Part One

Bluff City

Chapter One

 

“GET OUT.”

I didn’t look up. The soccer game I was playing on my cell phone had gotten pretty intense, and I couldn’t afford the distraction.

“I mean it, Zavier. Get out. Now.”

Mom sounded serious. I paused the game and looked up at her. “What?”

“Don’t ‘what’ me. You heard what I said. I want you out of this house.”

“Wait—”

“No. Out. Now.”

“Mom, please. Don’t do this.”

She came into the room, towering over the bed where I was slumped with my back against the headboard. Mom’s kind of tall, and her standing there like that was pretty intimidating. There was a peanut butter sandwich and a glass of milk on the nightstand next to me, untouched. I hadn’t noticed Mom’s attempt to feed me. No telling how long the food had been there. The bread was probably dried out and the milk all warm and icky by now.

“Okay, I’m going.” I scooted to the foot of the bed and stood up.

“Leave the phone,” she said.

What?”

“Do not take that phone with you. It stays.”

I put down the phone. As I walked past my desk, I spotted my iPad next to a stack of books Mom wanted me to read this summer. Turning my body at an awkward angle to hide the motion, I reached for the iPad.

“Don’t take the iPad either,” Mom snapped. “Just get out of my sight.”

She followed me like a guard escorting a prisoner, up the hall, through the living room, and to the front door. I stepped outside. The bright blue afternoon sky was clear. I squinted against the glare of the sun, a mole rat flushed out of its burrow.

“I don’t want to see you again until dinnertime,” Mom said, standing in the door behind me. “Take in that fresh air. Get some exercise. Have some fun.”

“I was having fun before you came along.”

She shut the door in my face.

I turned and looked out over the houses lining my street. Have some fun, she said. Right. See, the thing about this street was that the other kids who lived on it were either way older or way younger than me. Take Marquis Loeffler, for instance, who lived right next door. He was nineteen, had a mustache, a motorcycle, and a girlfriend. Directly across the street from him lived Glenda Teague, a five-year-old whose idea of a grand ole time was sitting on her front porch talking to a bunch of purple plastic unicorns. So yeah, there just wasn’t a whole lot of fun a thirteen-year-old could have with kids like them.

Fortunately, my best friend Cole Tannon lived only a couple of streets away. I jumped on my skateboard, which I’d left behind one of the bushes lining the front of the house, and immediately set off for his place. Summers are mean in Memphis. It was just a little past noon, and already the air was so hot you could toss a raw steak at the sky and the meat would be sizzling by the time it came down. All you’d have to do is catch it on a plate and dinner is served. There was no breeze to speak of. Sweat was creeping down my neck when I got to Cole’s house a few minutes later.

Cole’s dad once tripped over my skateboard walking out of his house and nearly fell down the steps, which was totally my fault for leaving the thing in the middle of his porch. The way I see it, killing your best bud’s dad would put a crimp or two in the friendship. That’s why I got into tucking my skateboard out of the way when I was done with it. At Cole’s, I stashed it behind the big potted plant on the porch and rang the bell.

The door opened within seconds, sending out this wonderful gush of cool air to greet me. Cole’s big sister, Lolo, smirked when she saw me. Her real name was Lorelai, but that had been too much of a mouthful for Cole when he was a toddler, and he’d come up with a version his little tongue could handle. The nickname stuck with her like a tattoo. “Well, hello there, Half-Brain,” she welcomed me. “I was wondering when you’d show up.”

“Hi, Lo,” I said with a big smile, a play on words that never got old with me. I ignored her taunt. She was seventeen, bigger than me, strong, and not above forcing your own finger up your nose if you annoyed her, so I routinely ignored most of her taunts. You’d best believe, though, that in my half a brain I was throwing all kinds of snappy comebacks at her. Like Loco Lolo. And Ski Slope. The girl had such a high forehead you could cover it in snow and host the winter Olympics on it. “Is Cole home?”

She stepped aside to let me in. “No-Brain’s back there in his room. You remember where that is or do you need me to draw you a map?”

“Thanks, I’m good.” I hurried away from her before she could lob another insult—she tossed them like grenades whenever I came around—and went down the hall to Cole’s room. The air-conditioning was working overtime here, not like at my house where Mom and Dad kept the thermostat set on toaster oven to save money. The coolness was so sweet I could’ve curled up in a corner and hibernated for a couple of days.

Cole was sitting on the floor, his back against the closet door, laser-focused on the game he was playing on his phone. We were a lot alike: same age, same body type (short and skinny), same allergy to tree nuts (but not peanuts, which seemed strange to me until I found out a peanut isn’t actually a nut). We loved rap music, flaming hot Cheetos, horror movies and game apps, and we hated baseball, broccoli, brussels sprouts, and bad CGI. He was my brother from another mother. And father. If it weren’t for the fact that he was dark-skinned with dreads and I was light-skinned with a modified Afro-Mohawk, you’d probably look at us hanging out together and think we were actual siblings. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking on my part because I wanted so much for him to be my brother.

“Hey,” I said as I threw myself on his bed.

“What up, Zay?” He didn’t look at me. His glasses had slipped from the bridge of his nose down to his nostrils, but he was so into the game he wouldn’t even pause long enough to push the dang things back up again. “What’re you doing here?”

“My mom kicked me out.”

“Well. That sucks.”

“She bugged me all morning, telling me I should be out getting exercise. Who exercises in hundred-degree heat, huh? Tell me that.”

“See, that’s why I’m glad my mom and dad both work nice long hours. Keeps ’em outta my hair, you know what I mean?”

“Yeah.” My mom worked too but as an English teacher at a high school on the other side of town. That meant she was home most of the summer. I leaned forward to look at the screen on Cole’s phone. He was in a battle with zombies who kept popping out of the floor, the ceiling, and the walls. “Is that a new game?”

“Yeah. Zombie Mania. I just downloaded it.”

“Looks intense. I wanna play.”

“Let me finish this session and I’ll switch it over to PlayStation so I can beat that ’fro-hawk off your head.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon cutting down hordes of marauding zombies, so into the game that we lost track of time and everything else. Engrossed. That was one of the words on the vocabulary list my mom had me studying this summer, and it definitely described Cole and me. We didn’t tune back in to reality until Loco Lolo stuck her head in the room.

“Hey, dead heads!” She walked over and stood between us and the television, forcing Cole to put the game on pause.

“Do you think you’re invisible or what?” Cole grumbled at her.

Lolo raised her eyebrows at him. “I made tuna salad for my friends,” she said. “I came to ask if you guys wanted a sandwich, but it sounds like you’re not gonna let me be nice to you, so….” She waved goodbye and started to leave.

It was only when she mentioned tuna salad that I realized I hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast, about seven hours ago, and that I was starving. I jumped up. “Wait.”

Lolo stopped and then turned dramatically back to us. “Ah. So you guys are hungry, huh?”

Cole and I looked at each other. His stomach growled. I’d heard monster truck engines that weren’t as loud.

Lolo smiled. “Well, now you’re going to have to beg.”

Cole and I got on our knees. When it comes down to it, an empty stomach takes precedence over dignity every time.

 

 

MUSIC AND laughter drifted from the kitchen as Cole and I trailed behind Lolo. When we entered I saw her friends, Brandy and Maya. They were twin sisters, pretty, brown, and long-legged, decked out in the bright colors they liked. Brandy’s Memphis Grizzlies T-shirt was lemon yellow, and Maya’s blouse was neon pink, topping matching pairs of red jeans. They were dancing around to the bouncy beats playing from one of their phones. When the heck had they gotten here?

“Cole,” Maya sang out when she caught sight of us. “Look at you in your little geek-boy glasses.” She shifted her gaze over to include me. “And Zay. I swear you little fellas get cuter every time I see you.”

Lolo rolled her eyes as she went to the fridge to get the tuna salad. “Watch it, Maya. Their heads are swollen enough already.”

“They’re not just hearing it from me,” Maya went on. “I’ll bet all the little girls around here are crazy about them. Isn’t that right, Cole?”

“Not really,” Cole answered honestly, pushing his glasses back in place with his finger. “Most of the girls I know throw rocks when they see me coming.”

“You just wait a couple of years,” Maya replied. “Those little gals will be tossing kisses at you, believe me.”

“Oh God, Maya,” Brandy groaned. “We didn’t come over here for this. Lorelai, when is Jaxon gonna get here? And how am I supposed to talk to him with these brats hanging around?”

“Just let me fix them some sandwiches,” Lolo said. “Then I can chase ’em into the backyard or something and we can work on getting you a date for the festival.”

Lolo made Cole and me each a tuna sandwich, which she placed on paper plates with piles of corn chips. She let us get cans of cherry soda from the fridge and then made us take our food back to Cole’s room, where we were ordered to stay for at least the next hour. Which was fine, because after we killed our hunger pangs, we went right back to killing zombies.

My name is Zavier “Zay” Beckham, and that was my life on Tuesday, June 22—fun, happy, uncomplicated.

June 22 was the day my world changed forever.

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

EVENING WAS coming on when I cruised down the street on my skateboard, heading home. With the sun in the western sky, the day had gotten a bit cooler, and that brought out the smaller kids, who were riding bikes, running through sprinklers or shooting hoops in their driveways.

Marquis Loeffler was outside in his shaded driveway, polishing the chrome parts of his motorcycle. He just had on a pair of old, soft-looking jeans with big, frayed holes in the knees and the front of one thigh and some beat-up old high-tops. Man, the muscles in his arms and chest… I wish I had muscles like that. I was kind of staring, and then out of the blue, Marquis looked my way. Jeez! I turned my head, but he’d caught me.

“Hey, short stuff!” he called out.

I threw him a wave without looking back.

When I swooped around from the street into my own driveway, I saw Dad was there, washing his car. That was all I saw before a blast of water smacked me dead in the face, forcing me to stumble backward off my skateboard.

“Direct hit!” Dad shouted.

I stood there like a tree that had sprouted up through the driveway, holding my arms out to either side. Soaked from head to waist, I wiped water from my eyes. Dad waited beside his sudsy sedan in jeans and T-shirt, holding the nozzle of the water hose in his hand like some kind of gun. He was smiling—evilly, I might add.

“Okay, it’s on.” I tried to say that with a snarl, but too much grin crept into it. Screaming out a battle cry, I charged.

Dad brought the nozzle up and fired.

I ducked, and the spray caught me in the shoulder. Shifting from a head-on assault, I ran off to my left and started to circle around Dad, trying to get behind him. He turned with me, keeping the jet of water on target much of the way, drenching me completely. But I was too fast for him. With a yell, I leaped and latched on to his back, wrapping my arms and legs around him like an octopus.

Dad was a firefighter. In the downtime between calls at the station, he worked out a lot, so in addition to being well over six feet tall, he was muscular and strong as heck. I struggled, trying to pull him backward, hoping my weight would throw him off-balance and bring him down on the lawn. It was like trying to topple a tree.

“Come on, kid,” Dad teased. “You can do better than that.”

“Yeah! I can!” Well, no, actually I couldn’t. Gritting my teeth, growling deep in my throat, I tried again and again with all my strength to jerk him backward. All my strength wasn’t worth much. I could no more move the man than I could move his car.

And then Dad casually raised the nozzle, aimed it over his shoulder, and blasted me smack in the face.

I held on for maybe another five seconds before the strong, stinging spray forced me to let go and drop. On the ground I scrambled to get away. Again Dad stayed on target, blasting me with water, and it was only when I reached the other side of the yard that I got beyond the range of that stupid nozzle.

“Okay! Okay! I give!” Laughing, I threw up both hands.

“Not so fast, son,” Dad said. “There are terms to your surrender.”

“Aw, come on! You killed me here already.”

Dad raised the nozzle and started marching toward me.

“All right! Okay, Dad! What’re your terms?”

He stopped. “You help me finish washing my car, then your mom’s.”

“That’s blackmail… or something.”

“Well, do you want to go for the best two out of three?” He raised the nozzle again.

“And get drowned? No thanks.”

Dad laughed. “Such a smart kid.”

We grabbed sponges and started scrubbing down opposite sides of Dad’s car. “Your mom tells me she chased you off to romp through the great outdoors,” Dad said.

“Yeah, she did.”

He studied me suspiciously over the hood of the car for a few seconds. “And you spent the whole afternoon playing video games in one of your friend’s houses, didn’t you?”

I’m sure the smile I gave him was way smug—another word from my vocabulary list.

“See,” Dad said, smiling and pointing a finger at me, “that’s why I just tried to drown you.”

“You’re a cruel, cruel man.”

“Well, sneaky boy, cruel man has a proposition for you.”

“First tell me what ‘proposition’ means.” I could add the word to my vocabulary list and impress Mom, who always said I should show more initiative.

“I’m going to make you an offer. Your mom has to attend some kind of English teachers’ symposium next month. She just found out that it’s being held in Orlando. I was thinking we could make Orlando the family vacation this year. I’ll take some time off, and we’ll go down with your mom. After she finishes her meeting, we can do Walt Disney World, visit the Kennedy Space Center, and check out the Universal Orlando Resort. How does that sound?”

I couldn’t hide my excitement. “That’d be great, Dad.”

“It’s a plan, then. I’ll start making the arrangements after dinner.”

 

 

THE SUN was riding low on the horizon when we finished with the cars. I felt tired but happy as we put away the hose, bucket, and sponges and made our way into the house. Mom met us at the kitchen door.

“You two look as if you washed yourselves down more than you did the cars,” she said. “Take off those wet clothes and get cleaned up. Dinner will be ready in about thirty minutes.”

The place smelled of salmon croquettes and roasted corn on the cob. Not one of my favorite meals, but after that workout Dad put me through I was starving again and willing to eat just about anything. I took a quick shower and dressed in a clean pair of basketball shorts and a tank top. I grabbed my phone and walked into the living room to watch television until it was time to eat. Before turning on the television, I stopped in the middle of the room to check for messages.

There was a long series of texts from Kerry, a guy I knew from school. He lived about two miles away, but we still hung out from time to time. His texts started out trying to get me to meet him at the Cineplex to catch the new Avengers movie. When he got no response, he texted that he was going to the movie without me. After the movie he texted again and again, and of course he still got no response. His last text, sent just six minutes ago, really showed his frustration: R U DEAD OR WHAT?

I sent a message to let Kerry know I’d just gotten my phone back. As if on cue, Mom spoke up behind me. “Zavier, I’m starting to think that cell phone is a part of your hand.”

“Come on, Mom. I haven’t had it for hours. I’m just trying to get caught up on my text messages.”

She walked into the room and stood in front of me. Gently, she reached out, took me by the chin, and lifted my face away from the phone screen. “What about your reading and vocabulary lists? Are you trying to get caught up on those?”

“I’m halfway through the vocabulary words.”

“That’s good. Where are you on the reading list?”

“Uh….”

“So you haven’t read even one of the books yet, is that it?”

“I’m gonna get to them, Mom.”

“When, Zavier? You always put things off. This is almost the end of June. In three weeks, we’re going to be on vacation in Orlando. Do you really want to spend that time sitting in a hotel room catching up on your summer reading while your dad and I are out having all the fun?”

“Wow. You didn’t have to go all nuclear on me. Okay, Mom. I’ll start reading a book after dinner. I promise.”

She smiled, leaned down, and kissed my forehead. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Come on and set the table. Dinner’s ready.”

“Just let me text my friend back and I’ll be right there.”

Mom returned to the kitchen, and I checked out the text Kerry had just sent demanding to know how I’d gotten deprived of my phone. For a couple of minutes, we texted on that subject. Finally I let him know that I had to go and that I’d have to catch up with him later. Just as I sent that message, someone knocked at the front door.

I raised my head. Through the glass in the door, I could see a woman with short pale-blonde hair peering in at me. She waved, smiling. “Hi there,” she said, her voice muffled by the glass and wood.

I went to the door and opened it. The woman was slender, not as tall as my mom but just as pretty. She wore dark blue pants and a white blouse and a blue cotton blazer. Her smile brightened a little now that we stood face-to-face. She seemed friendly enough until she pulled out a badge and held it up in front of me. “Hello. Is this the Beckham residence?”

“Yes, ma’am.” A shiver went through my chest into my stomach.

“Are your parents at home?”

Before I could answer her, Dad called out, “Is someone at the door?”

“Yeah,” I called back. “It’s the police.”

There was sort of a giant pause, as if the whole house held its breath for a second. The lady cop and I stood looking at each other, which got major awkward really fast. Then Mom and Dad came into the living room at the same time. I glanced back at them. They both looked puzzled at first, but they quickly broke out with smiles.

“Zavier, don’t keep her standing out there,” Mom chided. “Let her in.”

I stepped aside, and the lady cop walked in. She extended her hand, shaking first with Mom and then with Dad. “Hello,” she said. “You’re Charles and Rudi Beckham?”

“That’s us,” Dad replied. “How can we help you, Officer?”

“I’m not a police officer,” the woman said, holding out her badge to them. “My name is Audra Henley. I’m an agent with the FBI.”

There was just a glimmer of worry in Mom’s eyes. “Well, my goodness. Why’re you here, Agent Henley?”

“I’d like to talk with you and your husband, Mrs. Beckham.” The woman started to say something else but stopped and flicked a look at me.

Mom and Dad looked at me too.

“Hey, kid,” Dad said. “Why don’t you go on out to the kitchen and get the table set? Then I want you to wait there for your mom and me. We’ll be in as soon as we finish talking with Agent Henley.”

“Okay, Dad.” I usually did what I was told. Something about this whole situation had me nervous, however. I walked out of the living room but didn’t go to the kitchen. I let the louvered door swing shut after I stepped into the hall and then quietly pressed my back against the wall. That kept me close enough to the living room to hear everything going on in there.

“Please have a seat, Agent Henley,” Mom said. Rustling sounds followed as the three of them sat down. “Now, tell us what brings you around.”

Agent Henley cleared her throat. “I’m here about your son.”