THUNK, THUNK, thunk. The jostling slowed. The side-to-side jerking grew stronger. The thunk, thunk, thunk became louder. Something cool and hard pressed against Jesse’s cheek. “Up and at ’em, son.” The voice sounded strong and bassy. “Truckster’s got a flat.”
Jesse peeled open one eyelid. Through a bug-plastered window, he saw nothing but darkness and empty highway. A single sleepy blue eye stared back at him through the side mirror. “Where are we?” Jesse grumbled, dragging his tanned, callused hand down his face.
“Just outside of Decatur.”
“We’re in Alabama already?”
“Yep. Now, come on. Need to get that tire changed.”
The last of yet another weird dream faded, giving way to the reality of being on yet another desolate stretch of highway in the middle of nowhere. Had his father not told him their whereabouts, Jesse would’ve believed them to have been somewhere in Georgia still—the place where they’d been when he’d fallen asleep about four hours ago.
He hopped down from the oversized pickup truck and looked back to the camper attached. It was one of those long trailer-type deals they could park at a site, detach the truck, and have something to run to town in, since most of their stops landed right dead smack in the middle of nowhere. Most big cities had their own fairs or long-running contracts and didn’t seem too receptive of the idea of a traveling carnival coming through town. So, Macon Brothers’ Carnival always kept to the small towns, the kinds of places where everyone knew everyone else and family feuds lasted as long as time itself. They ended up in the kind of places bad movies were made of, where ghosts from ages past still haunted forgotten grounds.
“This side, son.”
Jesse swung around and followed his father’s voice to the driver’s side of the trailer. Sure enough, the back tire had split in two. Pretty much tore away from the rim completely.
“I’ll get the jack,” Jesse said to his dad.
Really, his pops was getting way too old to do all the travelling and heavy lifting anymore, but the man was stubborn as hell and refused to retire. The aches and pains and realizing he couldn’t lift things like he used to didn’t change his mind about throwing in the towel, and from the looks of it, he never would.
Jesse had an ulterior motive for wanting his dad out of the carny business. As long as his dad stayed in the world of tents and Ferris wheels, Jesse had to stay in it too. It was the way their family had always worked, even before his mom had died over a decade ago. Jesse was ready for it to come to an end. He wanted a normal life, like normal seventeen-year-olds. He wanted to go to school and go to prom and go on dates.
“You comin’, son?”
The hinges on the side panel squeaked when Jesse wrenched it open. He reached into one of the undercarriages and pulled out a hydraulic jack. Cars and trucks and eighteen-wheelers whipped by so fast the gusts of wind made him sway on his feet. He looked both ways and found the train of trucks carrying their rides coming up the hill in the distance. He reached in his pocket and pulled out his push-to-talk phone.
“Hey, Hoss? You there?” he said into the mic hole.
“Yeah, kiddo. What’s up?”
“We got a flat. I’m helping Pops change it. You guys just keep going, ’kay? We’ll catch up.”
“Sure thing. Catch you in Decatur.”
“See ya there, Hoss.”
Slipping the phone back in his pocket, Jesse ran his fingers through his hair. He took a look around, surveying the vast emptiness and the dark highway. It wasn’t any different than the other small towns they travelled to—nothing to do, no friends to hang out with, no way to escape the life his parents had made for him. Things could’ve been worse, he supposed. Kids all over the place had it far worse than he did.
“Son, ya gonna help me with this tire?”
“Sorry,” Jesse said. “I’m coming.”
He pulled the hydraulic lift behind him. It rattled as it rolled over the broken, uneven pavement. It made the loudest, most grating noise as it dragged gravel under its wheels. He pushed it beneath the camper and slid it into place, then jacked the trailer up until the flattened rubber lifted away from the ground.
“Wanna talk about it?” his dad asked out of the blue.
Jesse frowned, giving his pops a long, cold, confused look. “About what?”
“The dream you were having. You kept saying your mom’s name. Did you see her?”
The quiet admittance took a few long minutes to muster. He didn’t feel right just blurting out the fact he could still see his mom as clear as day, all the way down to the freckle to the left of her nose and the faint dimples hugging her lips. He’d been so young when she’d died. No way should he have remembered those details, but he did.
“Was she beautiful?” his dad asked, voice solemn and holding a hint of quiver.
“Yeah, she was.”
Pops nodded. Jesse could see his throat waving as if he’d just swallowed down a massive round of tears. “She was.” Clearly, the years didn’t make him miss her any less.
Jesse made sure to leave out the part about his pops being with his mom again in the dream. Everyone knew they had to die someday, but people rarely liked being reminded of the fact.
It took about thirty minutes to get the tire changed and for Jesse and his pops to get back on the road. His dad was adamant about stopping somewhere in Decatur and having the tire fixed. His dad had said he didn’t want to drive too long without a spare.
Decatur, Alabama, was about forty miles from where they’d broken down. Less than an hour later, they were pulling off Interstate 20 and into town.
They pulled the truck and the camper trailer down into the lot of a service station, and thankfully, right next door was one of those small-town diners that always had the biggest, juiciest burgers and the thickest milkshakes. Jesse’s mouth started to water.
“Pops, I’m going next door,” he said, thumbing over his shoulder. “You want something to eat?”
“Nah, just a coffee.”
“Dad, you need to eat something. How about soup and toast?”
His father wrinkled his nose. “See why I don’t want to eat?”
“Yeah.” Jesse snorted. “But the docs said low sodium and low fat.”
“Meaning low taste.”
“C’mon, pops. Work with me here.”
“Fine. Fine.” His dad held up both hands. “I’ll eat that crap as long as I can have coffee to go with it.”
“All right.” Jesse nodded. “I’ll be back.”
Jesse jogged across the parking lot, past a variety of cars that ranged from upper-class to half-dead junker. They lined the front of the diner, and it was honest to God a scene straight out of one of those old black-and-white sitcoms his pops would spend all night watching. The place had the warmth of a small town, a place where people had friends and the kids on the school football team were the town heroes. It was the kind of place Jesse could see him and his dad settling down in.
As soon as he opened the door, the scent of bacon and burgers and everything classic diners were made of wafted out into the air. Jesse took a deep breath and a smile tugged at his lips. His stomach rumbled. The last time he’d had a bite to eat was somewhere around the middle of Georgia… hours ago.
He stepped inside and took a look around. There were few empty seats. A variety of people stretched from one end of the diner to the other—old and young, black and white, men and women. It contradicted everything he thought he knew about small Alabama towns. He stepped up to the counter, and almost immediately, a smiling blonde woman greeted him.
“Can I help ya?” she asked. She had the thick Southern twang he loved.
“Can I get a….” Another thing he loved about coming down south was nearly every single restaurant carried sweet tea, and Southerners made it better than anyone else in the world. “A giant sweet tea and plain bacon cheeseburger.”
“Sure thang, darlin’.”
“Oh, and I need a large veggie soup with a side of wheat toast to go.”
The waitress nodded and she spun around, bright golden ponytail whipping behind her. She bounced back toward the stacks of glasses and the bin of ice. He’d never seen anyone who looked so happy to be at work. She set the tea down on the counter in front of him, and he thanked her.
Another twangy voice caught his ear. It had the bassy depth of a man’s voice but still very smooth with youth. It lilted in the most curious way. He turned on the bench, and standing behind him was one of the hottest black guys he’d ever seen, like melt-the-mercury-in-a-thermometer hot. His skin was light brown, like the color of one of the old-fashioned milkshakes the diner served. His black hair was shaved tight to his scalp and meticulously etched around the edges. His eyes were a light shade of olive brown. A navy blue T-shirt hugged his torso. J. Crew was written in yellow across his pecs. The jeans he wore were loose and faded, and his sneakers had to be top of the line.
“Tate,” another boy called from the corner of the diner. He was cute but not hot like his friend. He looked like a jock, like one of the popular kids in school.
They slapped palms together, and then Tate slid into the booth beside his friend. A few other guys surrounded them, but Jesse got the distinct feeling Tate and the other guy were closer to each other than the rest. They sat practically shoulder to shoulder. When they spoke to each other, they leaned away from their friends. They even looked at each other differently. Jesse realized he was staring.
Before he could pull himself away, Tate looked up from his friends, and their eyes met. He had the kind of stare that could swallow a guy’s soul. Tate smiled, and it elicited a crooked grin from Jesse. He tucked a long lock of sandy blond hair behind his ear and promptly turned back toward the counter. A plate of fries and a healthy mound of bacon cheeseburger sat there waiting for him. His tea glass had even collected a small pool of condensation around its base. He poured ketchup onto the edge of his plate and dug in.
Jesse could still feel eyes at his back, like someone was staring. He wanted to swing around, wanted to know if he’d caught Tate’s eye in that special way, but he didn’t do it. Wouldn’t have done any good to know. In two very, very short weeks, it would be time to leave Decatur for the next little town. Leaving hurt less if he didn’t have to leave friends behind, so Jesse never bothered, and he wouldn’t bother now. Nope. He’d eat his burger and drink his tea, and then he would take his father some food and they’d get to work, readying the site for the carnival to start in the next three days.
The burger melted on his tongue. It was probably the best he’d ever had, or maybe he needed food that bad. Either way, it satisfied his hunger and satisfied his craving. The grumbling in his stomach stopped.
As soon as he took the last bite, he glanced over his shoulder just to settle his curiosity. Tate was still back there and still checking him out, but it didn’t look like either of them would have the guts to make a move. Or maybe he was reading into something that wasn’t there.
He paid his tab, grabbed his dad’s food, and safely curled it in his arms. The urge to say hello to the hot guy in the corner nagged and nagged, but he made sure to ignore it this time. He had almost two weeks to work up the nerve, and he was pretty certain he’d run into Tate again. Decatur wasn’t that huge a town, and Jesse had just ridden in with the most excitement it’d seen since the last time the carnival had come through.
“’Bout time,” his pops said from the edge of the parking lot. A cloud of smoke hovered around his head. The man was supposed to be quitting. He hadn’t yet, but at least he didn’t go through two packs a day anymore. “I’m starvin’.”
“Sorry,” Jesse said, handing over the bag.
“The trailer’s done.”
“How far are we from the site?”
“About fifteen miles west.”
“I can warm it up for you when we get there.”
“Yeah.” His pops took a look around. “Might be the best idea.”
They both climbed back up into the truck. The engine roared as his father pulled forward, hauling something close to a ton of metal housing on the back. It jerked and jostled and groaned as he drove over bumps and potholes. Jesse watched out the window as they pulled away from the diner. What he was watching for, he wasn’t sure until he saw Tate stepping out of the diner’s door. The guy flattened his hand and shaded his eyes, like he was searching for something the sun made it impossible to see. Jesse prayed the guy might be looking for him.