This is the 9th installment of the book I am currently writing. It is Sci-Fi/Adventure for young adult. It is not part of the Oz Chronicle series. The first draft is completed, and it is currently under review by my beautiful editor and wife, so the final version of the book will most likely look a bit different than what you read here, but I thought you might like to see a work in progress. Click on the “Lost Days Book” category on the right to read from the beginning. Or you can click here.
The temperature had dropped a good ten degrees by the time I left Owen’s house. I wasn’t prepared for the chill that hit me when I headed down Clark Street on my way home. The wind grew in intensity with each step. I folded my arms in front of my chest and tried to pull every bit of me in as close as I could to preserve body heat. I put my head down and picked up my pace, cursing the wind and the cold and anything else I could blame for the stupidity of cold weather.
I turned the corner onto Placid Avenue, excited that I just had two blocks to go. I looked up and stopped suddenly when I saw a beat up pickup truck with more rust spots than paint parked a half a block away from my house. Leaning up against the front grill of the truck, smoking a cigarette was Uncle Crew’s friend from the night before. He was even bigger when we were on the same level. He had one foot on the bumper of the truck, and was sucking intently on his cigarette. He didn’t notice me at first. I stepped forward and crunched a small pile of dried leaves beneath my feet. He looked up mid-exhale and smiled. Even from this distance, I could see that he was missing a tooth and the rest were a yellowish brown. He nodded as I passed. I was too scared to return the gesture. I passed the truck and sprinted the rest of the distance to my front door. As I turned the knob, I looked over my shoulder and was horrified to discover that he had moved to the back of the truck. His foot now resting on the back bumper, he waved as I practically tore the door off the hinges to get inside and away from his prying eyes and rotting teeth.
I stood in the foyer for a few minutes fighting hyperventilation. I doubled over and placed my hand on my chest, feeling slightly more upset that I could feel the thumping of my heart through my sweater.
Mom came down the stairs and was a little alarmed to see me so frazzled. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“Who’s that guy?” I said in between heavy breaths.
“Guy?” She asked moving to the foyer. She looked out the tiny window at the side of the door. “What guy?”
“The guy standing by the truck?”
Mom strained to see every inch of road visible through the window. “I don’t see a truck.”
I joined her at the window. He wasn’t there. “He’s gone.”
She looked at me with even more concern. “Did he hurt you, sweetie?”
I shook my head.
She grabbed my hand. “Are you sure?”
“Mom,” I said sounding critical and disgusted. “God no! He was just creepy looking.”
Mom rolled her eyes. “You think anyone over 30 is creepy looking.”
“Whatever,” I said.
“I…” I stopped myself. I wanted to tell her I had seen him the night before with Uncle Crew, but it would start a conversation about the murdered woman, and the feet, and Bigfoot. Frankly, I didn’t have the energy to have that conversation. “Most people over 30 are creepy looking,” I said walking away.
“I cannot wait until you’re 30, and I can throw that back in your face.”
I could feel her eyes on me my entire climb up the stairs. I quickened my pace and practically skipped to my room in a feeble attempt to put the whole embarrassing moment behind me. Really, what was so scary about the guy? Sure, he kind of looked like a serial killer, and I bet he’s had a run in or two with the law, but that’s no reason to be scared of him. I mean so what if he was waiting suspiciously in front of my house just as I was coming home.
Grover was sitting on his bed when I entered my room. He jumped when he heard me and hid something under his pillow.
“What you doing, squirt?” I asked.
He refused to look at me. “Nothing.”
“What did you put under your pillow?”
He gritted his teeth. “Why you always butting into my business?”
“C’mon, fess up.”
I approached him, and he darted his hand under the pillow and pulled whatever it was out and hid it behind his back.
“Cough it up or I’m going to tell mom you have one of her magazines again.”
“Shut up! That’s a lie!”
I held out my hand.
He shot me a death glare and then slapped the object in my hand. It was a newspaper clipping. I uncrumpled it and read the headline out loud.
“Steven’s County Toddler Still Missing.” I sat down on Grover’s bed and continued to read. “A Steven’s county man holds out hope that his missing four-year-old boy is still alive even though the authorities have long since given up the search. For Hank Stanton it has been an especially trying time…” I looked at Grover. “Granddaddy… Where did you get this?”
“The garage,” he said. “In a box under his workbench.” He scooted closer to me and lowered his voice. “It’s a story about Uncle Crew. He’s the toddler. Granddaddy’s wife… the one before Nana Taffy… she was driving on this mountain road. It was icy and she lost control. The car went over a cliff. When the rescue people got there, she was dead, and Uncle Crew wasn’t anywhere to be found.”
I skimmed the story for more details, but other than Granddaddy being devastated that his wife was dead and his son was missing there wasn’t much more to it. The story was written six months after the accident.
“I bet that’s why Uncle Crew is crazy. He hit his head or something,” Grover said as he gently took the clipping from me.
“How did he survive?” I asked no one in particular.
Grover shrugged. “Wolves or something.”
“He was raised by wolves or something. It happens.”
I took the clipping back from him. “Don’t be ridiculous.” I stood. “C’mon.”
“Where we going?”
“The garage. We’re putting this back were you found it.”
“Aww, do we have to?”
“Yes. This is private stuff.”
“It was in the newspaper. How’s that private?”
“Because it is. It belongs to Granddaddy, and we need to put it back before he gets home.”
Grover pushed out his bottom lip and pouted as he stood. I stepped back and let him lead the way.
He clomped through the house as if I were making him do the most terrible task on the planet. We passed through the kitchen, avoiding any conversation with mom and Nana Taffy, and marched out the door and to the garage. I was immediately struck by the smell of cigarettes as we entered. Granddaddy didn’t smoke, and I was pretty sure Uncle Crew didn’t either. I should have turned Grover around and exited the garage immediately, but I passed it off as a harmless phenomenon and followed Grover to the far right corner of the garage.
“Where’s the light?” I asked.
“The switch is on that wall,” Grover said pointing to the wall next to the workbench.
I stumbled through the dark ahead of Grover. The smell of cigarettes was much stronger now. The light suddenly came on and I swallowed a scream when I saw Uncle Crew’s friend standing by the workbench, smoking a cigarette.
“That better?” he asked.
Grover grabbed my hand.
I stood frozen. I wanted to yell for help, but my mouth went completely dry. Running was out of the question because my knees were shaking so badly it was a wonder I could even stand. “Who… What…?” I couldn’t even decide which question to ask him.
“Jeremy Robinson,” he said much cheerier than I imagined a serial killer would sound. “My friends call me J-Rob though. You know like A-Rod, except instead of an ‘A’ it’s a ‘J’ and instead of an ‘od’ it’s a ‘ob,’ J-Rob.”
I felt Grover’s grip loosen. “You play baseball?”
“Huh?” The burly man asked.
“You know, like A-Rod,” Grover said.
The man put one hand on his hip and scratched his wooly beard with the other. “Nope, but I see how you could be lead to that conclusion. My fault. My fault. No sir, I do not play baseball. Can’t even stand the game if you want to know the truth.”
“What are you doing in here?” I asked.
“Waiting for Crew. Me and him, we’re friends. He calls me J-Rob. I told you that was my name, didn’t I?”
Grover looked up at me. I tried to give him a reassuring smile.
“My grandfather doesn’t like people in his garage,” I said.
“Hank?” J-Rob asked.
“You know him?” I asked.
“Sure,” J-Rob said. He took a drag from his cigarette. “Known Hank almost as long as I’ve known Crew.” He looked at my hand. “What’cha got there?”
Momentarily confused, I lifted the hand up and examined the piece of paper I was holding. I had completely forgotten why we came into the garage. “This? This… it’s nothing. We just came down here to put this back.”
“It’s a newspaper article,” Grover said.
I jerked on his hand and scrunched my face in disgust.
“It’s just some old story,” I said. “Not very interesting.”
“Were you raised by wolves, too?” Grover asked.
I jerked his hand even harder. “Oh my god, you’re such a spaz.”
“Wolves?” J-Rob held out his hand. “Let me see that article.”
“C’mon, I’ll give it back.”
“It doesn’t belong to us…”
“Please,” he said.
I had never heard of a serial killer using the word ‘please’ before. Could I have been wrong about this monster of a man that stood before Grover and me? I’m not sure why, but I felt compelled to give him the clipping. I slowly placed the article in his hand. I watched in amazement as he held the piece of paper a foot away from his face, and his eyes darted across the words on the clipping with almost lightning speed. He held the lit cigarette between his index and ring finger as he read, and squinted against the smoke that drifted across his field of vision. He handed the clipping back to me.
“Terrible and wonderful thing that was,” he said.
Ignoring the oddness of his statement I said, “You know about this?”
“Sure. Told you, me and Crew are friends. I know everything about him.”
“He was missing for six months?” I said in total disbelief.
“More like thirteen or fourteen. Can’t remember exactly. Crew knows. Knows from the second the car accident happened ‘til the day he was found by a group of whitewater rafters on the Kettle River.”
“How…” I started.
“How did he survive?” J-Rob asked for me. “That’s the million dollar question. That’s the question that you don’t ask unless you really, really, really want to know the answer.” He twirled his hand with the cigarette high in the air as if he were conducting an invisible orchestra. “That’s the question you ask only if you’re prepared to flip your life upside down.”
Grover and I looked at each other. J-Rob was twice as crazy as Uncle Crew.
“Is that what happened to you?” Grover asked. Normally I would have punched him on the shoulder for asking such a stupid question, but I wanted to know the answer myself.
J-Rob thought about the question and then let out a mucus-laden laugh. I could practically see his over-taxed lungs deflate in his chest. “I came to the party like this. I wasn’t surprised at all by what happened to Crew. You know why? Cause I seen them, too. I heard them. My dog was killed by one of them when I was a kid. Long before I met Crew. My life was flipped upside down and back again and upside down again about a dozen times before I had the pleasure of meeting your uncle.”
“Who killed your dog?” Grover asked. I could hear the concern in his voice.
“You sure you want to know the answer?” J-Rob asked. “You can’t go back once I tell ya.’ Simple science. Once you know a thing, you can’t unknow a thing.”
“We better get back in the house,” I said.
“No,” Grover barked. “I want to know.”
“No…” I said. “I mean I shouldn’t be letting you talk to a stranger and…” I looked at J-Rob. “No offense.”
“None taken. Ain’t nobody stranger than me.” He smiled and winked.
I smiled faintly and nodded. I was just about to turn and leave when I remembered why we came in the garage in the first place. I handed the clipping to Grover and said, “Put it back where you found it.”
He took it from me and stepped toward J-Rob. He stopped and looked up at him. “You’re in the way.”
J-Rob threw up his hands. “Sorry. Don’t mind me.” He stepped away from the workbench. Grover hurried to a wooden toolbox underneath the bench and opened it. I saw dozens of clippings before he put the article in the toolbox and closed it. He stood quickly and rejoined me.
“Well…” I said. “We need to go.”
“Fine,” he said. “Pleasure meeting you. Don’t worry. I won’t say a word about the… you know.” He pointed down at the toolbox.
I grabbed Grover’s hand and quick stepped it out of the garage. I came away from the encounter with one prevailing thought. As nice and harmless as he seemed to be, he was big enough to beat a woman to death.