Two huge things happened! Nocturnal Meetings has a cover and is now available for preorder!!
In honor of these monumental events in the life of a book, I’m sharing the first two chapters of my story!
I was alone in a small windowless room with four white walls, sitting at a table, on one of those metal chairs, not designed for comfort. I could feel every second, knowing if I looked nervous I seemed guilty, and if I was too calm, I was a run-of-the-mill sociopath.
Every now and then, I glanced up at a small black camera mounted on top of the wall. Its little demonic eye beamed down on me. I thought of giving it the finger but decided against it. Finally, I rested my elbows on the table and held my head with my hands. My ankle throbbed, and my butt went numb. I had signed some paper saying my caseworker didn’t have to be present during questioning and wondered if I had signed my life away.
After almost an hour the door flew open. The detective with a hulk nose entered, in uniform. I noticed the star on his lapel. He had a wannabe superhero look, with blocky side-parted hair and broad shoulders. His imposing frame lorded over me before he sat down in the chair directly across from mine. “Hello, Tommy. You remember me, Deputy Bennet?”
I nodded my head. “Yes.”
“Let’s get down to business. You and your friends like meeting late at night and starting fires. You’re really fascinated with fire, aren’t you?”
“It’s not like that. We just—”
“You’re sixteen, but you like to hang around younger kids. Kids you can influence.”
“No,” I mumbled.
“A lot of interesting things have happened since you moved here to Summertime…homicides…arson. Why do you end up at all my crimes scenes?”
‘Um, I had some bad luck.” Holy crap, I was becoming like that guy who got struck by lightning seven times. No one trusts that guy. My chest ached the way my stomach felt after binge eating like it was all too much. “Can we just get this over with?” I asked.
“It’s not that simple.” He sounded calm, friendly even. The more he talked, the more freaked out I felt inside. “You see, I want to know everything that you did since you moved to Summertime, so don’t leave out a thing.”
I squinted at him as if to ask, ‘What?’
“I’m going to chat with you for hours and then I’m going to talk to your redheaded friend. I’m going to see if your stories line up.” He threaded his fingers together to emphasize the point.
I realized I was holding my breath and exhaled. Breathing was no longer a natural thing.
“Let’s start from the beginning. How and why did you come to Indiana in the first place?” he asked.
“Okay, Sir, I guess it started with the drive here?” I asked, confused. What was he looking for?
“Alright let’s start with the drive,” he decided.
I channeled my inner hard-ass and told that cop only what he needed to hear. This dark story started long before my time, but the memories of my nine months in Summertime, Indiana played in my head like a 4-D movie.
9 months earlier
My mom’s brother and his wife that we’d never met agreed to take us in. They lived in Indiana, two hours from the city. On the drive over, Isabella sank in the silence. Her oversized brown eyes stared out the car window as the skyline loomed into view. A collection of skyscrapers shot up like a crown. It was the picture on a postcard and not the Chicago I knew. After the high-rises, only asphalt greeted us. The lady, Reese, rambled on about Disney movies with a southern drawl. Yet she lived in the North, so I didn’t get it. She wasn’t beautiful or ugly, but somewhere in-between. She had brown hair, pulled back in a peppy ponytail, with a clean and wholesome vibe about her.
My sister blinked at me.
“Isabella likes all those movies,” I answered for her. Being polite was kind of a sickness with me. I don’t know why. It seemed easier I guess.
“And what do you like, Tommy?” Reese asked.
“I like Chicago,” I replied, my bitterness cutting through my obligation to be polite. Right when she stopped talking, the guy started in.
“What do you like about Chicago?” my uncle, named Holden, asked from the driver’s seat. I had only seen one photo of him before. It was a wrinkled, pissed on school picture that my mom always kept with her. He was about thirteen in the picture and a cool looking kid. He was taller and more potato-like as a man. Some women might have found him attractive. He could have played the dumb, but lovable best friend to the leading man.
I wasn’t sure how to answer him. Getting stoned, I thought, but my own head knew I was lying because I didn’t even do that very often. If I did, it happened on a Friday, or Saturday, with Isabella, safely tucked away for the night. “I like hanging out with my friends.” I didn’t have many friends.
“I’m sure you’ll make new friends, too,” the woman said, still looking in the mirror.
“He mainly watches TV,” Isabella said coming to life.
“Well, we’ve got a TV,” Holden offered up.
They seemed alright. I can’t say I relaxed. The guy was big and my main concern. I’d have to watch Isabella closely. My eyes fixed on the backseat window, watching yellow lines on grey roads, trying my best to zone out. I looked up at the Welcome to Indiana sign and felt a curious pull toward the life we were driving away from. Isabella felt it, too. She started crying, saying she wanted our mom. Reese partly turned, facing the backseat and said, “It’s alright, baby.”
I decided to tell Isabella we would see mom soon. I told myself this. Yet a second later, I thought we would never see her again. The two thoughts wrestled in my brain.
Isabella stopped crying, and I stared out the window. We drove by one cornfield after the next, all a steely, faded color. Was there really that much demand for corn? The further we drove, the more convinced I became that we weren’t ever going back.
We fell into an uncomfortable silence.
Isabella shrieked as she saw a few horses, almost jumping out of her car seat. I pretended to be happy about it. “That’s cool.”
Reese called out, “This is it.” Suddenly, we turned off the expressway. A sign welcoming us to Summertime further confirmed it. It was a place you would pass on the way to somewhere else. We drove past a post office, library, Mabel’s Antiques, Summertime Diner and a DQ. It looked clean and old-fashioned as if we had traveled back in time. Again, we turned away from what little civilization there was and rolled down a long country road, the street sign eerily reading Old Cemetery Road. My stomach moved with the car. Sure enough, I spied a small gated cemetery. A couple minutes later, we slowed down at a house that had a stand with tomatoes for sale. A redheaded boy about my age sat on a lounge chair as if he worked there. Some smaller kids scampered around the lawn, all of them blonde and each cuter than the next.
We pulled into a driveway, the rocks crunching under the wheels. Dust from the pebbles found the energy to drift and collapse on a flower bed. I looked up at a split-level house, composed of yellow siding with a little brick, on a big plot of land. A similar house stood next to this one, but it had a front porch boasting thick, stone columns. Only the panorama of woods lurked behind these two solitary houses.
“Here’s our house. Your house, too, for now,” Reese said, her voice friendly but not that phony kind of friendly. I wished she wouldn’t be so nice because I already decided not to like her.
I looked over at Isabella. Tears dripped off her face onto her neck as she hugged herself. Reese opened the car door. My sister looked at me with a confused and tear-streaked face. A kind of pain swept through me. I managed to get the words out. “It’s okay, Izzy. Go with her.”
The car was parked under the branches of a towering tree. The sunlight streamed in between the branches in thin, hazy shafts. Even the bark of the tree looked a strange white color. Nothing seemed real about that day.
“Come here, cutie. I bought you some things,” Reese said as she took my sister’s hand, helping her out of the car.
I got out, too, feeling weightless, and slammed the car door shut.
Isabella’s tears came to a halt, and she said, “I like toys.”
“It was a lucky guess on my part.” Reese smiled, picking Isabella up.
Even the fresh air seemed suspect. Nausea moved in my stomach. It all happened so fast. The grim serenity of not being present slipped away from me. This was my new house? I considered the house. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great.
Then the weird, redheaded boy abandoned his vegetable stand and ran toward us. Before long, the boy was almost in my personal space. My feet stirred the pebbles on the drive as I backed up.
Holden grinned. “This is Finn, our neighbor. This is Tommy, my nephew.”
“Hey,” I said. Reese stood next to Holden, still holding Isabella on her hip.
He started talking, “My last name’s Wilds, but the rest of my family are Bears. You know because my mom remarried.”
I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. I just knew he was a clueless kid without a care in the world.
“Want a tomato?” He extended his hand with the tomato toward me.
“No thanks. I’m good.” It seemed like a lonely street and I wondered, “Do you make any money?”
“Nah, we’re just playing store.” The stupid kid started eyeballing me up and down, sizing me up. “Oh man, I was hoping you were bigger. You’re shorter than me,” he complained. I noticed he held the tomato like you’d hold a softball.
“Let me guess why you want him to be bigger? Mudget,” Holden smirked, standing over six feet tall, dwarfing me and the kid named Finn.
Finn shrugged. “Well, yeah.”
I didn’t ask who Mudget was because I didn’t care.
Reese looked at me and then Finn, promising, “You guys will be great friends.”
This made Finn smile. He started telling me how he had a dirt bike that he was working on. I guess that was cool. “We could work on it together and share it,” Finn generously suggested.
“I’m from Chicago. I can’t fix things.”
“Just keep me company while I work, and we can still share it,” the boy said. A series of nervous blinks followed the offer, calling attention to his long white eyelashes.
“That sounds good,” Reese said, her voice honey-coated, yet sincere. How did she think she could answer for me?
The kid tossed the tomato up and Holden leaned in and caught it. With a toothy grin, Holden tossed it back to him. Several small ones from next door invaded the lawn. Reese set Isabella down and they all began to run around. A ripple of giggles followed them. They were happy little creatures, most of them with sticky, food crusted faces.
“Are you sixteen?” I asked the boy.
“I’m almost fifteen. But I’ll still drive it.” Finn turned his head and spit, maybe trying to look tough. Yet he kept his eyes wide and friendly.
Isabella was already holding hands with a blonde girl around her age. It was the kind of instant friendship that only happens when you’re three or four.
“Tommy has to follow the rules because he’s a ward of the state,” Holden said. Reese hissed at him and told him not to put it that way. Finn looked down.
“I’m not a ward of the state. It’s temporary,” I squeaked. An overwhelming sadness rushed in. I tried to think about something else before I lost it and did something stupid like cry.
Holden broke in. “Do you want to see your room? It’s not much.”
That helped me pull it together. “Yeah, sure,” I said, sounding casual.
Isabella ran in circles with the other small kids. I only had to say one word to get her attention. “Presents.” Isabella hurried over to me, her face lit with nervous anticipation. Reese again took her hand. Holden grabbed the large suitcase with everything we owned in it and walked toward the house. I lingered by the white Chevy Malibu that brought me to this strange new life.
Finn whispered, “If you’re interested, me and a couple of friends meet around midnight on Saturdays.” He walked away before I could reply.
I became instantly intrigued by the midnight thing. “Do I just knock on your door?” I called out.
He pivoted back around, his face full of color and alarm. “If you want to get me killed!” Walking back over to me, Finn’s voice returned to an easy whisper, but this time it had a twang to it. “Just meet me by my mailbox, would ya?” Then he started running around, waving his arms to gather up all his younger siblings. Finn rushed to pick up the smallest one, who was crawling toward the road. Looking around, I counted four.
I imagined having to take care of that many. “Holy crap,” I muttered to myself.
Reese called to me from the front door.
I followed Holden to a small room in the basement. It had a bed and beat up wardrobe in it. There was cheap peel-and-stick flooring and dark outdated paneling on the walls, but I lived in worse places.
Next Holden led me back upstairs to one of those bright and sunny kitchens. He invited me to take a seat and called Reese in, too. Izzy sat next to her, not saying a word. Yet her hands fluttered on her lap like two caged birds.
“I want you to feel welcomed,” Holden said but made it clear he wanted me out of the way. I had to be in bed by ten o’clock, or at least be in my room by that time.
Lines appeared by Reese’s eyes that made it look like she fought the urge to smile. Yet her thin lips bowed into a concentrated frown.
Of course, there was, “No drinking, or smoking. Ask before you go out. Always treat Reese with respect. She’s number one here. Your job will be going to school and mowing the lawn if you want to keep your cell phone.”
I felt out of place. After all, I never had rules or a kitchen table before. I nodded and agreed with whatever the big guy said.
I observed the clean white appliances, a hanging plant, and even a spice rack.
They ordered pizza for us and we all ate together and then they let me lie on the floor of Isabella’s room.
It was a small pink room; they’d painted just for Izzy, with a tall window overlooking the backyard and woods. The window was open about an inch. A thin, lace curtain billowed in and out, almost as if it was breathing. I stayed there watching it until my little sister fell asleep around ten o’clock.
Anyway, I hadn’t been able to sleep much and thought I might as well meet that kid, Finn. I texted my friend Carlos about the secret meeting. This way, at least one person would know what happened if I ended up missing or dead. Yeah, I watched a lot of true crime shows. Carlos said it might be a cult because that kind of thing was big in small towns. Finn didn’t seem dark enough.
There would probably only be Finn and another lame kid with a flashlight and comic book and it wouldn’t be worth pissing off Holden. But my brain needed a night off from thinking and trying not to think. I’d sneak upstairs and if I got caught I’d pretend to want a glass of milk. Otherwise, I’d slip out the back.
I put on my raggedy Nikes and crept up the stairs, stopping each time a step creaked. Squeezing the narrow, wooden banisters, my nerves kicked in. I was really going to do this.
I placed one sneaker on the kitchen’s tile. The lights were off, but the moon and starlight trickled in. I could see the patio, only feet away from my freedom. I heard the TV from the next room. According to my cell phone, it was already midnight. Would Finn still be waiting? I decided to go for it. I held my breath as if that would make me lighter and grabbed the handle of the sliding-glass-door as a man’s voice asked, “Where do you think you’re going?”
I jumped, startled, bracing myself before turning back around to face him.
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Holden said.
“I wanted a little fresh air,” my voice came out in an uneasy whisper.
He walked toward me in his sweatpants and a t-shirt, holding a can of beer. His expression hardened. You saw where not following the rules got your mother.”
“Yeah, I saw.” I glumly nodded. He seemed calm, but I didn’t know if he was angrier than he let on, or what he was capable of.
It surprised me when he said, “Tommy, it will get better. I promise.”
Reese came in the kitchen, turning on the too-bright light. Her hair surprisingly disheveled, and partly veiling her face, made her look kind of pretty. She closed her pink terry cloth robe. “Do you want some milk or something, sweetie?” She squinted at me.
I ran my nervous hands over my face. No. I’m going back to bed. They both stared at me with blank expressions as I went by.
Back in the basement, I walked around. That was when I noticed a large window ground level and my easy escape, but I didn’t feel like going anymore. A multicolored afghan lay folded on top of the sofa. I snatched it and walked back to my strange, new room. I sprawled out on top of the neatly made bed. I texted back and forth with my friend, Carlos for a while and then watched YouTube videos for hours. My cell phone read five o’clock in white numbers like it did— when pounding woke me up. I was half asleep and freezing because we kept the thermostat at fifty. I grabbed a blanket from the bed and wrapped it around my body and got up. The dawn crept in through the flimsy blinds.
I walked into the living room, scrubbing my eyes with my fingers, under the fluorescent glare. Then I saw my mom open the door. An older, black lady in a business suit stood there, with two police officers posed just behind her. They all wedged their way in. One of the officers was Hispanic with a bone-clean head and Vandyke. The other officer was a muscly, white guy with a big neck and bloated face.
The lady asked my mom if she was Jennifer Walker. My mom made a non-committal noise, before saying, “Yeah.” Next, the lady told my mom her name, and that she was with, “The Department of Child Welfare.” I took a couple steps toward them. The lady talked to my mom. “I am here for the welfare of the children.”
My mom asked her to “Please go.”
The social worker did this thing where she put her hand up and said, “Ah, Ah, Ah, I am here for the welfare of these children.” This time, the lady over-enunciated each word.
My mom looked small and shaky. She started to slur her words a little. “I’m a good mom.” She looked over at me, her eyes with a peculiar glaze over them. Her right hand was nervously clutching at her collarbone as she said my name over and over like I could get her out of this. The police officers came out of my mom’s room.
I didn’t know what to do. “She’s a good mom,” I mumbled. I heard the patter of small, quick feet. I turned to see Isabella running to me. I picked her up. Her face never left my shoulder.
The caseworker was a fat woman made puffier by superiority. The white officer held up a small bag of crack and looked at my mom. I flinched inside. My mom always told me not to use anything stronger than pot. “You’re going with us, good mom,” he said. I hated that guy.
That was it. I felt a twist in my gut. My life ended.
I pushed the pain down until I felt hollow. Then everything stopped. I guess I fell to sleep.