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       Bone Gap, p.1

           Laura Ruby
 
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Bone Gap


  DEDICATION

  For Steve, who sees.

  And for Anne, who believes.

  EPIGRAPH

  The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else does.

  —ANONYMOUS

  CONTENTS

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  The People of Bone Gap

  MAY: MILK MOON

  Roadkill

  Run

  Showdown

  Jump

  The Night Mare

  The Promise Ring

  Storming the Castle

  Sees the Fire

  Just Like the Rest of Us

  JUNE: STRAWBERRY MOON

  Lost

  Good for You

  Get Real

  No One Is Fine

  Sidetracked

  The Whole Picture

  Questions

  The Lamb

  Blindside

  The Dead

  JULY: THUNDER MOON

  Punched

  The Ballad of Charlie Valentine

  The Fields

  Crows

  Slaughter

  Sunrise

  AUGUST: GREEN CORN MOON

  The People of Bone Gap

  Acknowledgments

  Back Ad

  About the Author

  Books by Laura Ruby

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  THE PEOPLE OF BONE GAP

  THE PEOPLE OF BONE GAP CALLED FINN A LOT OF THINGS, but none of them was his name. When he was little, they called him Spaceman. Sidetrack. Moonface. You. As he got older, they called him Pretty Boy. Loner. Brother. Dude.

  But whatever they called him, they called him fondly. Despite his odd expressions, his strange distraction, and that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person, they knew him as well as they knew anyone. As well as they knew themselves. They knew him like they knew that Old Charlie Valentine preferred his chickens to his great-grandchildren, and sometimes let them roost in the house. (The chickens, not the children.) The way they knew that the Cordero family had a ghost that liked to rifle through the fridge at night. The way they knew that Priscilla Willis, the beekeeper’s homely daughter, had a sting worse than any bee. The way they knew that Bone Gap had gaps just wide enough for people to slip through, or slip away, leaving only their stories behind.

  As for Finn, well, they thought he was a little weird, but that was okay with them. “Yeah, that boy’s nuttier than a honey cluster,” they might say. “But he’s a fine-looking nut. A sharp nut. Our nut.” Finn, they were sure, had his heart in the right place. Just the way they did.

  Eventually, though, they found out that there was a good reason for Finn’s odd expressions, his strange distraction, that annoying way he had of creeping up on a person. A good reason he never looked anyone in the eye.

  But by then it was too late, and the girl they loved most—and knew least of all—was gone.

  Finn

  ROADKILL

  THE CORN WAS TALKING TO HIM AGAIN.

  It had been a warm winter and a balmy spring in Bone Gap, so everyone with a field and a taste for corn had plowed and planted earlier than they’d ever dared before. On the last day of his junior year, exactly two months after his life had burst like a thunderhead, Finn walked home from the bus stop past plants already up to his waist. It was his favorite part of the afternoon, or should have been: the sun bright and hot in the sky, the plants twitching their green fingers. Corn can add inches in a single day; if you listened, you could hear it grow. Finn caught the familiar whisper—here, here, here—and wished it would shut up.

  His friend Miguel would have agreed. Miguel hated the corn, said the plants seemed . . . alive. When Finn reminded him that, duh, of course the corn was alive, all plants were alive, Miguel replied that the corn sounded alive alive. As if it wasn’t just growing, it was ripping itself out of the ground and sneaking around on skinny white roots. Scarecrows weren’t made to scare the crows, they were made to scare the corn. It was enough to give a person nightmares. Otherwise, why would so many horror movies have cornfields in them?

  Finn had nightmares enough, but not about cornfields. His dreams used to be filled with the typical stuff: getting naked with this girl or that one. Evading psychos with hatchets and roller skates. Showing up in class wearing nothing but a snorkel and a single plaid sock. Flying so high that not even the clouds could keep up.

  Now? He couldn’t close his eyes without seeing Roza’s slim hands slapping at fogged glass, the gleaming black SUV swallowed up by the gathering dark.

  He didn’t sleep if he could help it. And he didn’t listen to the corn anymore. Why should he, when it wouldn’t stop lying?

  Sweat prickled on his scalp, and he stopped to switch his backpack from one shoulder to the other. The cornfield stretched out for miles, but standing here, on a hazy back road in Illinois, you wouldn’t know it. The pavement in front of Finn ended in a wall of sky, as if it had been sliced off by the swing of a scythe.

  He might have stood there for a while, considering the cutaway road and the perfect metaphor it was, if a murder of black crows hadn’t shown up, cawing their stupid heads off.

  Finn wasn’t impressed. “What are you guys supposed to be? Set decoration?”

  They’ll pluck out your eyes before they peck you to death, Miguel would have told him. Haven’t you ever seen Hitchcock? But Finn didn’t like movies, and he thought the crows were nothing but jokers and thieves.

  Which is what he called them. “Jokers.”

  The crows said, “Coward!” They cackled and flapped, the sun shining blue on their glossy wings, beaks sharp as hay hooks.

  So maybe Miguel had a point.

  Finn kept walking, feet heavy in the heat. His temples throbbed, sandy eyelids scratching his corneas. When he spoke, his voice creaked like an old door the same way Charlie Valentine’s did as he yammered on about his granddad’s granddad’s horse farm, or how the railroad used to have a stop right in the middle of town, or the time he trapped an eight-foot-long beaver, as if the giants hadn’t been extinct since the last ice age. Like Old Charlie Valentine, Finn wished he could turn back the days as easily as a farmer turning a page in an almanac. He wished that the people of Bone Gap could forgive, and that he could forget.

  He hiked up his backpack, worked on forgetting. Think of something else, anything else. Like his chores, which his brother would want finished by dinner. Like studying for the college entrance exams, exams he would need to ace if he had any hope of going away, getting away, though the thought of going made his stomach clench. Like the Rude boys, all five of them as mean as yellow jackets, boys who liked to hurt people who got in their way, and people who didn’t.

  The very same Rude boys who appeared on the road in front of him.

  Finn froze up like a monument to cowards everywhere. Was it them? Was he sure? Of course he was. Finn could always tell, even from this far away. All five of them were short and bowlegged, making them look like a chorus line of wishbones. The Rude boys walked as if they were permanently saddle sore.

  The boys hadn’t been on the bus, they hadn’t bothered to come to class. Finn had no idea where they’d come from or how he could have missed them. He was always missing things. Luckily for him, the Rudes were walking in the same direction and hadn’t noticed him yet. He could turn the other way. Or, if the corn were higher, he could vanish into it, go missing himself.

  But then, there was no use running, no use hiding, and he had nothing left to be scared of. He dragged his heels, and pebbles rocketed across the pavement.

  One of the Rude boys turned around. “Hey, look. It’s Moonface. Trying to sneak up on us again.”

  “Whatc
ha doing, Moonface?”

  “Mooning at the moon?”

  Mean as yellow jackets, dumb as dirt. He sighed, the sharp exhale like the hiss of the plants all around.

  “Who you laughing at?”

  And easy, too. “I’m not laughing.”

  “Yes, you are.”

  “Okay, I’m laughing.”

  “Not at us,” said one.

  “Not if you’re smart,” said another.

  “Haven’t you heard?” Finn said. “I’m not so smart.”

  Easy and easily confused, eyebrows scrunching like inchworms. The Rudes didn’t know what he was going on about. Neither did he.

  “Never mind,” Finn said. “Just talking to myself.”

  “Yeah, well, you just keep talking to yourself, because we got stuff to do.”

  “Later, Moonface.”

  Later, Finn thought.

  And then, Nothing will be different later.

  He hadn’t been laughing, but the crows? They were laughing. The corn kept whispering. The sun was a yellow eye scorched in a blanket of blue. He looked at it too long, and it ate holes in his head. Just that morning, he’d gone to Roza’s apartment and found all her stuff gone, the air a fog of Pine-Sol. Sometime in the night, God knew when, Finn’s brother had cleaned things out, scrubbed things down, as if a girl could be washed from memory just by washing the floors.

  More pebbles shot across the road, more words shot out of his mouth. “Now that you mention it, I was chatting with the crows earlier. They were wondering why you guys walk like you’re wearing diapers.”

  The Rudes had him surrounded before he could think of a way out. Not that he wanted one. They circled him, old names and new ones dropping like crab apples.

  “Spaceman! We’re talking to you!”

  Finn said, “What?”

  “Whatcha got in the bag?” They ripped the backpack off him, searched it. The pack went flying into the field.

  He could still turn this around.

  “Hey! Shithead! Are you listening?”

  He could dive into the corn—backtrack, sidetrack.

  “Why do you have so many books when you can’t read?”

  Finn said, “Funny coming from guys who can’t tell the difference between their cows and their girlfriends.”

  The first blow knocked the air from his lungs. He bent at the waist, trying to catch his breath. He didn’t even know which one had hit him—Derek, Erik, Frank, Jake, or Spike. None were more than eighteen months apart in age, all blond and freckled and sunburned, and who could tell one from the other?

  Finn took a couple of rabbit punches to the kidneys before one of them grabbed a handful of his hair and yanked him upright. Finn blinked at the boy in front of him, his eyes zeroing in on that famous Rude underbite.

  They weren’t even trying.

  He said, “Listen, Derek, if you thought that—”

  “Are you messing with me?”

  “No, I’m—”

  “He’s Derek,” the boy said, pointing to another boy. “I’m Frank. And you’re Roadkill.”

  The Rude boys suddenly forgot about the stuff they had to do, because they took their time and gave it their all, their knuckles almost as hard as their boots. And though Finn was tall, his arms and legs ropey with farm muscle, the Rudes were wider and stronger, and there were about four and a half too many of them.

  When they were done, the boys gathered around and peered down at Finn, sprawled on the cracked asphalt. “You know,” said one of them, “anytime Sean wants some real brothers, we could make room for him.”

  If Finn’s teeth hadn’t felt so loose in his head, he might have laughed again. Everybody loved Sean, even the Rudes. When someone needed help, Sean was the guy who showed up, sirens blaring, arms pumping, black bag swinging in his big capable hands, sharp eyes taking it all in. And though Sean sometimes had to ask questions, he never asked too many, and never the wrong ones.

  But it was more than that. The people of Bone Gap loved Sean because of Roza. Because Sean loved Roza.

  Above Finn, somebody muttered something about being hungry. Somebody else said, “Shut it.” Somebody’s cell phone pinged. Somebody nudged Finn with his foot as if Finn were a possum. Only pretending to be dead.

  He wanted to shout so that everyone could hear: I loved her, too. And it was true. But it had done none of them any good.

  Finn spat the blood from his mouth. “I’ll tell my brother you said hello.”

  The boys left and Finn was alone. After a bit, he decided that he should get up, just in case Old Charlie Valentine picked today to take his ancient Cadillac for a spin. He hauled himself up and off the road, fished his backpack from the field. He wouldn’t leave his test prep books behind; even used, they cost a fortune. Sean would kill him.

  No, that wasn’t right. His brother would drive Finn back to where he’d lost the books. He might even help Finn buy new ones and put them in a brand-new backpack they couldn’t afford. And somehow, that would be worse.

  He hobbled the rest of the way home. Finn and his brother didn’t have as much as some, but they had more than others, including a peeling white house, a matching garage, and a red barn permanently slanted to the left. Finn let himself into the house and dumped his backpack on his bed. Then he rinsed his face and inspected his wounds. (Split eyebrow and split lip. Mangled nose.) He pulled a small box off the bathroom shelf and rooted around for a bandage. The box, which had belonged to his mother, was gilded, jeweled, and far too fancy for bandages and swabs, but Sean said the jewels were fake and the box not worth a damn anyway, so they might as well use it for something. Finn shoved the box back on the shelf and slapped a bandage on the split eyebrow, which was stubbornly weeping blood. Then he went outside to the garden.

  Calamity Jane, Finn’s tiny striped cat, slunk under the fence and twirled around his legs. Her belly was swollen with the kittens she’d have in just a few days.

  “Don’t look now,” he said to her, “but there’s a mouse behind you and he’s got a crossbow.”

  She mewled and made another run around his ankles. Her name wasn’t a compliment so much as a joke; as a mouser, she was a calamity. Sean said they would let her have one litter and see if her kittens could earn their keep even if she couldn’t.

  Calamity followed Finn as he weeded and watered their puny half acre of new vegetables—asparagus, kale, onion, beans, carrots, spinach, beets, broccoli, tomatoes. Sean and Finn were raised in a farm town; they were no strangers to growing food. But Roza, Roza had magic in her fingers. Because of what Roza had taught them, Finn and his brother could eat what they grew and still have some to sell at the farmers’ market. With all the warm weather, the plants should have been thriving. Yet the vegetables seemed sad, strangely wilted. He pulled limp leaves and filled the holes left by squirrels and rabbits. As he did, he told Calamity, “You know, you could help with the squirrels and rabbits.” In response, Calamity head-butted his leg, turned toward the house, and meowed.

  “What?” he said, brushing the dirt from his hands. She head-butted him again and stuffed herself under the gate, which couldn’t have been easy considering the load she was carrying. She looked back to see if Finn was behind her.

  “All right, I’m coming.” He got to his feet, stopping only to clutch at his bruised ribs, and then trailed the cat to the back of the house. She trotted right by the door to the kitchen and kept going until she sat in front of another door. The door to the apartment. Roza’s rooms.

  Finn said, “She’s not here. Nothing is here.”

  Calamity meowed again, twirling in frantic circles in front of the door. While his brother was on shift, Finn would sometimes get the spare key from the kitchen, unlock the door, and sit in Roza’s tidy apartment, inhaling the faint scents of mint and vanilla, leafing through the books, admiring the framed sketch of a pair of clasped hands on the nightstand, lifting the little flowerpots on the sill—all the things she’d left behind. He would imagine that she was
coming back any minute, and would be surprised or maybe even annoyed to find him sitting in her old flowered chair by the window. He would say to her, “Where have you been?” And she would say in her deep, accented voice, “It matters why?” Finn would speak for himself and for Sean: “If you’re back, it doesn’t matter at all.”

  Now the door was unlocked. Though he knew what he would find, or what he wouldn’t, Finn once again pushed open the door. Calamity shot past him into the empty apartment, sniffed. She let out a howl like the wail of a coyote, the sound more of a punch than anything the Rudes could ever manage.

  It was too much. The whole day, the whole sleepless spring. Finn left the door open to the breeze and the dirt and the frantic, inconsolable cat and stomp-limped to the ramshackle blue house across the street. He had just raised his hand to knock when the front door flew wide. The man standing in the doorway had long gray hair. A long gray beard. He looked like the wizard from the Lord of the Rings, except for the T-shirt that said BORN TO BE WILD.

  “So, what ran you down?” Charlie Valentine said. “A herd of cattle?”

  “You could say that.”

  Charlie pointed at the jeans ripped in both knees, the white shirt so stained with blood and dirt it would have to be tossed. “If I know what’s what, you’re going to be pissing red. Better get Sean to look you over.”

  “Sean isn’t home. He’s never home.”

  “I’m not either,” said Charlie. “I was on my way to a date.”

  “Sorry,” said Finn, not sorry.

  “Eh, no need. She’s already mad at me anyway. Women are always mad about something. Did I ever tell you about the time I was traveling alone across this beautiful country of ours and met a beautiful woman with flaming hair? Her name was Esmeralda. Empira. Empusa. Something with an E. I thought we’d had a fine time of it, the two of us, until I woke up and found her trying to gnaw off my arm. Had teeth as sharp as a shark’s, that one.”

  “Sure,” said Finn, following Charlie into the house. He had no idea why he kept coming here when the old man was so full of shit.

 
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