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There have been strange lights in Crownsville for as long as I’ve lived here. Lights on the Ridge; lights on the river; lights that seep from the ground and then float to the sky in clouds of colored mist. No one really talked about them. No one really cared.
* * *
The patrol cars parked on the corner of Birch and Main were the first thing I noticed when I left work that night. After what had happened in the neighboring town of Onaly that morning, I wasn’t surprised. But seeing the cops in Crownsville still gave me the creeps.
The second thing I noticed was Rusty, my car, parked with his headlights glaring. I groaned.
“Mia . . . Why did you do that?”
I tried to remember even switching them on, but came up blank. That pretty much summed up my day. It was nine o’clock, which meant Rusty’s crappy battery had been draining for three solid hours while I’d waited tables at Mickey’s. Having only just liberated him from Reggie West’s Motor Repair and Salvage—Rusty’s second home—a dead battery was the last thing I needed. Now I would probably be stuck here while Jay waited for me at the Bakers’. Pete, as usual, was nowhere to be found.
I heard the door to Mickey’s open and close behind me. As I rummaged through my bag for my keys, Greg, the night manager, stepped onto the sidewalk.
“You left Rusty’s lights on,” he said, stating the obvious.
“Yeah.” I continued digging. Some of the stuff had been in my bag for months: spare socks; a million tissues (mostly used); a cigarette lighter, though I didn’t even smoke. I swore to clear the purse out as soon as I got home. I mean, how much crap does a seventeen-year-old really need to carry around?
“And you forgot this,” said Greg, passing me my jacket.
“Thanks, Greg.” I took it from him with one hand as I pulled out my keys with the other.
“Something on your mind, Mia? You’ve been twitchy all evening.”
I glanced at the cops, parked on the side of the road. “It’s the Onaly thing,” I said. “Have you heard of anything like this happening before?”
“In these parts? Can’t say I have. But someone’s taking those kids.” He shook his head. “Five gone in six months and all within fifty miles of here.”
I didn’t need reminding.
The media called them theCrownsville Kidnappings, but only one of the boys who’d vanished, seven-year-old Simon Wilkins, had actually lived in town. Crownsville was a hub for the small towns and farms that surrounded it. This was the reason there were more than fifteen hundred students enrolled at school. Occasionally, kids went missing, but everyone knew where they were—Omaha, Kansas City, Sioux Falls. They bailed when they’d had their fill of rural Nebraska. But this wasn’t the same thing. The boy who’d vanished from Onaly Crossing this morning was ten years old, the same age as my half brother, Jay, so don’t tell me he’d gone looking for a new life in the city.
“I’ve got jumper cables in the truck if you need them,” said Greg.
Which I invariably would. I had no one to blame but myself.
He walked me to the car. I slipped into the driver’s seat, patted Rusty’s dash—a sacred ritual—and turned the key. The engine wheezed, then roared. It was the best news I’d had all day.
“These old homegrown beauties last a lifetime,” said Greg. He slapped Rusty’s hood. “See you tomorrow night, Mia.”
Dark had fallen thick and fast. By the time I turned off Main Street, I’d switched on my high beams. It was a couple of miles to the Bakers’ on rural roads that had seen better days. Having once mangled a rim in a pothole down here, I kept to the speed limit.
I’d gone about a mile when my phone burst into “The Star-Spangled Banner.” That meant one thing—my best friend, Miss Willie Burkett. I pulled over to take the call.
“How was work?” she asked. Willie never wasted time with “hello.”
“Usual crowd,” I replied. “I swear the place is some kind of alternate dimension.”
She laughed. “Have you spoken to Pete about this weekend at the lake?”
I cringed. “Haven’t seen him yet,” I said. In truth, I had no idea where he was. “Wills, I promise I’ll talk to him. Just don’t expect miracles.”
“Youhaveto be there, Mia. Andy is definitely coming. This is a chance for you guys to finally get together.”
I wasn’t so sure. Andy Monaghan was a drop-dead gorgeous senior who drove a black Corvette that came straight from the showroom of his father’s dealership. We’d come pretty close to dating a couple of times, but each time something had gotten in the way: Andy’s broken leg, his ex-girlfriend moving back into town, me and Seamus McEvoy—a month-long fling I’d rather forget. But now Andy had broken up with his girlfriend, and Willie said he’d been asking about me around school. . . .
“I’ll ask Pete as soon as I see him,” I said. I picked imaginary lint off my jeans. “But I’m warning you, Wills; he hasn’t been around much lately, and I can’t leave Jay with this psycho loose on the streets.”
“Pete needs to sort his sorry ass out,” Willie muttered.
True, but I didn’t see that happening any time soon.
I slumped in my seat and turned my head to the window. The lights on Rowe Boulevard were faint in the distance. Across the open fields, the trees that bordered the elementary school were silhouetted against the night sky. I watched their outlines swaying in the breeze, resigned to the fact that I was always the one who had to back out of our plans.
“. . . and if he doesn’t shape up, I’m gonna speak to Dad about it again.”
I realized Willie was still talking.
“Don’t you dare,” I said, catching the tail end of her threat. A genuine threat. Willie’s dad was Crownsville’s sheriff.
“It’s Pete being useless. Totally different.”
“I guess.” She sighed. “Come over and we can figure something out.”
“I can’t,” I replied. “I’ve still got to pick up Jay.”
Silence followed and I knew we’d strayed into difficult territory. Somewhere along the line, Willie had decided that I had the world’s most horrendous life. You couldn’t blame her; my dad had abandoned me at birth and my mom was in prison. I’d lived with my grandmother in Des Moines until I was eight. When she died, I was shipped here, to Crownsville, Nebraska, to live with Uncle Pete, my mother’s brother. Pete wasn’t the most attentive guardian, but things weren’t that bad. I pretty much did what I wanted. But it also meant that Jay, who’d lived with us for the past six years, had no one to worry about him but me. I wasn’t afraid to step up to the plate and take care of Jay. I was an honors student, had a 4.3 GPA, played volleyball and soccer, and still waitressed three shifts a week. I was doing fine.
Resigned to Willie’s lecture, I stared out of the window.
And then the light caught my eye.
At first, I dismissed it, thought maybe it was the beam from a flashlight. I was parked on Route 6, and the light was far out, somewhere on the open land between me and Rowe. It was hazy in the faint glow of Rowe’s streetlights, but definitely there.
I rolled down the window for a closer look, squinting through the darkness. The beam had widened, and I was sure I saw pastel shades in the light.
“You there, Mia?”
“Yeah,” I said, though, of course, I wasn’t. Whatever was out there had my full attention. It was like a reflection in one of those crazy mirrors at the State Fair—you expect to see reality, but what you get is indistinct and unreal. “Willie, I’ll call you back.”
“You’re pissed at me.”
“Course not.” I watched, mesmerized. “I’ll call you back.”
Hanging up the phone, I stepped out of the car. The light danced in the breeze, the colors deepening. Red and blue and gold, the shades were vibrant against the surrounding silvery mist.
As I tried to rationalize what I was seeing, maybe fireworks or marsh gas, my peripheral vision caught a shadow low to the ground. Amovingshadow, close to the light. It drifted to the left and, suddenly free of the light’s glare, took form. It was a figure, hooded and cloaked, though I knew it must be a trick of the eye; there had been nothing but the light a second ago. Alone on a deserted road, with who knew what out there in the fields, I backed up to Rusty.
The moon broke free of the drifting clouds.
And then they were gone.
The light. The shape. They both vanished.
Mildly spooked, I climbed back into the car. Whatever had been out there wasn’t there now. It was just the same old fields. The same old lights on Rowe. Still, I locked the door behind me.
By the time I reached the Bakers’ to pick up Jay, I’d banished the incident into the “crazy story to tell Willie” category. Mrs. Baker answered the door with the widest smile I’d seen in days. She always made me feel welcome. Shrieks and screams came from somewhere inside the house.
“They’re slaughtering orcs in the living room,” she said. “Come on through.”
I headed in to find Jay and his best friend, Stacey Ann, sprawled on the rug, Wii control pads clutched in their hands. Both turned when I entered, Stacey staring through those horrific glasses that magnified her eyes to twice their natural size, Jay brushing his wild mop of curly hair from his face. Picture any painting of a cherub. That’s Jay Stone. Right down to the chubby baby cheeks and wide puppy-dog eyes. It’s clear we only shared a father; my hair was chocolate brown, Jay’s was more creamy caramel.
I got a chirpy “Hi, Mia,” from Stacey Ann and a long groan from Jay.
“I love you, too,” I said. “Time to lock and load.”
As Jay packed up his Wii, Mrs. Baker saw me back to the door. “Thanks again for watching him,” I said. “Pete . . .”
I paused. What could I say? That Pete was probably off drinking again, infecting the world with his soul-sapping outlook on life, when he’d known I’d had to work? Or that I’d arrived home from school to find Jay alone again at the house with the door unlocked? And Onaly Crossing less than a ten-minute drive on the highway . . .
“I just don’t like leaving him alone with—”
Mrs. Baker put her hand to my arm. “He’s welcome here, Mia. Anything you need. Any time. Just call.”
I offered her a relieved smile. “Thanks.”
Jay burst into the hallway with Stacey Ann glued to his side. “Ready,” he said.
I grabbed him in a headlock, then marched him through the yard to the car. Rusty started on the first turn.
“That isn’t why it starts, you know,” said Jay, his feet up against the dashboard.
“I don’t know what you mean,” I replied, innocently.
“That stupid tapping thing you do. It’s just acar.”
I revved the engine, grinning ear to ear. “Hasn’t failed me yet.”
“Yet,” said Jay. He waved to Stacey Ann as we pulled away.
By the time we arrived home, I was ready to call it quits. Only homework waited on my desk. Jay had other plans. We’d no sooner entered the kitchen than the Wii was out of his pack.
“Hold on one minute,” I said. “Homework.”
“Did it at Stacey Ann’s.”
I’d heard that one before.
He tossed a piece of paper onto the kitchen table. It was a detailed pencil sketch of our house. Memories flashed as soon as I saw it. It was the same assignment I’d had when I first moved to Crownsville. I remembered it clearly.
My art teacher, Mrs. Shankles—Cankle Shankles—had instructed us to draw our homes. I’d sat in the yard with my sketch pad. A few lines here, a few lines there. Porch. Windows. A couple of bushes, a couple trees. How easy was that?
But Cankles had been far from impressed. “You haven’t tried, Mia,” she’d said. “There’s no detail. Nolife. I know you have more in you.”
I don’t think she ever realized how deeply I took those words.
I’d hid my grade from Pete, not that he’d been remotely interested. Then I’d taken my sketch pad back to the yard. I’d sat. I’d looked. I’d tried tofeelthe house and its land. Over the next two hours, I’d drawn it again. And Mrs. Shankles had been right; there was so much more to see. The wraparound porch sank to the right. The warped white siding had faded to gray. The green paint on the shutters was chipped. The walnut tree. The gravel driveway. I’d never noticed how much detail there was here. But from then on, I saw it. From then on, I stopped thinking about Grandma and Des Moines and started living in Crownsville.
I looked at Jay’s drawing. He’d already noticed what had taken me so long to see.
“That’s awesome, Jay,” I said proudly, but tactfully. Jay wasn’t big on fuss. “You should go to art camp this summer.”
Jay was rifling through the snack drawer, completely unimpressed. “Art camp?” he blurted. “Too busy with baseball, Mia.”
I laughed. Jay was a kid who knew exactly where he was going in life. I often wished I was more like him.
I waited at the kitchen table, the picture in my hand as Jay headed up to his room. There was a lot I didn’t get about the world, but nothing shocked me more than what had happened to Jay. Jay’s mom was my dad’s second wife, and Jay had lived with them until Dad bailed again and the wife took revenge on him by dumping her four-year-old son with Pete! I mean, where do these people come from? At least Jay had our dad for a time, I guess. I wouldn’t have known the guy if he’d hit me over the head with a mallet.
So, though Jay was my dad’s kid and, therefore, not actually Pete’s blood, Pete had taken him in too, and I’d gained the brother I’d always wanted. Don’t get me wrong. Pete was pretty much useless. But he had saved Jay from a life without family, and he’d given me a family in the process.
I placed Jay’s picture on the table, then headed for the shower to wash the scent of Mickey’s fried chicken out of my hair. I’d barely settled in to study when the sound of Pete’s truck brought me to my bedroom window.
Pete stood in the driveway, takeout bag in one hand, six-pack in the other. He looked out over the moonlit cornfields that bordered our land. His shoulders were back, his chin was up, and though I couldn’t see his face, I knew his gaze swept those fields.
I frowned. It was so unlike Pete, who invariably stumbled when he arrived home this late. I quickly scanned the cornfield. There was nothing there. Yet Pete remained fixated on the horizon. I remembered the light and the shadow in front of Rowe.
“Maybe we’re both cracking up,” I said to myself. But I wondered if I wasn’t the only one to have seen something strange that night.