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Authors: Joyce McDonald

Swallowing Stones

BOOK: Swallowing Stones
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It was all true, then. The nightmare was real. Michael could no longer pretend, as he sometimes did, that there was a chance he hadn’t fired that fatal shot. The bullet had come from somewhere in his neighborhood. The chances of someone else in such a small area shooting off a gun around noon on that same day were probably one in a million. He had spent weeks trying to get used to the idea that he had committed this hideous act. But always, somewhere, there had been hope. A bullet traveling a mile or more through the air could have come from as far away as the next town over. There had always been the outside chance that someone else had fired a gun into the air that Fourth of July afternoon. Now that chance no longer existed.

—from
Swallowing Stones

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Published by
Bantam Doubleday Dell Books for Young Readers
a division of
Random House, Inc.
1540 Broadway
New York, New York 10036

Copyright © 1997 by Joyce McDonald

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law. For information address Delacorte Press, New York, New York 10036.

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®
is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
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®
is registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

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eISBN: 978-0-307-81682-5

RL 5.7

Reprinted by arrangement with Delacorte Press

August 1999

v3.1

For my mother,
Mayme Elizabeth Schanbacher,
and
for Pamela Curtis Swallow

acknowledgments

For their helpful comments, support, and encouragement, I would like to thank Eugene Schanbacher; Dwaine McDonald; Kathryn Moody; Jack, Joni, John, and Jaime Schanbacher; the members of my writers’ group; my agent, Renée Cho; and above all my editor, Lauri Hornik, for her generous inspiration and expert direction.

Contents
prologue

t
here is no stopping it; the bullet rips through the hot summer haze, missing trees, houses, unsuspecting birds, coming to roost, finally, like an old homing pigeon.

Jenna Ward’s hand hangs above her brow, a visor blotting out the sun. Above her, on the roof, her father squeezes the steel staple gun, aiming for the shingle beneath his fingers. The sun ricochets off the shining steel, pelting Jenna’s eyes. She can barely make out her father’s face. He is a dark shadow, moving about clumsily like a squatting troll traversing rooftops.

For a single moment the sun dips behind a cloud. Jenna drops her hand from her forehead. Her father lifts his hand to wave, but it flops suddenly, the knuckles thudding against the new shingles. His eyes widen like dark coals; his mouth falls open, a silent black zero. Slowly his body folds over itself, and over, plunging to the porch roof below, rolling like a heavy log over the side, coming to rest, finally, by Jenna’s bare feet.

Somewhere on the other side of Briarwood, over a mile away, in the woods behind his house, Michael MacKenzie gently strokes the silky stock of his .45-70 Winchester rifle while he holds it out for Joe Sadowski’s admiration. And because he could not wait to feel the smooth curve of the trigger
beneath his finger, he has fired one shot into the air. It is the Fourth of July, Michael’s seventeenth birthday, and the rifle is a gift from his grandfather. His parents are throwing an all-day barbecue and pool party to celebrate. Before the sun sets, he will eat six hot dogs, four hamburgers, and a half pound of potato salad; he will sneak into the garage with Amy Ruggerio—even though his girlfriend, Darcy, is at the party—because Amy is a “babe” and wants him; he will drive the neighbors crazy with heavy metal blasting from his stereo. He will, in fact, think this is the best day of his life, because in that moment he does not know that he has accidentally killed a man.

michael
1

m
ichael MacKenzie had been awake since four that morning. His heart was pounding even faster than when he took his position at a track meet, waiting for the starter’s “go.” Finally, after what had seemed the longest year of his life, he would have wheels. Wheels and all the good things that went with them. The possibilities swarmed like bees inside his head.

He had been driving on his permit for the past year, had taken the driver’s ed course at school, and now, one day after his seventeenth birthday, he would take his driver’s test. By noon he’d be a free man, free to go where he wanted, free to cruise without another licensed driver in the car. A free man with wheels—even if they were his dad’s. There wasn’t anything better on this earth.

By six the sun had begun to spread its orange glow over the treetops. Michael swung his feet to the floor, absentmindedly combed his dark hair with his fingers, then reached to the foot of the bed, where he had tossed his cutoffs the previous night. Suddenly he was reminded of Amy Ruggerio and their sweaty ten minutes in the garage the day before. Darcy had been helping his mom with the potato salad. She hadn’t suspected a thing.

He told himself Amy Ruggerio was easy, because that was what everyone said. And she had proved it, hadn’t she? But that didn’t change the urgent desire that rippled unexpectedly through his stomach and beyond. He could not shake the image of Amy’s sad brown eyes, her smooth hand on his cheek as she looked up at him. It wasn’t as if they’d really done anything. Just made out.

Still, there was that thing with her bikini top. He had accidentally torn one of the straps. He couldn’t even remember how it happened. But Amy hadn’t said a word. She’d just knotted it around the thin strip of material that tied in the back. Such a simple thing, but it made her seem so vulnerable. He had said he was sorry. And he was. She had smiled and said it was okay, she’d fix it later. But somehow it didn’t seem okay. He wished he hadn’t gone into the garage with her in the first place. He should have stayed with Darcy.

He shot one leg into his cutoffs, then the other. Why was he thinking about Amy Ruggerio anyway, especially today? He had better things to think about, like getting his license.

By six-thirty he had bolted down two blueberry Pop-Tarts and a glass of orange juice and was headed over to Joe Sadowski’s. Joe was the only one of his friends who had his own car, a Mustang, fire-engine red with mag wheels. And he was letting Michael take his driver’s test with it. Michael’s dad had offered to go with him, had even offered him the family Honda Accord. But Michael explained that he’d already made other arrangements. Not that he minded his dad going with him. He didn’t. It just looked better to go with a friend.

Joe was still in bed. So was everyone else in the family, except for Mr. Sadowski, who was getting ready for work and who showed up at the front door, towel in hand, with his flannel robe clinging to his dripping wet body. He stared at Michael
as if the boy were a door-to-door salesman he was about to shout down.

“Joe ready?” Michael fisted his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual.

“It isn’t even seven o’clock.” Mr. Sadowski rubbed the bald spot on the top of his head with the towel. It gleamed a polished pink in the morning sunlight. “He doesn’t usually get out of bed till noon when he has to go to work.”

Joe worked at Burger King. It was a year-round job, although he put in longer hours in the summer, working afternoons and evenings. During the school year he worked only late afternoons and Saturdays. That was how he paid for his car insurance and gas.

“I know,” Michael explained. “But I’ve got my driver’s test this morning. He’s going with me,”

Mr. Sadowski seemed to consider this. Finally he stepped aside and cocked his head toward the stairs. “Good luck getting him up.”

A moment later Michael stood over Joe’s bed, studying him. Joe had kicked off the covers. His knees were drawn up to his chest, as if he couldn’t get warm enough. He wore only black briefs, and his skin was puckered with goose bumps, even though it was already seventy-five degrees outside. Michael fought off a sudden urge to pull the top sheet over him.

“Hey, man,” he said, giving Joe’s shoulder a slight punch. Joe rolled over to his other side and pulled his knees deeper into his chest. Michael clamped his hand on Joe’s shoulder again and rocked him back and forth.

Joe blinked twice and closed his eyes. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he mumbled. His tongue was still swollen with sleep.

“We’ve got to be at the DMV by nine,” Michael said.

Joe opened one eye and glanced at the window. “What time is it?”

Michael cleared his throat. “I thought you’d need some time to get ready, eat breakfast maybe.”

Joe reached for the digital alarm clock. The bright blue numbers flashed 6:54. “Oh, man.” He lifted one leg and booted Michael in the stomach with his foot, sending him up against the wall. “You’re crazy, man. You know that?”

Still, by eight-thirty the two of them were on their way to the Division of Motor Vehicles. Heavy metal blasted from the car’s speakers, drowning out everything else, cocooning them in the throbbing, pulsating bass that seemed to come from the gas pedal. The music climbed Michael’s leg and flooded his belly with sound. He beat his hands on the steering wheel in time to the rhythm.

They had decided Michael would drive the car. He wanted to memorize the feel of the steering wheel, the amount of pressure needed on the brakes to bring the car to a slow, easy stop. As they cruised through town he decided to practice parallel parking one more time, although he’d done it hundreds of times over the past year.

Michael pulled up next to a beat-up blue Citation. Neither of the boys noticed that the music on the radio had stopped. A commercial for radial tires squawked out at them, followed by a brief traffic report. Michael put the car in reverse and began slowly backing up, careful to turn the wheel enough to angle the back end of the car into the empty space. The front of the car was still in the middle of the street when he felt Joe’s hand on his wrist. The pressure of his friend’s fingers burned into his skin. Joe was staring down at the radio as if it were a time bomb about to explode.

BOOK: Swallowing Stones
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