An excerpt from my upcoming novel: Sullen Teenage Rebels by S. P. Hoctor

I thought you all might enjoy a small sample of the thing I have been working on for the last 3 years. This is just the beginning though. There is so much I have to go through in order to produce a quality draft. I have also decided on a pen name: S. P. Hoctor. Those of you from the Grand Canyon or Williams, AZ area will probably figure out the significance of the name, and if you aren’t, it’s an intersection just north of Williams: “Espee Rd” turns into “Hoctor Rd” at State Route 64. But I digress. Please enjoy.

[Trigger warning: suicide, drug use, violence, cactus]

Prologue

I had just come home from school when I discovered my mother face-down on the living room rug. This was not new. She was very sick and occasionally suffered from fainting spells. However, this time she was not breathing. This was new. I turned her over and I did everything the CPR class tells you to do. I called 911 and put them on speakerphone while I pushed down on her heart and blew air in her lungs. I did compressions for eighteen minutes—that’s how long it took the paramedics to get to my neighborhood. But she never woke up. She never started breathing again.

My dad met me at the hospital. He already had about half a case of cheap beer in him. The official cause of death was acute myocardial infarction—in other words, a heart attack. But the medical examiner found a whole chemical stew of drugs in her stomach, some of that had been legally prescribed, and some of which that hadn’t. The police took us both down to the station and asked us questions until four in the morning. I couldn’t answer any of them. It was really disturbing to have cops accuse my mother of being a drug addict—and my dad of being her supplier—like she was some kind of crack whore and he was some kind of drug dealer or pimp. If I had known she was popping amphetamines and pain killers like they were candy, I would have done something. But she never showed any signs of drug abuse, up until the moment I found her corpse.

After the funeral, my dad sent me to my uncle Roberto’s house for a few days. He said he had some things to think about. I knew he was just going to go get drunk, but I wasn’t about to cross him. He didn’t go in. He doesn’t like my mom’s family. But to be fair, they don’t like him very much either. To him, they’re “cholo gangbangers” that probably deal drugs because they live in a nicer house than us and Roberto is a “welfare moocher” that makes his wife work while he sits in the house all day with his diabetes and his wheelchair. To them, my dad is “that crazy guido who stole our Maria away from us.” They’ve always been very nice to me, though, and they’ve always been there for me. Their three kids are several years older than me, but they’ve always treated me like a little brother. And Roberto and Aunt Elena were kind of like my surrogate parents when things between my mom and dad weren’t going so well.

For three days we all talked and dealt with the loss by telling stories about my mom and how smart and funny and beautiful she was. It felt so great being with them. It made me feel less abandoned.

But then, my dad came back. He was dead sober. He was driving a U-Haul truck with our car on a trailer in the back. From the driver’s seat of the truck, he called, “Say your goodbyes, Jack. We’re never coming back here again.”

Chapter 1

“I can’t believe this,” I snarled as we headed north towards the desert in Dad’s moving van. “Why are we moving to a shack in the middle of nowhere? And why now? Mom isn’t even cold in her grave yet—are we running from the law?”

“No,” Dad said calmly.

“Then why are we moving in the middle of a criminal investigation? And with you as a material witness?”

Dad sighed. “It’s no longer a criminal investigation.”

“What? Why?”

“They… found a note on the kitchen table.”

“No.” My heart crashed into the seat of the truck. That could only mean one thing.

“The cops said that they found a coffee stain on it that dated back to the day she died. And it was written in her handwriting. You were in school all day and I was at work, and there was no sign of forced entry or that anyone else had been there recently… so she…”

“Don’t say it, Dad. I understand.”

“She wrote that she couldn’t live with the pain anymore. She said she failed us. She said that she bought the pills from a pharmacist friend of hers and hoped that it would be painless.”

I remembered her face. It was twisted in a horrific visage of fear and agony, like she was stuck in an eternal scream. Whatever it was, it wasn’t painless. “I don’t think she wanted to hurt us, Dad,” I said, choking back tears. “I know she was sick. I know she suffered from depression too. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how.”

“She wasn’t sick,” Dad sighed. “She was a drug addict. I let it go on because I didn’t know how to help either. We did our best to hide it from you. We didn’t want you to follow in our own bad footsteps. We wanted you to be a normal kid, have a normal life.”

“Well, looks like you fucked up good then, huh, Dad?”

“You think this is easy on me? I just lost my wife and the mother of my child. I lost the only person in this world who ever gave a shit about me. I did what I felt had to be done. I am still doing what has to be done. I couldn’t protect her, but I sure as hell am going to protect you.”

“Protect her from what? Her own bad choices? You didn’t make her swallow those pills. She did.”

“What’s done is done,” Dad said, clenching the steering wheel so hard it squeaked beneath his hands. “We have to move on. The city is not safe for us anymore. We’re moving to the old cabin in Creosote Canyon. The one your grandfather built with his own hands.”

“What? That old dump?” I shouted. “That’s in the middle of nowhere! Why are you doing this?”

“We will be safe there,” he replied, in a sort of dazed mumble. “I wanted us to move out there when Papa died, but your mother wouldn’t have it. Her work was too important to her, she said. I stayed in the city for her, but I saw what it was doing to her. I watched your mother deteriorate fighting those causes she kept getting involved in. Trying to feed the hungry and get rights for all them illegal aliens. Throwing pearls before swine, that’s all that was. Giving the best years of her life to people who would never appreciate it and who would just take, take, take from her and give nothing in return.”

“Mom was a hero,” I said. “She gave hope to those who had none… but it seems that she had none left for herself.”

“I don’t want you to follow in her footsteps,” Dad said. “The city is filled with nothing but loathsome degenerates, from top to bottom. They’ll do anything to make you just as much a son of hell as they are. The darkness is growing, and it intends to squash all light.”

“Um, Dad, you’re sounding kind of weird. Do you want to stop for a few minutes, maybe get some coffee or something?” I looked out the window of the truck but all I could see were mountains and cactus and sagebrush and other trucks grinding furiously up the steep slope we were on.

“Son, I know what I’m doing. I’ve planned this escape for many, many years… I just thought I was going to take Maria with me. Those bastards killed her. Brian Mothersbaugh and the rest of the Metro City Economic Development Commission. Kept shooting down her proposals for low-income housing just as they gentrified our old neighborhood and brought in all of those faggot hipster tech workers and jacked up everybody’s rents so high nobody could afford to live there.  I told her not to bother. I told her the poor can take care of themselves. But no, she kept slamming against that wall until she completely broke down.”

“Dad, you are making no sense,” I stammered.

“No, I am making sense for the first time in my life,” said Dad, swerving past a slow-moving semi-truck. “I wouldn’t be surprised if those bastards actually killed her and made it look like a suicide. Oh well. Those god-forsaken sons-of-bitches can have their dirty sinful city. We have something better. A chance to make a brand new life for ourselves.”

“Dad, you’re scaring me,” I said, yanking on the door handle, but it was locked. What good would opening the door do me anyway? I’d just fall out of truck at 70 miles an hour and possibly tumble down an impossibly high cliff or get hit by another car. Dad grinned maniacally as he continued to drive.

“You’ll thank me for this someday.”

“Like hell I will,” I mumbled. I pulled out my phone and googled “how to have your father committed,” but the network wasn’t connecting. We were probably too far out in the boonies.

“Look up ‘Creosote Canyon’ on that thing, why don’t you?” Dad said. “You’d like it. It’s a nice town. Small-town values. Good people. Excellent school. You’ll really like the school. Only 400 students, and I bet every one of them will want to be your friend. You’ll get lots of personal attention from your teachers too. Not like that pump house on the school-to-prison pipeline you used to go to.”

“I liked my old school,” I said. “All my friends were there, and I was doing so good in Drama Club and the Chess Team and Academic Decathlon.”

“Yeah, and all the gangs were there too, and drugs, and crime. How many gangbangers did you have to beat up every day just to get home from class?”

“Dad, it was only that one time, and that puto called Mom a whore.”

“That’s not what I heard from your teachers,” Dad said. “They say you’re always getting into fights in the hallways and sometimes you’ll react to the slightest insults with threats and violence.”

“I was protecting smaller kids from getting bullied. I didn’t want them to be pushed around.”

“Those kids need to learn how to defend themselves. You can’t always be there to defend them.”

“Well, of course I can’t now, Dad, because you just kidnapped me to a shallow grave in the desert.”

“That’s not the point,” Dad snapped. “The point is that if you keep fighting people, eventually you’re going to come up against someone who is not only bigger and stronger than you, but he’ll have buddies with him. And the public will be on their side. And they’ll keep hounding you and hounding you and they won’t stop until you’re dead or might as well be. I won’t lose you like I lost your mother—or your uncle Ryan.” Dad’s brother Ryan got into a bar fight with about twenty Frat Boys when he was a young rowdy, and he thought he could take them all, but he couldn’t. He got hit in the head with a lead pipe so many times he got permanent brain damage and now he lives in an assisted-living facility for mentally disabled adults somewhere in Cooney County.

“Dad, I know you’re taking Mom’s death a bit hard, but isn’t this just taking it a bit too far? You make it sound like there’s some sort of conspiracy to get us or something. Mom wasn’t murdered. She was a social worker and a small-time community organizer. Everyone loved her, even her opponents. Nobody wanted her dead.”

“But yet, she is dead,” Dad whispered. “And I’m going to make damn sure you don’t share her fate. We are moving to Creosote Canyon whether you like it or not. You’re going to see a different side of life before the filth of the city turns you into one of them… or kills you trying.”

I slumped into my seat. “You could have given me some warning first, not just dumped me at Uncle Roberto’s and packed up all our belongings in secret. I’m your son. You owe me more than that.”

“I don’t owe you shit,” Dad said. “I thought it would be easier this way.”

“Easier for you, maybe. You could have just moved to this cabin by yourself and left me with my family.”

“What, and become just like them?” Dad’s voice started to raise to a furious shout. “Those Mexicans? Have you seen how they live? Your obese uncle, who keeps eating and eating even though he lost a foot to diabetes last year? Your aunt, who pops anxiety pills like candy? Do you want to be like your cholo gangbanger cousins? I mean, it’s bad enough they’re the only family you’ve got besides me, but they don’t care about you like I do. I’m trying to save you from the darkness and corruption, not surrender you to it!”

I grumbled something under my breath that I don’t want to repeat here. Dad shouted, “Fine, have it your way. But I’m still your father. You’ll thank me for this someday.”

We spent the rest of the trip in silence, grinding up the mountain as fast as the beat-up old rental truck would take us. Soon we reached the summit of Trucknut Pass, and passed the beautiful ski resort and mining town of Feldspar. I really wish Grandpa had bought land here in the 1960’s instead of in that horrible desert, but beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. Dad wouldn’t even stop and let me take a picture in front of the 50-foot-tall statue of Paul Bunyan right off the highway. Maybe he was afraid that I would run off. Just as quickly as we reached the top, we started coasting down the mountain again. Dad kept it at a low gear through the twisty turns, but we kept getting passed by tourists in rental cars who were treating this part of the highway like their own personal racetrack. I swear one of them almost scratched our paint job. I was scared out of my mind, but Dad was just taking it all in stride.

Soon enough, the mountains flattened out and the ponderosa pines of the Feldspar mountains turned into junipers and then into creosote bushes and sagebrush. Before long we were driving on a vast open prairie on a desert road as straight as a string. Eventually the shimmering gray dots on the horizon became the city of Desert Terrace. Well, it’s only technically a city as it’s considered one of this state’s 87 incorporated municipalities, but it’s really more of a large truck stop in the middle of nowhere. The whole city’s population would get lost in one of my home town’s smaller suburbs. At least my dad agreed to stop there as it was approaching lunch time and we were both getting hungry. We got gas at the truck stop just off the highway and had lunch at the truck stop’s Burger Box, which decided to reflect the city’s history as a transit hub by building the dining room out of old railway cars held together purely by chintzy tchotchkes, random car parts, and 1950’s road trip memorabilia.

I thought it was the tackiest piece of crap I had ever experienced in my life. My dad, however, was traipsing around like he was at effing Disneyland, pointing out the significance of all the crap on the walls and telling me all about his youth racing hotrods and cruising around on old State Route 388. I told my dad that my generation was rejecting the American car culture in droves, in favor of more environmentally friendly public transportation and ride-sharing apps. My dad smirked and said that I’d better not reject the American car culture just yet, because where we’re going, the closest bus stop is two and a half miles away, and it only goes on weekdays between the grocery store and the senior center. He also said that since we’ll be living basically rent-free at our cabin, he might be able to help me buy a used car when I turned 16 in four months. Great, I’ve always wanted to own a gas-guzzling death trap. At least Dad was talking about something other than the darkness consuming my soul and he even let me use the bathroom without spying to make sure I didn’t run off. Where would I even go at this point? I did send my uncle and aunt a quick text though to let them know what was happening and let them know I would tell them more later.

Leaving the truck stop, we drove east out of town on the old State Route 388 and were very quickly in open desert again. Five miles out of town, we were the only people on the road, and the drone of the truck’s engine was the only noise I could hear. We passed through more craggy cliffs and twisty switchbacks as the terrain became more rugged and mountainous. There was nothing for miles instead of the occasional Joshua tree or turnoff to some BLM-graded dirt road that went deeper into the nowhere. This made me extremely nervous.

“Dad, you didn’t actually bring me out here to bury me in a shallow grave in the desert, did you?”

“Nonsense, son. If I wanted to do that, why would I be paying 59 cents a mile to rent this day-glo yellow rental truck with god-awful suspension that you can see and hear from three counties away? Not to mention, why would I bother packing up all of your belongings, including your dirty underwear, and I won’t even mention what I found under the bed.”

My face turned ghost white. “What did you find under my bed?”

“Oh, calm your jets, you sullen teenage rebel, you. I can only assume you were holding those magazines for a friend.”

That revelation did not make me feel much better. At least the rest of the stuff I didn’t want my dad to find was in my luggage that I took to Uncle Roberto’s, or safely on an encrypted hard drive inside my laptop. I had totally forgotten about the pornos I leave under my bed to convince anyone who snoops around in my room that I am completely heterosexual.

Don’t get me wrong. I like girls just fine, even though I’ve never had a girlfriend, and never really had a crush on a girl before like some of my guy friends have. Lately, though, I’ve been having strange feelings, I guess? Like when I see one of the guys in the Drama Club strut around on stage in Shakespearean-style tights and I feel all kind of weird inside? Am I gay? I think I might just be bisexual. Either way, I didn’t want my parents to find out, so I put those very respectful and softcore magazines under my bed. My mom might have been cool with it, but my dad is a very traditional Catholic and he might react poorly… especially after everything that’s happened recently. I certainly didn’t want to come out to either of them though until after I was absolutely sure myself.

Eventually though, the solitude of the desert gave way to signs of human habitation. I saw a herd of cows here, a mobile home there, an alfalfa farm across the way, and soon enough I saw a gas station and some other little stores. My dad turned left at the gas station and we continued up a street called Crateria Lane. We passed some pretty nice houses in that neighborhood. But we weren’t stopping here.

The road eventually ended and turned into a dirt path that climbed up the side of a large butte or plateau. The truck bounced me and Dad in our seats as we grinded up the washboarded dirt road. There were only a handful of houses on this street and ours was near the very top of it. Then Dad turned left onto an even smaller and bumpier dirt road. I thought my eyes were going to fall out of my sockets and my stomach was going to launch itself out of my mouth. The truck rattled and shook like a convulsive freight train. After what I was sure was forever and a semester, the truck settled into silence.

Then my dad said, “You can open your eyes now, Jack. We’re home now.”

I undid my seat belt and got out of the truck. I could not believe my very eyes. At that very moment, all I wanted to do was punch my dad in the face.

This wasn’t the cabin my grandparents lived in.

This was a garbage dump.


Chapter 2

I guess I should clarify that it was my grandparents’ cabin. It was just completely trashed. The roofing had fallen off in a number of locations, all of the windows were smashed to bits, the paint on the walls was peeled and cracked, and Grandpa’s prized rose bushes, which he had bragged about until his dying day, were nothing but thorns and weeds. There were broken bottles and old tires scattered throughout the front yard. Through a hole punched through the front door, I could see piles of garbage and broken furniture from floor to ceiling. “Yup, this place is pretty trashed,” Dad said, as if he could read my mind. “Right after Pop died, a big storm came through here and tore the roof right off. Then vandals and squatters and wild animals did the rest. But rest assured, we’re going to make this place a home. I even asked your new school to let you delay starting for a week so you can help me fix this place up.”

I just stood there in silence looking around at my family’s broken ruins. “Well, come on, son,” Dad yelled from the truck. “This truck ain’t going to unpack itself, and we ain’t got much daylight left.” Reluctantly, I went to the truck and started taking boxes out.

I had been to this house before, in fact several times in my childhood. The most recent time was when I was about seven or eight. My dad had taken me up here to stay with my grandparents when he and my mom were fighting. They wanted to shelter me from whatever was going on in their perennially messed-up relationship, so they dumped me out here. My grandma came here from Italy after the war and didn’t speak a lot of English, and what little she spoke she used to badmouth “the Mexican whore” who my dad married. She spent most of her time in the living room watching soap operas she had Tivo’d back in the city. My grandpa was a bit more congenial, but spent most of his time puttering in his garden and not really coming in except to cook huge plates of spaghetti and ravioli and chicken parmesan that he insisted that I eat lots of because I was so skinny and he thought my parents weren’t feeding me enough. All in all, it was a very boring visit. The only video games they had were some dumb old Atari games left over from when my dad and Uncle Ryan were kids. I don’t see how anyone could think those games were fun. How can you construct compelling cinematic ludonarrative experiences with just five blocky pixels and 128 bytes of RAM?

They didn’t like me going outside, either, because they said there were snakes and scorpions and wild dogs out there. One time I thought I saw a blonde boy about my age walking through the bushes behind the house and I wanted to go say hi to him but my grandparents said that he was a bad kid and nothing but trouble and I should go to my room until he was gone. So I spent that whole week mostly looking for naked people in some 1970’s National Geographics they had lying around and wishing I were any place but there.

Now, I definitely wished I was anywhere else but here. I gazed down at the town below. I was miles from anyone who could help me. I wasn’t even getting any cellphone reception. I was completely at my father’s mercy, and I couldn’t tell if he was just struggling with grief or if he had gone insane. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I still continually found myself reaching down in my back pocket to make sure my knife was still there.

“Come along, son,” Dad said, pushing a hand truck heavily laden with cardboard boxes through the soft sand just outside the front door. “I cleaned up a bit of it yesterday when I brought the first truckload. I did our bedrooms and the bathroom at least. We can tackle the rest tomorrow after we’ve slept a bit.”

Timidly, I opened the front door and pushed it in so Dad could move the dolly through. That is when I was slammed with the worst odor I had ever smelled in my life. It smelled like black mold and dead grandpa. The pungent stench of mildew emanated from the water-stained lime-green carpet. I took another step into the room and I swear I stepped on an actual pile of shit. “Dagnabbit, those feral dogs must have gotten in here again,” Dad mumbled as he walked across the room to the light switch. A ceiling fan in the center of the room groaned to life, but then one of its light bulbs burnt out and shatted. A single spark fluttered from the dead bulb and landed on a pile of old newspapers directly underneath it. Within seconds, the pile was a raging inferno. But just as quickly, Dad ran to the fire and stomped it to death with his massive black leather boots.

“So, do you want to see your room?” Dad said.

We stepped through the garbage-filled living room to a door near the back of the room. Dad opened the door and turned on the light. It was very small, and the windows were all boarded up, but for the most part Dad had set it up like my room back home. My bed was there, even though it took up most of the room. There was a big box fan lying on the nightstand by the bed. My desk was jammed up against the foot of the bed. A large stack of boxes took up the rest of the space. It still smelled as musty as the rest of the house though. And it was strangely cold, as if death itself lived in there.

“Looks just like home,” I said.

“I boarded up the windows, so hopefully no critters will get in here tonight,” Dad said, jamming the dolly into the room and dropping more boxes into the back of the room. “Tomorrow we’re going to the hardware store to get some more plywood. The window guy isn’t coming until next week.”

“Next week?” I said. “So we just have to make do with all these smashed windows until then?”

“Think of it like camping,” Dad said. “Plus, once we get the windows boarded up, I can turn on the air conditioner, and that will make it a little more comfortable in here.”

Dad motioned for me to help him continue unloading the truck. I put my backpack and my duffel bag on the bed and went back out to help him. Working for what seemed like hours under the hot sun, we managed to get the remaining boxes and furniture out of the truck and piled up on the front porch. I asked Dad where the couch and TV were, though, but he said that they were rentals and he took them back to the furniture store. But I didn’t have to worry though, he said, because Grampa’s old TV and couch were safely tucked away in the Quonset hut.

“What’s a Quonset hut?” I asked.

Dad took me behind the house. The house was dug into a small embankment in the ground. The front of the house was at ground level, but the ground came up around the sides of the house so that the back of the house, where my room was, was about six feet underground. My room is so cool year-round, Dad would later say, because the earth acts as an insulator. But past this embankment, hidden in a clump of dead trees, was a large steel semi-cylindrical building that looked kind of like an airplane hangar, or a half-pipe. The corrugated sheet metal covering the building was brown with rust, and the stains streaked down like it was bleeding. At the front of the hut was a large, heavy two-part black metal door bound in the middle by a chain and padlock.

“I’m surprised the vandals never got in here,” Dad said.

“Maybe they took one look at the building and thought there was nothing of value in there,” I said.

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Dad said as he put a key in the padlock and swung both halves of the door wide. The door groaned open like a gaping maw and a foul wind blew out from the hut, breathing dust into our eyes and clothes. I sneezed. Dad took a flashlight which was hanging inside the building by the door and shined it in the room. It was absolutely packed with dusty boxes, dusty furniture, and dusty cobwebs.

“Somewhere in there’s a TV and a couch. Next week, while I’m at work, I need you to go in there and get them. That is, if you want to watch TV or play your video games. I don’t care either way.”

“In there?” I stammered, staring at the huge webs that up until now I thought only existed in cartoons or in boxes of Halloween decorations. “But there are spiders in there.”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby,” Dad said. “They don’t eat much. Also, while I’m at work next week, after we’ve cleaned out the trash in the house, I’ll need you to go in here and sort through this stuff. See what we can use, what we can sell, and what we can throw away. You know, things like that.”

“Wait a minute—where are you working now? I thought you quit your job in the city.”

“No, I was only on bereavement leave. I need to go back until I find a job closer to here.”

“What? In the city? Up and down that crazy mountain? Every day? How long is that going to take you?”

“I’ve done it in the car, and it takes about three hours each way, if the traffic’s not too bad.”

“So you’re going to drive three hours to work, drive your garbage truck all day, and then drive three hours back? Fourteen hours of driving every day? You’re not going to have time or energy to do anything else.”

Dad looked straight at me, a warm fall breeze blowing between us. “I don’t really see any other options, Jack. You’ll be fine here while I’m gone. There’s plenty of food in the icebox and the school bus drops off right at the bottom of the dirt road. And if there’s ever any emergency, just call my cellphone.”

“You mean the one you always forget to bring with you?”

Dad closed the door to the shed and wrapped the chain around the door handles, snapping the heavy padlock down around it. “I’ll make sure to remember it from now on.” We walked around the back of the house through the overgrown weeds and back to the truck to finish unloading.

“So you’re just going to leave me here come Monday?” I said, loading the last stack of boxes onto the hand truck to stick into the living room. “I’m only fifteen. What if something goes wrong?”

“I’m sorry,” said Dad, “I thought you were a big strong tough loner who could take care of himself.”

Tears started welling up in my eyes, but I’d be damned if I was going to let him see them. I turned my head towards the boxes. “Oh, don’t give me that, Jack,” Dad continued. “The police and fire numbers are taped to the landline phone in the kitchen, and if one of those wild dogs shows up and gives you a hard time, there’s a shotgun full of rock salt right next to the front door.”

This did not encourage me. “Dad, all of these broken windows and all of our stuff inside boxes would make us a prime target for robbers, and what if those vandals or squatters came back?”

Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “Son, it’s going to be okay. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of anybody up this street ever since I came back here. Most of this damage was done years ago, right after Grandpa died. Now that they’ll see lights on and activity in the house, nobody is going to try anything, especially in the daytime. And I’ll be home at night. If you see someone lurking around in the bushes just shoot the shotgun off into the sky and they’ll hear the noise and run off.”

“But what if they’re armed too?”

“I told you not to worry about it,” Dad said. “This isn’t Metro City. We don’t have roving gangs of armed home invasion robbers here. Now help me hook the car back up to the van. I have to return this to the rental place in town before they close today.”

“So, you’re leaving me here alone—now?” The sun was dipping down into the buttes and mesas to the southwest, filling the sky with glowing amber hues. I might have considered it a beautiful sunset, if not for the fear in my heart. I was going to be all alone in a place I didn’t know, with no one around for miles. No one would hear my screams if something bad were to happen. Dad seemed to think that being “isolated” and being “safe” were one and the same thing. He’s seen nearly as many horror movies as I have, so he has no excuse. At that moment, I was absolutely sure that my dad had gone off the deep end. His grief over his dead wife has caused him to completely break with reality. I was scared of being alone in this awful place—not just with him gone, but with him there as well. There was no escape.

“I’ll only be gone a little while,” Dad said. “It’s just a few miles to downtown and— hey, are you listening to me? Earth to Jack!” Dad waved his hand in front of my eyes. I was still in a fight-or-flight fugue state thinking of all the things that could happen to me trapped in the desert. But Dad would suspect something if I didn’t respond appropriately. Gradually, I was able to force open my mouth and lips and squeeze out a slight croak.

“I’m fine, Dad. I was just… thinking about Mom.”

Dad gave off a slight smile. “I know, son. It’s still fresh in my mind, too. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss her. But we got to move on, not just for our sake, but for hers too. I was going to ask if you wanted to come with me, but you look very tired. It’s been a long day for you.”

“Yeah… tired… long day.”

“That’s okay, Jack, just go inside. There’s pizza in the fridge; go help yourself. I’ll be back shortly.” Dad jumped up to the driver’s seat of the truck and began turning it around in the yard, scraping it along some creosote bushes on his way out of the driveway. I stared at the truck as it went down the hill and receded into the distance. I would be fine, I told myself. Everything’s going to be okay. My dad wouldn’t have brought me out here to die, would he? He’s never given me any indication that he wanted me dead. Or has he, and I just never noticed it before because he was always working and never around at home when I was younger?

Then I got the idea that I should call Uncle Roberto and let him know what was going on. I pulled out my cellphone. It said “NO SIGNAL.” I walked around the yard as the sun faded into the distant western hills, holding it up and waving it around in an attempt to catch a cell tower somewhere. Nothing. Great. That was all that I needed at that moment.

I went into the house and walked into the kitchen. At least Dad had made an effort to clean up in here. The kitchen was tiny, only about six feet by nine feet. The sink and the stove and the refrigerator, all covered in white enamel, looked like something out of the 1950’s. I found the phone, which also looked like something out Lucy Ricardo would use, hanging on the wall between the kitchen and the dining area, which was still filled with trash. I tried dialing out but there was no dial tone, only a faint noise of static punctuated by the occasional scratching sound. For a brief second the hairs on the back of my head stood straight up and I swear that I heard a voice screeching: “GET OUT.”

It looked like I wouldn’t be calling anyone right now. If I were going to be murdered, I reckoned, I didn’t want to do it on an empty stomach, not when there was pizza in the fridge. I pulled the heavy latch to the refrigerator, apparently built to withstand a nuclear explosion, and found the pizza box. It was from a place in Creosote Canyon called Homestars Pizza. I saw that Dad had eaten some of the pizza, as the remainder was grinning at me in a sort of Pac-Man shape. I grabbed a slice covered in peppers and tomato and mushrooms. Looked like a good veggie pizza to me. I looked around for the microwave, but it was underneath several boxes in the dining room, so I just decided to eat it cold. The first bite was okay enough, but it had a really weird texture and a fungal sort of aftertaste. It was then that I realized that it wasn’t a veggie pizza at all. It was a vegan pizza, complete with the worst affront to mankind imaginable, vegan quote-unquote “cheese.”

I stared at all the rest of the food in the fridge. It was all vegan. Tofu dogs and tempeh loaf, seitan burgers and natto fries. In all the chaos of the last few weeks, and all the delicious meat I had at my uncle and aunt’s house, I had completely forgotten. Yeah, my dad’s a vegan. I don’t understand it myself. He’s the most rough-and-tumble guy I’ve ever known. He’s six foot two and two hundred pounds of solid muscle. In less politically correct times, he might be confused for a mafia enforcer. Mario Alessandro Dinero was a Gulf War veteran and fought in the Serbian conflict of the 1990s. He once drove a tank right into the war-torn city of Sarajevo. And then he drove a garbage truck in the worst neighborhoods of Metro City for twenty years. He killed at least half a dozen Iraqi insurgents with his own pistol… and he thinks meat is murder. Mom understood that growing boys needed meat and cheese in their diet, so she’d always sneak out with me to get some tacos de tripa now and then, but it looked like now, I was stuck with Dad’s obsession with soy products.

As distressing as this was for me, though, it made me realize something. Even after everything that’s happened and all the disturbing things he was telling me about “the darkness” and stuff, he was still keeping to his meatless diet. If he intended to bump me off, he wouldn’t have bought enough vegan meat substitutes and gluten-free bread and exotic fruits and vegetables for a small army, because they don’t keep forever. And if he were truly crazy, he might have just bought 100 pounds of tofu and called it a day; instead, it looks like he tried to find things he thought I would enjoy like the veggie hot dogs. He also bought fresh mangos. I personally hate mangos, and Dad isn’t too fond of them… the only person in our family who really loved mangos was my mother. Oh. I realized then that he was still suffering from grief from losing his wife and his best (and possibly only) friend. Or maybe he just bought them because they were on sale. Either way, I started to feel like he wasn’t too far gone. Soon he would come to his senses, realize what a horrible mistake he’s made, and we’d move back to Metro City. I could be back at Hillary Clinton High School in time to help our chess team make it to the playoffs.

I sat on a chair at the dining room table and ate a few pieces of pizza. It was the most palatable thing in there I could find. Soon it became dark and I turned on a light. I hoped my dad would get home soon. It was getting awfully late. He said he would be right back. The only sound I could hear was the clashing of my teeth eating the pizza. When I stopped chewing, all I could hear was the wind blowing softly through the broken windows. It was eerily quiet. I wasn’t used to hearing absolutely nothing. Usually when it was quiet, you’d hear cars going by or people shouting in nearby apartments or police sirens or something. But here there was nothing.

I thought about maybe playing some music through my phone, but I couldn’t. The phone had spent so much energy looking for signal that it had died in my pocket. I decided to go to my bedroom and look for my charger. There, it was even quieter, since the windows were boarded up. I think that was the very first time in my life that I had ever heard true silence.  It was so silent that every move I made struck my ears like an explosion. When I was still, I could hear my own heartbeat pounding in my ears. It was a deafening nightmare.

I turned on the fan. Once it was done spitting dust in my direction, it made the room much more pleasant with its grinding white noise. I opened a few of the boxes my dad had packed with my stuff. He didn’t just jam things in here; he packed everything very carefully. This was not the act of a frightened man fleeing for his life. He must have been planning this for a while, I thought while rifling through my books and papers and things. Why didn’t he tell me? I could have at least helped him pack. Where was he, anyway?

I eventually got antsy and couldn’t concentrate on the unpacking anymore. I decided to lie on the bed. I just stared at the wooden rafters in the ceiling and wondered what the heck had happened to my dad. Did he abandon me? Did he die on the way home? Did he stop off for a beer or twelve? I wondered if there was anybody anywhere who I could go to for help if he didn’t come back. But just as I was about to run away, I heard a familiar clunking noise coming up the driveway. It was our beat-up old car.

“Sorry I’m late,” Dad said as he came in the door and I ran up to meet him.

“Where the hell have you been, Dad?” I said in a near-shout. “I was worried sick about you!”

“Ol’ George broke down on the way home,” he replied. “Something rattled off while he was on the trailer. It took me forever to fix him, in the dark, in the dirt, with no tools, miles from anywhere. I called you on both your cellphone and the land line. Why didn’t you pick up?”

“I don’t get any reception up here, and the phone in the kitchen doesn’t seem to work either.”

“Dagnabbit!” he shouted. “I bet those damn squirrels are back, chewing up the phone lines again. Well, I’m sorry, boy.” At that moment he stumbled, grabbing onto the door handle for stability.

“You must be exhausted,” I said, grabbing onto his rough, leathery, grease-covered arm. “Let me get you to bed.”

“No, don’t touch me,” he said, swatting at me as if I were a fly. “I can make it to bed myself. I need to get some dinner first.” He walked to the refrigerator and grabbed the rest of the pizza and a six-pack of organic beer. “You’d better get to sleep,” he slurred as he walked to his room, which was larger than mine, but all he had in there that I could see was a folding patio chair and a camp cot. “Tomorrow will be a busy day.”

“Okay, dad, good night,” I said. “I’m glad you’re safe.” Without another room, my dad went into his room and shut the door. Seeing as though there was nothing else that I could do with no phone, no internet, no TV, and all my video games in a box somewhere, I decided that I would go to bed too. It was only 8 o’clock but I was beat to a frazzle.

I shut the door to my room, put my phone on the charger, and got in the covers. It was strangely cold in the room, given that it was so hot during the day. I continued to just stare at the ceiling, not being able to sleep through the screaming silence. This morning, I had a pretty good idea of what my life was all about. Two weeks ago, I was absolutely sure of it. I had no idea both my parents were crazy. They hid it so well, especially my mom. I would have never guessed she was prone to self-destruction. She was the anchor and the rock of my family, and now that she was gone, the ship was lost at sea. This was not the pleasant house that my grandparents lived in. It was a broken shack in the middle of nowhere. Would anyone in Metro City miss me? Would they look for me? Will I actually have to go to school here? If the school’s anything like everything else I’ve seen so far, I might want to follow in my mom’s footsteps soon. I promised myself though that I would never commit suicide or hurt myself. There had to be a light at the end of this tunnel, even if it was just a freight train coming my way.

As I lay in bed pondering all the weirdness, I suddenly heard squeaking noises from under the bed. I turned on the light and looked around but saw nothing. I turned off the light again and suddenly I felt a crawling sensation on my skin. I thrust off the covers—and saw the biggest goddamn rat I had ever seen in my life. I screamed, and I saw three more rats jump off the bed onto the floor. I was covered in rats. I ran out of the house in my pajamas and made for the car, which was thankfully unlocked. I pulled the emergency blanket out of the first-aid kit in the cargo area, sat in the front passenger’s seat, wrapped myself up in it, locked all the doors, and stared out the front windshield as I shivered and shook and prayed that the rats couldn’t open the doors of a 2003 Ford Escape. And just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard the howling of wolves.

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