YA HORROR

The terrifying prophesies of the spirits are coming to pass. Sixteen clocks are ticking. Sixty-six murdered souls will bring about the end of the world. 

Caleb is celebrating his high school graduation when he receives a mysterious, disturbing letter from his long-lost childhood playmate, Christine. He and his jokester friend Bean decide to travel to his tiny hometown of Hudsonville, Florida, to find her.

Upon arrival, they discover the town has taken a horrifying turn for the worse. Caleb’s childhood home is abandoned and his father has disappeared. Children are going missing. The old insane asylum has reopened, and Christine is locked inside. As Caleb peels back layer after layer of mystery, he uncovers a truth more horrible than anything he had imagined, a truth that could only be uttered by the lips of the dead.

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Reviews

- Litstack.com

- Suspense Magazine

“The Sleepwalkers was one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read… period.”

“Gates begins this YA novel with a sense of foreboding that carries through the rest of the story and leaves you on the edge of your seat the entire way. The Sleepwalkers is the perfect horror story to tell around a campfire or read on a stormy night—as long as you don’t forget to leave the lamp or flashlight on when you go to sleep.”

- Books With Bite

“If you love a good scary book, one that will have you looking over your shoulder, read this book! …[Gates] captures readers with one word, and does not let you go.”

Chapter One

 

Something in the ruins waits.

 

A daydreamy, hot Southern summer, the sky above like a great blue eye. Watching. Two little girls with laughter in their smiles. Two same smiles, giggling. They hug. They hit one another. Two sisters, and me. High, dry weeds, brown and scraping. We fight through them together. The forest behind is black liquid. Pathways through the weeds, a thousand pathways, a game of chase. Now lying amongst the long grasses, giggles give way to sighing.

 

Something waits.

 

I get up. I whisper to one of the girls. (This has happened before.) Her hair is long and straight. Eyes glitter. There are no sounds, as if this were a silent movie or something, but there is one word that bleeds through like a subliminal message: dare. Eyes glittering, this is a childish contest of pride. I smile my dare to her—I feel the smile on my face. She swallows once in fear, then giggles it away. The other sister says nothing, watches with sad, distant eyes. Long, straight hair. Through the weeds again now. Shuffling, we three. Biting burrs on white socks. A little hill. We reach the top and the air stops. There it is. Edifice. Eclipsing all. Empty. A thousand windows stare through us like blind eyes, black and shattered, the lights that once waited inside them now betrayed to darkness. Another word bleeds through: hospital.

 

Their momma told them not to go.

The dare hangs all around us. Two little girls, just alike. Dirty dresses and dimples. One stands still and scratches her leg.

 

The other, the Dared, has half crossed the clearing already. She’s passing the swimming pond, sleeping mirror. Tiny girl, she blazes through the weeds on scabbed, bruised legs.

 

She keeps walking.

 

She’ll show us she isn’t afraid. But she’s very afraid. She walks slowly. Keeps looking back. Acting brave. I look up at the too-many windows, and they gape at me like gnawing, starving maws. Suddenly, I want to call her back. My stomach aches, I want to call her back so bad. But I don’t. I watch her. She sneaks under the chain-link fence, little dared one, catches her dress as she wriggles through but tears herself free. Crosses a patch of cracked, scarred cement; the heat waves from it dilute her for an instant; for an instant she seems almost to melt away, but she walks on, over old beer cans and fallen bricks, patches of grass poking through the cement. Up to the stoop. Up to the door.

The back door. A black hole. Her tiny feet follow each other forward, one after another, closer and closer, and she pauses at the threshold, looks back at us. Even from so far away there’s no mistaking, no denying the meaning in her pleading silence: “Take back the dare.” But she’s already there.

 

Then it happens, too fast to be real. The little girl next to me screams, only her breath goes in instead of out and makes the words:

 

“Something in the ruins waits!”

 

And in the black square of the doorway, something jerks the other little girl backwards into the dark.

 

Forever gone.

 

***

 

The ceiling is blue. His first thought is that nothing is real. Nothing is to be trusted. He pushes himself up against the headboard and stares at the knob on his closet door, waiting for the feeling to drain out of him. The knob is glass. Antique. He half expects it to move, but it does not. Nothing moves. The room is saturated in stillness. When there’s no sound, no motion, it’s easy to see how flimsy everything is. Reality seems mushy. Liquid, almost, in this half-light. The little illumination leaking through the curtains is tinted with blue. It must be late. The clock says six o’clock exactly.

 

The hum of the silence is disconcerting. He keeps thinking he hears something. Somehow, the sound of the non-noise has the same quality of a real sound. It sounds like . . . what? He can’t put his finger on it, but it doesn’t go away.

 

He gets out of bed, twists his boxers, straightening them, and walks across the rug and onto the hardwood floor. It creaks under his weight and he’s grateful; it chases away the non-sound for a moment. He opens his door, steps into the hall. Here, the stagnant air is filled with the same timid light as his room. Twilight. He walks over to the stairs and leans over the rail.

 

“Hey, what’s for dinner?”

 

No answer, except for a barely perceptible echo. He walks back up the hall. His legs hurt. Shin splints. He walks into the bathroom, blows his nose on some toilet paper, pulls on a pair of jeans—the belt is conveniently waiting in the loops from the last time he wore them—and walks back down the hall, thinking about the dream. Trying not to think about it, actually, but reliving it in spite of himself. It won’t leave. Even now, as he’s going through the motions of life, performing all these normal actions, the fear still aches in his bones. He acts like he’s ignoring it, but he cannot.

 

He crosses back down the hall, listening intently for some familiar sound—the chopping of vegetables for dinner, the mindless, chattering drone of the TV, the moan of the garage door as one of the parents makes an early appearance home from work. There are no sounds. The ache in his bones won’t stop. He can’t shake the dream. Hell, maybe he’s still asleep; maybe this is just another hallway in the labyrinth of his subconscious. Maybe he woke to a world where he’s the only survivor of a terrible cataclysm; maybe he’s the last person left alive on earth.

Or maybe—and this thought really chills him—maybe this is where the door the little girl was pulled into so many years ago led—maybe, in some terrible metaphysical contortion, that black doorway leads here, to the shadowed foyer of his own empty house.

 

As that thought seeps through his mind, dripping from the land of fleeting fancy into more primal regions, it almost freezes him in his tracks. It’s a horrible idea, the kind that keeps coming back to you, like the image from a video he saw in history class of the Buddhist monks who burned themselves to protest the war in Vietnam. When you turned away, when you closed your eyes, the sight remained.

He’s made his way downstairs now. He passes the coatrack in the hall, trips over the shoes he shuffled off an hour earlier, before his nap, and continues toward the kitchen. It’s getting deeply dark outside and here, away from any windows that might leak in the last residual rays of the dying sun, the blackness is almost total. He fumbles with his hand—here’s the table, here’s one of the doilies his mom insists on draping over everything, even though it looks archaic and lame—and here’s the lamp. He traces his hand up the smooth brass shaft of its neck, without seeing it, bumps the shade with his elbow, finds the switch with his clumsy, still-waking fingertips, and twists. There’s a click and a flash. He gasps.

 

Eyes.

 

Someone there? The hairs on the back of his neck are standing up.

 

It’s dark again—the light has burned out. His body is tense, his back pressed against the hallway wall.

Then he smiles, realizing. There’s no one there: he just saw himself in the hall mirror. He exhales a snorted laugh. What a jackass. What a baby. The lightbulb popped and he saw himself. Good ol’ scary Caleb, a skinny eighteen-year-old guy. He probably couldn’t scare a 7-Eleven cashier with a ski mask on. His body relaxes. A car approaches outside, its headlights shining through the stained glass windows flanking the front door, casting everything, fleetingly, in an eerie glow. Then it passes. He snorts again, laughing at himself. What a baby. Can’t shake a wittow scawy dweam. He takes a step forward, toward the kitchen door, then stops dead.

 

Something behind the door moved.

 

A scraping sound. Tiny. Real. No light shines around the doorjamb. The room beyond is dark. He realizes he’s shaking. He tries to breathe, tries to still his limbs, but cannot. Something is really there. Courage . . . this is your house, right? Not a dream, right? And you’re eighteen now—supposed to be a man.

 

His teeth clamp together, eyes narrow, fists clench. His hand rises up from his side and tentatively rests on the wood of the swinging door.

Only a push now. Why’s he so scared? Why can’t he shake that dream? Okay, one . . . two . . .

Another sound, almost too faint hear at first. But there. His mouth falls open and he shivers, leaning closer. Voices. A thousand whispering, clamoring lisps mingle and seethe over one another, creating a sound that is almost like silence—but isn’t.

 

He feels his heart pounding, man or not, but steels himself against the rising tide of his fear.

 

The door. Open it. He’s a man now; it’s just the kitchen, for Christ’s sake.

 

One.

 

Something behind the door.

 

Two.

 

Something waits.

 

Three.

 

He shoves open the door—to the sound of a thousand screams, a blast of light, and gigantic sign that reads:

 

Happy Graduation, Caleb!

“Surprise!” a chorus of familiar faces sings.

 

***

 

“So, you were really surprised, right? Not just blowin’ smoke up my tush?”

 

It’s Bean who speaks. His real name is Benjamin Friedman—Ben—but no one remembers the last time anyone called him that.

Bean. God bless him, the kid is all curly black hair and dimples. Round face. Stocky guy, about five seven or something. The kind of guy you end up drinking with, laughing with, running naked laps around the block with, stealing people’s garden gnomes with until seven in the morning—when you had no intention of drinking in the first place. Bean is that guy.

 

“I actually crapped myself a little,” Caleb says with a grin.

 

“Yeah, I noticed that,” Bean says. “You had that look of ‘yes, although I have just soiled myself in front of my chemistry teacher, my girlfriend, and my Nana, I shall maintain my composure and eventually sneak out and change my Fruit of the Looms at a more opportune time.’”

 

“That was my thought process, yes. Astute of you to pick up on that,” Caleb says.

 

This is their shtick. Caleb isn’t sure if all best buddies have a shtick, but he and Bean certainly have theirs, and it could land them in prime time any day of the week. Caleb plays the straight man, Bean is the comedian, and it works. It’s made them the envy of most everyone else in school, actually, although they aren’t even consciously aware of the fact. But why not? Girls love a good laugh, guys love a good time. And with Caleb and Bean around, neither are in short supply. Fun breeds popularity, a coveted prize amongst the high-school ranks, and this evening is certainly a good example of that—almost a hundred people are probably here in all—though it’s hard to tell for sure, since they’re scattered all through the kitchen, across the patio, and downstairs in the game room, too. Of course, neither Bean nor Caleb thinks much about things like social status or peer acceptance. They just have fun together. And it’s magnetic.

 

A little swarm of people ring the guest of honor and his comedian friend, and one of these, a girl named Brittanee, pipes up now. “So, Bean, what are you doing after graduation?”

 

Bean clears his throat. “I got a gig shovelin’ bird shit outta cuckoo clocks. Union. Good pay.” He glances at Caleb with a wink.

 

Everyone laughs except Brittanee, who isn’t quite sure if she’s being made fun of or not. Bean smiles and puts her at ease. (Bean puts everyone at ease.)

 

“Naw,” he says. “I’m going to Pepperdine. I figure it’s right up the road, so I can live with the parents. I’ll stay shacked up with them as long as I can, man. I never want to pay bills. I might even stay there for my doctorate. Maybe I’ll even get lucky and my parents will die in a plane crash or something and I’ll inherit the pad after that. I’m all about never having a real job, ever.”

 

“What about you, Caleb?” asks Dan, a guy from Caleb’s track team.

 

“Oh, don’t get him started,” Bean says. “This guy is going to go live in elephant dung for six weeks, then die of malaria, probably. Please tell him he’s nuts.”

 

“I’m going to Africa to write about the AIDS crisis,” Caleb says. “Everybody says if I can write a good piece and get it published, with my grades and everything I should be able to get into any school in the country. I want to do investigative journalism, go to Yale or maybe

Stanford, become the editor of a big newspaper someday—or maybe a magazine like Time or Newsweek.”

 

Everyone just nods. No one really knows what to say about that, and nobody’s willing to follow Caleb’s impressive goals with their relatively lame plans for the future.

 

“Yeah,” says Bean sarcastically, “you know how much tail those newspaper editors get.”

 

Everybody laughs.

 

Caleb rolls with it; this is all just part of the shtick.

 

“If I can save one life while you’re busy propositioning sorority girls, I think it will be pretty worthwhile.”

 

“How ya gonna save any lives,” says Bean, “unless you’re packing a suitcase full of condoms and anti-AIDS drugs?”

 

“When people know what’s going on, they’ll do something. Did you know a child in Africa is orphaned every fourteen seconds?”

 

Bean makes a snoring sound then feigns waking up. “Sorry, did you say something? Seriously, man, nobody cares about people right next to them. They sure aren’t gonna start caring about people on the other side of the planet just because Caleb tells them to. A million newspaper articles won’t change human nature. Sure, people might donate a buck or two as a tax write-off, but the fact remains, my friend: nobody really cares.”

 

“I do,” says Caleb.

 

“Well, you get a gold freakin’ star then, buddy.” Bean makes a toasting motion with his cup and downs half of it. “Usually when Americans try to help people, all that seems to happen is a lot of people get blown up and some company makes a crapload of cash. That’s how we save the world around here,” he says. “Things never turn out how you expect them to.” Then he laughs, leaning a little too close to Brittanee, and confides: “This jackhole thinks he’s gonna run off to some hoity-toity Ivy League college and leave me here holding my twig and berries all by my lonesome. Not happening.”

 

“We’ll see,” says Caleb with a shrug.

 

“I agree with Bean,” someone says. It’s a girl’s voice, even and smooth. Amber.

This, for the record, is the first time Amber has ever agreed with Bean about anything.

 

“Hey, baby,” Caleb says.

 

Amber walks over and presents her cheek, not her lips, to Caleb for a kiss. He gives it to her and she takes his hand, displacing Bean.

 

Brittanee says, “Hi, Amber. Bean was just telling us how Caleb is going to Africa. That is sooo amazing. I would love to go.”

 

“Well,” Amber says, “you kind of need to be savvy. When I was in Niger, a chimpanzee stole a baby from a village and tore it apart. There are a lot of native customs and wildlife issues to get used to. Plus, you have to get a lot of uncomfortable shots and stuff before you go.”

 

Brittanee says, “Oh my God. That poor baby! That’s . . . awful.”

“Yep,” Amber says with a flippant smile. Then, to Caleb: “Hey, honey, can I talk to you in private for a minute?”

 

Caleb glances at his friends, reluctant to leave.

 

“Uh, okay,” he says and, throwing a final smile to his guests, allows himself be led away by Amber’s tugging hand.

Bean snorts. “Leave it to good old Amber to bring the mood down.” And he takes a sip of a Coke that may or may not be 40 percent Jack Daniels. He squints at Brittanee. “Hey, Brit, you look a little Hebrew. I always meant to ask you, do you have any Jew in you?”

Brittanee smiles, “No, and I don’t want any in me, thanks very much.”

 

“Oh,” says Bean, “I already tried that one on you, eh? I gotta find some fresh meat.”

He turns on his heel and heads for the game room, leaving Brittanee laughing and shaking her head in his wake.

 

***

 

Outside on the deck, the wind is fitful. Far away, a single light, like an earthbound star, heralds the passing of a ship.

The break of the surf is incessant and, to Caleb, unnerving. When he first moved into this house with his mother and Bob six (or seven?) years ago, he had been sure he would love it. He did not. At first, he had figured he would get used to the rush of the ocean. But in fact, it seemed to grow more prominent over time. More insistent. The problem, he figured, was that it never stopped. When he was trying to sleep, it was there. When he was studying, it crept into his ears. Even over dinner, when his mother had one of those fancy dinner parties that she insisted he attend, with Yanni or Enya or some other aural barbiturate playing in the background, he would sometimes get distracted from the conversation by the barely discernable (but there) roar of the surf. The sea. Always reaching for you, wave upon wave, like some liquid creature trying to clamber ashore. He takes the last sip of his punch as Amber comes to a stop and steers him, using his hand as her rudder, until he’s facing her.

 

“What’s different?” she asks.

 

Caleb knows this is a test. She changes her appearance daily, and if he doesn’t get this question right . . . bad stuff happens.

Time to buy a little time. He leans against the cool steel of the rail. The house is on stilts, so standing out here on the deck one can look almost directly down at the water. There it is. The sea. Powerful. Scary powerful. . . .

 

“Well?”

 

Amber stands a good three inches taller than Caleb. She won the state debate title three years running, and was the number-one seed in the USTA women’s junior tennis championship for the last two years (though she was eliminated in the quarter finals both times). She expects things. To be engaged to Caleb by their junior year of college is one of them. To have one child is another. Only one, no more. She believes having more than one child is grossly irresponsible, and although she is a card-carrying member of the ACLU, she believes the government should limit the number of children people can have—to prevent overpopulation. She is also a staunch pro-life activist.

Despite her dizzying inconsistencies, she is Caleb’s girl. After all, she is devastatingly attractive. And she fits into his plan perfectly: Amber will be a senator and Caleb will be an editor at the New York Times. They’ll be in the middle of everything, able to really make a difference. And that’s all Caleb really wants; or thinks he wants. But lately . . .

 

“Well?” Amber’s demeanor is quickly deteriorating from “flirty” to “glowering.” Not a good sign. Time to act fast.

 

He rubs his nose, not because it itches, but because somewhere in his brain, it seems like a good ploy to buy an extra second. It doesn’t work.

 

“My hair is red, Caleb. Jesus.”

 

Since Amber lives up in Santa Barbara and Caleb lives down here in Malibu, that means he doesn’t get to see her much. And she changes her hair color just about every week, so how could he possibly know what color it was last time he saw her? Hell, she might have already cycled through every color of the rainbow since last time they hung out. For all he knows, her hair was red the last time he saw her, and she’s dyed it three times since then and landed back on red again. One thing’s for sure: he doesn’t remember.

 

“It looks great, babe,” he says.

 

“What else?” she asks, and his heart sinks. Now he’s really screwed.

 

He squeezes the plastic cup in his hand, making an annoying clicking noise. Dent in, dent out. Dent in, dent out.

 

“Well?” Amber asks, then before he can respond, she says, “Hair extensions and a French manicure. Not a very observant boyfriend, now are we?”

 

Caleb wonders, suddenly, when this became his life. It almost seems, in this strange moment, as if he’s been sleepwalking for years. As if he’s gone through these grueling years of study and romance and sports and life without even being truly aware, without being really present. It’s as if it were all hardly real at all. Now, on this deck overlooking the black, endless ocean, he’s suddenly, disconcertingly awake. And for some reason, he thinks of the dream again, of when he was a kid.

 

“Cake time!” someone calls from inside. Caleb sees his mom bringing out a cake, lit with a bunch of candles as if it were somebody’s birthday. He stands there for a moment, wondering if there is any precedent for blowing out birthday candles at a graduation party, but Amber is already leading him back through the French doors with one of her newly manicured hands.

 

Someone seems to have put the word out with the partygoers downstairs that the culmination of the festivities is approaching, because people are filing up the steps in droves. Everyone gathers. There’s Bean, hooting as if he were at a strip club. There are the guys from the track team, their girlfriends, his whole group of friends from school, even a few teachers. Caleb’s stepfather, Bob, and some of his stiff buddies from the glorious airline catering industry, of which he is a mogul, stand in the corner. Mom, holding the cake, waits by the fireplace, still dressed in her suit from work, her hair a mess but her face beaming.

 

“Thanks,” he says as he approaches her.

 

“Happy graduation, hon,” she says. “Now blow out these candles. This thing weighs a ton.”

 

“Is it customary to have candles on a—?” Caleb begins, but he’s rejoined with a chorus of “blow out the candles!” So he says, “Okay, okay,” and blows them out. Everyone claps. As he looks around him, all the smiling faces seem at once familiar (because they are familiar, after all) and strangely, disturbingly foreign. It’s the dream. He knows it. The dream still hasn’t quite let go of him.

 

“Speech!” Mom cries, and everyone else joins in, “Speech, speech, speech.”

 

Caleb blushes (which, he thinks, is not like him at all) and waves them off with one hand.

 

“Later, guys. Cake first, speech later. I promise.”

Everyone accepts that, mostly because it’s a tasty-looking cake: chocolate marble layer cake with buttercream frosting, Caleb discovers as he takes the first bite.

 

“Mmm,” he says loudly. He feels like he’s in a TV commercial, but he can’t help it, it’s that good.

 

“I’m going to powder my nose,” says Amber.

 

“You don’t want cake?” Caleb asks.

 

“No,” she says, wrinkling her nose up as if he had just said, “Don’t you want Ebola?” She squeezes his hand once and lets go, heading off down the hall with her long-legged, strangely cocky but sexy gait. Caleb goes back to work eating. He has a method—cake first, then the frosting.

 

Bean saunters up, his mouth brimming with chocolate. “Wats da eel, aam?” he asks.

 

“Did you come here on the short bus or what? Chew your food.” Caleb laughs.

 

“This cake is so rad,” says Bean.

 

“That’s not what you said, man.”

 

“No,” says Bean, a little reluctant, “I said: ‘What’s the deal?’ With Amber.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Dude, she’s like the queen from Alice in Wonderland. Off with her head! Every time she comes around, my balls shrink up like they’re trying to hide. It’s uncomfortable.”

Caleb nods. “She can be a little . . . direct.”

 

“Yah. But, hey, dude. She’s your girlfriend; you guys have been together for a long time—God knows how—and I respect that. If you’re happy, more power to you.”

 

“Thanks, Bean.”

 

“Just between you and me, though, the Little Man’s making your decisions for you, isn’t he?”

 

“Oh,” says Caleb, “you must mean the Big Man. I don’t know, you’ll have to set up an appointment and ask him. He’s a busy guy, though.”

 

“Yeah,” says Bean, “busy getting smaller. I’m going to go flirt with your mom and see if I can make Bob jealous. Wanna come?”

 

“Yeah,” Caleb says, “right after I get some more of this bomb-ass cake.”

 

Caleb fights off the pang of guilt he feels at the thought of having seconds. Why shouldn’t he have more? Track is over forever unless he decides to pursue it in college. Still, to have seconds seems foreign. He’s used to walking a very narrow path.

He looks around the room for a moment before spying the cake’s resting place. It sits at the end of the dining room table. The table is covered for the occasion with a fancy white tablecloth and also seems to be serving as the gift repository. He walks down its length, surveying his spoils. There are only a few gifts, actually. Mostly, the table is littered with cards. The cards are full of money, of course—and that’s a beautiful thing because there are a lot of them.

 

He cuts himself another piece of cake then balances it between his finger and the knife in an attempt to transport it to his plate without getting too much frosting on his fingers. The attempt proves futile. He drops cake and gets frosting all over his hand anyway.

 

“Aw, son of a . . . ”

 

Using the knife and slipping the paper plate underneath, he manages to get the piece of cake to safety. As for the tablecloth, it’s pretty screwed . . . But it’s his special night, Caleb figures, so if he tells her right away, his mom won’t be able to get mad at him . . . And it’s actually not as bad as he was thinking because the cake landed mostly on one of the cards. He picks up the frosting-laden envelope, licking the sugary goodness off his finger at the same time. The envelope doesn’t look like it would contain a greeting card—it’s plain white, and letter-sized. He turns it over. No writing on the back, and no return address on the front. There is a stamp on it, though, so it apparently isn’t from anyone at the party. Heck, maybe it’s not even for him at all—but he can’t tell; the address is covered in frosting. He glances at his mom—thinking he could ask her about it, but she’s rapt in a conversation with Bob and his terminally boring friends.

 

There’s only one way to find out who this particular piece of mail is addressed to, and if it involves eating more frosting, then so be it. He licks where the address should be. Delicious. But the writing is still illegible, which calls for one more lick and . . . there—it’s the correct address, all right, but as for who the letter is addressed to . . . He licks once more. And the revelation is: the letter is addressed to—Billy. No last name.

 

Caleb stares at the envelope for a minute, perfectly still. Billy. His first thought is that this letter was simply sent there by mistake. No Billy lives here.

 

He studies the handwriting on the envelope. It’s cursive. Almost childlike. He doesn’t recognize it.

Billy.

 

Of course, Caleb’s full name is William Caleb Mason, but no one calls him “Billy.” Not since he was a kid. Not since he moved to California.

 

His brow is knotted up and his forehead begins to feel heavy. He sits down, staring at the envelope. He hesitates, that weird foreboding washing over him again, then tears it open.

***

 

“Speech, speech, speech!” everyone calls—but the laughter, the clink of glasses, the music are all muted. There’s Bean, winking at him. There’s Amber, expectant. Everyone is waiting for him; everyone is listening.

 

Now Mom speaks: “Thanks for coming, everybody! I just wanted to say how proud we all are of you, Caleb. Valedictorian is a great honor, and I know great things are ahead of you. But you’d better be careful in Africa. If you get eaten by lions, you’re totally grounded, young man.” She laughs. To Caleb’s mom, that constitutes a joke.

 

“. . . And here’s a little something to help you on your trip into the heart of darkness.” She hands him an envelope. Now, he clutches two, because he still has the one from the table clenched in his trembling fist. He looks at the new envelope, dumbly. Everyone falls silent now, watching him. It occurs to him that this is another part of the dream—he still hasn’t woken up yet. This is the part where everyone’s looking at him, and he looks down and finds himself naked . . . or covered in blood. Out the window, he hears the sound of the ocean, unending.

 

“Well, open it,” his mother urges.

 

Fumbling, he crams a thumb under the flap and tears. It’s a cheesy card and a check for two thousand dollars. Mom is smiling at him. He tries to smile back and can’t. Everyone waits for him. Suddenly, his head feels light, unright. He puts the check in his pocket and looks at the other envelope, the one addressed to “Billy.” Awareness washes over him. Everyone’s watching him, everyone’s waiting.

 

Someone—Bean, probably—yells, “Speech!”

 

Caleb clears his throat, still looking at the envelope.

 

Silence swirls around him maddeningly. Except it’s not really silence. Finally, he speaks: “I’m not going to Africa anymore,” he hears himself say. He hardly knows why he said it, but it occurs to him in that instant that it’s already said. It’s already in the air, too late to take back. Now everyone’s going to ask him why. That’s the question percolating upon all of their lips, even now. And as he looks at the envelope in his trembling hand, he knows he will never be able to tell them the truth.

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