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Lost Boys This partial manuscript copy is provided as a courtesy. Anyone who wishes a copy may access it from http://www.hatrack.com; therefore we ask that no copies, physical or electronic, be given or lent. Any offering of this portion of the manuscript for sale is expressly prohibited.

Lost Boys

Foreign Covers

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Chapter One
Junk Man

This is the car they drove from Vigor, Indiana, to Steuben, North Carolina: a silvery-grey Renault 18i deluxe wagon, an '81 model with about forty thousand miles on it, twenty-five thousand of which they had put on it themselves. The paint was just beginning to get tiny rust-colored pockmarks in it, but the wiring had blown about fifteen fuses and they'd had to put three new drive axles in it because it was designed so that when a ball bearing wore out you had to replace the whole assembly. It couldn't climb a hill at fifty-five, but it could seat two adults in the leather bucket seats and three kids across the back. Step Fletcher was driving, had been driving since they finally got away from the house well after noon. Empty house. He was still hearing echoes all the way to Indianapolis. Somewhere along the way he must have passed the moving van, but he didn't notice it or didn't recognize it or maybe the driver had pulled into a McDonald's somewhere or a gas station as they drove on by.

The others all fell asleep soon after they crossed the Ohio River. After Step had talked so much about flatboats and Indian wars, the kids were disappointed in it. It was the bridge that impressed them. And then they fell asleep. DeAnne stayed awake a little longer, but then she squeezed his hand and nestled down into the pillow she had jammed into the corner between the seat back and the window.

Just how it always goes, thought Step. She stays awake the whole time I'm wide awake and then, just as I get sleepy and maybe need to have her spell me for a while at the wheel, she goes to sleep.

He pushed the tape the rest of the way into the player. It was the sweet junky sound of "The E Street Shuffle." He hadn't listened to that in a while. DeAnne must have had it playing while she ran the last-minute errands in Vigor. Step had played that album on their second date. It was kind of a test. DeAnne was so serious about religion, he had to know if she could put up with his slightly wild taste in music. A lot of Mormon girls would have missed the sexual innuendos entirely, of course, but DeAnne was probably smarter than Step was, and so she not only noticed the bit about girls promising to unsnap their jeans and the fairies in a real bitch fight, she also got the part about hooking onto the midnight train, but she didn't get upset, she just laughed, and he knew it was going to be OK, she was religious but not a prig and that meant that he wouldn't have to pretend to be perfect in order to be with her. Ten years ago, 1973. Now they had three kids in the back of the Renault 18i wagon, probably the worst car ever sold in America, and they were heading for Steuben, North Carolina, where Step had a job.

A good job. Thirty thousand a year, which wasn't bad for a brand new history Ph.D. in a recession year. Except that he wasn't teaching history, he wasn't writing history, the job was putting together manuals for a computer software company. Not even programming--he couldn't even get hired for that, even though Hacker Snack was the best-selling game for the Atari back in '81. For a while there it had looked like his career was made as a game designer. They had so much money they figured they could afford for him to go back to school and finish his doctorate. Then the recession came, and the lousy Commodore 64 was killing the Atari in the stores, and suddenly his game was out of print and nobody wanted him except as a manual writer.

So Springsteen played along to his semi-depressed mood as Step wound the car up into the mountains, the sun setting in the west as the road angled them mostly east into the darkness. I should be happy, he told himself. I got the degree, I got a good job, and nothing says I can't do another game in my spare time, even if I have to do it on the stupid 64. It could be worse. I could have got a job programming Apples.

Despite what he said to encourage himself, the words still tasted like failure in his mouth. Thirty-two years old, three kids, and I'm on the downhill slope. Used to work for myself, and now I have to work for somebody else. Just like my dad with his sign company that went bust. At least he had the scar on his back from the operation that took out a vertebra. Me, I got no visible wounds. I was riding high one day, and then the next day we found out that our royalties would be only $7,000 instead of $40,000 like the last time, and we scrambled around looking for work and we've got debts coming out of our ears and I'm going to be just as broke as my folks for the rest of my life and it's my own damned fault. Wage slave like my dad.

Just so I don't have the shame of my wife having to take some lousy swingshift job like Mom did. Fine if she wants to get a job, that's fine, but not if she has to.

Yet he knew even as he thought of it that that was what would happen next --they wouldn't be able to sell the house in Vigor and she'd have to get a job just to keep up the payments on it. We were fools to buy a house, but we thought it would be a good investment. There wasn't a recession when we moved there, and I had a good royalty income. Fools, thinking it could just go on forever. Nothing lasts.

Feeling sorry for himself kept him awake enough to keep driving for an hour. The tape was on its second time through when he started down the steep descent toward Frankfort. Good thing. Bound to be a motel in the state capital. I can make it that far, and DeAnne won't have to wake up till we get there.

"Dad," said Stevie from the back seat.

"Yes?" said Step--softly, so he'd know not to talk loudly enough to waken the others.

"Betsy threw up," said Stevie.

"Just a little bit, or is it serious?"

"Just a little," said Stevie.

Then a vast, deep urping sound came from the back seat.

"Now it's serious," said Stevie.

Damn damn damn, said Step silently. "Thanks for telling me, Steve."

The sound came again, even as he pulled off the road, and now he could smell the bitter tang of gastric juices. One of the kids almost always threw up on every long trip they took, but usually they did it in the first hour.

"Why are we stopping?" DeAnne, just waking up, had a hint of panic in her voice. She didn't like it when something unexpected happened, and always feared the worst.

Springsteen had just sung about the fish lady and the junk man, so for the first time in a long time, Step remembered where his pet name for DeAnne had come from. "Hey, Fish Lady, take a sniff and see."

"Oh, no, which one of them?"

"Betsy Wetsy," said Stevie from the back. Another old joke--DeAnne used to get impatient with him for the irreverent nicknames he gave the kids. She hated the nickname Betsy, but because of the joke, the name had stuck and now that was what Betsy called herself.

"More like Betsy Pukesy," said Step. Stevie laughed.

Stevie had a good laugh. It made Step smile, and suddenly it was no big deal that he was about to be up to his elbows in toddler vomit.

Step had parked on the shoulder, well off, so that he could open Betsy's door without putting his butt out into traffic. Even so, he didn't like feeling the wind of the cars as they whooshed past. What a way to die--smeared like pâtéon the back door of the car, a sort of roadkill canapé. For a moment he thought of what it would mean for the kids, if he died on the road right in front of their eyes. The little ones would probably not remember him, or how he died. But Stevie would see, Stevie would remember. It was the first time Step had really thought of it that way--Stevie was now old enough that he would remember everything that happened. Almost eight years old, and his life was now real, because he would remember it.

He would remember how Dad reacted when Betsy threw up, how Dad didn't swear or get mad or anything, how Dad helped clean up the mess instead of standing there helplessly while Mom took care of it. That was a sort of vow he made before he got married, that there would be no job in their family that was so disgusting or difficult that DeAnne could do it and he couldn't. He had matched her, diaper for diaper, with all three kids, and a little vomit in the car would never faze him.

Actually, a lot of vomit. Betsy, white-faced and wan, managed a smile.

By now DeAnne was outside and around the car, pulling baby wipes out of the plastic jar. "Here," she said. "Hand her out to me and I'll change her clothes while you clean up the car."

In a moment DeAnne was holding a dripping Betsy out in front of her, taking her around the car to her seat, where she had already spread a cloth diaper to protect the leather.

Robbie, the four-year-old, was awake now, too, holding out his arm. He had been sitting in the middle, right next to Betsy, and there was a streak of vomit on his sleeve. "Wasn't that sweet of your sister, to share with you," said Step. He wiped down Robbie's sleeve. "There you go, Road Bug."

"It stinks."

"I'm not surprised," said Step. "Bear it proudly, like a wound acquired in battle."

"Was that a joke, Daddy?" said Robbie.

"It was wit," said Step. Robbie was trying to learn how to tell jokes. Step had given him the funny-once lecture recently, so Robbie wasn't telling the same joke over and over again, but the different kinds of humor still baffled him and he was trying to sort them out. If Stevie's experience was a fair sample, it would take years.

DeAnne spoke to Robbie from the front seat. "We'll change your shirt as soon as your father has finished wiping up Betsy's booster seat."

Step wasn't having much success cleaning down inside the buckle of Betsy's seat belt. "The only way our seat belts will ever match again," he said, "is if Betsy contrives to throw up on all the rest of them."

"Move her around in the car and maybe she'll have it all covered by the time we get to North Carolina," said Stevie.

"She doesn't throw up that often," said DeAnne.

"It was a joke, Mom," said Stevie.

"No, it was wit," said Robbie.

So he was getting it.

The baby wipes were no match for Betsy's prodigious output. They ran out long before the seat was clean enough for occupancy.

"When they hear you're pregnant for the fourth time," said Step, "I think Johnson & Johnson's stock will go up ten points."

"There's more wipes in the big grey bag in the back," said DeAnne. "Make sure you buy the stock before you announce it."

Step walked around to the back of what the Renault people called a "deluxe wagon," unlocked the swing-up door, and swung it up. Even with the bag zipped open he couldn't find the baby wipes. "Hey, Fish Lady, where'd you pack the wipes?"

"In the bag somewhere, probably deep," she called. "While you're in there, I need a Huggie for Betsy. She's wet and as long as I've got her undressed I might as well do the whole job."

He gave the diaper to Stevie to pass forward, and then finally found the baby wipes. He was just stepping back so he could close the wagon when he realized that there was somebody standing behind and to the left of him. A man, with big boots. A cop. Somehow a patrol car had managed to pull up behind them and Step hadn't heard it, hadn't even noticed it was there.

"What's the trouble here?" asked the patrolman.

"My two-year-old threw up all over the back seat," said Step.

"You know the shoulder of the freeway is only to be used for emergencies," said the cop.

For a moment it didn't register on Step what the cop's remark implied. "You mean that you don't think that a child throwing up in the back seat is an emergency?"

The patrolman fixed him with a steady gaze for a moment. Step knew the look. It meant, Ain't you cute, and he had seen it often back when he used to get speeding tickets before his license was suspended back in '74 and DeAnne had to drive them everywhere. Step knew that he shouldn't say anything, because no matter what he said to policemen, it always made things worse.

DeAnne came to his rescue. She came around the car carrying Betsy's soaked and stinking clothes. "Officer, I think if you had these in your car for about thirty seconds you'd pull off the road, too."

The cop looked at her, surprised, and then grinned. "Ma'am, I guess you got a point. Just hurry it up. It's not safe to be stopped here. People come down this road too fast sometimes, and they take this curve wide."

"Thanks for your concern, Officer," said Step.

The patrolman narrowed his eyes. "Just doing my job," he said, rather nastily, and walked back to his car.

Step turned to DeAnne. "What did I say?"

"Get me a Ziploc bag out of there, please," she said. "If I have to smell these any longer I'm going to faint."

He handed her the plastic bag and she stuffed the messy clothes into it. "All I said to him was `Thanks for your concern,' and he acted like I told him his mother had never been married."

She leaned close to him and said softly, affectionately, "Step, when you say `Thank you for your concern' it always sounds like you're just accidently leaving off the word butthead."

"I wasn't being sarcastic," said Step. "Everybody always thinks I'm being sarcastic when I'm not."

"I wouldn't know," said DeAnne. "I've never been there when you weren't being sarcastic."

"You think you know too much, Fish Lady."

"You don't know anywhere near enough, Junk Man."

He kissed her. "Give me a minute and I'll be ready to put our Betsy Wetsy doll back in her place."

He heard her muttering as she went back to her door: "Her name is Elizabeth." He grinned.

Step got back to wiping down Betsy's seat.

"I didn't even hear that cop come up," said Stevie.

"Cop?" asked Robbie.

"Go back to sleep, Road Bug," said Step.

"Did we get a ticket, Daddy?" asked Robbie.

"He just wanted to make sure we were all right," said Step.

"He wanted us to move our butts out of here," said Stevie.

"Step!" said DeAnne.

"It was Stevie who said it, not me," said Step.

"He wouldn't talk that way if he didn't learn it from you," said DeAnne.

"Is he still there?" asked Step.

Stevie half-stood in order to see over the junk on the back deck. "Yep," he said.

"I didn't hear him either," said Step. "I just turned around and there he was."

"What if it wasn't a cop and you just turned around and it was a bad guy?" asked Stevie.

"He gets his morbid imagination from you," said DeAnne.

"Nobody would do anything to us out on the open highway like this where anybody passing by could see."

"It's dark," said Stevie. "People drive by so fast."

"Well, nothing happened," said DeAnne, rather testily. "I don't like talking about things like that."

"If it was a bad guy Daddy would've popped him one in the nose!" said Robbie.

"Yeah, right," said Step.

"Daddy wouldn't let anything bad happen," said Robbie.

"That's right," said DeAnne. "Neither would Mommy."

"The seat's clean," said Step. "And the belt's as clean as it's going to get in this lifetime."

"I'll bring her around."

"Climb over!" cried Betsy merrily, and before DeAnne could grab her, she had clambered through the gap between the bucket seats. She buckled her own seat belt, looked up at Step, and grinned.

"Well done, my little Wetsy doll." He leaned in and kissed her forehead, then closed the door and got back in to the driver's seat. The cop was still behind them, which made him paranoid about making sure he didn't do anything wrong. He signaled. He drove just under the speed limit. The last thing they needed was a court date in some out-of-the-way Kentucky town.

"How much farther to Frankfort?" asked DeAnne.

"Maybe half an hour, probably less," said Step.

"Oh, I must have slept a long way."

"An hour maybe."

"You're such a hero to drive the whole way," she said.

"Give me a medal later," he said.

"I will."

He turned the stereo back up a little. Everybody might have been asleep again, it was so quiet in the car. Then Stevie spoke up.

"Daddy, if it was a bad guy, would you pop him one?"

What was he supposed to say, Yessiree, my boy, I'd pop him so hard he'd be wearing his nose on the back of his head for the rest of his life? Was that what was needed, to make Stevie feel safe? To make him proud of his father? Or should he tell the truth--that he had never hit anyone in anger in his life, that he had never hit a living soul with a doubled-up fist.

No, my son, my approach to fighting has always been to make a joke and walk away, and if they wouldn't let me go, then I ran like hell.

"It depends," said Step.

"On what?"

"On whether I thought that popping him would make things better or worse."


"I mean, if he's a foot taller than me and weighs three hundred pounds and has a tire iron, I think popping him wouldn't be a good idea. I think in a case like that I'd be inclined to offer him my wallet so he'd go away."

"But what if he wanted to murder us all?"

DeAnne spoke up without turning her head out of her pillow. "Then your father would kill him, and if he didn't, I would," she said mildly.

"What if he killed both of you first?" asked Stevie. "And then came and wanted to kill Robbie and Betsy?"

"Stevie," said DeAnne, "Heavenly Father won't let anything like that happen to you."

That was more than Step could stand. "God doesn't work that way," he said. "He doesn't stop evil people from committing their crimes."

"He's asking us if he's safe," said DeAnne.

"Yes, Stevie, you're safe, as safe as anybody ever is who's alive in this world. But you were asking about what if somebody really terrible wanted to do something vicious to our whole family, and the truth is that if somebody is truly, deeply evil, then sometimes good people can't stop him until he's done a lot of bad things. That's just the way it happens sometimes."

"Okay," said Stevie. "But God would get him for it, right?"

"In the long run, yes," said Step. "And I'll tell you this--the only way anybody will ever get to you or the other kids or to your mother, for that matter, is if I'm already dead. I promise you that."

"Okay," said Stevie.

"There aren't that many really evil people in the world," said Step. "I don't think you need to worry about this."

"Okay," said Stevie.

"I mean, why did you ask about this stuff?"

"He had a gun."

"Of course he had a gun, dear," said DeAnne. "He's a policeman. He has a gun so he can protect people like us from those bad people."

"I wish we could always have a policeman with us," said Stevie.

"Yeah, that'd be nice, wouldn't it?" said Step. Right, nice like a hemorrhoid. I'd have to drive fifty-five all the time.

Stevie had apparently exhausted his questions.

A few moments later, Step felt DeAnne's hand on his thigh, patting him. He glanced over at her. "Sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean to contradict you."

"You were right," she said softly.

He smiled at her and held her hand for a moment, until he needed both hands on the wheel for a turn.

Still, all the rest of the way into Frankfort he couldn't get Stevie's questions out of his mind. Nor could he forget his own answers. He had stopped DeAnne from teaching Stevie that God would always protect him from bad people, but then he had gone on and promised that he would give his life before any harm ever came to the children. But was that true? Did he have that kind of courage? He thought of parents in concentration camps who watched their children get killed before their eyes, and yet they could do nothing. And even if he tried, what good would Step be able to do against somebody bent on violence? Step had no skill in fighting, and he was pretty sure it wasn't one of those things that you just know how to do. Any half-assed hoodlum would make short work of Step, and here he had kids who were looking to him for protection. I should study karate or something. Kung fu. Or buy a gun so that when Stevie is fourteen he can find it where it's hidden and play around with it and end up killing himself or Robbie or some friend of his or something.

No, thought Step. None of the above. I won't do any of those things, because I'm a civilized man living in a civilized society, and if the barbarians ever knock on my door I'll be helpless.

They pulled into Frankfort and there was a Holiday Inn with a vacancy sign. Step took it as a good omen. Officially he didn't believe in omens. But what the heck, it made him feel better to take it that way, and so he did.

Copyright © 1992 Orson Scott Card

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