Skip to main content



The Last Child


Asphalt cut the country like a scar, a long, hot burn of razor-
black. Heat had not yet twisted the air, but the driver knew it was
coming, the scorching glare, the shimmer at the far place where
blue hammered down. He adjusted his sunglasses and threw a glance
at the big mirror above the windshield. It showed him the length of
the bus and every passenger on it. In thirty years he’d
watched all kinds of people in that mirror: the pretty girls and
the broken men, the drunks and the crazies, the heavy- breasted
women with red, wrinkled babies. The driver could spot trouble a
mile away; he could tell who was fine and who was running.

The driver looked at the boy.

The boy looked like a runner.

Skin peeled from his nose, but beneath the tan he carried the
sallow kind of pale that came from sleeplessness or malnutrition or
both. His cheekbones made sharp blades beneath skin stretched
tight. He was young and small, ten maybe, with wild hair that rose
black on his head. The cut was jagged and uneven, like something
he’d done himself. Frayed cloth hung from the collar of his
shirt and from the knees of his jeans. The shoes were just about
worn through. On his lap, he clutched a blue backpack; and whatever
it held, there wasn’t much of it.

He was a good- looking kid, but what struck the driver most were
the boy’s eyes. Large and dark, they moved constantly, as if
the boy was overly aware of the people around him, the hot press of
humanity typical of a broken- down bus on a sun- blasted morning in
the North Carolina sand hills: a half- dozen itinerant workers, a
few busted- up brawlers that looked exmilitary, a family or two,
some old folks, a couple of tattooed punks that huddled in the

The boy’s eyes most often found the man across the aisle,
a slick- haired sales type in a wrinkled suit and sprung loafers.
There was also a black man with a creased Bible and a soda bottle
tucked between his legs; he seemed to catch the kid’s eye,
too. In the seat behind the boy sat an old lady in a parchment
dress. When she leaned forward to ask a question, the boy shook his
head in a small way and answered with care.

No, ma’am.

His words rose like smoke, and the lady settled back, blue-
veined fingers on the chain that held her spectacles. She looked
through the window and her lenses flashed, then went dark as the
road sliced into a stand of pine with shadows that pooled green
beneath the limbs. The same light filled the bus, and the driver
studied the man in the wrinkled suit. He had pale skin and a
hangover sweat, unusually small eyes and an edginess that scraped
the driver’s nerves. Every minute or two, the man shifted in
his seat. He crossed his legs and uncrossed them, leaned forward,
then back.

His fingers drummed one knee of the ill- fitting suit and he
swallowed often as his gaze drifted to the boy, then flicked away,
drifted again and lingered. The driver was a jaded man, but he ran
things clean on his bus. He refused to tolerate drunkenness or
debauchery or loud voices. His momma raised him that way fifty
years ago and he’d found no reason to change. So he kept an
eye on the boy, and on the drawn, shiny man with eager eyes. He
watched him watch the boy, saw him push back against the greasy
seat when the knife came out.

The boy was casual about it. He pulled it from a pocket and
folded the blade out with a single thumb. He held it for a moment,
visible, then took an apple from his bag and sliced it in a sharp,
clean motion. The smell of it rose above the travel- stained seats
and the dirt- smeared floors. Even above the diesel stink, the
driver caught the sharp, sweet tang of it. The boy looked once at
the man’s wide eyes and slick, washed- out face, then folded
the knife and put it back in his pocket.

The driver relaxed and watched the road, uninterrupted, for a
few long minutes. He thought that the boy seemed familiar, but the
feeling passed.

Thirty years. He settled his heavy frame deeper into the

He’d seen so many boys.

So many runners.

Every time the driver looked at him, the boy felt it. It was a
gift he had, a skill. Even with the dark shades on the
driver’s eyes and the big curve in the face of the mirror,
the boy could tell. This was his third trip on the bus in as many
weeks. He sat in different seats and wore different clothes, but
guessed that sooner or later somebody would ask him what he was
doing on a cross- state bus at seven o’clock on a school day.
He figured the question would come from the driver.

But it hadn’t happened yet.

The boy turned to the window and angled his shoulders so that no
one else would try to speak to him. He watched reflections in the
glass, the movements and the faces. He thought of skyscraper trees
and brown feathers tipped with snow.

The knife made a lump in his pocket. Forty minutes later, the
bus rocked to a stop at a one- room gas station depot lost in the
great swath of pine and scrub and hot, sandy earth. The boy made
his way down the narrow aisle and dropped off the bottom step
before the driver could mention that nothing but the tow truck sat
in the lot, or that no grown- up was there to take possession of
him, a thirteen- year- old boy who could barely pass for ten. He
kept his head turned so that the sun seared his neck. He rocked the
pack onto his back, and the diesel cloud rose; then the bus jerked
and was rolling south.

The gas station had two pumps, a long bench, and a skinny old
man in blue clothes stained with grease. He nodded from behind
smudged glass but did not come out into the heat. The drink machine
in the shade of the building was so old it only asked for fifty
cents. The boy dug into a pocket, fingered out five thin dimes and
purchased a grape soda that came out of the chute in a cold glass
bottle. He popped the top, turned in the direction from which the
bus had come, and started walking down the black snake of dusty

Three miles and two turns later, the road diminished, asphalt
gone to gravel, gravel gone thin. The sign had not changed since
the last time he’d seen it. It was old and abused, feathers
of paint lifting to show the wood beneath: ALLIGATOR RIVER
. Above the letters, a stylized ea gle soared,
and on its wings, the paint feathers rose.

The boy spit chewing gum into his hand and slapped it on the
sign as he passed.

It took two hours to find a nest, two hours of sweat and sticker
bushes and mosquitoes that turned his skin a bright, splotchy red.
He found the massive tangle of limbs in the high branches of a
longleaf pine that grew straight and tall from the damp soil on the
bank of the river. He circled the tree twice, but found no feathers
on the ground. Sunlight pierced the forest, and the sky was so
bright and blue that it hurt his eyes. The nest was a speck.

He shrugged off the pack and started climbing, bark rough and
raw on his sunburned skin. Wary and afraid, he looked for the eagle
as he climbed. A stuffed one sat on a pedestal at the museum in
Raleigh, and he remembered the fierceness of it. Its eyes were
glass, but its wings spanned five feet from tip to tip, its talons
as long as the boy’s middle finger. The beak alone could take
the ears off a grown man.

All he wanted was a feather. He’d love a clean, white tail
feather, or one of the giant brown feathers from the wing; but in
the end, it could be the smallest feather from the softest patch, a
pin feather, maybe, or one from that downy soft place beneath the
shoulder of the wing.

It didn’t really matter.

Magic was magic.

The higher he climbed, the more the branches bent. Wind moved
the tree and the boy with it. When it gusted, he pushed his face
into the bark, heart thumping and fingers squeezed white. The pine
was a king of trees, so tall that even the river shrank beneath

He neared the top. This close, the nest was as broad as a dining
room table and probably weighed two hundred pounds. It was de cades
old, stinking of rot and shit and rabbit parts. The boy opened
himself to the smell, to the power of it. He shifted a hand,
planted one foot on a limb that was weathered gray and skinned of
bark. Beneath him, pine forest marched off to distant hills.

The river twisted, black and dark and shining like coal. He
lifted himself above the nest and saw the chicks, two of them, pale
and mottled, in the bowl of the nest. They opened splinters of
beaks, begging for food, and the boy heard a sound like sheets on
the line when the wind got up. He risked a glance, and the ea gle
dropped from a perfect sky. For an instant, the boy saw only
feathers, then the wings beat down and the talons rose.

The bird screamed.

The boy threw up his arms as talons sank into him; then he fell,
and the bird—eyes yellow bright, talons hooked in his skin
and in his shirt—the bird fell with him.

At three forty- seven, a bus rolled into the parking lot of the
same oneroom gas station depot. Pointing north this time, it was a
different bus, different driver. The door clattered open and a
handful of rheumatic people shuffled out. The driver was a thin,
Hispanic man, twenty- five and tired- looking. He barely looked at
the scrawny boy who rose from the bench and limped to the door of
the bus. He didn’t notice the torn clothes or the near
despair on the boy’s face. And if that was blood on the hand
that passed the ticket over, it seemed clear that it was not the
driver’s business to remark upon it.

The boy let go of the ticket. He pulled himself up the stairs
and tried to hold the pieces of his shirt together. The pack he
carried was heavy, stuffed near to bursting, and something red
stained the seams at the bottom. There was a smell about the boy,
one of mud and river and something raw; but that, too, was not the
driver’s business. The boy pushed deeper into the gloom of
the bus. He fell once against a seat back, then moved all the way
to the rear, where he sat alone in the corner. He clutched the bag
to his chest and pulled his feet onto the seat. Deep holes
punctured his flesh and his neck was gashed; but no one looked at
him, no one cared. He clutched the bag tighter, felt the heat that
remained, the broken body, like a sack of shattered twigs. He
pictured the small and downy chicks, alone in the nest.

Alone in the nest and starving.

The boy rocked in the dark.

He rocked in the dark and wept hot, bitter tears.

Chapter One

Johnny learned early. If somebody asked him why he was so
different, why he held himself so still and why his eyes seemed to
swallow light, that’s what he’d tell them. He learned
early that there was no safe place, not the backyard or the
playground, not the front porch or the quiet road that grazed the
edge of town. No safe place, and no one to protect you.

Childhood was illusion.

He’d been up for an hour, waiting for the night sounds to
fade, for the sun to slide close enough to call it morning. It was
Monday, still dark, but Johnny rarely slept. He woke to patrol dark
windows. He rattled the locks twice a night, watched the empty road
and the dirt drive that looked like chalk when the moon rose. He
checked on his mom, except when Ken was at the house. Ken had a
temper and wore a large gold ring that made perfect oval

That was another lesson.

Johnny pulled on a T-shirt and frayed jeans, then walked to the
bedroom door and cracked it. Light spilled down the narrow hall,
and the air felt used up. He smelled cigarettes and spilled liquor
that was probably bourbon. For an instant, Johnny recalled the way
mornings used to smell, eggs and coffee and the sharp tang of his
father’s aftershave. It was a good memory, so he drove it
down, crushed it. It only made things harder.

In the hall, shag carpet rose stiff under his toes. The door to
his mother’s room hung loose in its frame. It was hollow core
and unpainted, a mismatch. The original door lay splintered in the
backyard, kicked off its hinges a month back when Ken and
Johnny’s mother got into it after hours. She never said what
the argument was about, but Johnny guessed it had something to do
with him. A year ago, Ken could never have gotten close to a woman
like her, and Johnny never let him forget it; but that was a year
ago. A lifetime.

They’d known Ken for years, or thought they had.
Johnny’s dad was a contractor, and Ken built whole
neighborhoods. They worked well together because Johnny’s dad
was fast and competent, and because Ken was smart enough to respect
him. Because of that, Ken had always been pleasant and mindful,
even after the kidnapping, right up until Johnny’s dad
decided that grief and guilt were too much to bear. But after his
dad left, the respect disappeared, and Ken started coming around a
lot. Now he ran things. He kept Johnny’s mother dependent and
alone, kept her medicated or drunk. He told her what to do and she
did it. Cook a steak. Go to the bedroom. Lock the door.

Johnny took it in with those black eyes, and often found himself
in the kitchen, at night, three fingers on the big knife in its
wooden block, picturing the soft place above Ken’s chest,
thinking about it.

The man was a predator, pure and simple; and Johnny’s
mother had faded down to nothing. She weighed less than a hundred
pounds and was as drawn as a shut- in, but Johnny saw the way men
looked at her, the way Ken got possessive when she made it out of
the house. Her skin, though pale, was flawless, her eyes large and
deep and wounded. She was thirty- three, and looked like an angel
would look if there was such a thing, dark- haired and fragile and
unearthly. Men stopped what they were doing when she walked into a
room. They stared as if a glow came off her skin, as if she might
rise from the ground at any moment.

She could not care less. Even before her daughter vanished,
she’d paid little attention to the way she’d looked.
Blue jeans and T-shirts. Ponytails and occasional makeup. Her world
had been a small, perfect place where she’d loved her husband
and her children, where she’d tended a garden, volunteered at
church, and sang to herself on rainy days; but no more.

Now there was silence and emptiness and pain, a flicker of the
person she’d been; but the beauty lingered. Johnny saw it
every day, and every day he cursed the perfection that graced her
so completely. If she were ugly, Ken would have no use for her. If
she’d had ugly children, his sister would still sleep in the
room next to his. But she was like a doll or something not quite
real, like she should be in a cabinet with a lock on it. She was
the most beautiful person Johnny had ever known, and he hated that
about her.

Hated it.

That’s how much his life had changed.

Johnny studied the door to his mother’s room. Maybe Ken
was in there, maybe not. His ear pressed against the wood, and
breath caught in his throat. Normally, he could tell, but sleep had
dodged him for days, and when he finally crashed, he crashed hard.
Black and still. Deep. When he did wake, it was with a start, like
he’d heard glass break. That was at three o’clock.

He stepped back from the door, uncertain, then crept down the
hall, and the bathroom light hummed when he flicked the switch. The
medicine cabinet stood open and he saw the pills: Xanax, Prozac,
some blue ones, some yellows. He picked up a bottle and read the
label. Vicodin. That was new. The Xanax bottle was open, pills on
the counter, and Johnny felt the anger fill him up. The Xanax
helped Ken come down after a night with the good stuff.

That was his term.

The good stuff.

Johnny closed the bottle and walked out of the bathroom.

The house was a dump, and he reminded himself that it was not
really theirs. Their real house was clean and kept up. It had a new
roof that he’d helped to install. He’d gone up the
ladder every day of spring vacation, passed shingles to his dad,
and held nails in a tool belt that had his name scratched into it.
It was a good house, with stone walls and a yard that boasted more
than dirt and broadleaf weed. It was only a few miles away, but
felt farther, a different neighborhood with cared- for homes on
big, green lots. The place was steeped in memory, but the bank
owned it now. They gave his mother some papers and put a sign in
the yard.

This was one of Ken’s rentals. He had about a hundred, and
Johnny thought this was probably the worst, a crappy dump way out
on the edge of town. The kitchen was small, with green metal and
scuffed linoleum that turned up in the corners. A bulb burned above
the stove and Johnny turned a slow circle. The place was
disgusting: butts in a saucer, empty bottles, and shot glasses. The
mirror lay flat on the kitchen table and Johnny saw how white
powder residue caught the light. The sight of it spread cold in his
chest. A rolled- up hundred dollar bill had fallen to the floor.
Johnny picked it up, smoothed it out. He’d not had a decent
meal in a week and Ken was snorting coke with a hundred.

He picked up the mirror, wiped it off with a wet towel, and hung
it back on the wall. His father used to look in that mirror, and
Johnny could still see how he worked at his tie on Sundays, his
fingers large and stiff, the tie unforgiving. He only wore his suit
for church, and he’d get embarrassed when he caught his son
watching. Johnny could see it: the sudden red flush and then the
reckless smile. “Thank God for your mother,” he’d
say, and then she’d tie the knot for him.

His hands at the small of her back.

The kiss and the wink that came after.

Johnny wiped the mirror again, then straightened it, tweaked it
until it hung just right.

The door to the front porch moved stiffly, and Johnny walked out
into the damp, dark morning. A streetlamp flickered fifty yards
down the road. Headlights crested a distant hill.

Ken’s car was gone, and Johnny felt a shameful, sweet
relief. Ken lived across town in a big house with perfect paint,
large windows and a four- car garage. Johnny took a deep breath,
thought of his mother bent over that mirror, and told himself that
she was not that far gone. That was Ken’s deal, not hers. He
forced his hands to unclench. The air was scrubbed, so he
concentrated on that instead. He told himself that it was a new
day, that good things could happen; but mornings were bad for his
mother. There was a moment when her eyes opened, a flash before she
remembered that they’d never found her only daughter.

Johnny’s sister.

His twin.

Alyssa was born three minutes after Johnny, and they’d
been as similar as nonidentical twins could be. They had the same
hair and face, the same laugh. She was a girl, yeah, but from
twenty feet it was hard to tell them apart. They stood the same,
walked the same. Most mornings, they woke at the same time, even in
different rooms. Johnny’s mom said they’d had their own
language when they were small, but Johnny didn’t remember
that. He remembered that for most of his life, he’d never
been alone; there was a special sense of belonging that only the
two of them had ever understood. But Alyssa was gone, and
everything with her. That was truth, unavoidable, and it had carved
the insides out of his mother. So Johnny did what he could. He
checked the locks at night and cleaned up the mess. Today it took
twenty minutes; then he put on coffee and thought about the rolled-
up bill.

A hundred bucks.

Food and clothing.

He made a last check of the house. Bottles, gone. Signs of drug
use, gone. He opened windows to let the outside in, then checked
the refrigerator.

The milk carton rattled when he shook it. One egg in the carton.
He opened his mother’s purse. She had nine dollars and
change. Johnny left the money and closed the purse. He filled a
glass with water and shook two aspirin out of a bottle. He walked
down the hall and opened his mother’s door.

The first raw light of dawn pushed against the glass, an orange
bulge beyond the black trees. His mother lay on her side, hair
across her face. Magazines and books covered the bedside table. He
made room for the glass and placed the aspirin on the scarred wood.
For a second, he listened to her breathe, then looked at the stack
of bills Ken had left by the bed. There were some twenties, a
fifty. Maybe a few hundred dollars, wrinkled and smudged.

Peeled off a roll.


The car in the driveway was old, a station wagon that
Johnny’s father had bought years ago. The paint was clean and
waxed, tire pressure checked every week, but that was all Johnny
knew how to do. Blue smoke still belched from the pipe when he
turned the key; the passenger window did not go up all the way. He
waited for the smoke to turn white, then put the car in gear and
rolled to the bottom of the drive. He was nowhere close to having a
license, and looked carefully before edging into the road. He kept
the speed down and stayed on the back roads. The nearest store was
only two miles away, but it was a big one, on a major road, and
Johnny knew that people there might recognize him. He added three
miles to the trip and went to a small grocery store that catered to
the low end of things. The gas cost money and the food was more
expensive, but he didn’t really have a choice. Social Ser
vices had already been to the house twice.

The car blended with those already there, most of which were old
and American. A dark sedan rolled in behind him and stopped near
the entrance. Sunlight mirrored the glass and a lone man sat
faceless behind the wheel. He did not get out, and Johnny watched
him as he walked to the store.

Johnny had a great fear of lone men in stopped cars.

The cart wobbled as he went up one aisle and down another. Just
the basics, he decided: milk, juice, bacon, eggs, sandwich bread,
fruit. He bought more aspirin for his mother. Tomato juice also
seemed to help.

The cop stopped him at the end of aisle eight. He was tall and
broad, with brown eyes that were too soft for the lines in his
face, the hard angle of his jaw. He had no cart, stood with his
hands in his pockets, and Johnny knew at a glance that he’d
followed him inside. He had that look, a kind of resigned

And Johnny wanted to run.

“Hey, Johnny,” he said. “How you doing?”
His hair was longer than Johnny remembered, same brown as his eyes,
shaggy and curling over the top of his collar with a bit of new
silver threaded in at the sides. His face had thinned out, and some
part of Johnny recognized that the year had been hard on him as
well. Big as the cop was, he looked pressed down, haunted, but most
of the world looked like that to Johnny, so he wasn’t sure.
The cop’s voice was deep and concerned. It brought back so
many bad memories that, for an instant, Johnny could neither move
nor speak. The cop stepped closer and brought with him the same
thoughtful expression that Johnny had seen so often, the same look
of gentle worry. Some part of Johnny wanted to like the man, to
trust him; but he was still the one who let Alyssa fade away. He
was still the one who lost her.

“I’m good,” Johnny told him. “You know.
Hanging in.” The cop looked at his watch, then at
Johnny’s grubby clothes and wild, black hair. It was forty
minutes after six on a school day. “Any word from your
father?” he asked.

“No.” Johnny tried to hide the sudden shame.
“No word.”

“I’m sorry.”

The moment stretched, but the cop did not move. The brown eyes
remained steady, and up close he looked just as big and calm as the
first time he’d come to Johnny’s house. But that was
another memory, so Johnny stared at the man’s thick wrist,
the clean, blunt nails. His voice cracked when he spoke.

“My mother got a letter once. She said he was in Chicago,
maybe going to California.”

A pause, eyes moving from hand to floor. “He’ll come

Johnny said it with conviction. The cop nodded once and turned
his head away. Spencer Merrimon had left two weeks after his
daughter was grabbed. Too much pain. Too much guilt. His wife never
let him forget that he was supposed to pick the girl up, never let
him forget that she would not have been walking down the road at
dusk if he’d only done what he was supposed to do.

“It wasn’t his fault,” Johnny said.

“I never said it was.”

“He was working. He forgot the time. It wasn’t his

“We all make mistakes, son. Every last one of us. Your
father is a good man. Don’t you ever doubt that.”

“I don’t.” Sudden resentment in Johnny’s

“It’s okay.”

“I never would.” Johnny felt the color fall out of
his face. He could not remember the last time he’d spoken so
much to a grown- up, but there was something about the cop. He was
old as hell, like forty, but he never rushed things, and there was
a warmth to his face, a kindness that didn’t seem fake or put
on to trick a kid into trusting him. His eyes were always very
still, and some part of Johnny hoped that he was a good enough cop
to make things right. But it had been a year, and his sister was
still gone. Johnny had to worry about the now, and in the now this
cop was no friend.

There was Social Ser vices, which was just waiting for an
excuse; and then there were the things that Johnny did, the places
he went when he cut school, the risks he took when he snuck out
after midnight. If the cop knew what Johnny was doing, he would be
forced to take action. Foster homes.

The courts.

He would stop Johnny if he could.

“How’s your mom?” the cop asked. His eyes were
intent, hand still on the cart.

“Tired,” Johnny said. “Lupus, you know. She
tires easily.”

The cop frowned for the first time. “Last time I found you
here, you told me she had Lyme disease.”

He was right. “No. I said she had lupus.”

The cop’s face softened and he lifted his hand from the
cart. “There are people who want to help. People who

Suddenly, Johnny was angry. No one understood, and no one
offered to help. Not ever. “She’s just under the
weather. Just run down.”

The cop looked away from the lie, but his face remained sad.
Johnny watched his gaze fall to the aspirin bottle, the tomato
juice. From the way his eyes lingered, it was obvious that he knew
more than most about drunks and drug abusers. “You’re
not the only one who’s hurting, Johnny. You’re not

“Alone enough.”

The cop sighed deeply. He took a card from his shirt pocket and
wrote a number on the back of it. He handed it to the boy.
“If you ever need anything.”

He looked determined. “Day or night. I mean it.”

Johnny glanced at the card, slipped it into the pocket of his
jeans. “We’re fine,” he said, and pushed the cart
around him. The cop dropped a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“If he ever hits you again . . .”

Johnny tensed.

“Or your mother . . .”

Johnny shrugged the hand off. “We’re fine,” he
repeated. “I’ve got it covered.”

He pushed past the cop, terrified that he would stop him, that
he would ask more questions or call one of the hard- faced women
from Social Ser vices. The cart scraped against the counter at the
register, and a large woman on a worn stool dipped her nose. She
was new to the store, and Johnny saw the question in her face. He
was thirteen but looked years younger. He pulled the hundred from
his pocket and put it faceup on the conveyor belt.

“Can you hurry, please?”

She popped gum and frowned. “Easy, sugar. Here we

The cop lingered ten feet behind, and Johnny felt him there,
eyes on his back as the fat lady rang up the groceries. Johnny
forced himself to breathe, and after a minute, the cop walked past.
“Keep that card,” he said.

“Okay.” Johnny could not bear to meet his eyes.

The cop turned, and his smile was not an easy one.
“It’s always good to see you, Johnny.”

He left the store, visible through the broad plate glass. He
walked past the station wagon, then turned and lingered for a
moment. He looked through the window, then circled to check out the
plate. Apparently satisfied, he approached his sedan and opened the
door. Slipping into the gloom, he sat.

He waited.

Johnny tried to slow his heart, then reached for the change in
the cashier’s damp and meaty hand.

The cop’s name was Clyde Lafayette Hunt. Detective. It
said so on his card. Johnny had a collection of them tucked into
his top drawer, hidden under his socks and a picture of his dad. He
thought, at times, of the number on the card; but then he thought
of orphanages and foster homes. He thought of his disappeared
sister and of the lead pipe he kept between his bed and the wall
that leaked cold air. He thought that the cop probably meant what
he said. He was probably a good guy. But Johnny could never look at
him without remembering Alyssa, and that kind of thinking required
concentration. He had to picture her alive and smiling, not in a
dirt- floored cellar or in the back of some car. She was twelve the
last time he’d seen her. Twelve, with black hair, cut like a
boy’s. The guy who saw what happened said she walked right up
to the car, smiling even as the car door opened.

Smiling right up until somebody grabbed her.

Johnny heard that word all the time. Smiling. Like it
was stuck in his head, a one- word recording he couldn’t
shake. But he saw her face when he slept. He saw her looking back
as the houses grew small. He saw the worry bloom, and he saw her

Johnny realized that the cashier was staring, that his hand was
still out, money in it, groceries bagged. She had one eyebrow up,
jaw still working a wad of gum.

“You need something else, sugar?”

Johnny shied. He wadded the bills and stuffed them into his

“No,” he said. “I don’t need anything

She looked past him, to the store manager who stood behind a low
glass partition. He followed her gaze, then reached for the bags.
She shrugged and he left, walked out under a sky that had blued out
while he shopped. He kept his eyes on his mother’s car and
tried to ignore Detective Hunt. The bags made rasping sounds as
they rubbed together. The milk sloshed, heavy on the right side. He
put the bags in the backseat and hesitated. The cop was watching
him from a car that angled out, less than twenty feet away. He
gestured when Johnny straightened.

 “I know how to drive,” Johnny said.

“I don’t doubt it.” The answer surprised
Johnny. It’s like he was smiling.

“I know you’re tough,” he said, and the smile
was gone. “I know you can handle most things, but the law is
the law.” Johnny stood taller. “I can’t let you

“I can’t leave the car here,” Johnny said.
“It’s the only one we have.”

“I’ll take you home.”

Johnny said nothing. He wondered if the house still smelled of

He wondered if he’d put all of the pill bottles away.

“I’m trying to help you, Johnny.” The cop
paused. “People do that, you know.”

“What people?” The bitterness spilled out.

“It’s okay,” Detective Hunt said.
“It’s fine. Just tell me your address.”

“You know where I live. I see you drive by sometimes, see
you slow down when you do. So don’t pretend like you
don’t know.”

Hunt heard the distrust. “I’m not trying to trick
you, son. I need the exact address so that I can have a patrol car
meet me there. I’ll need a ride back to my car.”

Johnny studied the cop. “Why do you drive by so

“It’s like I said, Johnny. There are people who want
to help.”

Johnny wasn’t sure that he believed him, but he recited
the address and watched him radio for a patrol car to meet him at
the house. “Come on.”

Hunt climbed out of the unmarked police car, crossed the lot to
the station wagon. Johnny opened the passenger door and the cop
slid behind the wheel.

Johnny buckled up, then sat very still. For a long moment,
neither moved.

“I’m sorry about your sister,” Hunt finally
said. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t bring her home.
You know that, right?”

Johnny stared straight ahead, his hands clenched white in his
lap. The sun cleared the trees and pushed heat through the

“Can you say something?” Hunt asked.

Johnny turned, and his voice came, flat. “It was a year
ago yesterday.” He knew that he sounded small. “Are you
aware of that?”

Hunt looked uneasy. “Yes,” he said. “I am
aware of that.”

Johnny looked away. “Can you just drive?

The engine turned over, and blue smoke rolled past
Johnny’s window.

“Okay,” the cop said. “Okay,

He put the car in gear. They rode in silence to the edge of
town. No words, but Johnny smelled him. He smelled soap and gun
oil, what may have been cigarette smoke on his clothes. He drove
the way Johnny’s dad drove, quick and sure, gaze on the road,
then on the rearview mirror. His lips compressed as they neared the
house, and Johnny thought, one last time, of how he’d said
he’d bring Alyssa home. A year ago. He’d promised

A marked car was waiting in the driveway when they got there.
Johnny climbed out and opened the back door for the grocery bags.
“I can help with that,” Hunt said.

Johnny just looked at him. What did he want? He lost her.

“I’ve got it,” Johnny said.

Detective Hunt held Johnny’s eyes until it was obvious
that he had nothing to say. “Be good,” he finally said,
and Johnny watched him slip into the police cruiser. He held the
groceries and he did not move as the car backed into the road. He
did not respond to Detective Hunt’s wave. He stood on the
dusty drive and watched the cruiser rise on the distant hill, then
fall away. He waited for his heart to slow, then took the bags

The groceries looked small on the counter, but they felt like
more: a victory.

Johnny put them away, then started coffee and cracked a single
egg into the pan. Blue flame popped in the iron ring, and he
watched the egg turn white around the edges. He flipped it with
care, then put it on a paper plate. The phone rang as he reached
for a napkin. He recognized the number on caller ID and answered
before it could ring twice. The kid on the other end had a scratchy
voice. He was thirteen, too, but smoked and drank like a grown- up.
“You ditching today? Let’s ditch.”

Johnny cut his eyes to the hall and kept his voice low.
“Hello, Jack.”

“I’ve been looking at some houses on the west side.
It’s a bad area. Real bad. Lot of ex- convicts over there.
Makes sense when you think about it.”

It was an old refrain. Jack knew what Johnny did when he cut
school and snuck out after dark. He wanted to help, partly because
he was a good kid, partly because he was bad.

“This is not some game,” Johnny said.

“You know what they say about a gift horse, man. This is
free help. Don’t take it for granted.”

Johnny pushed out a breath. “Sorry, Jack. It’s one
of those mornings.”  “Your mom?”

Johnny’s throat closed, so he nodded. Jack was his last
friend, the only one who still treated him like he was not some
kind of freak or pity case. They had some things in common, too. He
was a small kid, like Johnny, and had his own share of problems.
“I should probably go today.”

“Our history paper is due,” Jack said. “You
done it?”

“I turned that in last week.”

“Shit. Really? I haven’t even started mine

Jack was always late, and teachers always let him get away with

Johnny’s mom once called Jack a rascal, and the word fit.
He stole cigarettes from the teacher’s lounge and slicked his
hair on Fridays. He drank more booze than any kid should and lied
like a professional; but he kept secrets when he said he would and
watched your back if it needed watching.

He was likable, sincere if he cared to be, and for a second,
Johnny felt his spirits lift; then the morning landed on him.

Detective Hunt.

The wad of greasy bills by his mother’s bed.

“I gotta go,” Johnny said.

“What about cutting school?”

“I gotta go.” Johnny hung up the phone. His
friend’s feelings were hurt, but Johnny couldn’t help
that. He picked up the plate, sat on the porch and ate his egg with
three slices of bread and a glass of milk. He was still hungry when
he finished, but lunch was only four and a half hours away.

He could wait.

Pouring coffee with milk, Johnny made his way down the dim hall
to his mother’s room. The water was gone, so was the aspirin.
Her hair was off her face, and a bar of sunlight cut across her
eyes. Johnny put the mug on the table and opened a window. Cool air
flowed in from the shady side of the house, and Johnny studied his
mother. She looked paler, more tired, younger and lost. She would
not wake for the coffee, but he wanted it there just in case. Just
so she’d know.

He started to turn, but she moaned in her sleep and made a
violent twitch.

She mumbled something and her legs thrashed twice, then she
bolted up in bed, eyes wide and terrified. “Jesus
Christ!” she said. “Jesus Christ!” Johnny stood
in front of her but she did not see him. What ever fright- ened her
still had its grip. He leaned in, told her it was just a dream, and
for that second her eyes seemed to know him. She raised a hand to
his face.

“Alyssa,” she said, and there was a question in her

Johnny felt the storm coming. “It’s Johnny,”
he told her.

“Johnny?” Her eyes blinked, and then the day broke
over her. The desperate gaze collapsed, the hand fell away, and she
rolled back into the covers.

Johnny gave her a few seconds, but she did not open her eyes
again. “Are you okay?” he finally asked.

“Bad dream.”

“There’s coffee. You want any breakfast?”

“Damn.” She flung off the covers and walked out of
the room. She did not look back. Johnny heard the bathroom door

He went outside and sat on the porch. Five minutes later, the
school bus pulled onto the dirt verge. Johnny did not get up, he
did not move. Eventually, the bus rolled on.

It took most of an hour for his mother to get dressed and find
him on the porch. She sat beside him, draped thin arms across her
knees. Her smile failed in every way, and Johnny remembered how it
used to light up a room.

“I’m sorry,” she said, nudging him with a
shoulder. Johnny looked up the road. She nudged him again.
“Sorry. You know . . . an apology.”

He didn’t know what to say, could not explain how it felt
to know that it hurt her to look at him. He shrugged.
“It’s okay.”

He felt her look for the right words. She failed in that, too.
“You missed the bus,” she said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to the school.”

“I make perfect grades. Nobody cares if I’m there or

“Are you still seeing the school counselor?”

He studied her with an unforgiving eye. “Not for six
months now.”


Johnny looked back up the road and felt his mother watching him.
She used to know everything. They used to talk. When she spoke, her
voice had an edge. “He’s not coming back.”

Johnny looked at his mother. “What?”

“You keep looking up the road. You do it all the time,
like you expect to see him walking over the hilltop.” Johnny
opened his mouth, but she spoke over him. “It’s not
going to happen.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I’m just trying—”

“You don’t know that!”

Johnny was on his feet with no recollection of standing. His
hands were clenched for the second time that morning, and something
hot pushed against the walls of his chest. His mother leaned back,
arms still crossed over her knees. The light fell out of her eyes,
and Johnny knew what was coming. She reached out a hand that fell
short of actually touching him.

“He left us, Johnny. It’s not your fault.”

She started to stand. Her lips softened and her face slipped
into a look of pained understanding, the kind of expression grown-
ups gave to kids who didn’t quite get how the world worked.
But Johnny understood. He knew the look and he hated it.

“You should have never said the things you

“Johnny . . .”

“It wasn’t his fault that she got taken. You should
have never told him that.” She stepped toward him. Johnny
ignored the gesture. “He left because of you.”

She stopped midstride and ice snapped in her voice. The
sympathetic twist fell from her lips. “It was his
fault,” she said. “His fault and nobody else’s.
Now she’s gone, and I’ve got nothing.”

Johnny felt tremors start low in the backs of his legs. In
seconds, he was shaking. It was an old argument, and it was tearing
them apart.

She straightened and started to turn. “You always take his
side,” she said, and then was gone, into the house, away from
the world and her last child’s place in it.

Johnny stared at the faded door and then at his hands. He
watched them shake, then he swallowed the emotion. He sat back down
and watched wind move dust on the roadside. He thought about his
mother’s words, then he looked up the hill. It was not a
pretty hill. There was an edge of ragged forest dotted with small
houses and dirt drives, telephone lines that curved between the
poles and looked especially black against the new sky. Nothing made
the hill special, but he watched it for a long time. He watched it
until his neck hurt, then he went inside to check on his mom.

Chapter Two

The Vicodin bottle sat open on the bathroom counter; the door to
his mother’s room was closed. Johnny cracked the door, saw
that it was dim inside and that his mother was under the covers and
still. He heard the rasp of her breath and beneath that a deep and
perfect silence. He closed her door and went to his own room.

The suitcase under his bed showed cracks in the leather and a
black tarnish on the hinges. One of the leather straps had broken
off, but Johnny kept the piece because it once belonged to his
great- great- grandfather. The case, large and square, had a faded
monogram that Johnny could still see if he tilted it right. It read
JPM, John Pendleton Merrimon, same name as Johnny.

He dragged the case out, got it up on the bed, and unfastened
the last buckle. The top swung up clumsily and settled against the
wall. On the inside curve of the lid were a dozen photographs, a
collage. Most showed his sister, but two were of them together,
looking very much like twins and sharing the same smile. He touched
one of the pictures briefly, then looked at the other photos, those
of his father. Spencer Merrimon was a big man with square teeth and
an easy smile, a builder, with rough hands, quiet confidence, and a
moral certainty that had always made Johnny feel lucky to be his
son. He’d taught Johnny so many things: how to drive, how to
keep his head up, how to make the right decisions. His father
taught him how the world worked, taught him what to believe and
where to place his faith: family, God, the community. Everything
that Johnny had learned about what it meant to be a man, he’d
learned from his father.

Right up to the end, when his father walked away.

Now Johnny had to question all of it, everything he’d been
taught with such conviction. God did not care about people in pain.
Not the little ones.

There was no such thing as justice, retribution, or community;
neighbors did not help neighbors and the meek would not inherit the
earth. All of that was bullshit. The church, the cops, his
mother—none of them could make it right, none of them had the
power. For a year, Johnny had lived the new, brutal truth that he
was on his own.

But that’s the way it was. What had been concrete one day
proved sand the next; strength was illusion; faith meant shit. So
what? So his once- bright world had devolved to cold, wet fog. That
was life, the new order. Johnny had nothing to trust but himself,
so that’s the way he rolled—his path, his choices, and
no looking back.

He studied the pictures of his father: one behind the wheel of a
pickup, sunglasses on and smiling; one standing lightly at the peak
of a roof, tool belt angled low on one side. He looked strong: the
jaw, the shoulders, the heavy whis kers. Johnny looked for some
hint of his own features, but he was too delicate, too fair-
skinned. Johnny didn’t look strong, but that was just the

He was strong.

He said it to himself: I will be strong.

The rest was harder to admit, so he did not. He ignored the
small voice in the back of his mind, the child’s voice. He
clenched his jaw and touched the pictures one last time; then he
closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the emotion was gone.

He was not lonesome.

Inside the case were all of the things Alyssa would miss the
most, the things she’d want when she came home. He began
lifting them out: her diary, unread; two stuffed animals
she’d had forever; three photo albums; her school yearbooks;
favorite CDs; a small chest of notes she’d passed in school
and collected like trea sure.

More than once, his mother had asked about the things in the
case, but Johnny knew better than to tell her. If she mixed the
wrong pills anything could happen. She’d throw things out or
burn them in the yard, standing like a zombie or screaming about
how much it hurt to remember. That’s what happened to the
other photos of his father, and to the small, sacred things that
once filled his sister’s room. They faded away in the night
or were consumed by the storms that boiled from his mother.

On the bottom of the case was a green file folder. Inside the
folder was a thin stack of maps and an eight- by- ten photo of
Alyssa. Johnny laid the photo aside and spread out the maps. One
was large scale and showed the county where it nestled into eastern
North Carolina, not quite in the sand hills, not quite in the
piedmont or the flood plains; two hours from Raleigh, maybe an hour
from the coast. The northern part of the county was rough country:
forest and swamp and a thirty- mile jut of granite where they used
to tunnel for gold. The river came down from the north and bisected
the county, passing within a few miles of town. To the west was
dark soil, perfect for vineyards and farms, and to the east were
the sand hills, which boasted a crescent of high- end golf courses,
and, beyond that, a long string of small, poor towns that barely
managed to survive. Johnny had been through some of them, and
remembered weeds that grew from the gutters, shuttered plants and
package stores, staved- in men who sat in the shade and drank from
bottles in brown paper bags. Fifty miles past the last of the
failed towns, you hit Wilmington and the Atlantic Ocean. South
Carolina was a foreign country beyond the edge of the paper.

Johnny tucked the big map back into the folder. The rest of the
maps detailed the streets in town. Red ink marked a number of
streets, small X marks over individual addresses. Notes in his
handwriting lined the margins.

Some neighborhoods were still untouched; a few were crossed off

He looked at the western side of town, wondering what part of it
Jack had been talking about. He’d have to ask him. Later.
Johnny studied the map for a few more seconds, then folded it and
set it aside. Alyssa’s things went back into the case and the
case back under the bed.

He picked up the large photo and slipped a red pen into his back

He was through the front door and about to lock it when the van
turned into his driveway. Paint peeled from the hood in uneven
patches; the right front fender was banged up and rusted. It slewed
into the driveway with a shudder, and Johnny felt something like
dismay. He turned his back, rolled up the map, and shoved it into
the pocket that held the pen. He kept the photo in his hand so that
it would not get wrinkled. When the van stopped, Johnny saw a flash
of blue through the glass; then the window came down.

The face behind it was unusually pale and bloated.

“Get in,” the man said.

Johnny stepped off the stoop and crossed the small patch of
grass and weed. He stopped before he got to the edge of the drive.
“What are you doing here, Steve?”

 “Uncle Steve.”

“You’re not my uncle.”

The door squealed open, and the man stepped out. He wore a blue
jumpsuit with a gold patch on the right shoulder. The belt was
heavy and black.

“I’m your father’s first cousin, and
that’s close enough. Besides, you’ve called me Uncle
Steve since you were three.”

“Uncle means family, and that means we help each other. We
haven’t seen you in six weeks, and it was a month before
that. Where have you been?”

Steve hooked his thumbs in the belt, making the stiff vinyl
creak. “Your mom is hanging with the rich folks now, Johnny.
Riding the gravy train.”

He waved a hand. “Free house. No need to work. Hell, son,
there’s nothing I can do for her that her boyfriend
can’t do a thousand times better. He owns the mall, the
theaters. He owns half the town, for God’s sake. He
doesn’t need people like me getting in his way.”

“Getting in his way?” The disbelief came off Johnny
in waves.

“That’s not—”

“You’re scared of him,” Johnny said in

“He signs my paycheck, me and about four hundred other
guys. Now if he was hurting your mom, or something like that.
That’d be one thing. But he’s helping her. Right? So
why would I get in his way. Your dad would understand

Johnny looked away. “Aren’t you late for your shift
at the mall?”

“Yes, I am. So get in.”

Johnny did not move. “What are you doing here, Uncle

“Your mom called and asked if I could take you to school.
She said you missed the bus.”

“I’m not going to school.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Jesus, Johnny. Why do you have to make everything so damn

Just get in the van.”

“Why don’t you just tell her that you took me and
leave it there?”

“I told her I’d take you, so I have to take you.
I’m not going anywhere until you get in the van. I’ll
make you if I have to.”

Johnny’s voice dripped. “You’re not a cop,
Steve. You’re just a security guard. You can’t make me
do anything.”

 “Screw this,” Steve said. “Wait right
there.” He pushed past Johnny and small metal jingled on his
belt. The uniform looked very crisp and made a rasping noise
between his legs.

“What are you doing?”

“Talking to your mother.”

“She’s asleep,” Johnny said.

“I’ll wake her then. Don’t you go anywhere. I
mean it.” Then he was through, into the small house that
smelled of spilled booze and generic cleaner. Johnny watched the
door click shut, then looked at his bike. He could be on it and
gone before Uncle Steve made it back outside, but that’s not
what a strong person would do. So Johnny pulled the map from his
pocket and smoothed it against his chest. He took a deep breath,
then went inside to deal with the problem.

It was quiet in the house, the light still dim. Johnny turned
into the short hall and stopped. His mother’s door angled
wide, and Uncle Steve stood in front of it, unmoving. Johnny
watched for a second, but Steve neither moved nor spoke. As Johnny
drew closer, he could see a narrow slice of his mother’s
room. She still slept, flat on her back, one arm thrown across her
eyes. The covers had fallen to her waist, and Johnny saw that she
was undressed, so still, and Uncle Steve just stood there, staring.
Then Johnny understood.

“What the hell?” Then louder: “What the hell,

Uncle Steve twitched in guilt. His hands came up, fingers
spread. “It’s not what you think.”

But Johnny wasn’t listening. He took five quick steps and
pulled his mother’s door closed. She still had not moved.
Johnny put his back to the door, and felt the fire come up in his
eyes. “You’re sick, Steve. She’s my
mother.” Johnny looked around, as if for a stick or a bat,
but there was nothing.

“What’s wrong with you?”

Uncle Steve’s eyes showed rare desperation. “I just
opened the door. I didn’t mean anything by it. Swear to God,
Johnny. I’m not like that. I’m not that kind of guy. I
swear it. Hand to God.”

A sheen of greasy sweat slicked Uncle Steve’s face. He was
so scared, it was pitiful. Johnny wanted to kick him in the balls.
He wanted to put him on the ground, then find the pipe under his
bed and beat his balls flat. But he thought of Alyssa’s
picture, and of the things he still needed to do. And he’d
learned this year. He’d learned how to put emotion last. His
voice came cold and level. He had things to do, and Steve was going
to help him. “You tell her you took me to school.”
Johnny nodded and stepped closer. “If she asks, that’s
what you tell her.”

“And you won’t say anything?”

“Not if you do what I tell you.”


“Just go, Uncle Steve. Go to work.”

Uncle Steve slipped past, hands still up. “I didn’t
mean nothing by it.”

But Johnny had nothing else to say. He closed the door, then
spread the map on the kitchen counter. The red pen was slick
between his fingers. He smoothed his palm across the wrinkled
paper, then slid a finger to the neighborhood he’d been
working for the past three weeks.

He picked a street at random.

Chapter Three

Detective Hunt sat at the cluttered desk in his small office.
Files spilled from cabinet tops and unused chairs. Dirty coffee
cups, memos he’d never read.

It was 9:45. The place was a mess, but he lacked the energy to
deal with it.

He scrubbed his hands across his face, ground at the sockets of
his eyes until he saw white streaks and sparks. His face felt
rough, unshaven, and he knew that he looked every bit of his forty-
one years. He’d lost so much weight that his suits hung on
his frame. He’d not been to the gym or the shooting range in
six months. He rarely managed more than one meal a day, but none of
that seemed to matter.

In front of him, he’d spread his office copy of the Alyssa
Merrimon file.

A well- thumbed duplicate was locked in a desk drawer at home.
He flipped pages methodically, reading every word: reports,
interviews, summaries.

Alyssa’s face stared out at him from an enlarged copy of
her school photograph. Black hair, like her brother’s. Same
bone structure, same dark eyes. A secret kind of smile. A
lightness, like her mother had, an ethereal quality that Hunt had
tried and failed to identify. The way her eyes tilted, maybe? The
swept- back ears and china skin? The innocence? That’s the
one that Hunt came back to most often. The child looked as if
she’d never had an impure thought or done an ill deed in her
entire life.

And then there was her mother, her brother. They all had it, to
one degree or another; but none of them like the girl.

Hunt scrubbed his face one more time.

He was too close, he knew that; but the case had a grip on him.
A glance at the office showed the depth of his fall. There were
cases here that needed work. Other people. Real people who suffered
just like the Merrimons did; but those cases paled, and he still
did not know why. The girl had even found her way into his dreams.
She wore the same clothes she had on the day she disappeared: faded
yellow shorts, a white top. She was pale in the dream. Short hair.
Eighty pounds. A hot spring day. There was no lead up when it
happened; the dream started like a cannon shot, full- blown, color
and sound. Something was pulling her into a dark place beneath the
trees, dragging her through the warm, rotten leaves. Her hand was
out, mouth open, teeth very white. He dove for the hand, missed,
and she screamed as long fingers drew her down into some dark and
seamless place.

When it happened, he woke sheeted in sweat, arms churning as if
he were digging through leaves. The dream found him two or three
nights a week, and it was the same every time. He’d climb
from bed sometime close to three, shaky, wide- awake, then put cold
water on his face and stare long into bloody eyes before going
downstairs to pore through the file for whatever hours remained
before his son woke up and the day put its own long fingers on his

The dream had become his personal hell, the file a ritual, a
religion; and it was eating him alive.

“Good morning.”

Hunt jerked, looked up. In the door stood John Yoakum, his
partner and friend. “Hey, John. Good morning.”

Yoakum was sixty- three years old, with thinning brown hair and
a goatee shot with gray. Thin but very fit, he was dangerously
smart, cynical to a fault. They’d been partners for four
years, worked a dozen major cases together, and Hunt liked the guy.
He was a private man and a smart- ass, but he also brought rare
insight to a job that demanded nothing less. He worked long hours
when they needed to be worked, watched his partner’s back;
and if he was a little dark, a little private, Hunt was okay with

Yoakum shook his head. “I’d like to live the night
that made you look like this.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

Yoakum’s grin fell off and his words were brisk. “I
know that, Clyde. Just messing with you.” He gestured over
his shoulder. “I have a call you might want to

“Yeah. Why is that?”

“Because it’s about Johnny Merrimon.”


“Some lady wants to talk to a cop. I told her that I was
the only real cop here today. I said, Emotional wrecks, yeah, got
one of those. An obsessive compulsive that used to look like a cop.
She could have that guy, too. Both, in fact. At the same

“What line, smart- ass?”

Yoakum showed his fine, porcelain teeth. “Line
three,” he said, and left with an easy swagger. Hunt lifted
the phone and punched the flashing button for line three.
“This is Detective Hunt.”

At first there was silence, then a woman’s voice. She
sounded old. “Detective? I don’t know that I need a
detective. It’s not that important, really. I just thought
someone should know.”

“It’s okay, ma’am. May I have your name,

“Louisa Sparrow, like the bird.”

The voice fit. “What’s the problem, Ms.

“It’s that poor boy. You know, the one that lost his

“Johnny Merrimon.”

“That’s the one. The poor boy . . .” She
trailed off for an instant, then her voice firmed. “He was
just at my house . . . just this minute.”

“With a picture of his sister,” Hunt

“Why, yes. How did you know?”

Hunt ignored the question. “May I have your address,
please, ma’am?”

“He’s not in trouble, is he? He’s been through
enough, I know. It’s just that it’s a school day, and
it’s all very upsetting, seeing her picture like that, and
how he still looks just like her, like he hasn’t grown at
all; and those questions he asks, like I might have had something
to do with it.”

Detective Hunt thought about the small boy he’d found at
the grocery store. The deep eyes. The wariness. “Mrs. Sparrow
. . .”


“I really need that address.”

Hunt found Johnny Merrimon a block away from Louisa
Sparrow’s house. The boy sat on the curb, his feet crossed in
the gutter. Sweat soaked his shirt and plastered hair to his
forehead. A beat- up bike lay where he’d dropped it, half on
the grass of somebody’s lawn. He was chewing on a pen and
bent over a map that covered his lap like a blanket. His
concentration was complete, broken only when Hunt slammed the car
door. In that instant the boy looked like a startled animal, but
then he paused. Hunt saw recognition snap in the boy’s eyes,
then determination and something deeper.


Then cunning.

His eyes gauged distance, as if he might hop on his bike and try
to run.

He risked a glance at the nearby woods, but Hunt stepped closer,
and the kid sagged. “Hello, Detective.”

Hunt pulled off his sunglasses. His shadow fell on the
boy’s feet. “Hello, Johnny.”

Johnny began folding the map. “I know what you’re
going to say, so you don’t have to say it.”

Hunt held out his hand. “May I see the map?” Johnny
froze, and the hunted animal look rose again in his face. He looked
down the long street, then at the map. Hunt continued:
“I’ve heard about that map, you see. I didn’t
believe it at first, but people have told me.” Hunt’s
eyes were hard on the boy. “How many times is it now, Johnny?
How many times have I talked to you about this? Four?

“Seven.” His voice barely rose from the gutter. His
fingers showed white on the map.

“I’ll give it back.”

The boy looked up, black eyes shining, and the sense of cunning
fell away. He was a kid. He was scared. “Promise?”

He looked so small. “I promise, Johnny.”

Johnny raised his hand and Hunt’s fingers closed on the
map. It was worn soft and showed white in the folds. He sat on the
curb, next to the boy, and spread the map between his hands. It was
large, purple ink on white paper.

He recognized it as a tax map, with names and matching
addresses. It only covered a portion of the city, maybe a thousand
properties. Close to half had been crossed off in red ink.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“Tax assessor. They’re not expensive.”

“Do you have all of them? For the entire county?”
Johnny nodded, and Hunt asked, “The red marks?”

“Houses I’ve visited. People I’ve spoken

Hunt was struck dumb. He could not imagine the hours involved,
the ground covered on a busted- up bike. “What about the ones
with asterisks?”

“Single men living alone. Ones that gave me the

Hunt folded the map, handed it back. “Are there marks on
other maps, too?”

“Some of them.”

“It has to stop.”


“No, Johnny. It has to stop. These are private citizens.
We’re getting complaints.”

Johnny stood. “I’m not breaking any laws.”

“You’re a truant, son. You’re ditching school
right now. Besides, it’s dangerous. You have no idea who
lives in these houses.” He flicked one finger at the map; it
snapped against the paper and Johnny pulled it away. “I
can’t lose another kid.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah, you told me that this morning.”

Johnny looked away, and Hunt studied the line of his narrow jaw,
the muscles that pressed against the tight skin. He saw a small
feather tied to a string around Johnny’s neck. It shone
whitish gray against the boy’s washedout shirt. Hunt pointed,
trying to break the mood. “What’s that?”
Johnny’s hand moved to his neck. He tucked the feather back
under his shirt. “It’s a pinfeather,” he

“A pinfeather?”

“For luck.”

Hunt saw the kid’s fingers go white, and he saw another
feather tied to the bike. The feather was larger, mostly brown.
“How about that one?” He pointed again. “Hawk?

The boy’s face showed nothing, and he kept his mouth shut.
“Is that for luck, too?”

“No.” Johnny paused, looked away.
“That’s different.”


“Did you see in the news last week? When they found that
girl that was abducted in Colorado? You know the one?”

“I know the one.”

“She’d been gone for a year and they found her three
blocks from her own house. She was less than a mile away the whole
time. A mile from her family, locked up in a dirt hole dug into the
wall of the cellar. Walled up with a bucket and


“They showed pictures on the news. A bucket. A candle. A
filthy mattress.

The ceiling was only four feet high. But they found

“That’s just one case, Johnny.”

“They’re all like that.” Johnny turned back,
his deep eyes gone darker still. “It’s a neighbor or a
friend, someone the kid knows or a house she walked past every day.
And when they find them, they’re always close.

Even if they’re dead, they’re close.”

“That’s not always true.”

“But sometimes. Sometimes it is.”

Hunt stood as well, and his voice came softly.

“Just because you quit doesn’t mean that I have

Looking at the boy and at his desperate conviction, Hunt felt a
great sadness.

He was the department’s lead detective on major cases, and
because of that, he’d taken point on Alyssa’s
disappearance. Hunt had worked harder than any other cop to bring
that poor child home. He’d spent months, lost touch with his
own family until his wife, in despair and quiet rage, had finally
left him. And for what? Alyssa was gone, so gone they’d be
lucky to find her remains. It didn’t matter what happened in
Colorado. Hunt knew the statistics: Most were dead by the end of
the first day. But that made it no easier. He still wanted to bring
her home. One way or another. “The file is still open,
Johnny. No one has quit.”

Johnny picked up his bike. He rolled up the map and shoved it
into his back pocket. “I have to go.”

Detective Hunt’s hand settled on the handlebar. He felt
specks of rust and heat from the sun. “I’ve cut you a
lot of slack. I can’t do it anymore.

This needs to stop.”

Johnny pulled on the bike but couldn’t budge it. His voice
was as loud as

Hunt had ever heard it. “I can take care of

“But that’s just it, Johnny. It’s not your job
to take care of yourself. It’s your mother’s job, and
frankly, I’m not sure she can tend to herself, let alone a
thirteen- year- old boy.”

“You may think that’s true, but you
don’t know anything.”

For a long second the detective held his eyes. He saw how they
went from fierce to frightened, and understood how much the kid
needed his hope. But the world was not a kind place to children,
and Hunt had reached the limit with Johnny Merrimon. “If you
lifted your shirt right now, how many bruises would I

“I can take care of myself.”

The words sounded automatic and weak, so Hunt lowered his voice.
“I can’t do anything if you won’t talk to

Johnny straightened, then let go of his bike. “I’ll
walk,” he said, and turned away.


The kid kept walking.


When he stopped, Hunt walked the bike over to him. The spokes
clicked as the wheels turned. Johnny took the handlebars when Hunt
offered the bike back to him. “You still have my card?”
Johnny nodded, and Hunt blew out a long breath. He could never
fully explain his affinity for the boy, not even to himself. Maybe
he saw something in the kid. Maybe he felt his pain more than he
should. “Keep it with you, okay. Call me anytime.”


“I don’t want to hear about you doing this

Johnny said nothing.

“You’ll go straight to school?”


Hunt looked at the clean, blue sky, then at the boy. His hair
was black and wet, his jaw clenched. “Be careful,

Excerpted from THE LAST CHILD © Copyright 2010 by John
Hart. Reprinted with permission by Minotaur Books. All rights

The Last Child
by by John Hart

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • paperback: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Minotaur Books
  • ISBN-10: 0312642369
  • ISBN-13: 9780312642365