Jack walks home the back way, up Hester, to avoid the noise on the Pike for a few blocks. The windows of the few houses along the street glow with orange and yellow light.
Turning onto Green Street, which has no streetlights, the pitch of the night’s darkness reveals itself.
Events from the day play back in his mind. Boone wanted to come by tonight to play some StarCraft. Too late for that now. He shoots him a quick text: no cando 2night. He resists thinking of anything else, instead looking ahead to the relaxing night and satisfying meal ahead. And then the crushing thought of his homework crashes the party. The kitchen cleanup comes in right behind it.
Maybe I’ll get up early and do it.
There’s usually no traffic on Green Street. So, even though Jack is preoccupied by his inner dialog as he saunters down the sidewalk, flapping the plastic grocery bag against his leg, he can’t help but notice the incongruous sound of a car idling.
But once he notices it, it occurs to him that it’s been idling for an unnaturally long time. What’s more, and what strikes him as particularly odd, is that he’s not passing the sound, nor is the sound passing him. He glances to the street and notices a dark SUV creeping along a few paces behind him, its headlights off.
He’s inside Melanee Homes now. He can see his place a few doors up and across the street. He doesn’t allow himself the thought that the vehicle is following him. Why would it be? Nonetheless, as he walks, it keeps inching along behind him.
He jots into the street in front of the SUV and crosses to the other side.
The SUV pulls up alongside him and he hears the servomotor of the passenger-side window. He looks over to it. The face of a big black man with a large, sparkling earring looks back at him.
It’s probably just somebody looking for directions, he figures. He can understand. Drivers often get lost in Melanee. It can be a labyrinth. He stops and faces the vehicle.
“Jack Ellis?” the man says.
Startled at first, Jack has a second thought that this might be one of Gary’s buddies. He looks the type: big guys from where he worked, weight-lifting jocks. But those guys drove around in old beaters, never a slick SUV like this.
He tries to think of who else this man could be. A teacher, or someone from school? Could he be somebody who works for the landlord, possibly here to evict him?
He kind of looks like a cop. But Jack dismisses that possibility out of hand. Cops don’t go around in unmarked SUVs like this. At least, not in this neighborhood. In the dark, Jack can just make out that this guy’s wearing a suit, not a police uniform. And it’s a nice suit, too, not a detective’s blazer. Why would cops be coming after him? Could his outrageous daydream in the grocery story actually be coming true? Impossible, he determines.
He plays it safe, opting not to engage with whomever this is. No good can come of it.
“Sorry,” he says with a shake of his head and a smile. He keeps walking. He plans to loop around a few trailers and come in the sliding doors in back of his house. No sense leading them right to him.
The vehicle guns its engine a little to catch up with him, bringing the man in the window alongside him again.
He smiles. “Jack. Why you got to be like that?”
Now Jack thinks it’s got to be one of Gary’s buddies. He’s acting too friendly.
“Okay, yeah. What’s up?” Jack stops and faces the man. “Sorry about before. I just . . .” he struggles for the words, “wasn’t in the mood to talk to anybody.”
The man flips open a wallet revealing a badge. “You’re going to need to talk to us.” His chummy demeanor is gone. Now he’s all business.
A cold chill goes up Jack’s spine and panic surges through his legs before it has a chance to reach his brain.
He cuts quickly to his right, through Janice’s yard. His heart goes from zero to one-sixty in an instant.
The SUV hits the brakes hard. Doors open and slam shut. Hard footsteps on gritty pavement follow.
Jack wonders how they could have seen him on the security camera. He was so careful. These guys seem more serious than cops. Could they be Feds? Do they know about the video-game downloads?
He has to think fast. He blocks out trying to figure out who these men are, and focuses instead on how to get away from them. He heads for home instinctively, but then thinks better of it. He can’t go home. They probably know where he lives. He cuts to the left.
As the gravity of the situation settles in his mind, he bounds over the dry creek, hops a short fence, and then cuts a hard right into the closest back yard. He hears footsteps on grass behind him, then the shaking of the fence.
He jumps the hedges between yards and cuts in front of the yellow place with all the dog statues, spinning ninety degrees by gripping a toddler swing set and darting across the drive. He angles quickly into the walkway between two large pole sheds at the end of the cul-de-sac.
That’s when, through the thin walkway between the sheds, he sees a second black SUV come to a sudden stop at the far end of the sheds.
He almost loses the last of his breath. He’s only gone a few yards, but feels like he’s run a marathon. He stops hard and cuts back. He hears footsteps running on gravel, but can’t see any of the men. How many men are there? he wonders. He can’t be sure.
Instead of coming back into the park, he dives into the weeds on the side of the left shed, behind a rusted wheelbarrow. He lies perfectly flat and still.
The siding of the pole shed flutters. Footsteps on the walkway. The chirp of a walkie-talkie.
“He may have come out the other end. Watch it on the side street. That’s Northridge Drive.” They seem to know the layout of this place as well as Jack does.
He remains still. The tall weeds, as well the darkness, should cover him. He decides he’ll outlast them. Then what? He can’t go home. Will he run away? What will he do with Grandpa? These men don’t seem like the sort of people who will just stop coming after him.
More footsteps. More radio static. A flashlight beam whips by.
“East bound. Over.”
By the sound of them, they’re further down the street, past the sheds. Jack doesn’t dare look up. He resists the urge to get up and run. They could be all around him. He’s better off hiding and keeping still, he reasons. They’ll never look in these weeds.
Another car door, and footsteps from the alley.
“Did he come out the alley?”
They pull on the door of the shed. A padlock shakes.
“Go back around.”
“Check the other.”
Jack closes his eyes. His mind and his heart race, and the stupidest little thoughts run through his mind. Why are you closing your eyes? What are you, four years old? If they’re going to find you, they’re going to find you.
He opens his eyes. The flashlight beam swipes under the wheelbarrow.
Dark, polished shoes walk right in front of him and scuffle on the grass walkway. Another set joins them.
“No sign the other way.”
“We lost him.”
“How did we lose him?”
Jack knows if he can just stay still, he’ll outlast them, and they’ll give up and go away. He can still have his hamburger, and a relaxing night to himself.
He watches their shoes move by. They’re just feet from him. His head rests sideways, flat on the ground, his body flush against the shed. More flashlight beams cross the area around him.
A shoe stops in front of his eye. It’s too close. A knee sets down on the walkway in front of the shoe. Then a hand. Then a big face. It’s the man with the earring, looking right at him. He smiles.