***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2017 Peter Clines
Eli Teague was eight and a half years old the first time he met Harry Pritchard.
That morning, Eli’s mom had tossed him out the door with a bag lunch and told him to find something interesting to do. It was summer, and she didn’t want him inside watching cartoons or reading comics. She insisted a young boy needed fresh air and exercise.
Eli insisted what he really needed was to know how Voltron was going to form and beat the Robeast when one of the five lion keys was missing, but he was told in no uncertain terms that he did not. He was upset in principle more than in fact. They didn’t have cable, and there was only so much picture the television’s rabbit ears could coax out of the air from the distant Boston stations.
The bag lunch was a dry granola bar, a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread with the crusts still on it, a green apple, and a thermos filled with cold water. No jelly, because it had too much sugar. No Ho-Hos, because they were nothing but sugar. Not even a juice box. Eli’s mom had been on a health kick for a few months now, and he’d been forced to spend part of his hard-earned allowance on Pepsi and snack cakes down at Jackson’s. It cut into his comic-book budget, but his mom hadn’t left him with much choice.
He kicked around in the yard for a while, then rode his bike along the shoulder to Joshua’s house to see if his best friend had any comics he hadn’t read. Joshua had come down with a cold, though, and his mother wouldn’t even let Eli come in. And Corey was still away at summer camp, so there wouldn’t be any new comics at his house either.
Eli rode his bike out past the old baseball field. He threw a few rocks at the stone wall that separated the outfield from the patch of woods behind the Catholic church, and then hiked out to throw a few more at the old rusted car he and his friends had discovered wedged between some trees one day. He went down to Jackson’s and worked his way through the three wire racks of comics, even though he knew there wouldn’t be any new ones until Wednesday and the new issue of Amazing Spider-Man wasn’t due for another two weeks anyway. Then old Mr. Jackson told him to buy something or get out, so Eli bought a Pepsi and a Chocodile and rode back to the baseball field to sit in the bleachers and eat his now slightly improved lunch.
He weighed his options while he ate. Closer to the coast there were tourist attractions like beaches and video-game arcades and movie theaters. One of the towns to the south had a statue of the wrong soldier they’d gotten after the Civil War, while one to the north had a guardian scarecrow. Over in New Hampshire were all the malls with tons of stores and shops. None of these were close enough to reach with his bike.
Not for the first time, Eli came to the inescapable conclusion that Sanders had to be the most boring town in the state of Maine. Possibly the most boring town in New England. While he didn’t have a lot of worldly experience and had traveled very little, if asked, he would be willing to bet a whole dollar Sanders was the most boring town in the entire United States of America.
Sanders didn’t even have a library. Or a school. Eli was bussed across the town line when school was in session. The old Sanders high school was used as a police station now.
Sanders didn’t have anything interesting.
Eli finished his Chocodile and hid the evidence in a rust-flaked trash can next to the bleachers. It had been almost three hours since his mom had tossed him out, according to his calculator-watch. He could probably sneak home and hide in his room until afternoon cartoons started. He took a big bite of apple, moved it around his mouth with his tongue to hide any scent of chocolate, then spit the mouthful of fruit into the can. The apple itself followed.
He shoved the empty paper bag and full thermos into his backpack, swung his leg over his bike, and headed for home.
A little ways away from his house, he saw the car on the side of the road. It was old and small, but still took up too much room on the shoulder for Eli to squeeze by on his bike. He was either going to have to come to a stop, drag his bike into the woods and around the car, or go into the street. Being in the street was forbidden, and he would never risk it this close to home where his mom might see.
Still, Eli toyed with the idea of taking his bike onto the gray pavement anyway. It would only take a moment. His mom said he was too young, but he knew he was more than old enough. Just last month, after his eighth birthday, he had to insist his grammy stop getting him Duplo bricks and only get regular LEGO from here on in.
The old car had spindly wheels like Eli’s bicycle and a funny roof like an old wagon. The windows in the back were stretched-out ovals. The whole thing was new-jeans-dark blue.
A car like that didn’t belong on the side of the road. It didn’t belong on the road, period. Not in Sanders, for sure. Even for a town that still didn’t have cable television, it was too old. Too old for anyone in town, even old Mr. Jackson, who was almost fifty.
And then, as he mashed his pedals backwards and the bike crunched to a stop in the sand and rocks, Eli saw the older boy, who he would soon learn was named Harry.
Harry stood next to the car—up on the car, on little platforms that ran along the bottom—and stretched out across the hood, yanking on some kind of lever. He wore one of the old-timey outfits (even older than the car) that people wore for Fourth of July parades down in the Yorks or sometimes in Portsmouth. A blue coat, not as dark as the car, covered his body and swung back and forth with every movement.
Eli stepped off his bike, dropped the kickstand, and took a few steps toward the old car. “Hey,” he said. “Whatcha doin’?”
Harry responded by tossing a big wrench over his shoulder. It clunked headfirst on the side of the road and tipped over into the gravel next to an old toolbox. Then the older boy hopped down, clutching something round and silver in his hand. A vest that matched the coat wrapped around the teen’s torso, and his oversized, off-white shirt poofed out around the vest’s edges. He had long hair like a girl, but it was done up in a wide ponytail, like old-timey hair in schoolbook pictures.
Eli found this outfit odd—although still not as odd as the car—because usually only adults wore the Fourth of July costumes, or very young children (even younger than Eli, who felt quite old nowadays). On a guess, Harry was closer to eighteen or nineteen. Tall and slim, but not quite old enough to get the pinprick whiskers of grown men. Smooth as a baby’s bum, as Eli’s mom liked to say.
“Kind of busy here,” Harry said. “You should head on home.”
Eli took another step forward. The car’s front glass—the windshield—was all cracked and broken. “Is something wrong with your car?”
The teenage boy nodded. “Just out of fuel,” he said. He gave the car an awkward pat. “We’ll be on our way soon, hopefully.”
Eli pointed back down the road behind him. “There’s a gas station in town,” he said. “They can help.”
Harry shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said. “I’ve only got a few minutes to get back on the road.”
“I could go get some gas for you,” said Eli. He waved his arm back at his bike, thrilled with the idea something even slightly interesting was happening right on his street. “I’m really fast.”
“I don’t need gas,” said the older boy. “My partner’s off taking care of things.” He glanced over his shoulder, then past Eli and down the road. His face was slack, the look of someone waiting to get back a quiz they knew they didn’t do well on. “You should get out of here, child.”
“I live right over there,” said Eli, pointing the other way. “It’s okay.” “It isn’t. You should head home. Bad things are coming.”
Eli glanced over his shoulder, but the road was empty as far as he could see. “What’s your name?” he asked, desperate to stretch out the encounter.
“I’m Harry,” said the teenager. “Now, go home.”
He said the name in his head three times to make sure it stuck. “Hello, Harry,” he said. “I’m Eli.”
The older boy nodded, his gaze still on the road. Then his eyes went wide and looked down at Eli. He squeaked out the name again, like a high-pitched echo.
Something about the look worried Eli. “Yeah,” he said, cautiously confirming his name.
Harry dropped to his knees and grabbed Eli by the shoulders. As he did his coat flared out and Eli saw two leather gun holsters on his hips, like movie cowboys wore. “Oh my God,” he said. “Look at you! You . . . you’re so cute.”
Eli knew he was not cute. He was, in fact, very mature and grown-up. He no longer read Richie Rich or Hot Stuff, and made sure to only select comics from either Marvel or DC.
Harry was still holding him by the shoulders and still talking— babbling, really—about complications and Eli not being there and more demands for him to go home. It didn’t make a lot of sense. It felt like Harry was rushing through stuff, the way adults would give quick answers when they didn’t really want to explain things.
One word stood out at the end of the older boy’s speech, and Eli latched onto it. “I have water,” he said.
Harry froze. His fingers tightened on Eli’s shoulders. “You what?” “Water,” said Eli. “I’ve got some if you’re thirsty.” He wiggled his arms until Harry let go, and then the pack slid down his back. He swung it around, unzipped it, and pulled out the bright-red thermos. He’d stopped carrying the plastic Transformers lunchbox last year, but his mom still made him use the thermos. The picture of Optimus
Prime was chipped and worn away by hundreds of washings.
Harry’s eyes got even wider. He snatched the thermos out of Eli’s hands, tossed the cup-lid aside, and unscrewed the top. He pushed his nose into it and sniffed hard. His bright-green eyes locked on Eli’s as he hefted the thermos.
Then he leapt off the ground and raced to the front of the car. “It’s better than nothing,” he said.
Eli ran after him, clutching the backpack to his chest. “What are you doing?”
Harry stretched across the hood. Near the center of the windshield sat a small opening that reminded Eli of the top of a jar. Harry carefully emptied the thermos into the tank, shaking the last few drops in, then resealed the cap with a few quick twists of his wrist.
He tossed the thermos back to Eli and dashed around to the other side of the car. He reached in and flipped a few switches on the dash- board. There were a lot of switches, and some lights, and it all looked a bit more like a spaceship than a car.
The car puttered to life.
“Hey,” Eli cried out. “You said you were out of gas.” He gave Harry a well-practiced glare, the look of a child lied to by an older person.
“I said I was out of fuel,” the older boy said. “And you gave me close to a pint.”
“I just gave you water.”
“Yes,” he said. “You’re a lifesaver, if I haven’t mentioned that yet.” He slid into the driver’s seat and settled behind the wheel.
Eli stared at the dashboard again. “Hey!” someone yelled.
Eli looked up and saw a shaggy man jogging toward the car. He had a Bond-villain hat and wore a scratchy-plaid jacket over a pale- blue sweatshirt, even though it wasn’t cold out. He had dark hair and a scraggly beard, like people on TV who got lazy and didn’t take care of themselves for a couple of days. His mom said it was how homeless people looked. He held a red gas can in his arms, one of the plastic square ones like they sold down at the station.
“How’d you get it running?” the man said.
“Quiet!” yelled Harry. He ran back to meet the older man in front of the car.
“I couldn’t get anything, the faucet was rusted solid,” the man said. He looked at Eli.
“Quiet,” the older boy told him again. He knocked the gas can away from the homeless man and muttered some quiet words to him.
The man stared at Eli’s bike, then at Eli. Eli stared back. He wondered if the homeless man was Harry’s older brother. Or just some hitchhiker Harry was giving a ride to. Or if he was going to try to take Eli’s bike.
Harry hit the man’s arm. “Now!”
Harry slipped past Eli and jumped into the car. The homeless man held out an old-timey triangle hat, which Harry yanked onto his head. “Hey,” said the older boy. He snapped his fingers and pointed down at the pavement under Eli’s shoes. The homeless man flinched. “Your mother doesn’t want you in the street, yes?”
Eli glanced down. He’d followed Harry around to the driver’s side without thinking.
“Get off the road and stay there,” Harry told him. “In fact, stay there for a few minutes after I go, just to be safe, okay?” He pointed back to the sand-and-gravel shoulder where the bike stood.
Eli nodded and looked back at his bike. Something moved on the edge of his vision, down the road. There was another car coming. Coming fast. He could hear its engine.
Harry looked at the mirror mounted on the door. “Time to go,” he said. “See you in a couple of years, Eli.”
The old car lunged forward. Eli was showered in loose grit and dust as the wheels spun and hurled the vehicle up onto the road. The tires squealed and left thin black tracks against the gray pavement. He coughed twice and the older boy’s car was already past Eli’s driveway and zooming away.
He watched the car vanish down the road and around the far bend where it stopped being Mill Road and became Abbot Drive. The sound of its engine faded, but even as it did another sound grew. A growl like an angry dinosaur or a werewolf or something else that should only be on the Channel 56 Creature Double Feature. It was so loud it almost hurt.
Eli stepped off the road. His shoes crunched in the gravel and the last swirls of dust settled around them. He breathed out and took new air into his lungs.
The summer before, somewhat against his will, Eli had been enrolled in pee-wee baseball and somehow ended up playing third base. It had been almost fun until the day Zeke the Freak, an oversized kid with a jaw like an ape, had sent a line drive right at third. Eli had been looking at something else, heard the crack of the bat, and turned to see the base- ball hanging in the air a foot from his face. Each individual red stitch stuck in his memory, along with curly letters that spelled out WLINGS and a scuff of dirt that crossed one of the stitch lines. Then the ball had struck him in the cheek and knocked out his last three baby teeth. Blood had flowed and Eli had shrieked and Zeke had cackled and a year later he could still remember that moment of the ball hanging in the air.
Eli turned around on the side of the road, and time froze.
The black car was caught in mid-pounce, like it didn’t drive so much as lunge forward along the strip of pavement. It seemed heavier in the front, and a thin line of silver ran along its side. The windows were short and rounded on the corners.
Across the width of the car, the driver stared at Eli. His face was shadowed by a black hat, but there was enough sunlight to see his chin and nose and forehead glisten. His cheeks were pink, “a little color to them” Eli’s mom would say, and his eyebrows and mustache were dark lines on his face. His smile didn’t show any teeth.
Both of the man’s eyes were closed. Not blinking or winking. Closed. But his head was turned to point right at Eli.
Past the man’s face was a black gun. It was huge and blocky in the man’s hand. He was in the process of putting it out his window. The man was driving, and getting ready to shoot his gun, and staring at Eli.
All with his eyes closed. The moment passed.
The black car rocketed past him. Dust and leaves whipped at Eli. He grabbed at his ears to block the roar, but the sound was already fading. He turned and caught a last glimpse of the car before it screeched around the distant bend.
A sharp sound echoed back to Eli. A distant bang like fireworks. It happened again.
The road went quiet. Dust settled down over the toolbox, the wrench, and the red plastic fuel can. He didn’t think they were coming back for any of them.
Eli’s left leg was clammy. His jeans were wet. He didn’t remember Harry or the homeless man spilling any water on him, but then the smell hit his nose. “Oh, no,” he whispered. He snatched up his back- pack and held it to hide the stain. He looked back at his bicycle and thought of several different ways to get the bike home until he figured out an awkward one that would let him keep the backpack where it was.
He stared down the road as he struggled home. He’d seen enough episodes of Knight Rider to know what had happened. The man in the black car had been shooting at Harry.
A breeze carried the smell of urine to his nose again. Eli cringed with the thought of Zeke the Freak spotting him. Even Josh and Corey would laugh at him for wetting his pants. All other thoughts were pushed away and Eli lumbered the last few dozen yards home with his bike and backpack.