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The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys

When Charlie is getting beaten up by bullies, his ex-best-friend Jake pulls up in a bright red '67 Mustang--the principal's car--and tells him to get in. It's a choice between a broken nose and the risk of a lifetime, and for the first time in his life, Charlie decides to take a chance. Now, Charlie and Jake are on a mission to find Charlie's absent father, and to avoid getting arrested for car theft. On the way, Charlie will learn a lot more about life than he ever expected to, discover the bond of friendship he never thought he'd have, and end up in the middle of a court case, a thousand miles from home. And in that courtroom, Charlie, a self-described straight-A student and grade-A geek, will have to make the ultimate choice of his life.

If I’m going to tell you how I killed this kid, I can’t start on the day it happened. It won’t make any sense, and you’ll just think I was some psycho teenage boy with glue for brains. No, the whole thing really started three days earlier, on Monday, which made it bad straight off. It was also raining, which made it even worse.

In fact, it was raining so hard that my tennis shoes were soaked before I even walked two blocks from our house. Not just kind of wet, either, but really soaked in that way your socks get all squishy and your feet make those mucky sounds each time you take a step. Muck, muck, muck, all through the halls, everybody staring at you like you’ve just turned into a human squid. Back then, before all the crazy stuff happened, most kids looked at me as if I was a human squid anyway. I figured that’s what they’d put in the senior yearbook, if they remembered to put anything in there about me at all: Charlie Hill, Most Likely to Be a Human Squid for the Rest of His Life.

If it sounds bad, that’s because it was. If you want to read a nice, happy little story where everything turns out all neat and tidy in the end, you should go read some Hardy Boys or something. This isn’t that kind of story.

Not that everything that happened that Monday was bad. About halfway to the school, I realized I had probably missed the bus on purpose.

Somewhere in the foggy parts of my brain I must have known that getting on the bus meant I was also going to get off the bus, and that there was a very good chance Leo Gonzalez would be waiting for me when I did. He may not have had brains, but he wasn’t the sort of guy who told you he was going to rip off your face and feed it to his gerbils unless he was really going to do it. So missing the bus meant that I was going to be late for school, but it also meant I wouldn’t show up when and where he’d expect me.

It was the first thing that morning that made me smile.

People driving to work must have thought I looked pretty strange, squishing along like a human squid, a big smile on my face.

It didn’t last long, though. I was still pretty certain I was going to get my face ripped off at some point that day, and it was hard to smile for long when you were wondering how you were going to look with no face.

The rain was not the first bad thing to happen to me that Monday. The first bad thing was when I came down that morning and there was Mom sitting at the kitchen table with her boyfriend, Rick the Accountant, holding hands, both of them smiling like two people in a Viagra commercial.

I was already worried about Leo, and them smiling at me just made me even more worried. They had all the blinds open, and it was so bright my eyes watered, so bright no sane person would have thought it would be raining in less than half an hour.

“Sleep well, sport?” Rick said.

“Uh-huh,” I said, rooting around in the cabinet for a Pop-Tart. I tried not to actually speak words to him.

“Big day at school?” he said. “How’s the prom? Got a date lined up?”

“Whatever,” I said.

“Honey, be nice,” Mom said. “Rick has something important to say.”

I was biting down into a strawberry Pop-Tart, my back to them, and Mom’s tone made me freeze. Oh God, I thought, they were getting married. For the rest of my childhood, I’d have to listen to Rick the Accountant calling me sport. I was already sixteen, and really only a year and a half away from freedom on account of me being bumped up a grade when I was eight, but a year seemed like a hell of a long time to be called sport every day.

I felt a little like Mom had just pointed a gun at my back and said, “Stick ’em up.” Slowly, waiting for the bullet that would change the rest of my life, I turned around.

Mom already looked like Martha Stewart, so much that people sometimes asked her in the supermarket for decorating advice, but sitting right behind the vase of fresh roses (no doubt Rick’s doing), she looked even more like Martha. Rick was smiling, but he had one of those smiles that made him look like he was in pain. With his narrow face, tiny eyes, and slicked-back brown hair, he reminded me of a ferret.

“Well, sport,” he said. “I was wondering, well . . .” He looked at Mom.

She gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. “Go ahead, dear.”

“Yes, well, it seems you and I have never had the privilege of spending any time together. And I thought, if you were game, you might like to . . . uh, accompany me on a little outing. So we can get to know each other a little. Just the two of us.”

It was like he was speaking Martian. “Huh?” I said.

“He wants to know if you want to go camping with him, dear,” Mom said.

“Yes, right,” Rick said. “That’s it exactly. Just somewhere in western Oregon. Not too far.”

“Camping?” I said. “Like, in a tent?”

“Sure, sure,” Rick said.

“In the outdoors and everything?”

“Of course, of course.”

“But why?”

Rick was a pretty unflappable guy, but this seemed to confuse him. He looked at Mom, who smiled at him reassuringly, then gave me one of those now I’m going to explain it all so you can understand it looks of hers.

“I thought it would be a good idea, dear,” she said.


“You two should get to know each other better.”


“It’d make me happy. You see, Rick and I are getting married.”

Pow. Mom fired the gun after all.

I reached the gray slab of concrete that was West Rexton High at five after eight, which meant I was twenty minutes late. I’ve seen a lot of ugly buildings over the years, but I’d still say our school was the ugliest one ever constructed. It looked like someone had started to design a building that was merely ugly, then got depressed halfway through at how ugly it was and gave up, making it look not only ugly, but ugly and unfinished. There was gray concrete, rusting steel-rimmed windows, and scuffed-up metal doors on all sides.

The rain let up right when I reached the school. It couldn’t have been timed any better to make sure I received maximum soakage. Standing there, my hand on the cold door handle, my heart was pounding so hard I thought I might pass out. Leo could be lurking anywhere. When I was sure no one was looking, I opened the door and hurried down the shadowy hallway lined with lockers, ducking under the windows on the doors of each classroom, until I reached the boys’ bathroom. Muck, muck, muck, my soggy shoes were so loud on the tiles I cringed with each step.

Luckily, nobody was in there. The bathroom was divided into two rooms, the outer one for the circular sink, the inner one for the urinals and the toilets, a swinging door separating them. I went into the first stall, slipped off my backpack, and sat down on the edge of the toilet seat with the backpack on my lap.

My clothes felt like they were glued to my skin. Now all I had to do was wait twenty minutes until the bell rang, then I could just go to second period along with everybody else. I’d have an “unexcused absence” to explain to Mom later, which was worse than being tardy, but it was better than going to first period so late. If I did that, Mrs. Ameson would give me the look. You know the one. The one people give you when they’re disappointed in you, and those looks absolutely killed me. I did everything I could to avoid them.

Thinking about Mom made me think about the wedding, and that got me even more depressed. I spent most of my time either depressed or really depressed, and you wouldn’t think there’d be much of a difference between the two, but there really was. It was the difference between being just mildly annoyed at how sucky my life was and really truly angry about it. You could get through the day without too much trouble being mildly annoyed, but it’s like trying to walk underwater when you’re angry all the time.

To take my mind off Mom and Rick, I decided to maybe do some studying, and thinking about homework made me remember the portrait. Dad’s portrait. The one Mrs. Morchester had assigned, telling us to draw a picture of somebody in your family. I used the picture on the Christmas postcard he’d sent me two years back, the one with him, “the ditzy hygienist slut who was the flavor of the month” (which was what Mom called her, despite the fact that this woman had appeared on Dad’s Christmas cards several years in a row), and the two black labs wearing red Santa hats. I would have used the Christmas card from this year, but Dad had sent a lame Garfield card (does anyone read Garfield anymore?) with no picture inside.

Even though the assignment wasn’t due for a week, the thought of it being ruined terrified me because I actually thought it was decent. Not great, but decent, and I hardly ever thought the stuff I drew was any good. My hands were shaking as I searched through the backpack and located my blue drawing pad. The cover felt cold, but not wet. I opened it, flipped past pages and pages of stupid cartoons, robots, and sword-and-sorcery stuff, and finally located Dad’s portrait, breathing a sigh when I saw it wasn’t ruined.

It suddenly occurred to me that I really had to go to the bathroom. I had been so worried about the drawing I hadn’t noticed until the pressure was really intense. I put away the drawing pad, then started to unbutton my pants. That’s when I heard the outer bathroom door swing open.

“That Haines is a total loser.”

“Yeah, yeah, a loser. Totally.”

I recognized the voices, and the pressure down below became a lot more intense. It was none other than Leo Gonzalez, the kid destined to rip off my face, and his friend Parrot Pete. Everybody called him Parrot Pete, because that’s all he did, repeat things.

“I gotta take a piss,” Leo said.

“Yeah, a piss,” Parrot Pete said.

Sneakers squeaked on the tiles. Right before the door banged open, I lifted my feet and pressed them against the back of the stall door so they were out of sight. There was more shoe squeaking, the sounds of flies being unzipped, and the trickle of water. There was one flush, then two. I sat there praying for them to leave, but there was no swinging door, no footsteps. Instead, I heard the rustle of clothing.

“You want one?” Leo said.

“Sure, yeah.”

“Figure we got a few minutes before Haines misses us.”

Mr. Haines was the shop teacher. I heard the sound of a lighter, then saw smoke rising over the top of the stall. I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, so as quietly as I could, I let it out and breathed in through my mouth. I was afraid to breathe through my nose because if I did, I might sneeze, and then that would be the end of my time on Earth as a face-bearing person.

“Camels are the best, man,” Leo said.

“Yeah, the best,” Parrot Pete said.

“Hey, you seen that prick Charlie Hill around this morning?”

“Nah,” Parrot Pete said.

“Bet the little dickwad didn’t even come to school. What a little dickwad. I really scared him on Friday. I could tell. You should have seen his face. He looked like a scared little dickwad. Probably at home crapping his pants.”

Because I was so close to nearly making his guess real, I half wondered if he knew where I was. I wasn’t much of a God-believing person—I always figured that if he did exist, there wouldn’t be people like Leo Gonzalez in the world—but I did a fair amount of praying right about then. I figured if somehow I was wrong about God, then it wouldn’t hurt to hedge my bets and tell him I’d donate a bunch of money to nuns if he could just get me out of this without them finding me.

“Dickwad’s probably at home crapping his pants,” Parrot Pete said.

“I already said that, man,” Leo said. Even he could get irritated at Pete.

“Right, sorry.”

“It’s like, nobody messes with my girl, you know?” Leo said. “I can’t believe that little prick. It’s like, how could he not know she was mine? Everybody knows Tessa is mine.”

“Everybody knows it,” Parrot Pete agreed.

They puffed away in silence for a while, me enduring my private agony. The cigarette smoke was now so strong that my eyes stung. I heard the outer bathroom door swing open. Leo and Parrot Pete must have heard it too because I heard them crash into a stall a couple down. There was flushing. The swinging door opened.

“Aw, man,” Leo said. “I thought maybe you was the principal. You coulda said something. We lost two smokes.”


The voice sounded familiar. I heard more unzipping, the tinkle of piss hitting the porcelain.

“Well, we better get back,” Leo said.

“Yeah, we better,” Parrot Pete said.

“Hey, wait a minute. Dude, you seen that little prick kid, Charlie Hill, around?”

There was a pause just long enough that I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach.


“Damn. Well, I’m gonna get him. He has to come to school eventually.”



“Why do you want to get him?”

Then, while Leo must have been struggling with the question, it hit me: The voice belonged to Jake Tucker. Jake, who used to be my neighbor until my family bought a house and moved in the middle of sixth grade. Jake, who had been my best friend for years, especially in the summer, when we’d hang out in the fort Dad had built until one of us got called home for dinner. Jake, who broke my Game Boy when he borrowed it, then refused to admit it, saying it was broken when I gave it to him. It happened right before we moved. Months later, he called and left a message with Mom, but I never called him back. We hadn’t spoken since, both of us avoiding each other’s eyes in the hall for a couple of years, until eventually we didn’t have to avoid each other’s eyes because we were pretty much strangers to each other.

Not that I passed him in the halls all that often. He wasn’t at school much, getting suspended for one reason or another. Smoking. Pulling pranks. I’d heard he hung out at the pool hall downtown. I knew his dad had left when he was about thirteen, but I’d also heard his mom had become a meth addict shortly after his dad left and that she now mostly lived on the streets. Jake’s foster parents were kind of shady people too. Real great life.

“Huh?” Leo eventually responded.

“I said, ‘Why do you want to get him?’”

“What’s it to you?”

“Just asking.”

Another pause. “Well, mind your own business.”

“Whatever,” Jake said, and you had to admire the calm in his voice. He didn’t sound worried at all, even though I’m sure Leo outweighed him by fifty pounds. Jake wasn’t a big guy, if I remembered correctly. Tall, but kind of thin. “Can I bum a smoke off you?”

“Screw you,” Leo said.

“Yeah, screw you,” Parrot Pete said.

“Shut up, Pete.”

“Right, sorry.”

The swinging door opened. I heard the squeak of footsteps. I wasn’t sure if all of them had left, or just Leo and Pete, so I waited. If it was between my life and clean underwear, I’d take my life.

“You can come out now,” Jake said.

When you have to go to the bathroom, there comes a point when your willpower has been stretched to the limit. There’re literally tears in your eyes, you want to go so bad. It’s like a near-death experience. You might see yourself in a dark tunnel, a light at the end. Maybe you hear angels singing. You’re balancing on the edge of a cliff, and the slightest little thing could push you off. Anything. A little breeze. The brush of a feather. Maybe even a loud thought. That’s where I was: right at the edge.

Jake’s voice startled me, and I dropped my backpack onto the floor. But I didn’t go over the edge. My resolve held. I found out that day I had titanium intestines. A bladder of steel. It wasn’t the sort of thing you’d put on a college application, but it was a good thing to know.

I snatched up the backpack and emerged from the stall, trying not to look as uncomfortable as I felt.

He stood by the far window, arms crossed, a smirk on his face. He was a real smirking kind of guy. His blond hair was long and greasy, coming down nearly to his shoulders. Some guys looked good with long hair, but Jake didn’t. He just looked like a guy who needed a haircut. He wore faded and ripped jeans and a jean jacket, over a plain white T-shirt with holes that looked like they’d been caused by cigarette burns. In all the times I had seen him at high school, I’d never seen him wear anything else. He wore the jean jacket even when it was a hundred degrees outside.

My guess was it was because he wanted to look bigger. He was so thin that if he turned sideways, you might mistake him for a graham cracker. I was pretty thin myself, but I was Fat Albert standing next to him.

The rainy-day light from the window made his skin look kind of gray. It was pockmarked, too, like he’d used his face as an ashtray. I remembered him having really bad acne our freshman year, but now it was just craters and divots. It didn’t make him look ugly, though. It made him look kinda badass, like he’d done and seen a lot; and from the way girls talked about him, it seemed they liked that sort of thing. He was only a year older than me, but he could have passed for twenty-one while I still sometimes got carded at a PG-13 movie.

“Hey,” I said.


“How’d you know I was in there?”

He snorted. “Not everybody is as stupid as those two. Your muddy footprints—they still look fresh. And I also saw you walk into the school a few minutes ago. Figured it’s where you’d go.”

“Oh,” I said.

There was a pause. I didn’t know what else to say, and besides, I couldn’t really concentrate. It took all of my concentration to keep from filling my pants. The only thing that came to mind was how he broke my Game Boy. I wondered if he was thinking about the Game Boy, too. You’d think after so many years, you’d forget about something like that, but it still made me mad, thinking about it. I really loved that Game Boy.

“So’d you do it?” he asked.

“Do what?”

“Do what they’re saying you did.”

“What’re they saying?”

“That you put a love note in Tessa Boone’s locker.”

I swallowed. I was trying to think of what to say when the first bell rang, making me jump, and I nearly had an accident right there.

“You shouldn’t believe everything people say,” I said.

I pushed through the swinging door. Other kids were already entering.

“Hey,” he said.

“What?” I said, holding the door open. I expected more of the Spanish Inquisition from him.

He pointed at my pants. “You may want to button up before you go out there. Just saying.”

As soon as I left the bathroom, the first place I went was to the bathroom on the second floor. It wasn’t like I could just go back into the stall after I had made such a big deal of leaving the way I did.

Somehow I managed to avoid Leo the rest of the day, though it wasn’t easy. Parrot Pete saw me at lunch when I was hunkering down in the art room, his eyes getting all big and wide, but I practically glued myself to Mrs. Morchester. It was pretty easy to glue myself to her, because by early afternoon I still hadn’t fully dried yet. I also passed Tessa Boone’s locker once. She was tall and blond, taller than most boys, actually, and she was wearing her blue-and-white cheerleader’s getup. She had her back to me, so I thought I might slip past so she didn’t see me (pretty stupid thought, really, when you’re a squeaky human squid), but one of her girlfriends heard my squishing sneakers and giggled. There were three other girls gathered around Tessa, and soon they were all staring at me and giggling. Tessa looked over her shoulder, saw me, and looked away quickly. Her neck reddened. Soon everybody in the hall was staring and giggling, one big happy staring and giggling fest.

Somehow I made it to sixth period, Advanced Economics, with my face still attached. The problem was I was pretty certain that when the bell went off, Leo, Parrot Pete, and maybe some of their other goons would make a point of being outside waiting for me. I could pretty much guarantee it. What I did was wait until five after two, about ten minutes before last bell, then asked Mr. Edwards if I could go to the bathroom.

I took my backpack, which made him raise his eyebrows, but he didn’t stop me. Teachers really will trust you to the limit until you give them reason not to, so I was glad, for once, that I had always been a good student. I headed for the nearest exit—the one that led out to the track field—and was nearly to the door when the worst possible thing happened. Mr. Harkin—our huge, bald ex-Marine principal—backed out of one of the rooms into my path.

There was half a second when I thought I might be able to skate past him before he saw me, and I veered to the far wall, but he turned too fast.

“Charles,” he said.

He had one of those Darth Vader voices, so deep that he sometimes made the freshman girls cry by just asking for their hall passes. There was no way to just keep walking once he spoke to you. I couldn’t even muster any irritation at him using my full name.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“How’re you doing, son?” he said. “You having a good day?”

I had expected him to ask for my hall pass, but apparently even Mr. Harkin trusted me completely. I never wanted to be in a position where he caught me lying. There were rumors that he had killed people in Vietnam with his bare hands. Lots of them. And that he had enjoyed it.

“Yes sir,” I said.

“You picked out a college yet, son?”

“No sir.”

“Well, you should start thinking about it. Next year you’ll be a senior, and it won’t be long before you move on to greener pastures. You should be able to get plenty of scholarships. Your test scores and your grades put you right at the top of the class. Did you know that?”

“Um, no sir. I mean, well, yes sir, I know I’ve done kinda well.” I glanced at the exit down the hall. The bell would ring any moment, and that door was so far away. It was like in another time zone.

“I spoke to your mom when she was here on Parent Day,” Mr. Harkin said. “She said you want to be a doctor.”

“Yes sir.”

“That’s great. Being a doctor is a good calling. I know your father is a doctor. Or a dentist.” He laughed. “Same thing, I guess.”

I wasn’t expecting him to bring up Dad, and I glanced up at him, trying to read his expression. He had that concerned look adults get when they’re trying to be adults who know better than kids.

“Yes sir,” I said.

He looked at me for a long time, and I thought, here it comes, he’s going to try to tell me how the divorce wasn’t my fault, that these things happen, that both my parents love me and that’s all that really matters, stuff I’d heard a million times in the last four years. It was the kind of thing some people have to say to make themselves feel like everything’s okay, that kids who go through divorces aren’t royally screwed, when they know, deep down, that they probably are.

“Well, you know, son, divorce happens,” he said. “It wasn’t your fault at all. You know that. You just keep on doing well and great things will happen for you.”

I felt like a deflating balloon. Even though I knew he was going to say something like that, it didn’t stop me from hoping he wouldn’t.

“Yes sir.”

The bell rang, and I’m sure my heart must have stopped. I had maybe five seconds before kids starting spilling into the hall. The room doors were opening. I turned to go, but Mr. Harkin wasn’t quite done with me.

“Oh, and that was a good choice,” he said.

“Huh? I mean, sorry sir?”

He chuckled. “I heard you asked Tessa Boone to the prom.” He winked at me and strode away.

The level of mortification I had reached in that moment, the pure and utter humiliation that filled every cell in my body knowing that the rumor about me and Tessa had reached even Mr. Harkin, who truly was the last person in the school to find out about anything, was so great, so overpowering, that I literally could not move for a good ten seconds. Looking back, those ten seconds may have made all the difference.

Kids filled the hall, streaming around me. Laughter and voices echoed off the tiles. Finally, I snapped out of it and bolted for the door. With so many human obstacles in the way, it took forever before I finally pushed through the doors and made it outside.

The sky was a strange shimmering color of blue, like the color of our dish detergent, and the air felt cool and moist. The way home was across the parking lot and down the steps to the track field, and then to the other side and Warren Street. I thought I had a pretty good head start, but I was just across the parking lot when I heard a shout.


It was Leo. I looked over my shoulder and saw him standing on the steps outside the school—him, Parrot Pete, and two football-type guys who could each probably squash me with their pinkie fingers.

There were maybe three or four seconds when we just stared at each other across the glistening asphalt, the predator and the prey, the bully and the abused, the football star and the grade A geek, and then finally Leo grinned and the spell was broken.

I ran.

With lots of whooping and hollering, they ran after me.

I knew there was absolutely no chance I could outrun them. I knew it in the same way a rabbit knows he can’t outrun the hawk he’s just spotted swooping down on him. I knew it, and yet I ran, anyway, just like the rabbit runs. We may be a lot smarter than rabbits (of course, if you put up Leo as the comparison study, it’s a close call), but when it comes to the fight or flight response, we’re no different.

Me, I was all about flight.

When you weighed 120 pounds, and you couldn’t even bench-press volume Z of the Encyclopedia Britannica, you didn’t have a choice.

Down the stairs. Tripped at the bottom. Scraped my hands on the concrete. Back up, running like a madman across the rust-colored Astroturf track, my sneakers like wet sponges. Now onto the grass in the center. Squish, squish, the grass was wet. But couldn’t slow down. Halfway across, I glanced over my shoulder and saw them at the bottom of the stairs.

“Gonna get you, loser!” Leo cried.

“Yeah, gonna get you!” Parrot Pete said.

Faster, faster, lungs burning. Had to keep pushing myself. Run, rabbit, run. Then tragedy struck.

My foot came down in a bald spot in the grass, and because the ground was wet, the mud acted like a suction cup on my shoe, pulling it clean off. I took a couple of tumbling steps before finally crashing. Wet grass went into my mouth and up my nose. I heard laughter. Then I was up and running, leaving the other shoe behind. I managed only a couple of steps before going down again. This time the laughter was closer.

I struggled to my feet, but someone gave me a hard kick on the butt and I went down face first in the grass. More laughter. Shadows fell across me.

“Get up, faggot,” Leo said.

“Yeah, yeah, get up,” Parrot Pete said.

The two other guys offered up something equally memorable. Everybody was pulling for me to get up, my own private booster squad. I opted for playing dead, lying there facedown. I heard it sometimes worked on bears. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on Leo. He gave me a swift kick in the gut. I saw sunbursts on the backs of my eyelids. I rolled onto my side, in the fetal position, hugging myself.

“Up,” Leo said.

All I could manage was a groan. Leo’s buddies grabbed me and hoisted me up. My vision was blurred with both water and tears, and I blinked, trying to see. Leo was nothing but a streak of black hair and a Cheshire cat grin. My side throbbed.

“Why’d you write Tessa that note?” Leo asked.

“I—I didn’t—” I began.

He punched me in the gut. This one knocked the wind out of me, and I doubled over, coughing.

“Why’d you write the note?” Leo asked again.

“I’m sorry,” I managed. “I didn’t mean anything.”

“I don’t give a rat’s ass if you’re sorry,” Leo said. “I wanna know why you wrote it. Did you think I wouldn’t find out?”


“You think I’m stupid, that it?”


“And why’d you even think she’d be interested in a total loser like you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Shut up!”

“Okay, okay,” I said, still hoping I might be able to talk myself out of this one, “listen, I’m just—”

He hit me in the face. At least I think he hit me in the face. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground. I felt a trickle in my nose, and I tasted blood in my mouth. My ears rang like church bells. The goons lifted me up again, and this time I hung limp, defeated, knowing that he was just going to pummel me until there was nothing left of me but a pulp. Charlie Hill, the human pulp. It was going to be brutal.

“Look at me,” he said.

Slowly, I lifted my head. He was smiling with glee.

“I gotta make a ’zample out of you,” he said. “I can’t have people going after my girl. I can’t have them thinking I won’t do nothing.”

I didn’t answer. What was I going to say? I could try to fight, but I figured that would just make it so much worse for me in the end. He pulled his fist back, and it looked as big as anything I’d seen before in my life. This was Mount Rushmore, or the Great Wall of China. I’d like to say I saw my life flash before my eyes, but it wasn’t anything like that. It was just me standing in one shoe and one soggy sock, a lot of pain in my gut, and his giant fist cocking like a big gun.

Then a bomb went off.

That’s what it sounded like, and we all jerked and dropped into a crouch. I turned and looked in the direction of the sound, and it took my mind a moment to make sense of what it was seeing. It was as if the spaceship from E.T. dropped down right in the middle of Dances with Wolves. You just don’t expect it, and it takes you a while to even see what it is. A large red beast had just flattened a huge section of chain-link fence and was charging toward us.


Not a beast.

A car. Not just any car. Mr. Harkin’s cherry red ‘67 Mustang, the very same car our principal parked right outside his office so that he could look on it lovingly all day long. The very same car that no senior class had dared to involve in any pranks, when just about everything else was fair game. Rumor had it that about five years earlier a biology teacher had scratched the Mustang’s door while carrying a box of bunsen burners, and that teacher was now teaching in Barrow, Alaska, where the sun didn’t even rise a month out of the year. Nobody touched Mr. Harkin’s Mustang.

And yet, there in the driver’s seat was Jake Tucker, my old neighbor, once a pal and then a Game Boy breaker, barreling toward us. The top of the Mustang was down, and his blond hair billowed in the wind. His mirrored sunglasses flashed in the sunlight.

For a moment, it didn’t look like he was going to slow down, and my captors edged away from me. Then the Mustang spun to the right, spitting grass and dirt right at my feet. At the same time, while the Mustang spun, the passenger door flew open. Then the car was stopped, engine idling, and Jake stared out at me with his mirrored sunglasses and his sly smirk.

“You getting in?” he said.

None of us moved. It was all too surreal. But then I realized I had a choice, and I had only a few seconds, while Leo and his friends were still too stunned to grab me, to make it. There are moments when your life spins on a wheel, when the choices you make forever change the person you are and the person you will become. I could stay and get pulverized by Leo and his friends, or I could escape in the Mustang only to meet my certain doom later at the hands of Mr. Harkin. Leo’s fist now, or Harkin’s wrath later—which was worse? Looking back, it seems like there might have been other options available to me, but those were the only two roads I could see.

I got into the car.
Photograph © Heidi Carter

Scott William Carter is the author of Wooden Bones and The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys, which was hailed by Publishers Weekly as a “touching and impressive debut.” His short stories have appeared in dozens of popular magazines and anthologies, including Analog, Ellery Queen, Realms of Fantasy, and Weird Tales. He lives in Oregon with his wife and two children. Visit him at

"In his touching and impressive debut novel, Carter tells the story of two teenagers coping with the fallout of broken families...Jake and Charlie come across as believable characters with interesting stories to tell."--Publishers Weekly

"Well-developed characters and twists and turns along the way reveal the complexity of friendship, the redemptive power of second chances, the importance of looking past preconceived notions, and the lasting effects of choices (major and “insignificant” alike) and the responsibility one takes for them. This is a good choice for reluctant readers."--School Library Journal

"There is surprising nuance in the shades of gray behind the good-kid/bad-kid duality that has pigeonholed Charlie and Jake...readers [will] appreciate the laugh-out-loud moments and the insights into the teen-guy sensibility, its camaraderie, and its codes of honor."--The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

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