This is the first draft of a science fiction novel I've penned named "Hollis Whittaker." There are succeeding drafts underway, with both storyline, chapter order and grammatical changes, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to contact me about them. I'd love to hear what you think, even if it's critical.
“Who am I?” Cha’Risa repeated, feeding a pole through one of the sleeves on the tent. “I’m nobody. I’m a chambermaid.”
“A chambermaid?” Kirby asked. “A pistol packin’ chambermaid?”
Cha’Risa pointed to the corner of the tent’s base. “Slide it into that little slot.” Kirby struggled to bend the pole enough to fit it in where she’d instructed. “What do you think, a lady that cleans a room, that’s all she does?”
“I don’t know,” said Kirby. “It just seems weird. I mean one minute you’re stocking the mini shampoos and the next you’re busting through Hollis’ door and blasting holes in the kitchen wall two inches from the feds?”
She assembled another pole and slid it through another sleeve. “I grew up around guns. Housekeeping’s a paycheck.”
Hollis moved toward the tent and took a seat on the grass. “How’d you end up at my house?”
She stopped her work on the tent and stared at the fifth grader for a few seconds, then reached over to the backpack and unzipped the front pocket, pulling out a flashlight and a sheet of folded-up paper. The thick yellowed paper crinkled as she unfolded it and handed it to Hollis, turning on the flashlight. In the center of the sheet was a crude drawing of a boy’s face that resembled Hollis.
“Is this me?” he asked.
Kirby crossed over the flattened tent to take a peek.
“That’s you,” she said.
“Where’d you get it?”
“My great grandfather drew it.”
“Did he see me on the news or something?”
“I doubt that very much.”
“Is he your grandfather’s dad?” Kirby asked, accepting the illustration from Hollis.
“How old is he?”
“Oh,” Kirby replied, a glimmer of shame showing. “Sorry about that. When’d he die?”
“That’s okay. He would have died, let me see . . .” Cha’Risa looked up at the sky and began mouthing numbers. “Seventy-nine years ago.”
“Wait,” said Hollis. “Huh?”
“He died in 1938. My grandfather was eight years old when he got that from his father.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Hollis. “How did he draw a picture of me way back then?”
Cha’Risa was silent for a second. “When I saw your picture in the paper . . .” She looked over Kirby’s shoulder at the illustration, turned her palms toward the treetop canopy and shook her head, mouth wide open, like she was searching for the words, but couldn’t find them.
“So like,” Kirby said, “your grandfather knows something about what’s going on?”
“Yeah. Believe me, he was supposed to be the one making the trip out here. He used to tell everyone when I was growing up that he needed to see 2017 because he had a mission. I just figured it was like a private joke from when he was young. He said he had a boy to help and a wrong to right. One time he goes into his bedroom and comes back with a copy of Brave New World. He pulls that drawing from the inside jacket and shows it to me. He says, ‘This boy’s going to need guidance and I promised my father I would find him.’ That’s when I knew he was serious. You know, 2017 always seemed like the future, like it would never get here.” Cha’Risa squatted next to the tent and began assembling poles.
“So how come he didn’t come?” Hollis asked, accepting the illustration from Kirby and returning it to the backpack.
“How come?” she replied. “He’s 87. He has a walker and an oxygen tank. He can’t see for crap. He wasn’t going to be driving shit. At first he asked if I’d take him and I was like, sure Naali, but pretty soon I knew he wasn’t even going to be up for the trip. And at some point, he realized it too. I’ve never seen him so broken, like his whole life was working toward one goal and nothing else mattered and now, on the verge of completing this lifelong task, his body was telling him it wasn’t going any farther. The bones weren’t doing his bidding anymore.” Her hands fell idle as she stared blankly at the poles, not that either boy noticed.
“Where is he?” asked Hollis.
She continued threading the rods again. “He’s not too far from Albuquerque.”
Kirby dropped the rod he’d been assembling. “New Mexico? Isn’t that like on the other side of the country?”
“We won’t be walking,” she replied.
“Oh man!” It seemed like this was going to be a problem for Kirby’s schedule. “What are we supposed to do? You need a plane to get that far.”
“You don’t need a plane to get that far,” she said. “I drove.”
“Yeah, but a plane would be a hell of a lot easier than whatever else the plan is.”
“We’re not taking a plane.”
“Why not? This is ridiculous.”
“Because in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a lot of people looking for us. We already went over this.”
“Well how are we supposed to get there? We just ditched the van.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”
The tent was up in minutes. Cha’Risa unzipped the front flaps and they all slipped inside. As Hollis and Kirby snuggled under the blanket, Kirby asked if there was another.
“Do I have another blanket?” she asked. “No. What am I, Kreskin? Move over, we’re sharing.”
“Aw! No way. This thing’s too small.”
“It’s a regular sized blanket. It can fit me and two kids.”
“The ground is freezing,” Hollis said.
“Aw Christ,” said Cha’Risa. “Are you two really going to be like this? This is what I have. I never thought I’d be avoiding Johnny Law in the woods with a couple of ten-year old buttercups, okay? The bugout bag was for me. Technically you two didn’t bring your own blankets.”
This shut the boys up. Cha’Risa pulled a bottle of water from her backpack at her feet and offered swigs to Hollis and Kirby before taking some for herself. Then she positioned herself between them and they all laid back covered by the blanket, eyes wide open, staring up at the dark impermeable fabric above them, smelling the stale musky odor of a tent that had been stored in a backpack for years.
“Hey Hollis, show her the medallion,” Kirby said. “It should be dark enough.”
Hollis retrieved the medallion and held it above his chest, the faint blue glow seemingly brighter than it had been before.
“Oh my god,” she said. “Can I see it?”
Hollis dropped it into her hand and she held it five inches from her nose, the blue light emanating from both sides of the object and illuminating her cheeks, its reflection faint in her eyes. “This is beautiful. I guess I had no idea what it would look like.” She examined the other side. “This is a sacred relic. You should be honored that it’s yours.”
“I don’t think I want it,” Hollis said.
“It was stolen from my great grandfather, but you’re meant to carry it now.”
“So it belongs to your family?”
“It never belonged to us.”
“But it was stolen from you.”
“Who stole it?” asked Kirby.
“Naali says it was the government.”
“Great, and now they want it back. You should take it back to your grandfather.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” Cha’Risa said. “I told you, nobody owns it. It’s just something that exists. It was around long before my great grandfather had it. It doesn’t even belong to you. It’s part of nature. You can hold onto a rock, but eventually you’re going to die and the rock isn’t. In a million years, it’ll be sitting somewhere else and you’ll just be a blip in its history.”
“How about if we just leave it here?” Hollis asked.
She handed it back to Hollis. “Let’s just bring it to my grandfather. It’s still a pretty important part of our culture.”
• • • • •
“Did you bring anything to eat in your bugout bag?” asked Hollis. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday.”
“We haven’t eaten since yesterday,” Kirby corrected.
The morning sky was beginning to brighten, a late start Cha’Risa said. The trio had been traipsing through the woods for a half hour after clearing their campsite and Hollis had finally spoken what everyone was thinking. Cha’Risa removed her backpack and spun around to face the boys. “Okay, you’re right. I should have broken out something before. I don’t think I have much.”
She dug around in the pack and pulled out a small packet of teriyaki beef jerky, opening the packet and handing out individual strips. She placed a length between her incisors and ripped off a hunk of meat as she lowered the bag to the ground.
Kirby duplicated her eating style, but Hollis was volleying his attention between the stick of glossy brown meat in his hand and the other two members of his party. He couldn’t contain a look of utter revulsion. “What is this stuff?” he asked as if Kirby and Cha’Risa were chewing on a family pet.
“It’s beef jerky,” Kirby answered. “It’s good.”
“Doesn’t meat get all gross and make you sick if you don’t keep it in the fridge?”
“They took all the moisture out of it,” Cha’Risa explained. “So it doesn’t rot.”
Hollis wasn’t sold on the concept. “It looks gross.”
“It’s really good,” said Kirby. “You seriously never had jerky?”
With a glare indicating a certain amount of disdain for the meat, Hollis bit into the strip and yanked the other end off with both hands. He chewed for a few seconds and the tension in his face dissipated. “That’s pretty good.”
“I told you, dummy,” said Kirby, chewing mightily.
Cha’Risa removed a bottle of water from the backpack and handed it to Kirby, who took a few sips. Hollis relieved the bottle of another couple ounces and gave it back to Cha’Risa, who was already rummaging through the bag at her feet. She took a swig of water, placing the bottle on the ground and removed a chocolate covered protein bar from her bag. Tearing open the packet, she split the bar into thirds and distributed it.
“I don’t even remember being hungry yesterday,” said Hollis. “Maybe I just didn’t think about it.”
“You had plenty of other things on your plate,” Cha’Risa said.
“Is your phone working?” Kirby asked.
They sat on the ground as Cha’Risa pulled her phone from her jacket pocket and waited a minute for it to power up. “Two bars,” she said. Another minute of swiping and typing, she handed the phone to Hollis. “You got an email.”
Hollis read Alexus’ reply aloud. “OMG Hollis! Everybody says you and Kirby were kidnapped. Can you escape? I can’t go to your house because it’s too late, but I’ll check it out tomorrow.”
He talked as he typed a response. “We weren’t kidnapped. We had to get away, but we’re good. Can you ride your bike over and check on my parents? Don’t tell anyone you are talking to us. Thanks.” Then he looked at Cha’Risa for approval and hit send.
As she held out her hand for the phone, Hollis continued hitting keys. “Hold on,” he said. “I just need to see if there’s anything about my parents.”
Cha’Risa leaned over the boy to take a peek at the screen. Hollis had opened a news app on her phone and the national headlines were abuzz with the missing boy and his friend. One headline read, “Ten-year old planetary genius abducted.” The article was adjacent to a headshot of Hollis. He opened the article, which featured school pictures of both Hollis and Kirby, and read it aloud.
Police are investigating the alleged abduction of two fifth graders from a rural town in northern Virginia. Hollis Whittaker and Kirby Cooper-Quinn were reportedly taken at gunpoint on Wednesday evening from the Whittaker household.
The suspect in the abduction is described as a woman in her mid-20s, of Hispanic or Native American origin. Detective Terrence Pacquet added that she is petite, has long, straight black hair and was wearing cowboy boots, a black jacket and jeans. She is considered armed and dangerous.
An Amber Alert was initiated at 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday for the suspect and the two boys. Detective Pacquet said he had reason to believe the children were in “extreme danger.”
Hollis Whittaker, 10, was thrust into international fame earlier this week as the discoverer of the famed Planet X, a 9th planet whose proof had eluded scientists since mathematical projections predicted its existence in 2015. Experts have hailed the discovery as unprecedented especially due to the boy’s lack of scientific training.
Detective Pacquet would not offer a theory for the abduction, but said that nothing was being ruled out at this early stage, including the boy’s recent rocket to fame. A sketch artist is working with Hollis’ parents Graham and Lonnie, and police hope to have the sketch available this morning.
According to both Graham and Lonnie Whittaker, two other individuals, a man and a woman, who claimed to be with the Federal Government, were also present during the alleged abduction.
Police had taped off the Whittaker household, but a visibly distraught Graham Whittaker claimed that the male “federal agent” had tried to kill his son. Graham Whittaker had lacerations and bruising around his face, which he said was caused in a scuffle with the male “agent.”
Detective Pacquet said he was unaware of any involvement by federal agencies, that he was seeking information about the two “agents,” but that his first priority was to find the Hispanic woman and return the children safely home.
Cha’Risa put an arm around Hollis. “They’re okay,” she said.
Rising to her feet, Cha’Risa motioned for the group to continue. “Come on, we don’t even know if anyone’s found the van or not.”
The heating packets the boys had been given the night before had long given out and the fresh ground seemed colder than the small patch they’d warmed up by sleeping on overnight. The chill in the morning air cut right through their inadequate clothing. Moving didn’t seem like the worst idea.
“Who?” asked Hollis. “Those government agents?”
“The government agents, the police, a volunteer posse. I have a feeling everyone is looking for us now.”
“I doubt they found the van,” said Kirby. “That thing was hidden pretty good.”
The woods were hushed as the group returned to the hike. Only the sound of their own footsteps on the forest floor pierced the silence. But over the course of the next half hour, another sound grew in intensity, Hollis’ breathing. He was lagging behind Kirby who was struggling to keep up with Cha’Risa. At one point, he lost sight of his friend and called out to him in a weak voice. “Kirby . . . hold on a sec.”
His friend spun around and hollered to the leader of the pack. “Hey, hang on! Hollis needs to take a break.”
It was a hard pill to swallow for Hollis. He was always the one for whom other people had to stop. But there was nothing he could do about it. He physically couldn’t compete with the regular kids. He rested his hands on his knees.
“What is it?” Cha’Risa asked. She had doubled back to meet up with the other two.
Short of breath, Hollis spoke in stunted phrases. “It’s my heart. I can’t exercise too hard otherwise I have trouble breathing.”
“Oh my god, Hollis. Are you okay?” she asked, placing a hand on his shoulder. She crouched beside him.
“I’ll be fine. I just need a breather.”
“What’s wrong with your heart?”
“It’s a condition I’ve had since I was a baby. It’s nothing.”
“Well, take your time,” she said. “We should’t be too far from civilization.
Hollis rolled back on his haunches, flanked by the other two, Cha’Risa rubbing his back as if it would somehow cure a defective heart.
“If you ever need to stop, just let me know. I don’t want you hurting yourself,” she said.
“I’ll be all right if we go a little slower.”
It wasn’t long before the trio were on the move again, this time at a more casual pace. Hollis was given the lead and he admittedly felt safer that he wouldn’t be left behind. Beforehand he was lagging by enough that he had begun picturing a scene where the other two didn’t notice him missing until it was too late. He’d concocted a storyline where Cha’Risa and Kirby reached the edge of the woods only to realize he wasn’t there, then they didn’t report him missing because of the Amber Alert and the government agents. He wondered if his survival skills would be up to the task.
But that was all past now. He was setting the pace. Occasionally, Cha’Risa checked the compass and told him to head a little to the left or right, but other than that, he was in charge. Conversation had fallen to a minimum as the day began to warm up. It had to have been three hours since they’d left their campsite.
Kirby was the first to hear traffic, but after he pointed it out, the sound became obvious to everyone. For a scant few minutes they made their way toward the vehicle hum and after cresting the top of a small hill, the road came into view, still past a mix of maple and hemlock trees.
“That should be Route 81,” Cha’Risa said. “If we follow this, we’ll end up in town.”
Hollis eyed the motorists rushing by, two lanes of cars, trucks and SUVs, most with single occupants. Some held phones up to their ears, others were red from yelling, but the majority just drove by, glazed over, the daily commute an extended interruption between home and work, a necessary waste of time. He wondered what kept their minds occupied. Did they switch to autopilot? It seemed like a miserable way to spend every morning. Was that the tradeoff for attaining adulthood?
As the trio gazed at Route 81, Hollis began to see patterns, clusters of traffic and scant open spaces, a sense of flow, or lack thereof. He recognized the overarching pattern as more significant than each of the individual vehicles. It wasn’t possible to determine how every car might change its path, but the whole road took on a coherent order, a system that, for lack of a better term, eased his spirit.
At Cha’Risa’s suggestion, they retreated a dozen steps so they could hear the noise from the road, but no one would be able to spot them, then they shadowed the road with slightly lifted hearts, having emerged from the unknown wilderness back into the world of humans. Even though the motorists weren’t aware of the three desperadoes paralleling the road, civilization was near. It was evidence that the woods wouldn’t claim the hikers for its own.
They tramped over a flat landscape within earshot of the road, the din of Route 81, a constant whine of rubber on blacktop, to the left, and directly opposite, the silence of the forest. Within a couple miles, the terrain slanted down ever so slightly for what seemed like a preponderance of the morning. Every hour or so, Cha’Risa called for a respite and distributed trail mix and water. She was taking more care than she had the night before and Hollis had a feeling it was because of his heart problem. He had given up the lead, but the pace was less hurried no matter who was out front.
A clearing appeared up ahead through the trees, a parking lot. They stayed back about twenty yards and Cha’Risa dropped her gear on the ground. The lot belonged to a gas station and convenience store with a wooden sign at the entrance that read “Tilly’s Gas and Go” in fluorescent green lettering. A rusty metal display with flip over numbers gave the day’s regular gas price, $2.13. Tilly’s had a healthy turnover with a steady stream of customers vying for parking spots, filling up dwindling gas tanks and trudging back to their cars with snacks and bottles of soda and energy drinks.
Reaching into her backpack, Cha’Risa pulled out a wad of cash and stuffed it into her front pocket. “I’m going to get us some food,” she said. “Can you two stay here?”
“Hold on a minute,” said Kirby. “You’re going to look exactly like the lady everyone’s looking for.”
Cha’Risa froze in her steps, turning her head back to her two traveling companions. “That’s a good point.” She switched into self-critical mode, lowering her voice. “Gotta keep your head on straight. Gotta stay focused.” She reached into her jacket pockets, pulled out a couple hair pins and bound her hair into a loose bun. Then she pulled the blanket out of the backpack, flipped open a Leatherman from her jacket pocket and sliced a strip off the blanket. Cha’Risa converted the slip of the blanket into a bandana and dropped her jacket on the duffel bag, leaving her just a khaki button up shirt for warmth. “How’s that?”
“They’re looking for cowboy boots too,” said Kirby. “You want to try mine?”
“Oh, please tell me I don’t have the same sized foot as a ten-year old boy,” she said, pulling off one of her boots.
Kirby untied his sneakers and tossed one on the ground near Cha’Risa. “I have big feet.”
She pulled it on with a bit of a struggle and tied it, putting weight back on the leg. “It’s pretty tight, but give me your other one.”
When shoes exchanged, Cha’Risa headed on her own to the Tilly’s Gas and Go parking lot.
Kirby stomped to a nearby tree and retraced his steps back, looking down at his new boots the whole while. “Check it out,” he said, “I’m a cowboy.”
“Yeah,” Hollis replied. “A girl cowboy.”
“Shut up.” Kirby ran around the tree he’d just met. “Plus it’d be a cowgirl, not a girl cowboy.”
“What do you think of her?” Hollis cast an eye toward the parking lot Cha’Risa was just entering.
“I don’t know. She’s okay, I guess.”
“Do you think she’s dangerous?” Hollis took a seat on the ground, his back up against a hemlock.
“I think she had plenty of chances to kill us if she wanted.”
“Yeah, but . . . I don’t know. Do you think she’s really a maid?”
“Sure, why not? Who’s gonna make up a job like that?”
“Maybe she works for the government.”
Kirby shrugged. “Maybe. But give me a break. She had a drawing of you that her great grandfather drew.”
“That’s what she says. How do we know she’s not lying?”
Kirby folded his arms, his lips puckered. “I guess we don’t. What are you saying, she’s a Fed and she’s competing with those other two?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t with the government and she is.”
“Well then why would she be trying to avoid the police?”
“Maybe it’s top secret.”
“So, what? Do you want to split?”
For a moment, Hollis seemed to be contemplating the possibility. He picked up a stick at his feet and tapped it on the ground. “No. She knows more about this than we do, if she’s a government agent or not. Whats the worst that happens? We go out to New Mexico and figure out she’s a freak and come back.”
“Or she drops a turd on your head while you’re sleeping. That would be worse, wouldn’t it?”
“Or her grandfather lays a crap in your mouth.”
“Aww, gross man! You’re sick.”
The pair broke into a fit of laughter that faded over the course of a minute, Kirby shoving Hollis so he toppled over onto his side like a portly tree being felled. Then Kirby lay down next to his friend and they stared at the forest canopy above.
“I hope she gets Reese’s,” Hollis said.
“Yeah. Why not?”
“Cause it’s candy.”
“It’s got peanut butter in it.”
“You don’t really eat those for breakfast, do you?”
“Like I said, it’s got peanut butter.”
“That crap isn’t peanut butter. It’s like some peanut-like substance.”
“I’m thinking taquitos,” said Kirby.
“It’s kind of like a taco.”
“So peanut butter for breakfast is wrong and a taco is normal?”
“Yeah, that’s what the Mexicans eat.”
“They eat tacos for breakfast?”
“The whole world doesn’t stuff down Fruit Loops, you know.”
“What, so now I can’t have cereal?”
“Try something that’s not made out of sugar sometime. You ever eat Grape Nuts?”
“You eat that stuff?”
“Well no, that’s like eating cardboard, but there’s shit that’s good that’s not made out of sugar.”
“Whatever. I hope they have Pop Tarts. A gas station should have them. Does that qualify as breakfast for you?”
“It’s still sugar. What about this don’t you get?”
“Maybe I like sugar.”
“That’s how come you’re fat and your heart doesn’t work.”
“I’m not fat. I’m overweight and I have heart disease.”
“Whatever dude. All I’m saying is try the taquitos. You won’t be disappointed.”
“Okay . . . but I’m not fat.”
Cha’Risa was back within ten minutes toting several plastic bags. She dropped the bags by the boys and squatted down next to them. As Hollis and Kirby surveyed the provisions, Cha’Risa pulled a jacket and sweatshirt out of one of the plastic bags. She tossed them on the ground and each of the boys grabbed for one, holding them up to examine them. They were Redskins team clothing.
“I didn’t want to get two of the same thing just in case someone noticed an Indian buying two kids’ jackets,” she said.
“Makes sense,” said Kirby as he pulled the sweatshirt on. Hollis stuck his arms through the jacket and immediately returned to searching through the bags, pulling out a packet of Pop Tarts.
“See? Pop Tarts,” he said. “Pop Tarts equal breakfast.”
Kirby was unwrapping a breakfast sandwich. “Don’t get me wrong,” said Kirby, “they taste good, but . . . Ooh, what is this, sausage? Nice.” He chomped off a huge bite.
Cha’Risa removed a liter of orange juice and laid it in the middle, grabbing a breakfast sandwich from the same bag Kirby had rooted through. The meal was eaten in silence. Placing the remainder of the food in the duffel bag, the group continued following the highway, skirting well around Tilly’s, Cha-Risa and Kirby swapping shoes before leaving.
“Stoneville’s about a mile away,” Cha’Risa said.
“So what’s the plan?” Kirby asked.
“There’s a cheap-ass car for sale,” Cha’Risa replied. “With any luck I’ll offer cash and there won’t be any questions.”
“How much you got?”
“Never you mind . . . Enough to buy a cheap-ass car.”
The hike to the edge of town was uphill. Hollis asked the group to stop twice so that he could catch his breath and by the time civilization seemed imminent, it was warming to the point that the boys had removed their new apparel and slung them over their shoulders.
The first sign that they were entering Stoneville was a fenced-in little league park and though it was empty, the diversion around it added up to another ten minutes. Just past the baseball field signs of life began to emerge. Miller Lite cans and empty bags up chips were scattered around rocks, aged paper plates and plastic shopping bags melted into the ground along with scores of cigarette butts. And just past the scene of a former underage party, a couple trailer homes came into view, forty-footers from the 1970s and 80s. They were part of a trailer park that had been carved into the woods, but was in danger of being swallowed up by it, unkempt backyards covered in pine needles, discarded toys and broken Big Wheels. Cracked plastic flower pots and rusted watering cans remained as signs of an attempt at beautification a decade or two ago.
On the far side of the two trailers, rows of similar homes continued on either side of a pothole marked blacktop road for what would have been a city block. Baby blue, beige and brown homes with American flags by the front doors, souped-up cars and beat up trucks in the driveways.
Cha-Risa halted the group and laid down her bags and rifle. “I’m going to take the lead, okay,” she said. “Give me a couple minutes and then follow me, but stay far enough back so it doesn’t look like we’re together.”
Hollis and Kirby knew if they had any chance to escape detection, they’d need to be separated from their leader. Authorities were looking for an Indian or Hispanic woman with two white kids. They wouldn’t get far if they stuck together in public.
“Put your jackets back on,” she said. “And Kirby, keep your hood up, okay? The less you resemble who they’re looking for the better.” The boys did as they were told.
“What if something happens, like somebody recognizes us?” Hollis asked.
Cha-Risa shook her head. “I don’t know. Make a run for it and meet up at the trailer park entrance when it seems safe?”
“What if the cops show up and arrest you?”
“I don’t know Hollis. I don’t have a plan.” She raised her hands in surrender. “I guess I’d better not get arrested.”
“We’re kind of screwed if you do,” said Kirby.
“No shit,” she replied, frustrated. “What do you want me to do? Do you think I want to be the target of an Amber Alert? Do you think I woke up yesterday and said, ‘shit, you know what I would like better than anything else? To get arrested for kidnapping two kids.’ I don’t know what else to tell you. We need to get a car and I can’t do that and stay hidden at the same time.”
“How about if me and Hollis just make our way through the woods to the trailer park entrance and wait for you there?” Kirby asked. “That way nobody will see us together.”
Pursing her lips, Cha’Risa nodded. “Okay, that’s a better idea than mine.” She dug out a package of beef jerky from the groceries she’d bought earlier and took a swig of orange juice. “I have no idea how long I’ll be. It’ll at least be a couple, few hours. I’ll leave everything here if you guys think you can carry it all.”
“No problem,” said Kirby.
“The safety’s on on the rifle. Do not take it off. Do not play with it. Do not shoot it. Got it?”
The boys nodded.
“Do you want my sneakers?” asked Kirby.
“There’s no way I could walk a couple miles in those things. I’d be crippled. Thanks though.” She straightened herself and fixed her hair—which had once again fallen down past her shoulders—into a bun, then she tied on the blanket bandana and stepped out of the woods into the side yard of the left trailer. The boys, obscured by trees, watched as she made it to the road unhindered, the sound of the gravel crushing under her feet dissipating as she moved farther away.
• • • • •
The trailer park had opened onto one of the main roads into town and Cha-Risa slogged along in the breakdown lane past the first few permanent homes, single dwelling residences with chipped paint, missing shingles and rusty gas tanks hidden by scraggly shrubs. Just past them a concrete sidewalk welcomed her off the road.
Within a half mile, the homes became more consistently spaced and better cared for. The front yards sported stone walls and Christmas decorations. Family names were emblazoned on the mailboxes at the end of picket fences. There was a steady stream of traffic heading in both directions.
She passed a Citgo station, followed a block later by a Shell. A few blocks past that and she had clearly arrived in town. Hiking around without the two boys eased her mind a little, but Cha’Risa was still on edge. Despite the fact that residents might be on the lookout for a woman traveling with two children, her general description was still plastered all over the news and Native Americans weren’t prevalent enough in this part of the country that she could easily melt into the community. So she did her best not to be noticed when she started passing other people—avoiding eye contact. A key tactic was to bury her face in her phone, with the dual benefit of conforming to modern pedestrian norms while simultaneously following the directions on Google Maps.
The fire station on the left was close to the middle of Stoneville, according to her phone, so she kept a lookout for Queen Street, which lead to Lee Drive, Lemley Street and finally to Melody Circle.
Cha-Risa followed the numbers on the houses, stopping in front of number 12, an alabaster and sage one-story ranch, with a large porch dominating its center. The car she had found for sale on Craigslist was parked on the front lawn, next to the driveway, a silver 2005 Honda Accord. There was a cardboard sign in its window marked $1,000.
Taking up center stage on the driveway was a yellow metallic Mustang, shiny as a piece of hard candy. It was a sign that the owner was home. She marched up the driveway buoyed to be close to fulfilling her mission. The doorbell brought a bony man in his forties with a crew cut, three days worth of stubble and a Slipknot concert tee-shirt. He had aging tattoos along both arms and up his neck. He examined her from head to toe. Cha-Risa let loose a moan of dread under her breath.
“Hi,” she said. “I was wondering if I could take a look at the Honda.”
“Yeah,” the man replied in a tone that indicated the Slipknot concert and subsequent celebrations might have been last night, or even this morning. “Let me grab the keys.” Leaving the door ajar, he traced his steps back into the house and returned a few seconds later, following Cha-Risa onto the driveway. She didn’t like his silence. She could sense his gaze moving up and down her back, evaluating her—rating her. There was likely a sneer on his face. Why were so many men like this?
She reached the car and spun, catching his eyes moving up from her butt. Typical. He opened the locks with the remote key fob, showing no sense of shame. She opened the door and peered inside.
“It’s got a hundred and thirty thousand miles, but it runs good,” he said. “It’s a Honda, you know.”
Once again, as she inspected the front and back seats, she could feel he was focused on her backside. She just needed to buy this thing and get away as fast as she could. She sat in the driver’s seat. “Can I start it?”
“Sure,” he said, handing her the key.
It took a few seconds to turn over, but it started and sputtered like a car that was much older. At one point she thought it would stall.
“It idles low, but it’s been good to me,” he said.
She gunned the gas a few times. “Does the heat work?”
“I’ll take it,” she said.
His demeanor improved. “Okay, are you like using a check or anything?”
“Cash,” she replied, shutting the engine off and stepping out of the car. He loomed over her, not granting much space and peered down at her chest, then at her face.
“Awesome. Let me go get the title.” He dawdled up the driveway, glancing back at her when he reached the porch.
Cha-Risa leaned against the Accord and crossed her arms. “God, what a scumbag,” she mumbled to herself.
Within a couple minutes he had the title on top of the car’s hood, filling out the few required lines. “You live around here?” he asked.
“What’s a pretty lady like you doing in Stoneville?”
“Ugh,” she muttered to herself before answering. “My boyfriend and I are visiting his parents.”
“Oh yeah?” the man said.
She didn’t reply.
“You got a license?” he asked.
“Not on me. Why?”
“I need to fill this shit out. I’m supposed to put in your name and everything.”
Her heart sped up. This wasn’t going to be as simple as she was hoping. “I don’t have one on me. Is that going to be a problem?”
He gave her a fed-up look.
“I have cash.”
“Yeah, but I’m trying to do this above board.”
Cha-Risa reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. She counted it out. “I have $1,170 if you let me drive this thing out of here as is.”
“Shit. What are you in trouble?”
“No, I just want to get it done and get on with my day.” She held up the money toward him. “It’s all I have.”
“Did your boyfriend hit you or something?”
It wasn’t 50 degrees, but Cha’Risa could feel the sweat beading up on her brow. The man sized her up again. Should she just walk away and try again somewhere else? What if he called the cops? “It’s almost two hundred more than you’re asking.”
The ground was covered in browned pine needles, a thick scratchy carpet fabricated over centuries. The trailer park, carved into the woodland, might have been fifty years old, but it was just a blip compared to the forest.
Hollis was seated on the ground. He shifted a foot, revealing the dirt below the needles and felt a sense of permanence. The trailers were temporary, even the woods were living and dying and might well disappear as man’s progress chipped away at it, but the earth’s cover moved at a much slower pace. Everything long term—the oceans, the mountains, the sky, the ground itself—crept along to its own clock, barely noticing the constant changes going on all around. He felt a connection to that immutability, all the while knowing that both he and Kirby were most certainly “temporary.” And he realized that being temporary didn’t bother him. There was a bigger picture.
It felt like three or four hours since Cha’Risa had trudged off in hopes of securing another car. The afternoon wasn’t overly cold, but sitting motionless in the same spot for so long was taking its toll on the boys. They’d each stand up and walk around the same 20-foot area whenever their butts reached the same temperature as the soil. The entrance to the trailer park, Hemlock Estates, was a couple dozen feet away, marked by a rotting wooden sign painted green and white a long time prior. It had taken them a good half hour just to make it to the entrance, avoiding any public view along the way. Every once in awhile, vehicles pulled in or out of the park, stirring the boys into action. They leered from behind a tree to see if it was their companion returning. And each time they were disappointed.
“What are we gonna do if she doesn’t come back?” Kirby asked.
“Why wouldn’t she come back?”
Hollis shrugged, but his attention was drawn back to the park where the sound of children seemed to be approaching. He couldn’t tell if the voices were coming from the park or from the woods behind them. He eyed Kirby silently, each one concerned that the other kids might be playing in the woods. There was a danger that the locals could find them and there could be serious consequences. For a tense 15 seconds there was no more noise. Kirby’s look turned apprehensive, mouth ajar and hands raised upward. Hollis envisioned a scene where a group of neighborhood kids led to his arrest, and into the hands of rogue FBI agents bent on killing him. He pictured the male agent, Breiner, with his malevolent grimace and icy stare.
“Wait up!” one of the local kids shouted. The voice wasn’t coming from behind Kirby and Hollis, which was good. That meant the strangers weren’t in the woods. The boys took a few steps toward the trailer park entrance and caught sight of three kids about their age on bikes. They were apparently riding off the grounds. The first two boys stopped just on the other side of the trailer park sign and turned to wait for their friend. The one in the lead was a black kid with closely cropped hair. He had a bony frame with big front teeth, a flannel shirt and an orange down vest. The second could have passed for German, with a clean-cut part in his blonde hair, and the third could easily have been the German’s little brother. When the young one reached the first two, they all peddled out of the trailer park.
From the relative safety of the woods, Hollis and Kirby watched the kids accelerate onto the main road and when they were at their closest point, about 15 feet directly in front of them, the young German boy shot a glance into the woods and met eyes with Hollis. Hollis’ breath stopped short. How did the boy know to look into the woods? Would he tell an adult he’d seen kids in the woods? Was Hollis recognizable?
The bikers continued unabated and the young rider didn’t even seem to mention it to his friends.
“Crud,” said Kirby. “Did you see that? Did that kid see us?”
“Yeah,” Hollis replied. He looked right at me.”
“Shit! What do we do? What if he tells someone?”
“Do you think he will?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t. I mean, would you go out riding somewhere and then come home and say, ‘hey mom, I saw a couple kids in the woods?’”
“Probably not. But what if he recognized me?”
“What do you think, the kid watches the news or something? He was like seven years old.”
“I guess,” said Hollis. “So what do we do, just keep waiting here?”
“We could run over to the other side of this entrance. At least that way we’re not in the same place if anyone comes looking.”
Hollis glanced at the trees on the far side of the trailer park entrance, probably only 50 feet away. They could watch for traffic and make a run for it when the coast was clear. “Yeah, let’s do that.”
They picked up the bags and rifle and crept to the edge of the trees, crouching down in wait and they listened for cars. A pack of vehicles shot by the entrance along the main road and were gone.
“Let’s go,” said Kirby. The boys leapt onto the blacktop and Hollis heard another car approaching.
“Go back! Go back!” he whispered. The pair pivoted and shot back into hiding as the car approached along the main road. They took cover behind a tree facing away from the road and hunkered down on the ground. The vehicle sounded like it was slowing down and then it came to a halt, crunching twigs and rocks under its tires.
“Shit!” Kirby muttered. “Did they see us?”
Hollis didn’t respond. The car idled for a few seconds and then a couple short bursts of a horn startled the boys. Kirby peered around the tree and saw Cha’Risa standing outside the driver’s door scanning the woods.
“It’s her,” Kirby said. They grabbed their belongings and jumped down onto the road, landing only a few feet from their new transportation. Cha’Risa opened the trunk of the car and the boys threw the bags and rifle in. Kirby hopped in the passenger seat, which left Hollis to take the back. The car’s tires spat up dirt as the trio left the trailer park behind.
“How’d it go?” Kirby asked Cha’Risa.
“Some men are scumbuckets,” she replied. “Do me a favor and don’t turn into one.”
“You got it.”
“But on the flip side, I don’t have any more cash.”
“You got a credit card?”
“Yeah, but it belongs to my Naali and I didn’t want to run it up on him.”
“Can I check my email?” Hollis asked.
Pulling the phone from her jacket pocket, Cha’Risa swiped through a few screens and handed it back to him. “My battery’s getting low, so make it quick.”
A moment later Hollis was reading off the reply he’d received form Alexus.
ur parents r ok there are all these newz vans in front of ur house and five-o and yellow tape and everything i had to tell this 1 cop we wer frenz and I hd cookiez for ur rents and he hd 2 go chek and ur dad wavd me in every1 wz in living room and your moms crying alot i told her i thought u were aite hope that ok she hugged me the whole town iz 5150 they cansld skool ur on front page and every1 thinkz ur kidnaped i can’t even i want to tell them ur ok but i no i not sposed 2 wen r u comin bck
“So good,” Cha’Risa said. “Confirmation that your parents are alright.”
“Yeah dude, they’re okay,” Kirby added.
Hollis stared at the phone.“I’m gonna write back,” he said as he started typing.
Cha’Risa held her response for a second. “Just do me a favor and read it to me before you hit send.”
“I know, I know.”
• • • • •
“Honey, I think we need to talk about what’s going on.”
Alexus was reclining on the sofa watching a video on her tablet and didn’t look up when her mother addressed her. “It’s okay, I’m okay.”
“Could you put the tablet down? This is important.”
“I know mom. I’m okay.”
The girl paused the video and lowered the screen to her lap, rolling her eyes toward her mother.
“Honey, I’m not sure you get what’s going on. This is very serious stuff here and I think we should talk about it.”
“I know. Hollis and Kirby are missing and everybody’s worried. I get it.”
“We are worried. And how do you feel about it?”
“I’m worried too.”
Her mother didn’t seem convinced. Alexus knew it, but what could she do?
“It’s not just that they’re missing, you know. They’ve been taken. Adults can be scary sometimes.”
Alexus’ mother sat on the arm of the sofa looking down at the girl. “I thought that was a very sweet thing you did earlier, bringing cookies over to the Whittakers.”
“How are they doing?”
“Mrs. Whittaker is kind of broken up.”
“I bet she is.”
Alexus stared into her mother’s eyes. She could tell her mother was upset and she wanted desperately to offer up what she knew, that Hollis and Kirby were safe, but she had made a promise and Hollis had convinced her that they’d be better off if no one knew. She wondered how much trouble she’d be in if her mother ever found out. When she was eight, she’d made $3 selling her lunch and her mother still mentioned it. Needless to say, this was on a whole other level. “How are you doing?”
Her mother smiled a proud smile that said, ‘look what I’ve brought into this world,” and brushed her daughter’s hair with her hand. “I’m upset about Hollis and Kirby. I’m sad for the Cooper-Quinns and the Whittakers.” Her face turned more serious. “And honestly I’m worried about this world and what people are capable of . . . You know I’ll always do whatever I can to make sure you and Marcus are safe.”
“And you know you can always tell me anything, right? No secrets,” her mother said, holding out her pinky finger. They entwined pinkies and snapped the fingers apart in a well-rehearsed move. “No secrets,” Alexus replied.
With a reassuring hand on her daughter’s shoulder, Mrs. Facchini rose from the sofa arm and headed back toward the kitchen.
Alexus swiped at the tablet in her lap and raised it up. She straightened her torso and craned her neck back over the couch to make sure her mother was gone. Then she tapped on the mail app. There was a reply from Hollis. She clicked on it.
hi alexus idk wen were coming back we need 2 take care of something 1st thats awsum that theres no skool I kinda wish we were back so we dint have to go ether but I guess we arent going anyway we camped out lst nite it was cold but kirby is funny I wish u 2 got along kuz he’s a good guy and I bet u wud like him if u gave him a chanz
Alexus hit reply and began typing out a response:
ive nown kirby since lk k and he nvr liked me so thats y i dont like him idek y he dsnt lk me i think hes funny and everything but he always calls me a btch wich i hate i evn invited him to my bday in 1st grade and he sed the prty sucked
Alexus jolted, her head whipping around in surprise. Her mother was leaning over the back of the sofa squinting her eyes at the tablet.
“Honey, what are you writing? Is that about Kirby?”
Alexus flipped the tablet on its side instinctively trying to hide it. “No,” she said, a panic in her voice.
“Let me see it.”
The girl froze.
“Alexus Facchini, you hand that tablet over this instant!” The tone was undeniable. Her mother was serious. Her hand was extended.
“I’m not supposed to,” the girl said, an obvious guilt to her voice.
Mrs. Facchini reached over her daughter for the machine, grabbing it out of her hands. She pored over the girl’s email to Hollis, a look of devastation on her face. She swiped upward through the thread of emails Hollis and Alexus had been sending back and forth and brought a hand up to her chin as she read. For a moment the girl thought her mother might break into tears and she didn’t know whether it was because everyone was looking for Hollis and Kirby or because she had kept a secret.
Alexus’ bedroom was covered in movie memorabilia: posters and printouts from The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Goosebumps. She’d read all the books as well. On one manic Saturday afternoon last year she’d ripped down all of the posters from her childhood, mostly cartoons for little kids and had been replacing them as her new favorite collectables made themselves available. The top of her bureau was a neatly arranged homage to Harry Potter, official replicas of Harry Potter’s and Hermione Granger’s wands; a framed autographed black and white photo of Robbie Coltrane, who played Hagrid; a Hogwarts Sorting Hat; and the full set of novels.
Her room, like the bureau was organized. It bugged her to have clutter in the way. Whenever she visited friends’ houses, there was clothing and junk strewn everywhere. She even tried to secretly straighten up her friend’s rooms when she visited them, pretending to thumb through a book she found on the floor and returning it to the bookcase or trying on clothing from the foot of the bed and hanging it up afterward. When she was younger, a psychiatrist suggested that Prozac might help her, but her mother wasn’t interested in medicating her only daughter. Anyway, what was the big deal? It’s not like she needed to have things clean, she just preferred it that way.
The girl lay on her back on the bed casting a glance around the room for anything she could straighten up. But it was all in its place. Her eyes were wide, her fingers drumming the bedspread. What was she thinking? Of course she should have told her mother about Hollis’ emails. That was it. She was going to be grounded until college. And worse than that, she’d lost her mother’s trust. It’s not like she hid things all the time, but Hollis told her he’d be in danger if she told anyone. She was trying to keep her friend safe. It’s not like her mother could fault her for that.
But she could.
This wasn’t fair. She was trying to do the right thing. What if Hollis was right? What if her inability to keep his secret was really going to put him in danger? The woman who took Hollis and Kirby fired a rifle inside the Whittaker’s home. What was more dangerous than that? But even Hollis’ parents said the mystery woman had saved Hollis.
Alexus shifted onto her side, her socked feet pulling up into a fetus position. She wanted to bolt out of the house, but there was nowhere to go and she was in enough trouble as it was without running away. Maybe Jayden could come keep her company. She was going crazy lying here all alone. She chuckled. The chance of a friend coming over after she’d aided and abetted in a kidnapping: zero.
She heard her mother’s footsteps coming up the hall and her bedroom door was thrust open. Usually her mother knocked.
“Alexus, this is Detective Pacquet and Officer Anagnos. They need to talk to you.” Her mother’s voice was stern. Behind her stood a bald black man in a suit and a female police officer, each wearing a minimal smile. Her mother led the two visitors into Alexus’ room. The officer had a gun holstered on her right side and the sight of the weapon in her bedroom caused Alexus’ breath to stop short. She pushed herself up so that she was seated on the edge of her bed.
The three adults stood three feet away and looked down at the girl, a foreign smell invading the girl’s space. Musky. Cologne.
“Alexus,” the man said, “no one’s mad at you. You’re not in any trouble. We’re just trying to help your friends Hollis and Kirby. Do you think you could help us help them?”
“Good,” Pacquet replied. “Look don’t be nervous. Do you mind if I sit down?” He motioned to her bed.
“Okay,” Alexus answered.
Pacquet sat next to the girl and folded his hands in his lap. “You know, I have a daughter just a little bit older than you.”
The girl nodded again.
“I’m just like your mom, here. She goes off to work every day, right?”
“Well, I do too, and so does Officer Anagnos. It’s just that our job is helping people that are in trouble and right now your two friends are in trouble. I know you thought you were keeping them safe, but trust me when I say, we can protect them from whatever’s out there. But first we need to find them. Now, the emails didn’t really give us any insight into where they are yet, but they’re probably going to be pretty useful to us. Have you talked to them at all?”
“No. I only got those emails.”
“You’re sure about that? Remember, you’re not going to get into any trouble.”
Pacquet stared at her for a few seconds silently, as if he didn’t believe her. “Okay then. Now, we’re going to be commandeering your email. Do you know what that means?”
“It means you’re taking it, right?”
“That’s right. You’re not going to be able to get back into it and I’m sorry we have to do that, but I need you to promise me that if they contact you in any other way, you know, via phone or text or Facebook or whatever, that you’ll tell your mother. Do you think you can do that?”
• • • • •
“Can I check my email again?”
“In a little while, all right Hollis. I don’t want to turn my phone back on until I have somewhere to charge it.” Cha’Risa turned on the car radio, which crackled out a blend of modern country and static. “See if you can find something, will you Kirby?”
Kirby fumbled through the buttons in the car’s darkened cabin, changing radio stations every few seconds.
“I just don’t know why Alexus didn’t get back to me,” said Hollis.
“Ugh, not that,” Cha’Risa said to Kirby, bubblegum pop bouncing off the windshield. She turned her attention back to Hollis. “We’ll find a motel soon. We’ll check the news, emails, everything, okay?”
“How about this?” Asked Kirby. He had settled on a song from the 1960s.
“I can live with that.”
“The Animals,” said Kirby.
“That’s the song?”
“That’s the band,” Kirby replied. “We Gotta Get out of this Place, 1965. But they didn’t write it . . . Hey, it’s the right song for us!”
Cha’Risa chuckled. “Are you a big 60s fan?”
Hollis answered before Kirby had a chance. “He knows like everything about every song.”
“You don’t say?” Cha’Risa replied.
“Go ahead. Ask him something.”
“Okay,” she said, pausing for a few seconds. “Something before your era. Turn! Turn! Turn!”
“You’re probably thinking of the Byrds version,” Kirby answered. “But they stole it from Pete Seeger, who really just took it from the Bible.”
“Holy shit!” Cha’Risa said. “How the hell did you know that?”
“I don’t know,” Kirby replied, as if it wasn’t a big deal.
“Give him another one,” Hollis said.
“Okay, hang on. Let me get a good one.”
Kirby turned the radio’s volume down.
“Okay, here’s one,” she said. “Electric Avenue.”
“Cut it out!” Cha’Risa pushed Kirby’s shoulder. “You are way too young to know that. All right, one more. Let’s see. 1970s. Okay, Shadow Dancing.”
“Pfft,” said Kirby. “Andy Gibb. Give me a hard one.”
“That is unbelievable.”
“Hey,” said Kirby, “Hollis found a planet nobody knew was there.”
“Well, yeah, I know, but this is Andy Gibb we’re talking.”
“You didn’t grow up in the 70s, did you?” Hollis asked.
“Oh, no, that was before my time,” said Cha’Risa. “But a girl can dream, can’t she?”
The trio had been searching for appropriate accommodations since they’d made it west of Nashville. It had been dark for a long while and as the warm air continued coming out of the car’s vents, everyone’s eyes grew heavier. Three exits in a row off Route 40 had produced nothing Cha’Risa had felt comfortable with and the eye strain from the lights of oncoming traffic was beginning to get to her. She was just about willing to try anywhere not too pricey. There was a general description of her on the news, but she was betting no one this far away from northern Virginia would put two and two together. She’d once again tie her hair up in a bun and check in without the two boys. It should be pretty safe.
Cha’Risa pointed to a highway exit sign. “I’m going to try this one. One of these towns has to have somewhere cheap.”
The exit ramp looped around in a familiar cloverleaf pattern and onto an intersection with a road that had brightly illuminated gas station signs in both directions.
“You know if you brought a car charger, we could have just found a hotel on your phone,” said Kirby.
“Shut up,” Cha’Risa replied as she turned the radio volume to low.
“What?” Kirby said in response. “You can’t find a hotel while the radio’s on?”
“Shut up!” she repeated. “You know, I changed my mind. You’re not a musical genius, you’re a pain in the ass.”
“He can be both,” said Hollis.
“It’s just a habit, okay? People turn down the radio when they’re looking for something. I don’t know why, but I guarantee you’ll both be doing it when you get your licenses. Now which way do you want to go?”
“I’d try right,” Kirby said. “Looks like more.”
“It does? Where?” she asked.
“I can see some stuff down there.” Kirby struck the passenger side window with his finger a few times. Then he looked down the road past Cha’Risa. “That side’s all dark past the gas station.”
Cha’Risa squinted to where Kirby had pointed. “To the right it is.” She pulled out onto the deserted road, the Accord’s headlights revealing unremarkable countryside littered with bright bits of styrofoam and papery trash that sped by like ghostly apparitions, here and gone in the night. Within a few hundred yards, the lights Kirby had spotted became clearer. They were illuminating signage.
“I think it’s a hotel,” said Kirby to no response. As the car drew nearer, it was obvious he’d been right. The Braithwaite Inn.
“I will never doubt you again,” Cha’Risa said as she pulled the car into the parking lot. It was poorly lit, which was exactly what she’d had been hoping for. That meant there probably weren’t any security cameras. “I’m gonna go check in. You guys give me a minute and head around back. I’ll see if there’s a door back there and let you in.”
“Want us to bring the stuff in the trunk?” Hollis asked.
“I’ll bring in my bags. We’ll leave the rifle in the trunk. Even in Tennessee, someone walking into a motel with a rifle will raise suspicions.” She stepped out of the car and slammed the door shut, grabbing her bags from the trunk and heading for what seemed to be the front office with yellowish fluorescent lights flickering above the entrance. Hollis and Kirby watched her disappear inside.
Something about the parking lot came across as seedy to Hollis. It was as if the Braithwaite Inn had neglected the grounds for decades, like it was the natural extension of the trash on the side of the road they’d just passed. The car was off, its headlights still beaming through the overgrowth, illuminating the weeds but not the inky blackness beyond them. Crumbling tar coated the half-empty lot, large chunks missing in spots, replaced by the gravel rising up from below. The inn was a concrete structure painted a glossy teal.
The headlights shut themselves off after a minute and Kirby cracked open the passenger door, the car’s dome light causing Hollis to squint. He was tired.
“Think we should go?” Kirby asked.
Hollis didn’t reply. He picked up a plastic bag of food from the car’s floor, slid across the cloth back seat and opened the rear door behind Kirby. They waited until there was no traffic on the road and made their way to the rear of the inn, which was deserted, just a glass door, a lighting fixture beside it and past the empty parking spaces more overgrowth and trees. The single incandescent light bulb only illuminated so far. Beyond its reach the night seemed to stretch on forever. The boys leaned on the wall by the door, their breath vaporizing in the cold night.
Neither spoke. It was obvious that Kirby was as drained as Hollis. They both just wanted to hop into bed and fall asleep. Despite the fact that it had only been a day, it felt more like a week since they’d escaped the government agents with Cha’Risa. Hollis’ head was beginning to pulse from fatigue. He thought about his own bed, about his parents. He wanted everything to go back to normal.
The glass door shot open and Cha’Risa leaned her head out. “Come on,” she said.
Hollis and Kirby followed her a few feet into the hallway and up a set of stairs. The wallpaper, an interlocking mesh of beige and brown rounded squares, was peeling from its edges, a remnant of a bygone era. The apricot carpet was worn down in the middle of the steps to just its backing material. Hollis didn’t care. At the top of the stairs, Cha’Risa led the boys down a hallway covered in the same wallpaper as the first floor to room 236. She inserted a bulky key into the lock, its green plastic fob clattering as she opened the door. She placed a Do Not Disturb sign on the outside handle and closed the door as the boys scoped out their temporary home. Two beds with shiny, floral bed coverings, a thick brown rug, sturdy drapes, an old style television and a crappy wooden bureau. A faux leather chair near the heating unit was losing stuffing due to a tear and a strong mildew scent permeated everything.
The boys kicked off their shoes and crawled under the blankets of the first bed, Kirby picking up the TV remote from the nightstand between the beds. He hit the power and the TV slowly emerged from its slumber, casting a blue glow across the room. The volume had been cranked, so he nudged it down to a more reasonable level. Jimmy Fallon was in the middle of an interview with a woman Kirby didn’t recognize, so he began shuffling through the stations.
“I got some toothpaste at the front desk,” Cha’Risa said, “and one toothbrush. I didn’t want to draw suspicion. One of you can use it. The other’s stuck with his finger. Sorry.” The boys didn’t hear her; they were more intent on watching television, so Cha’Risa took the first turn in the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Kirby settled on an early episode of The Walking Dead. That was fine by Hollis. It was one he’d seen before, where Hershel still believed the walkers in his barn could be cured. In the middle of Hershel’s pronouncement, Kirby muted the TV. He held a finger up to his lips to indicate that Hollis should be quiet and pointed toward the bathroom door. It was a little muffled, but Cha’Risa was obviously talking to someone in a hushed tone. Her voice switched between calm and quietly anxious.
“He’s sweet, yeah,” she said. “The thing is, I kind of have one of his friends too . . . I didn’t have a choice . . . I can’t . . . No, I can’t, I’m telling you . . . Cause we’re in friggin’ Tennessee. Look I didn’t call for a lecture . . . I don’t know . . . I had to ditch my van . . . Do you not get the news out there? There’s a nationwide manhunt on for me, Amber Alert and everything . . . I had to. You were right, the government had people already there . . . Two . . . Yeah . . . No, they were going to kill him, no doubt . . . They had the gun at the back of his head . . . No, in his house . . . Yeah . . . I had to buy a car . . . Cash. That’s why I’m calling. I need you to put some more money in my checking account . . . No, I used everything . . . Look, I wasn’t planning on buying a car, all right? . . . The more the better . . . I don’t know, a few hundred at least . . . Okay, thanks . . . I don’t know, a couple days . . . Yeah . . . Do you have a plan? . . . Well you’re going to have to do better than that . . . I’m looking at serious jail time here and that’s not even thinking about Hollis . . . I know . . . He’s just like the picture . . . Yeah, I showed it to him . . . I don’t know, he seems just like a regular kid . . . Okay, listen I gotta go, can you do that in the morning, first thing? . . . Try for a grand . . . Yeah . . . Yeah, I love you too Naali . . . Okay, yeah . . . Naali, I have to go . . . I’ll talk to you later . . . Yeah . . . Okay, thanks, bye bye.”
Hollis’ parents eyed Agents Breiner and Grey.
“Would you mind if we take a look at it?” Agent Grey asked. She looked shorter than Hollis remembered, shorter from this angle. Everything looked different from this angle. He was watching from above the adults’ heads, not from his chair, though he could see himself, too, sitting at the kitchen table, right where he was supposed to be. He realized he’d already experienced this moment, but not like this. This was more like an instant replay. Everything else seemed right, an empty container of Chips Ahoy, three glasses of milk and a table full of crumbs. Kirby was there.
Hollis was only an observer in the room, floating and fluid, unseen by the actors. He was behind Agent Grey as she examined the níłchʼi, holding it in front of her face and squinting at each side. “It looks right,” she said, offering the object to her partner.
Agent Breiner studied both sides of the medallion as Hollis watched from above his shoulder. The agent checked out his phone and looked back at the object. On the phone’s display was a black and white image of the níłchʼi with a ruler laid next to it for perspective, and when the agent swiped the photo, a black and white image of the other side of the object appeared, once again accompanied by a ruler. Breiner compared the image to the medallion in his hand. “That’s it,” he said, placing both the phone and níłchʼi into his jacket pocket and moving around the table.
As Hollis observed the proceedings, a feeling of understanding overtook him, not of the situation unfolding, but of the basics in the room, the people, the furniture, the walls, the entire light spectrum from extremely low frequency to gamma rays, the energy. It was all following the rules. He could sense the binding forces between the atoms in everything he saw, the neutrinos so minuscule that they shot through the spaces inside the atomic particles without even coming close to them, the pull of everything to the center of the earth, even infinitesimally small particles that popped in and out of existence instantaneously. He began to discern the octillions of particles making up everything in the room.
“We’re going to need to take it for evidence,” Agent Grey said. “I hope you understand.”
The ethereal Hollis floated over the table and focused on the solid version of himself with the murderous Agent Breiner looming behind. He could see the chemicals and synapses firing inside his own head, the adrenaline entering the bloodstream.
“Do I get it back?” The solid version of Hollis asked. The air left his lungs and vibrated his vocal chords, sending the sound in varying frequencies through the room, where it bounced and dissipated. From above the table, ethereal Hollis knew the amplitude of the soundwaves. It all made perfect sense.
Gradually, the conversation became background noise. Hollis could hear the words, but they we’re no longer in focus. The particles and energy filling the room became clearer than the kitchen and everyone inside it. Everywhere Hollis looked there was energy. Time itself was woven into the molecular fabric and it was all interconnected. Without time, there were no particles or waves; without particles and waves there was no energy; without energy, there was no time. Everything was reliant on everything else, a perfect balance. Change one and you change them all. The room and everything in it began to separate into basic components dispersing evenly throughout Hollis’ field of vision. The walls dissipated, the people and furniture, each breaking down and scattering like smoke. Beyond their house, the trees and roads did the same, the earth itself losing its solidity.
And as the world’s makeup lost its focus, so did time. Hollis only felt it in a broader sense. And when the hazy soup of light began to coalesce once again, the boy felt the change in time. The earth took shape, the firs and the pines coming together around him, solid forms out of dust. The ground firmed, the breeze blew. He drifted directly through the trees as if they were just figments, shadows of their solid cousins. The treeline gave way to a clearing and Hollis could hear a commotion. Though it was nighttime, the area was illuminated. There was a road and three old-fashioned cars.
As Hollis exited the woods, four men in suits and hats converged on him. One of them was holding a pistol. The boy wasn’t scared. He was curious. What did these men want? And how were they seeing him given his apparition-like state? But it became apparent that their eyes weren’t on Hollis. They were focused on the ground. Hollis turned his attention below him where a woman in a blouse and wool skirt lay on her stomach. Blood was pumping out of a hole in her back and Hollis recalled Mrs. Mori.
One of the men stooped beside the woman and frisked her and Hollis felt his belly churn. The woman was incapacitated and this man was rifling through her clothing as if she were insignificant. Hollis knew this man didn’t have the respect for life that it deserved. The man muscled the woman onto her back, her body limp like a lifeless doll and her eyes staring up at the sky. There was a mixture of emotions inside Hollis as the woman gurgled with each breath, first sorrow for her and then anger. The man searched the woman thoroughly with no apparent feelings for her pain or dignity and Hollis wanted to jump on top of him and knock him off the woman. But the boy knew he wasn’t really at this spot at this time. He was just an observer. And though he couldn’t say why, and he knew this was long ago, there were similarities between these men and the agents who had tried to kill him in his kitchen. There was a lack of humanity.
The man gave up his search. “It’s not here,” he said.
Not far beyond the cadre of men, an older woman stood by the driver’s side door of one of the old cars. Sporting a suit and a hat straight out of a black and white movie, the woman was anxious, but Hollis could tell her concern wasn’t for the woman on the ground. This woman was in no danger from these men. “What do you mean, ‘it’s not here?’” the woman barked. It was her cold tone that frightened Hollis as much as the men. He’d never met such callous people, first with the agents at his house and now watching this event unfold. He’d seen cruelty like this in the movies, but there was something in him that didn’t believe people could really act this way. He’d never witnessed such malice. He felt a mixture of disappointment and disgust at levels he’d never experienced before, as if his sensibilities were being amplified.
The man that was crouched at Hollis’ feet kept his eyes on the injured woman. “I mean it’s not here,” he shouted back in response.
Hollis floated toward the woman in the hat as she rushed around the car. The woman lifted a white garment off the pavement. “Here,” she said as she searched through the fabric. Her fingers, wrinkling and pale, began to merge with the cloth, particles passing between her hands and the garment, and the world slowly began to lose focus again, sounds and smells becoming less distinct for Hollis. He floated toward the treeline on the far side of the road as the makeup of the road fell away.
“Goddamit!” he heard from behind as he entered the woods and the rigid reality of the scene faded to mist. In a moment the woods coalesced around him again. He sensed he was home, but instead of his house, there were only trees. In fact the whole neighborhood was gone. This was before it was even built. He floated through the maples, through the hills, passing straight through it all. He knew the route. He was floating toward his secret spot, the wind rustling through the leaves and the sound of a stream flowing in the distance. The holiday scents of firs and pines brought some comfort from the scene he’d just left. Memories of Christmas flooded his mind, thoughts of the enjoyable times he’d spent alone in the woods, ruler of his own kingdom. His emotions were getting the better of him. Even during those good times, the feelings were never this warm.
As he approached the stream, the sound of footsteps emerged from the distance. Someone was getting closer. He floated toward the sound and the woman he’d just seen victimized came into view. She looked tired, her breath labored, her eyes raw as if they’d run out of tears. The woman walked in measured steps, her stride limited by her tight tartan skirt. She kept her eyes on the ground, trying to be careful of what she stepped on as her shoes obviously weren’t meant for outdoor hiking. As she reached a slight incline, she broke into a jog and Hollis floated beside her as she ascended the hill, the smell of perspiration and perfume emanating from her clothes and mixing with the leafy smell of the forest. It was clear she was struggling to find the energy to continue, but something was pressing her forward. Her footsteps became heavy as she slowed again at the top of the hill, clearly running out of breath. Though the temperature didn’t bother Hollis, the air was hot and humid, hardly conducive to someone running.
She muttered to herself and Hollis could barely decipher her words. “. . . couldn’t just be halfway decent . . . He’s going to have the whole damned army out . . . end up in jail for the rest of my life.” She stifled a scream and mumbled, “What the hell was I thinking?”
As the woman started descending the other side of the hill, she paused and eyed the river—Hollis’ river. She pinched the shoulder of her blouse and raised it to her forehead in an attempt to wipe the sweat from her brow, but the shirt was soaked already and the move was fruitless. She trod down the hill toward the water, reaching underneath her dingy, untucked blouse into the waistline of her skirt and removed the níłchʼi, clutching it tightly in her hand. Standing on the banks of the swollen stream, she studied the medallion, then tossed it into the river. “Good luck finding that, chucklehead.”
The woman trudged away from the water and the scene broke apart like it had done before, leaving Hollis in the midst of a dense fog made from all of its particles and energy. He felt a strong connection to the woman he’d just observed. She had been the last one to touch the medallion before he picked it up, and judging by the cars and her outfit, it was a long time ago. His heart sank as he remembered the woman lying on the ground bleeding from her back. He realized she’d been killed for the níłchʼi and knew that he’d only been lucky in avoiding his own bullet.
When the fog settled into forms again, Hollis was staring at a fenced-in facility patrolled by the military. He could make out pockets of men in uniforms and suits, a parking lot and several buildings and he sensed that the woman he’d just followed was inside the biggest. And though he didn’t recognize this military base, he knew where it was in relation to his home, only seven or eight miles away. The guards at the main gate didn’t look at Hollis. They couldn’t see him. He gazed up toward the barbed wire on top of the fence and floated through it all as if it weren’t there. Gliding toward the biggest building’s main door, he heard his name. “Hollis!”
He unzipped his eyes and stared at Cha’Risa through the slits. “Wake up,” she said. He turned his head to try to fall back asleep, but she shook his shoulder. “Come on Hollis.” He could feel her reaching over him to shake Kirby, who was stirring, but just barely. “Kirby, get up.” She grabbed Hollis’ shoulder again before stepping away from the bed. “Let’s go sleepy heads. Rise and shine. It’s seven a.m. We gotta get going.”