taming the star runner

Taming the Star Runner
S.E. Hinton
Copyright

Diversion Books
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
443 Park Avenue South, Suite 1004
New York, New York 10016

www.DiversionBooks.com

Copyright © 1988 by S.E. Hinton

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

For more information, email [email protected]

First Diversion Books edition April 2013.

ISBN:
978-1-938120-83-1

To Nicholas David
Acknowledgments

I'd like to thank my friend and typist, Dorothy Scott, for the courage to tackle my handwriting. I'd also like to thank my trainer, Libby Barrow, for her technical advice, which I always take in the ring, and sometimes took in this book.

Chapter 1

His boot felt empty without his knife in it. It didn't matter that he had never had to use it (sure, he'd pulled it a couple of times to show off, but the times he could have really used it, he'd forgotten about it and used his fists, as usual); he was used to feeling it there, next to his leg. What a security blanket. But even if the juvenile authorities hadn't taken it, it wouldn't have made it through the airport scanner. I could have packed it, though, he thought.

Travis stopped at the end of the line of people waiting to go through the airport security check. The sight of the security guards made his heart speed up. It was already pounding out a rhythm a rock group could have used. He tucked the cardboard carton he was carrying under one arm and wiped the sweat off his face.

“No jokes,” he said. Joe and Kirk looked at him blankly. They had been treating him funny since he got out of juvenile hall. Travis thought: They think I'm crazy like everybody else does.

Travis pointed to the sign. “No jokes about bombs and hijacking and stuff.”

Motorboat meowed, protesting being held sideways, and Travis straightened up the cardboard box. Motorboat had been drugged at the vet's before they left for the airport. Jeez, he gets drugs and I don't. I'm the one who needs them.

He handed the box containing his cat to the attendant and walked through the detecting doorway, half expecting to set off an alarm. No alarm went off, and he picked up his box on the other side. Kirk, who had been to the airport before, didn't think it was any big deal to get scanned, but Joe was almost as nervous as Travis, and had to bite his tongue to keep from cracking a joke.

Joe would have been a great comedian in juvenile hall, Travis thought, since his reaction to tension was to get funnier and funnier, the way I get quiet and mean.

He couldn't remember ever seeing Kirk tense. Kirk could shrug his shoulders and walk out from under anything. He wondered for a second how two guys so different could be his best friends.

Mom was last. They had walked too fast for her to keep up with them. That was partly accidental. Travis could not slow down for any reason. It was also partly on purpose, because he couldn't stand any more of her soft frettings.

About how he should act when he got to his uncle's. About how he should stay out of trouble. (I could stay out of trouble all right, if it just didn't come looking for me. This last business sure wasn't my damn fault.) If it wasn't a mistake taking Motorboat with him. Like Travis should leave him here for Stan to kick around.

If he had packed the right clothes.

That last almost drove him to punch his fist through the wall. (He had done that once before—no bones were broken.) The right goddamn clothes! Sometimes he thought she was going to drive him crazy. He couldn't believe the stuff she had packed. New stuff (slacks, for God's sake!), stuff he'd shoot himself before he'd wear. Cowboy shirts! Could you believe that? He didn't care if Uncle Ken lived on a horse ranch. T-shirts were good enough to wear on a horse ranch. The horses wouldn't care.

Travis had dumped out all the new clothes and hidden them under his bed, and filled the two suitcases with his jeans and T-shirts and books and tapes and tape player. He wanted to take the tape player on board with him, but there was a rule about only one piece of carry-on stuff. He had learned a lot about the rules, trying to get the damn cat on.

It was practically a three-mile hike to get to the right gate, and they outdistanced Mom again. There weren't too many people there yet, they were way too early. Mom had seen to that. Not that he minded. He couldn't take staying in the house, now. He sure couldn't take any more time in juvenile hall. What was left but leaving?

The plane was there, at the end of a long passenger ramp. He could see it out the window that took up a whole wall. It looked huge. The passenger ramp looked like a giant eel, clamped onto its head. God, that was a big plane! He'd never realized how big planes were. How the hell did they ever get off the ground?

Kirk settled into a seat in the lounge. Kirk liked to be comfortable. It was one of his biggest goals in life. Travis set the cat carrier in Kirk's lap.

“I'm goin' for some cigarettes.”

“This thing going to pee on me?”

“It'll improve your smell if he does. Come on, Joe.”

Travis and Joe strode down the hallway. Travis had spotted the cigarette machine from a long way off. He had left his at home and who knows, maybe nobody on the plane would let him bum one. Bumming cigarettes was one of his worst habits. Travis knew that. He pretty much knew what his worst habits were. Bumming cigarettes. Getting into fights. A lot of times he drank too much. On the other hand, he didn't bully anyone, and didn't have a smart mouth like Kirk, and he only bummed cigarettes, not money like Joe. He wasn't a bad person, no matter what Stan was saying. There were a lot worse people than he was.

They stopped at the john. Travis knew there were johns on the plane, but he wasn't taking any chances. Maybe he'd be sitting next to the window and have to crawl over a bunch of people to get out.

Next to the window. His breath stopped. Maybe not.

Travis combed his hair, staring into the mirror with fixed concentration. He was good-looking. Probably one of the best-looking guys in the school. He had dark brown hair, not so long that he looked like one of the dopers, not so short that he looked like one of the straights, the student-council preppies. Five foot eight. Not bad for sixteen, and by the size of his hands and feet he hadn't stopped growing yet. Good eyes. Great eyes, actually. Gray-green and as cold as the Irish sea. He had read a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald once, and it said he had eyes as cold as the Irish sea. Travis liked that. He secretly liked his eyelashes, too, a black fringe, as long as a girl's. He had a good build, long-boned and lean and flat-stomached, and that was the reason he liked tight T-shirts. Kirk was taller, and had broader shoulders, but Travis thought his own build was as good as any in the school. A lot of girls thought so. A lot.

“Maybe I'll get a tan,” he said out loud. If he had a fault to find with his face, it was its paleness. But then, from what he read, Fitzgerald had never tanned either.

“Huh?” Joe said. He never spent as much time looking in mirrors as Travis did, being one olive-brown color all over, hair, eyes, and skin, and inclined to pudginess.

“I'll probably get a tan, being outside all the time. You got any downers on you, man?”

“Hell, no. You think I'm going to try to go through that security shit with downers on me?”

“They're just looking for metal junk, like knives and guns. You could have brought some, they'd never catch it.”

“Yeah? Then why didn't you bring some?”

“They weren't exactly dishing it out like candy in jail.”

Travis knew the difference between jail and juvenile hall (it hadn't been so long ago that he was thanking God for the difference), but he liked to think that nobody else did.

Travis leaned forward … that couldn't be the beginning of a zit—he never got zits, except a couple on his back once in a while…

“Trav—”

“Yeah?”

“Were you aiming to kill him?”

Hell, no, Travis thought. You think I want to end up in prison, getting gang-banged by a bunch of degenerates every day? You think I haven't got better ways to spend my life than dickering my ass for cigarettes?

“If I had wanted to kill him,” Travis said, giving his hair one last run-through, “he'd be dead, wouldn't he?”

He was lying. He had meant to kill Stan, it was only a lucky accident that he hadn't. Now, the red rage gone and just the usual smoldering embers of hate licking at his insides, it seemed incredible that he'd trade his life (which wasn't any great shakes so far, but still, he liked it) for the chance of slamming Stan's brains out; that after the years of putting up with Stan, of taking belts and insults and beatings (even Travis knew the difference between a couple of swats and a beating), he would risk everything (which wasn't a lot, but something: music and hanging out and girls and above all that thing inside that said Travis is Special), blow it all for a chance to put Stan away forever. And Stan hadn't so much as laid a finger on him.

Stan was his stepfather. That didn't bother him. A lot of kids had stepfathers—in fact, he only knew three guys who had the same father they'd started out with. Stan had slapped Mom around a couple of times—that had bothered Travis when he was younger, but he liked to think it didn't bother him so much now. She could leave. Anytime. A lot of women worked. She wanted to put up with that garbage, she could. And not only did she put up with it, she kept making excuses for him. Like: “It was my fault, I shouldn't have been nagging. He is a good provider.”

Provide, hell. Food on the table wasn't exactly living in luxury. Travis didn't think he wanted much, material stuff, anyway. Maybe a car someday, and all the paperback books he wanted, and tapes, tons of tapes until he could play tapes all night for a year and never hear the same thing twice unless he wanted; that wasn't a whole awful lot to want, really, but he sure as hell wasn't expecting anyone to provide it. He wouldn't let anyone provide it, a matter of fact. People give you something, then you owe them. Every time Stan bought Mom something, like an electric skillet or a new coat, just some simple little thing like you'd expect a guy to get for his wife, he'd beat her over the head with it. Not literally. But verbally. Like “I got you this and this and you owe me.”

Getting beaten up verbally was just as bad as physically, only it was easier to hide the scars. Travis would never owe anybody anything. If he wanted something, he'd get it on his own.

Besides, it bugged the hell out of Stan that Travis never asked for anything. But asking for something put Stan in control, so Travis either got it on his own or he went without. He washed cars. He mowed lawns. He was the best poker player in the school. He worked at the vet's on Saturdays, or he had until he got fired for coming in late. Travis was hung over a lot on Saturdays.

But he got his own music and his own books and he could always take anything Stan dished out and walk off.

It was really weird to think he'd almost liked Stan once. When he was ten and Stan first started coming around—he'd been dumb enough at first to almost like him.

Just because he'd tossed a football around with him a couple of times, and promised to take him hunting. He cringed, now, to think how little he'd minded Mom marrying that creep, how he'd even halfway thought it was a good idea.

Stan was Mom's husband but he sure wasn't his dad; and he sure as hell wasn't his boss, and the older he got, the more Stan tried to … own him, Travis thought. That was the only word for it. Own him and try to make him sit up and beg. Well, Travis wasn't jumping through hoops for anyone. He went his own way.

Until last week.

Travis couldn't remember when he'd first known he was going to be a writer. He'd known as soon as he'd learned how to read, and he couldn't remember not being able to read. He had started in grade school, writing down the monster stories he'd make up for his friends. Spending the night with each other, hanging out in somebody's basement, sleeping on cots in somebody's backyard, Travis would tell monster stories, taking things he'd heard or read and mixing them up with what might be until he had it as real as reality—they'd all get scared (even Travis) and pick fights with each other or leave a flashlight on or get so loud that the grown-ups came after them, anything to get protection while denying they needed it.

Travis always had stories going in his head. From those monster stories to that long, involved tale he'd been telling his cellmate last week, he couldn't stop the stories any more than he could stop breathing.

He'd taught himself to type in the sixth grade. By then he'd realized that if he couldn't read his own handwriting, nobody else could either; he'd swiped Mom's Valium and sold it to a ninth-grader and bought a used typewriter. He liked the way his stuff looked, typed. Realer. More professional. By the time he took typing at school, in the tenth grade, he was typing ninety words a minute. That was the easiest A he'd ever made. In fact, the only A he'd made since grade school. He hadn't been such a wild kid in grade school.

It sort of puzzled him a little, being able to type. Most of the time he was damn clumsy with his hands. He wasn't any good tinkering with cars, the way a lot of his friends were, he was a real embarrassment on the basketball court. In shop class he had damn near cut off his thumb. You could take it for granted that he was going to drop or spill just about anything he had in his hands. But at a typewriter he just had to think and there were the words.

Stan disliked him for a lot of reasons. He was living proof Mom had had another husband. Travis was young and good-looking, he could take getting slugged across the face without changing expression; Stan's steady stream of gripes and cuts and digs only left marks where Stan couldn't see them.

Just a couple of months ago he had stomped into Travis's room, hauled him up from the typewriter, yanked him into the front room, and shoved him in front of the TV, shouting, “You're part of this family and you'll act like it.”

Travis stared at the TV for two hours, writing a short story in his head, and typed it up later. Stan was not going to ruin it for him. He wasn't going to drive him to run away—Travis had seen what happened to the jerks who ran away, thinking something, someone, was going to fix things up for them—most of the time they came straggling home looking like idiots and when they didn't they mostly ended up in worse places than they were running from.

Stan wasn't going to drive him to suicide either. Sure, Travis sometimes thought about it. Everybody thought about it. It had been close sometimes. Once he had sat in an alley with a loaded .22 pistol and looked at it for a long time. But he hadn't put the barrel to his head. So it hadn't been
real
close. But he had thought about it. What had stopped him was his motto. His saying. What he told himself over and over again, like a prayer, a chant: He's not going to ruin it for me. He's not going to ruin it for me. He's not worth ruining it for me.

But last week, he damn near had.

It was an ordinary day. Travis went to school, tried to get a date with a new girl in class (she turned him down, nice girls usually did, because of his reputation; it had happened too often to bug him much). He had made a B on an English test (there was a note on it saying it would have been a A if he would learn to pay attention to spelling). He got into a shoving match with a senior out in the hall that just missed turning into a fight, and he cut history after lunch to keep on cruising with Kirk in his Firebird, listening to a new tape. It was a real ordinary day…

Then Kirk dropped him off at the house and he walked in to find Stan stuffing the fireplace with something. Stan just glanced at him. “I've heard your mother tell you a thousand times to clean your room. Now I'm cleaning it for you.”

Then Travis realized the papers were his stories, his songs, stuff he had spent years writing.

Later, he tried to recall what had crossed his mind, but he couldn't remember a thing but the red blinding explosion that didn't seem to take place in his head at all, but was triggered somewhere between his gut and his heart.

And then Stan was lying on his side, keeled over like a beached ship, still clutching a wad of paper. Blood was starting to trickle down to his face from his scalp. Travis was staring at the fire poker he held tight, with both hands, like it was a baseball bat.

The rest was a jumbled mess. Mom crying and calling an ambulance and neighbors running in—Mrs. Landell saying, “You have
got
to do something about that boy!” in a tone of voice that made Travis want to smash her too. The bitch.

(She was always complaining about Travis: He played his music too loud, his light stayed on all night, keeping her awake, all those hoody friends hanging out in the driveway, laughing, drinking beer, up to no good, their tires squealing out at odd hours.)

When the cops showed up a few hours later, Travis was sure that was Mrs. Lendell's doing. But no. It was Stan who had signed the complaint…

They really did read you your rights, just like on TV. Travis had been close to laughing, it was so much like TV. But the cold steel of the handcuffs wasn't like TV. Travis had been shocked at how it felt to be handcuffed and dragged out to the police car. Embarrassed. Not angry or defiant or a little pleased with the stir he was causing in the neighborhood. He had imagined being arrested before, for some daredevil, spectacular crime that would get him on the six o'clock news. He'd never dreamed that the main thing he'd feel would be just plain humiliated … and really, really scared.

“We better be getting back,” Joe said.

Travis knew that sometimes he made Joe very nervous. Joe probably suspected Travis was, like people were saying, a little bit crazy.

Okay, Travis thought. So what? Writers were supposed to be a little bit crazy.

“Yeah. In a minute,” Travis said automatically. He shook himself slightly, like a dog rising from a nap. “You gonna write me a letter, man?” He ripped open his cigarettes and jammed one in his mouth, sticking the pack into the pocket of his brown leather jacket. Joe handed him a matchbook.

“Sure. I guess.” Joe had never written anyone a letter in his life, he wasn't making any promises.

“Really, I want to know how things are going. What's happening—”

“Travis, we'd better be getting back, you're gonna miss your plane … what's wrong?”

Travis closed his eyes for a second. This was why he had wanted Joe to go with him, not Kirk. Joe wouldn't care. What was better, he wouldn't blab, he could tell Joe—

“I'm scared.”

Joe looked at him uneasily. “Hey, listen, your uncle's probably a pretty good dude, he's got to be better than—”

“Not my uncle, man, I'm scared of the plane. I'm scared to get on the goddamn plane.”

The plane. How could anything that big … it must weigh tons, how could it leave the ground, much less stay up there? Who was driving? Did they know what they were doing? It wasn't easy, driving a plane … what if they were hung over or flirting with a flight attendant or something? Just careless for a couple of minutes, then what? A fall, straight down, minutes of knowing what was coming … Travis broke out in a cold sweat. And he was expected to just bop on in and hand over his life to strangers.

“You ain't scared.”

Travis slumped back against the wall and met Joe's eyes for a second. Joe was appalled. Travis Harris, the coolest, the toughest…

“Remember that drag race we had with those guys from Central?” Joe asked.

Of course, Travis remembered it clearly. They were in the twins' Trans Am and Travis was driving. He was the only person they let drive their car. He was doing 110 on the expressway and he took one hand off the wheel to take Kirk's beer and slug it down, his other arm trembling with the effort of driving, and everyone was holding his breath. He hit 115 and nobody was breathing at all, and he asked for another and Billy—maybe Mike—gave him one quickly, afraid he'd turn around and take it. They were flying, skimming the road, the Central guys left behind long ago, and nobody, man, nobody thought he'd get the car back down. He just kept on asking for more, faster, harder, they couldn't even hear the radio anymore or see the lights rushing by in the night, as if they were all suspended in time, nothing real except the lights on the dashboard where the needle kept climbing…

“Remember that, Trav? You can't be scared.”

Travis stared down at his boots. “I was driving.”

Back at the gate, Kirk had put the cat carrier on the seat next to him, and three little kids were gathered around trying to peer in the air holes. Kirk was telling them it was a baby leopard. “No kiddin'.”

Mom started to get up, then sank back. “You need to go to the counter. For seat selection—they'll give you a number. Here, take the ticket.”

She hadn't trusted him with the ticket. Travis was notorious for losing things; it was the major reason he was always bumming cigarettes. His just disappeared.

More lines. Smoking section. Aisle seat. He'd have to go in the smoking section anyway, because of Motorboat. A boarding pass. Something else to worry about losing.

Travis went back to his seat and picked up Motorboat. “Hey, kid, get outta here. Leave the cat alone, huh?”

Travis wasn't crazy about little kids. Anyway, M.B. was probably having a nice downer, he didn't need a bunch of brats messing it up for him.

They all sat there in silence, like they were waiting for the movie to start. Travis kept on smoking, one foot bobbing to music only he could hear.

“When you comin' back?” Kirk said.

Travis didn't reply. Sometimes when he did this it was because he was out of it (he referred to his habit of blanking out, visiting some other world that was always spinning in the back of his mind, as “being out of it”; it rarely happened when he was drunk), or it was because he chose not to answer. Most people couldn't tell which was which. Travis found this very convenient.

“Next summer,” Mom said. “Travis will probably be home next summer.”

“Wow, that's a long time, man.”

The authentic note of distress in Kirk's voice made Travis glance at him. He had never made up his mind about Kirk—Joe was his friend because he was Travis. But he had the feeling that Kirk was his friend only because he was one of the coolest guys in the school. The cool guys always hung out with each other. He liked Kirk's smart mouth, and even though he was good-looking in a big butterscotch Viking kind of way, it was the kind of good-looking that wasn't competition. A matter of fact, they looked good together. But Travis found it hard to believe Kirk would actually
miss
him.

“Write me a letter,” Travis said.

“Yeah, and you'll put it in your book.”

“The book's finished,” Travis said. He didn't add that weeks ago it was in the mail to a publisher. Nobody needed to know that.

“Yeah? Am I in it?”

“Yeah. The comic relief. Say bye to Billy and Mike for me.”

The twins worked at McDonald's and couldn't get off. There could have been quite a crowd here, saying good-bye to Travis.

Travis cut the conversation off. He didn't talk about his writing. Joe and Kirk were the only guys who knew why Travis would hole up for days in his room, the music blaring, not cruising, not hanging out, missing dances and parties and fights—the rumors about this ranged from “heavy doping” to “really weird.” Travis didn't care what they said. He honestly never gave a damn what people said about him—or at least, what they were saying about his frequent disappearances. The writing was just so much a part of him that he couldn't talk about it any more than he'd sit around and spill out his guts. It was nobody's business.

“Those people in rows ten through twenty-one can be seated now. Please have your boarding pass ready for the flight attendant. No smoking beyond the gate.”

Travis dropped his cigarette and stamped it out. A crowd surged at the gate, people hugging and calling good-bye to each other. He got up, the cat carrier under his arm. He looked at the waiting plane; his heart jumped. “Geez,” he muttered, “how do they ever stay up?”

Kirk said, “Angel dust.”

Mom was giving him a lot of last-minute instructions and messages and lectures. Travis couldn't hear any of it—not that he wanted to—the plane crowded out every other thought in his head.

He shook hands with Joe and Kirk. Kirk surely noticed how cold and sweaty his hand was. Maybe he'd tell the other guys. Travis was a real chickenshit about flying.

Maybe not.

Mom was standing there. Travis suddenly hugged her, even though he hadn't been planning to. She was sending him away, she had chosen Stan over him a long time ago … she had never understood the slightest thing about
Travis
, she loved him, sure, blindly, because he was her kid, it didn't have anything to do with
him
… Travis was shocked to find tears jumping to his eyes.

“See ya,” he said, turning.

“Be good, hon.”

“Yeah, sure.”

He followed the other passengers down the long hall. Somebody took his boarding pass and gave him a piece of it back, somebody told him where his seat was. The line stopped, people grabbed for a magazine, or stopped to put their coats in an overhead rack, holding everyone up. Travis found it hard to breathe. There didn't seem to be a lot of air in here.

He found his seat. Next to the aisle, not the window, thank God. “Store all carry-ons safely…” a voice was saying.

He got his seat belt fastened. A blast of air was hitting him from somewhere. He wondered if the plane had sprung a leak. The engines started up. “In case of emergency…”

He strained to hear her, but no one else was paying attention, the engines got louder, his heart thudded until he thought he was going to throw up. The babbling voices around him had a hollow sound, a chorus of the damned.

The plane backed out with a sudden jerk. They were moving. Slowly now, cornering, then faster, faster, a lunge—his stomach jumped. God! The ground was gone!

“Is that a cat or a dog?”

Travis slowly dragged his eyes from the window to the man sitting next to it. Surely they weren't supposed to be tilting like this, the ground stretched out beneath them … a long, long way down…

Travis glanced at Motorboat's box, stored safely beneath the seat in front of him, just like the attendant had said. “Cat.”

The engines changed noises. Man, that couldn't be right! Something was wrong. What was that weird grinding sound beneath them? Travis's hands were ice-cold. The armrests under his gripping palms were wet. Sweat ran down his back. And still they were going up…

“I hate cats.”

Travis looked at the businessman, who was thumbing through an airplane magazine. And beyond him, the window. Where there was nothing.

I'm going to black out, he thought dizzily. Then he took a deep breath. No way.

He reached nonchalantly for his own magazine.

“Yeah, well, I hear a lot of faggots hate cats.”

He stared without reading, the engines humming in his head.

There was nothing left but leaving.

Chapter 2

Dear Joe
,

It's okay here. My uncle seems to be okay. I started school. It's real small. Everything is okay
.

Travis broke off typing. Great literary merit in this letter, all right. What if someday, after he was famous, somebody published all the letters he'd ever written? Sometimes they did that with famous-author letters.

He'd sure be proud of this one. He yanked it out of his typewriter and rolled in a new page.

Joe—

I lived thru the plane ride even tho we had to stop twice on the way. I thought I'd puke all over the dude sitting next to me, and it woulda served him right
—
I
tried to get him to buy me a bourbon but he wouldn't go for it
.

My uncle is younger than I thought he was, people seem to think we look alike and I
'
m not real insulted, except he has some gray hair. He recognized me right away at the airport
.

Travis stopped. When he'd asked Ken how he had recognized him, he'd replied, “That last-of-the-cowboys swagger, just like Tim's.”

And there'd been something in his voice that Travis couldn't place; bitterness or regret or both…

I guess I must look like my dad. Anyway, Ken's separated from his wife, they're going to get a divorce or something. We're living out in the country, I think he was raising horses but doesn't anymore, he said he didn't have the time since he was made a partner in his law firm
. That
might come in real handy, huh? (ha ha)

He's a funny kind of dude, I haven't figured him out yet. Real quiet, and sometimes it takes me a while to get what he's saying, because he says funny stuff with a real straight face. Like I tried to say thanks, for letting me move in like this, and he said
, “
I wanted to do something nice for a change
…”

Travis leaned back. He had the feeling his uncle didn't quite know why he'd let him come here. They still seemed to feel funny around each other, like they were both thinking: Now what?

But Ken left him alone and Travis was happy to be left alone instead of griped at. He didn't even mind how quiet it was around here.

I go to this little hick school out in the boonies—I got sent to the office the first day for saying “goddamn
.”
Can you believe it? The kids are such aggie-nerds it is totally unbelievable
—

“Let's go get a pizza.”

Travis looked up at his uncle.

“Or maybe you need to finish your homework?”

Travis shook his head. “Naw. It's just a letter.”

“You writing your mom?”

Good grief! Writing to Mom, what an idea. What the hell could he write to Mom?

“Naw, I'm up for pizza.”

Actually, one of the best things about this setup so far was pizza. Ken liked it as much as Travis, although he loaded his half with a bunch of junk like green peppers and mushrooms, when just plain cheese was the way pizza was meant to be.

Travis stared out the car window.

It sure got dark out in the country. It was two miles to the Pizza Hut, a mile and a half to the nearest 7-Eleven. He was thinking he needed a job, but it sure wasn't going to be easy, getting around. He didn't think Ken would be crazy about either letting him drive, or driving him around. He had made it pretty clear that Travis would ride the bus to school.

“Uncle Ken?” he began, but his mind got sidetracked when Ken answered, “Yes, nephew Travis?”

“Why do you do that, call me nephew Travis? You want me to drop the uncle bit?”

“You got it.”

“Okay.” Travis had felt like a dork every time Ken called him “nephew Travis” but wasn't sure if it was supposed to be funny or what. So far, he was trying real hard not to get Ken ticked off at him. It was weird, living with a stranger. But probably, he reminded himself, a whole lot better than living with a bunch of strangers. A really strange bunch of strangers…

He glanced around the almost-empty Pizza Hut, so glad he was here and not in jail … There were three girls at a table in the corner and one of them was pretty.

He hadn't made any friends here yet, not having found anyone he particularly wanted to be friends with, and suddenly he wanted to talk to somebody his own age.

He looked at the girls again. The pretty one and the fat one were listening to the third girl. She leaned over the table, talking eagerly, waving a cigarette toward an ashtray and missing.

Good excuse. It'd worked before. He left Ken ordering the drinks and walked up to their table.

“Hey.” He made eye contact with the pretty one; she smiled politely and glanced away. He turned to the third. “Can I borrow a cigarette?”

“Here.” The girl who had been talking slapped a dollar bill on the table. “Go buy yourself a pack.”

She went on with her story, as if there hadn't been an interruption. Travis stood there stupidly, trying to think of his next move. He'd used this ploy a lot; get a cigarette, get a light, keep talking. Not just with girls, but with anybody who seemed interesting, who might have a story … Nobody had ever thrown a dollar at him and told him to get lost.

“Casey”—Ken came up and handed Travis a Coke and sipped the foam off his beer—“you meet my nephew, Travis? This is Casey Kencaide, who leases my barn. Jennifer—”

The pretty one said hi.

“And Robyn.”

The fat one said hi.

“How'd the show go?” Ken went on.

“Pretty good,” Casey said. Her eyes were interesting, green as traffic lights. Actually, if she'd had on some makeup and a different hairstyle, she might not have been so plain. Profile a little too severe, and way too skinny … Jennifer was cute, though.
Real
cute.

“We pinned in almost every class and Jenna got small hunter champion.”

“How'd the Star Runner do?”

“Well, we made it to the jump-off.”

The thing that saved her face, Travis thought, besides those vivid eyes, was its expression: not quite laughing, a light smile at a private joke. But she was too old for him anyway, at least eighteen.

“Then he crashed through the triple,” Robyn said. “He had the whole course down.”

Jennifer said, “Not the
whole
course.”

“Number nineteen, your order is ready,” said the loudspeaker.

“That's us,” Ken said. “See you, girls.”

“Yeah, see you,” Travis echoed.

Casey said, “Ken, up his allowance. He's bumming cigarettes.”

Just got back from pizza with my uncle
, Travis began typing again. Motorboat jumped up in his lap and put his chin in the crook of Travis's elbow; Travis couldn't see how the cat could be comfortable—as he typed, Motorboat's head jarred up and down until his teeth clicked together. But he always did this while Travis typed, purring loudly and doing happy feet, his needle-sharp claws lightly spiking through Travis's jeans.

How's it going there? Weren't you and the twins going to work for Orson? They ever get the transmission fixed on the Trans Am? Done any cruising lately
?

Travis stopped, and took a deep breath. He was starting to sound homesick. Couldn't start sounding homesick.

Anyway, he wasn't homesick. There wasn't anything at home, especially. Nothing to be lonesome for. Hanging around watching the twins fiddle with their car, or spending evenings in the parking lot of the city park, sipping beers until the cops ran you off, what was so great about that? Messing around in Orson's record store after school, listening to his line of bull—he was always hinting around that he was involved in mysterious Big Deals that someday, if they were real lucky, he'd let them in on. He said he knew the Mob. He also said he owned the record store, when Travis knew for a fact he just managed it. And he had a strong suspicion that the mysterious Big Deals went on mostly in Orson's head.

He was one of those older guys who seemed to think they were still young. That always irritated Travis. Being young was an exclusive club and pretenders annoyed him.

And Orson kind of gave him the creeps. But then, Travis never had to particularly like someone to find them interesting.

But still, it was kind of a kick to hang out in the record store, you got to hear a lot of new releases, and Travis couldn't feel bad about lying to Orson, he was such a liar himself, so it was a good place to tell stories. A lot of the heavy dopers hung out there, so there might have been dealing going on, but Joe and the twins and most of Travis's friends weren't druggies, so it wasn't done in front of their faces. Maybe the twins bought grass.

Mom called. I guess Stan isn't permanently brain damaged. Not that he'd know the difference. She said you guys were having a lot of rain lately. No tornadoes here yet, but at school there's a drill
…

Great. Talking about the weather—how dumb. Probably because people around here talked about it more, which showed you how desperate they were for conversation—weather at home was just something that made the difference between sitting
in
the car at the park, or
on
it.

Disgusted, Travis pushed back from the typewriter and Motorboat jumped down. The cat raced around the room, his tail stuck straight up, pausing to grab Travis's leg, biting, thumping hard with his hind legs.

“Okay, okay.” Travis kicked loose. “I'll let you out tomorrow.”

He hadn't let Motorboat out of the house yet, afraid he'd get lost. But maybe he'd try it for an hour or so tomorrow. He'd have to be careful; Ken had a couple of dogs and might not like them getting beaten up by a cat. He read his new Hemingway biography for an hour, then wandered down to the den where Ken was looking over a bunch of legal papers and watching the news at the same time.

He looked up, and Travis felt for a minute that Ken had forgotten who he was and what he was doing here. He'd felt that before. It made him really wonder why Ken had let him come in the first place.

“Finish your schoolwork?”

Ken asked him that every night. It was like it was the one safe conversation piece.

“Yeah.” He hadn't, but he could do it on the bus in the morning. “Can I have a beer?”

“No.”

“I drink it at home.”

“You're not home.”

“Yeah, but—”

Ken put his papers down. “Subject is closed, kid. I don't have the energy for this kind of garbage. You want to drink beer, go home.”

“Yeah, okay, no big deal.” Travis figured he'd just sneak down later for a swig of bourbon.

“You doin' legal stuff?”

“Yeah, I'll shuffle these papers around awhile, then I'll give them to someone else to shuffle and when enough people have shuffled for the appropriate time, something of no lasting value will be decided.”

“I thought being a law partner was a pretty good job.”

“Being a partner is fine. It's the practice of law that sucks.”

Travis wandered around the room, picking up stuff and looking at the pictures on the wall. Most of them were of a chubby blond baby growing into a chubby blond little boy. Ken's son Christopher—would that make him his nephew, cousin…?

“Ken?”

“Yeah.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-seven.”

Travis was shocked. “Oh, wow, man, you don't look that old.”

“Thanks.” Ken's voice seemed even drier than normal.

“Can I ask you something?” Travis was talking almost absentmindedly. It was a good thing he'd brought a lot of books with him, there didn't seem to be many here.

“I'm betting you can.”

“Huh?”

“Yes, you may ask me something.”

“Oh.” Travis dropped into an armchair, fiddled with a lever, and almost flipped himself over backward. When he got straightened up he said, “Was my dad some kind of gung-ho Rambo, joining the Air Force to whip the commies?”

His dad had been shot down over Vietnam two months before he was born. Travis was curious about him. Mom always spoke of him as a “good man and a brave soldier,” but Travis couldn't tell much from that. Not that she'd have the story straight anyway. She tended to remember things the way she
wanted
them to have happened, instead of the way they did.

Not that it had much to do with him. He didn't have a dad, but neither did a lot of people. No big deal.

“No,” Ken said slowly. “Not at first. But he got more and more militant, got so bad, in fact, that we couldn't carry on a conversation for five minutes without getting into a fight … No, at first he just wanted so bad to fly—”

Travis got up abruptly. He didn't want to hear about flying right now. And Ken seemed glad to change the subject.

“Kid.”

“Yeah?”

“Change the cat's litter box.”

Stan had griped a lot about that too.

“I'm goin' to start lettin' him out tomorrow—he'll whip your dogs.”

“They won't bother him. They're used to cats.”

“Yeah?” Travis was interested, “You got a cat?”

“I had a cat. Teresa's got custody.”

Travis wandered back to his room. Maybe Ken was so preoccupied because of this divorce deal. Well, it probably was rough, but you had to admit, it wasn't anywhere near as bad as attempted murder.