Authors: Heather Brewer
To my grandma Elsie Westrick,
who passed down the writing gene
that I cherish so dearly.
And to my grandma Jessie Truax,
who taught me everything that I know
My fingers were going numb, my bound wrists worn raw by the ropes, but I twisted again, hard this time. I pulled until my skin must have split, because I felt my palms grow wet, then sticky, with what I was pretty sure was my blood. The knots were tight, but I had to get loose. Those
were coming for me, I just knew it.
I looked up at Devon, who was perched on top of the tallest tombstone in the graveyard. His dark eyes focused intensely on the night sky; his bleach-blond hair almost glowed in the moonlight. He had onceâno, not once, many times, pounding it into our heads like we were privates in
the same armyâspoken of loyalty. But sitting there with my wrists tied to the cold headstone behind me, it hit me that he hadn't been speaking of our loyalty to one another or any of that band-of-brothers bullshit. He'd been speaking of our loyalty, my loyalty, to him. And now he was standing there on the gravestone, waiting for those creatures, those monsters, to come and devour me whole, not even man enough to look me in the eye.
The horrible pinpricks of numbness crawled up my fingers to my palms, then my wrists. Only my adrenaline kept them from going any farther. The air suddenly chilled. My breath came out in quick, gray puffs. And then I heard it.
I tugged my wrists harder, struggling, hoping that the blood seeping from my broken skin might make the ropes slick enough to slip through. The rest of the gang moved past me, and none of them, not a single one of my so-called friends, dared even to glance at me as they headed for safety. Devon hopped down from his place on the stone, and after a long, hungry glance upward, he dropped his dark eyes to me. “You're in luck, Stephen. They're famished, so this should go pretty fast for you.”
I bit down on my tongue, consumed with rage. A million curses ran through my mind, but I could barely speak through my furyâfury with him for all that he'd done, but
mostly fury with myself for having followed his lead. I spat at him. “Go to hell!”
I pulled until I thought my shoulders might come out of their sockets, not caring that I was bleeding freely now, praying to anyone and anything that the knots would give way at last. But it was no use. The ropes refused to budge.
And then, the flapping stopped.
I looked upâup into the dark, my eyes settling on a shape in the night. And what I saw . . . oh god. My screams tore through me, my throat burning.
From the distance came Devon's laughterâcold, quiet, hollowâand his reply, muted by the sounds of my screams. “You first.”
We'd left my old house as if we were stealing away in the night. Which, really, I guess we were. We'd driven out of Denver in the dark, stopping in Omaha, Chicago, and several forgettable truck stops over the course of the next day, coming full circle when we reached the sign at the edge of my new town at eleven thirty. Darkness to darkness.
Welcome to Spencer
, the sign had read.
It wasn't like I had anything against small towns in theory. But there were small towns . . . and then there was Spencer. My dad had grown up here, and every story
he'd ever told me about his hometown had begun with an exhausted sigh and ended with the relief of moving away. So how else was I supposed to feel when Dad came to me a week ago and announced that moving to Spencer was the only answer, only option to contain the avalanche of debt that had befallen our family? I could still see him when I closed my eyes, standing there in the hall just outside my bedroom, his hair disheveled, a shaking hand clutching yet another stack of hospital bills. There was no arguing with him, but he acted like I was going to argue. “Stephen, we're moving in with my mother. We're moving to Spencer.”
That was it. Just “we're moving.” Just that.
After he said it, he'd looked at me, an almost angry glint in his eyes. I didn't say a word. There was no point. It was over. Our life in Denver, our hope that maybe Mom would get better, or Dad would find another jobâit was all over. We were moving.
Finally, Dad had nodded, turning from my door. I'd listened to the sounds of his heavy footsteps retreating to his office down the hall. I'd had the same thought then that I had tonight upon seeing the
Welcome to Spencer
As we pulled into the driveway, my dad started rambling about how my grandmother was very
about the way she kept her home. That we couldn't leave a mess
anywhere. There was no worry over meeting her just yet, as Dad explained she'd be out of town until Monday. It was the first piece of good news I'd heard the whole trip.
The rest of the night was a blur after that. Loading boxes into my grandmother's house, falling into bed in a strange room.
The blur was still with me the next morning when I cracked my eyes openâmy first waking moment as a resident of Spencer, Michigan: population now 816. Guess they'd have to change the sign.
I held my hand up to the sunlight that was pouring in through my curtainless window and flipped it the bird. Morning came too early sometimes. I preferred night, when you've spent all day getting stuff done so that you can just bask in the darkness. Night hid the ugly of the world. And sometimes, when I was feeling ugly, I was grateful that it would hide me, too.
I gripped my pillow and yanked it out from under my head, placing it over my face. I'd better find the box of curtains before I went to bed again or the sun and I were going to have some serious issues.
I pressed the pillow down hard on my face until I felt a familiar sensation of panic wash over me. What a stupid thing to feel. Like I was really capable of suffocating myself. It was funny the things a person reacted to instinctively,
without rational thought. Like when I'd take a shower and get water up my nose, for instance. It always felt like I was drowning. Maybe I hoped that I would. Maybe Dad was right and I had some kind of death wish. Maybe he'd moved us here in the dark of night hoping to give me some distance from the thoughts I wouldn't admit to having back home. But that's where he was wrong. I didn't need distance. I just wanted to feel normal again. The way I had before Mom started rambling about monsters. Before we'd had to have her medicated and locked away, so she wouldn't hurt herself . . . or us.
“Stephen, are you up yet? I could use some help out here.” I tossed the pillow to the foot of the bed and glared at the sun. Morning, man. I needed a little less morning in my life.
I rolled out of bed, still yawning as I navigated the piles of boxes that were sitting in my way. Recognizing one of them by the word
written on the side, I popped open the lid and took out a framed photo of my mom. In the picture, she was standing outside our house in Denver in a pile of fresh snow. I remembered Dad pegging her with a snowball right after I'd snapped it, and then we'd all gone inside and had hot cocoa. A smile threatened to lift my lips, but reality settled my mouth again. I set the picture on my nightstand and kept moving.
My dad was standing on a chair in the kitchen, carefully lifting Mom's favorite china teapot over his head. He was wearing jeans from back in his college days and a blue T-shirt, his feet clad in white sneakers with tiny polo guys stitched on the sides, which told me he was dressed for hard labor. It didn't bode well for my day. If he was unpacking, that meant that I was unpacking, too.
There was a space between the top of the cupboard and the ceiling, and apparently, he'd determined that it was a good place to put Mom's teapot on display. Maybe he thought it would be nice to have a reminder of her at the center of the house, an unspoken promise not to forget why we were here, all the while getting on with our lives.
I leaned against the kitchen table, which looked a bit like something I once saw on
The Twilight Zone
âon that episode where Captain Kirk gets advice from a devil fortune-telling machine. Dad and I used to watch that show together all the time. At first, I didn't really get it. A series of weird stories in black and white, featuring a guy named Rod Serling and always something bizarre, like aliens or robots or evil beings. But after a while, I realized how cool it was. Not just that I could see an evil kid wishing people he didn't like into a cornfield. That I had something I shared with my dad.
But that was before. Before our lives turned into an episode of
and the show sort of lost its appeal.
Anyway, the table was totally retro. Chrome lined and shiny red, just like the four matching chairs. I plopped down on one of those chairs and yawned again, contemplating just how desperate someone would have to be to move to a town like Spencer. Pretty desperate, by the look of things.
From where I sat, I could see a pile of boxes near the front door. Most of our furniture was still on the truck. Dad had mentioned something about taking it to a storage unit today, so if I wanted anything for the foreseeable future, I'd better grab it this morning.
He turned the teapot slightly before climbing back down and admiring it. It was only then that he noticed me sitting at the table. “Oh, you're up. Good. Would you mind unpacking the sheets and towels, while I get all of my clothes put away? I don't want to be an inconvenience to your grandmother any more than we have to.”
Grandmother. Right. He was referring to the woman who hadn't reached out to me, her only grandson, even once in my entire life. I'd hate to inconvenience
A sigh escaped me. “Can I get breakfast first?”
“Help me with this stuff and I'll take you out to eat. Besides, there's not really anything of ours to eat here at the house just yet. We still have to go grocery shopping, and everything has to be put away and taken care of before your grandmother gets back tomorrow.” He was wearing his
expectant look again. The same look that he'd been wearing two days ago when he told me we'd better hurry up and get the moving truck packed or we'd never make it to Spencer.
My stomach rumbled vaguely, and I thought about the half-empty bag of beef jerky I'd shoved into the glove box of the moving truck last night. “I'm starving.”
“You'll live. At least long enough to get off your butt and put the towels away. They go in the closet across the hall from your room. Our sheets and blankets go in the closet across from my room. Get moving.” He nodded to the boxes by the front door. It took an effort for me not to point out just how stupid this whole endeavor was. We were only supposed to be here as long as it took for Dad to find another job. Nobody would invite someone to stay in their home and expect them to bring their own towels. Would they? And what was that crack about buying our own groceries before we ate anything? What, was my grandmother going to freak out and start throwing things if I grabbed a bowl of cereal that I hadn't actually purchased? What kind of nuthouse had he moved us to?
With a grunt, I stood up and moved to the pile by the front door. If I was a couple of towels and some sheets away from getting a Sausage McMuffin, you could bet I was going to knock that job out so I could get on with my day.
After locating the knife my dad had given me when I was twelve
â“Every boy needs a knife, Stephen”
âI sliced open the linens box and pulled out the pile of sheets and pillowcases inside. I lugged them down the hall and crammed them into the closet. Shoving the door closed, I said a small prayer for whoever opened that door after me. Not that I was the religious type.
Then, I found the box containing our towels and shuffled them to the closet Dad had mentioned. I actually managed to finish before I starved to death, which was pretty amazing, if you asked me.
I walked into the kitchen and looked at my dad expectantly, without saying a word. He nodded. “Okay. Go take your shower and we'll eat. There's a diner on the other end of town.”
There was only one bathroom in the house, which I could already see was going to be a problem. My grandmother had claimed every inch of the medicine cabinet as her own, and the small cabinet by the pedestal sink was already full of things like bubble bath and body lotion. The tub was a huge claw-footed monstrosity, and when I turned the water on, the curtain that hung around it from an oval ring up above sucked inward, like it was trying to suffocate anyone who climbed inside. There was no way I could have hated this bathroom more.
That is, until I noticed my grandmother had stuck pink
plastic daisies all over the bottom of the tub and hung an annoying plaque on the wall behind the toilet that read
If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.
came to mind, but I wasn't certain who my brain was directing them at.
I hurried through a shower, fighting the curtain's murderous advances the entire time, and threw on some clean clothesâjust jeans and a T-shirt, nothing fancy. If the good citizens of Spencer wanted me to dress up for Sunday breakfast, I had a few ideas for where the good citizens of Spencer could stick it.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from Spencer, though. After Dad had told me that we were moving to the capital of midwestern nowhere, I'd Googled the town, hoping to find something salvageable for my summer. But the only things that had turned up had been a Wikipedia page stating that the “village” was about a square mile in
, and the town's website, which featured a quaint photograph of the town's reservoir and an announcement of when the next First Baptist euchre tournament would be.
So I would have been lying if I said that I wasn't at least a little curious about the place my father had chosen as our new home. I threw on a pair of Chucks and grabbed my wallet from my bedroom before heading out to the kitchen, ready for anything.
would have been nice. Hell, even
would have been acceptable. But as we navigated the streets in my dad's beat-up '73 Volkswagen Beetleâstylin' in baby blue and rust so bad that the car looked more Swiss than GermanâI had a first-row seat to the nothing show of the century. Spencer's streets looked as if they hadn't been redone in several decades. Where there weren't potholes, there were layers of patch so thick that they made small hills in the road. Spencer's sidewalks had been shifted and lifted by the roots of the unkempt trees that grew along two main thoroughfares. At the center of town, encaged by a rusted, wrought-iron fence, stood an old brick mansion that had seen better days. The building reminded me of a woman who had been a real beauty in her younger years, but now denied the fact that those days were long gone. I wondered if she was a reflection of the rest of her town. I hoped not. I hoped that Spencer had something more to offer.
As we passed a run-down gas station, I rolled my eyes at the faded Confederate flag hanging in the window. Who displayed something like that so prominently and thought it was okay?
The three old men standing outside eyed our vehicle distrustfully. I sank down in my seat, pretending not to notice. We were the new people here. We weren't part of their group. We had to prove ourselves worthy of their
small-town ways. I didn't even want to think about what the school year would be like if we were still here this fall. If the adults stared us down this bad, what would the high schoolers be like?
The other side of the gas station was home to graffitiânothing special, just a large, roughly painted pair of stark black wings. Probably Spencer's idea of what passed for small-town rebellion, when in fact the teenage punks were all just farmers' kids or a close variation thereof. These kids had no idea what punk was, what a big city was. Kids in Denver would eat them alive.
As Dad pulled into the surprisingly full parking lot of the Lakehouse Grill, he grimaced. “I swear this town never changes. It looks the same as it did the day I left.”
I caught sight of two bumper stickers on the truck next to us. One read
Pro Life: Have a heart. Don't stop one.
The other read
Keep honking. I'm reloading.
Awesome. Just . . . awesome.
I opened the passenger door of the Beetle, hoping like hell the rust would hold it together and the door wouldn't fall off completely. I climbed out, closing the door behind me with a slam. It was the only way to be sure the stupid thing would close at all. My actions apparently caught the attention of a group of four kids around my age as they exited the restaurant, because all four were staring at me and my dad's
crappy car. One of the three guys in the groupâtall, tan, and probably into things like Ultimate Frisbee and racquetballâwhistled at the rust monstrosity as he slipped his arm around the slender, just as tan, likely-into-gymnastics-and-discussing-everything-to-do-with-her-hair girl in the group. An embarrassed heat worked its way up my neck as we walked by them and headed inside. I hated the Beetle. I hated the way those kids had noticed it, had noticed me. My dad seemed oblivious to the stares.