything to smooth over her offense, he stopped her short by bumping her with his elbow again. Meg understood that it was his way of rewinding the clock, of letting her know that it didn’t matter.
Dylan was forgiving. She liked that about him. And she liked it that he was perfectly comfortable to finish the last block in an easy silence. When they made it to the front steps of the high school, he simply waved good-bye and disappeared.
And though Meg didn’t expect anything more than a moment on the way to school, Dylan was waiting for her after the final bell at the end of the day. He appeared to be utterly indifferent to the looks that her classmates shot him, and it felt obvious to Meg that he was above the disdain of his peers because he was a rare breed of boy. He didn’t care, and in that self-security, he earned a sort of esteem that made him seem much older than his fifteen years. Meg watched him shoot her an earnest smile, and learned a lot about him in the time it took to walk the sidewalk from the doors of Sutton High to the curb.
She smiled back with a little less enthusiasm, but she didn’t argue or let her steps falter when Dylan headed back the way they had come hours before. A brief inclination of his dark head was her only invitation to follow, though she realized that it was less an invitation than an expectation—he acted as if he knew that she would come. Meg stole one parting glance at Sarah, who had to stay late for band, and received a look of pure bewilderment that must have matched her own. But Meg could also tell by the expression on her friend’s face that the unlikely alliance was not necessarily forbidden. So she gave in, and let herself be drawn into his wake as if Dylan emanated his own gravity.
“Did you like it?” he asked without preamble. They walked past the line of school buses in front of the high school, their feet falling in perfect syncopation.
“What do you mean?” Meg’s voice sounded small in her ears.
“School. Sutton High. It’s your first year in this place, right?”
“Yeah,” she said, a little breathless from trying to match his long strides. Even though he was only a year older than her, he was a full head taller. “It’s fine,” Meg continued. “It’s school. What grade are you?”
“Freshman,” she muttered, and was instantly shamed by her own banality. Of course he knew what grade she was in, but she finished lamely anyway, “I’m in the same class as Sarah. You know, Jess’s sister?”
Dylan caught her eye and laughed. But she could tell he wasn’t laughing at her, at least, she didn’t think he was. Besides, with his lips parted she could see that his bottom teeth were appealingly crooked, turned toward each other as if leaning in for a reluctant embrace. His imperfect grin was endearing somehow, and Meg found herself relaxing in spite of her misgivings. Being with Dylan wasn’t the sort of awkward she had imagined. It was a certain vertigo: she felt light-headed, but with him so confident beside her, she didn’t really care.
“Do you like it?” she asked abruptly.
“Like what?” He peered at her out of the corner of his eye, then checked both ways and led her across a tree-lined street.
“We’ve been here for almost a year,” he reminded her. “And yet that doesn’t change the fact that I’m the perpetual new kid. You guys gotta get a life.” But then he stopped himself, and it seemed to Meg that he was determined to tell the truth. Or at least a part of it. “It’s not home yet,” he admitted. “But it’s not bad.”
Meg hopped on the curb and walked it heel to toe like a balance beam as they turned down her street. “What do you miss the most?”
“About Arizona?” Dylan paused. “I miss warm winters, geckos in the backyard . . .”
“Geckos?” Meg parroted, her curiosity piqued.
“My mom’s lemon pie made with lemons from our tree, my friends, our pool, the skate park in our neighborhood . . .”
“You had a pool?” All at once Meg’s inhibitions fell away. “And a skate park? My cousin would die. He thinks he’s a ‘pretty tight shredder.’” She framed the distinction of her cousin’s self-imposed description with sarcastic quotations marks in the form of curled fingers.
“You sound ridiculous,” Dylan told her cheerfully. “You sound like a poseur.”
“I am,” she agreed with a hearty nod. “I don’t skateboard.”
“Neither do I.”
“Then what? Bike, rollerblades . . . ? Or did you just watch everyone else having fun at the skate park?”
“I have a Haro Freestyle FSX with skyway six spoke mags, a full chromoly fork, four bolt-on stationary pegs, and a kneesaver handlebar.”
Meg blinked at him. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“I have a ‘pretty tight BMX.’” He grinned. “But it doesn’t do me much good around here. I can do a mean one-eighty on the half-pipe and land in a fakie, but there’s no half-pipe in Sutton.”
“Fakie?” Meg repeated, too startled by his admirable knowledge to worry about sounding dumb.
“Riding backward,” Dylan explained.
“I have a bike,” she countered weakly.
“I broke my arm trying to do a double peg grind.”
“You do?” They were in front of her house now, and Meg stopped with her hands on her hips, considering Dylan with cool curiosity. “How do you know that?”
“Jess told me.” Dylan thought for a moment then continued with a glint in his eye. “You’re sorta famous, Meg.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she demanded.
“Oh, chill out,” he said. Meg bristled at the familiarity with which he chastised her, but he went on before she could complain. “You’re just not like other girls,” he told her. “It’s not a bad thing that people find you . . . interesting.”
She wanted to be defensive, but Dylan’s honesty was so candid, so ingenuous, she ended up laughing. “I’m interesting? Because I broke my arm?”
Dylan shrugged his backpack off his shoulder and held it in his hands. “I could teach you how to do it,” he offered.
“I could teach you all kinds of grinds. And some flatland tricks, but without a pipe of some sort, the air tricks are a no go.”
Meg didn’t even have to think about it. “Deal.” She stuck out her hand with a definitive air, and when Dylan took it, she squeezed hard and shook fast, a good handshake, a man’s handshake.
He shook his head at her, but his lips were curled, smiling.