Evade the Dark (an excerpt)
Late afternoon, Tuesday, August 2: leaving Maui
I must’ve stopped breathing there for a moment. Makes sense. Breathing hurts. I’m still balled up in the copilot’s chair, wearing bulky mechanic’s coveralls, chin cradled in my elbow. When I finally take a breath, the sleeve grazes my mouth and I lurch back, which hurts way worse than merely breathing. I guess I’m not ready to have fabric touch my face again so soon.
Rusty glances at me, keeping his hands on the controls. We’re not at cruising altitude yet. They’re his coveralls I’m wearing—stolen, technically. He doesn’t seem to mind. At least he hasn’t said anything about it. He hasn’t said much about anything. He seems pretty chill with his beach-bum look: gray beard hiding the contours of his jaw, clam diggers, hair just off the shoulder.
Neither of us mentions the smell: urine after someone’s been drinking nothing but coffee. The man we’re smelling is unconscious on the floor behind us. I’m tempted to rub away the blackening clot at his temple just so I can watch his blood run again.
“How’d you know this was Handsome’s plane?” Rusty asks.
“The guy napping?”
I sit up and try to put together an answer. Instead my eyes wander the cockpit, landing on the horizon, but not the real one. “Pilots use an artificial horizon? Way to take the romance out of flying.”
“Please try to focus,” he says.
“I know him from California.”
Rusty turns to me. His eyes are deliberately bland, not drilling holes in me like my coach used to. And his head isn’t tilted back aggressively like my mom’s when she’s stunned by my irresponsibility. No sighs, no face-palms—
“You’re from California?”
“No. Utah.” This time my eyes settle on the real horizon. “We flew to a macadamia farm in California two days ago—for Spencer’s birthday.”
“Explain that to me.”
My dad was calling. If I hadn’t picked up, none of this would’ve happened. I was finishing off the dregs from a bag of chips and flipping through Sunday TV, so it was fortunate—or actually, unfortunate—and totally random that I even saw my phone light up. I keep it on silent. I guess I felt obligated to answer.
“Hi, Dad, happy Sunday.”
“Madi. I need a favor.”
I wasn’t going to do it, whatever it was, but the real drama in his voice offered more intrigue than Katniss sorting out her feelings for Gale and Peeta.
“It’s for your brother,” he said.
“Hmmm. I don’t know. You think I can be trusted with—”
“It’s his birthday.”
Well, shit. He had me right where he wanted me. As the much older half-sister who’s never lived with Spencer, there’s no expectation of a gift, just a “Happy Birthday” text. But nope. I couldn’t even do that much. I see Spencer maybe once a year. We’re essentially strangers. I had to give my dad credit. His use of parental guilt was a perfect ten.
“How old?” I asked.
“Twelve. You got him a bootlegged Pearl Jam concert, double CD.”
“You gave a child a compact disc?”
“Two compact discs.”
“How’s he going to play them?”
My dad likes to imitate my voice, derisively, saying what I should’ve said: “Oh Dad! Yeet! That was so thoughtful of you! With my busy schedule—hold up—self-absorbed selfie—click.”
“Thanks for covering me. Is he still a runt?”
“All Delucians are runts.”
“Not me anymore,” I reminded him bitterly, not that he needed it. His bank account has been reminding him every month since I opted out of my gymnastics scholarship.
“You and your Amazonian mom. Listen, I sent him to the library to research macadamia nuts.”
“Sounds about right. What’s the favor?”
“I need you to tail him to make sure he gets home safe, in time for dinner with his mom.”
“Why didn’t you just go with him?”
“Being out there alone is the gift. I gave him forty bucks and permission to go on his own adventure, without Helicopter Michaela.”
Michaela is Spencer’s mom. She and our dad have vastly different ideas about what’s best for that kid.
Michaela and Spencer live in Kimball, Utah. So do I, but I live on campus, or just off campus, since I walked away from my full-ride. Ouray University. It’s is up in the Kimball foothills. I think Michaela’s house is, like, only four or five miles away from me, but I never see them.
I glanced at my TV. Katniss’s gaze shifted from Gale’s hard eyes to his tender lips, her next target. She moved in slowly—“Which library?”
I seriously needed to get out of my apartment.
“He’s downtown all alone?”
“Not yet. He’s on the R-11.”
This favor turned out to be an emergency. My dad had bet that I’d be busy with nothing that couldn’t be interrupted. His plan depended on it. Kimball is twenty miles south of Salt Lake—a short train ride for Salt Lake’s fentanyl-addicted homeless. Kimball doesn’t quite have Salt Lake’s big city problems. Not yet, but it’s getting there.
“I just need you to trail him when he gets there.”
“Get it straight, Dad: Do you want me to tail him or trail him?”
“Okay. Did that make you feel better? Tail . . . trail. That was important to you? It’s a simple request, Madi.”
“He’ll recognize me.” In my oven door’s reflection, I wasn’t sure I recognized myself.
“I don’t think he will.”
“Oh god. You mean he’s daywalking.”
“I think so.”
“Omigod, Dad! You sent Spencer downtown in a trance?”
“It’s nothing like a trance. He’s not a prisoner in his mind. It’s just his quirky wonderland.”
“So what’s he really after?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not macadamia nuts. That wouldn’t hold him.” I compared what I had on to the semi-clean clothes piled on my bed.
“The origins of the nuts.”
“Dad. Don’t BS me.”
I didn’t change. My T-shirt and shorts were good enough for Sunday at the library.
After a short pause he fessed up. “He’s looking for the lost city of Macadamia.”
“Is that a real place? Wait. No. Of course not. Is it? Doesn’t matter.”
“It’s not. Listen, just hold back so he doesn’t see you and he’ll have a great birthday.”
“Dad . . . ugh . . . why do you do these things?”
“I’m trying to get closer to him.”
“Closer? You literally sent him away.” Nothing came through the phone. I’d hit him where it hurt. “What’s he wearing?”
“Beige shorts, green backpack. Evie’s with him.”
“Everything’s better with Eddie Vedder,” I said as contrition. Michaela, a girl with a boy’s name, decided to call Spencer’s female West Highland terrier, Eddie Vedder. She said the dog had his cheekbones. Eddie Vedder immediately became E.V. and then Evie. And now Pearl Jam is Spencer’s favorite band.
“Keep your ringer on,” I ordered him. My dad’s been known to go “missing” for weeks, all because his ringer had been turned off.
“You’re a good sister. Don’t intervene unless you absolutely have to.”
I grabbed some oversized sunglasses, a 1970s Boston Celtics cap, and my blue backpack, which still had the standard stuff in it. I glided west, downhill, on my junior high school bike. Ten minutes later I was scanning the pedestrians outside the library. To complete my incognito accoutrement, I struck an aloof pose and picked up an arts newspaper.
I called my dad. “Are you tracking him?”
“What do you mean?”
“His phone. Are you tracking his phone on your phone?”
“You can do that?”
“Nevermind. I see him.” I killed the call.
Spencer headed toward me from the west, from the R-11 commuter train stop. Spencer freed Evie from his backpack, turned south, then headed to the back of the library. It’s a modern whiz-bang building with a curving staircase to the rooftop garden. That’s where they’d be entering; I had to get up there.
On the elevator, I pulled Jared’s Jazz cap from my backpack and put the Celtics cap away. Jared was—is—an NBA fan: Utah Jazz and 1970s Celtics. He’s also a fan of caps. Hiding his beautiful hair is a crime against nature. I replaced my bulbous sunglasses with thick, black-rimmed glasses from last Halloween. Jared and I went as Peter Parker and Clark Kent. We’ve both got muscles and no money, so Jared wore everyday stuff and borrowed a bulky camera to hang off his neck, and I wore his younger brother’s church suit and those dorky glasses.
As a future Olympian in high school—that was my mom’s plan for me anyway—I was 5’2” with not a drop of fat on me. Sculpted legs delivering precise power. Washboard abs that cast shadows. I was already on the upper end of the scale at 5’2”. Then last summer, before my first year at OU—bang! Outta nowhere, I grew two more inches. Fifteen years of muscle memory—gone. I wasn’t tumbling as high. My landings were a little unsteady. And a little is a lot at OU.
My first season was a disaster. All that new height was in my legs—I wasn’t getting them spread on my second and third switch leaps. I was scoring 9.7s. Sounds high? It isn’t. Not when the goal is perfection. Day in and day out—perfection. Perfection comes with a few seconds of cheering and then you do it all again. Perfect isn’t enough. OU demands champions. We’re a small, elite program in the shadow of the University of Utah, a Goliath in college gymnastics. We compete for athletes, so at OU, a 9.9 is ho-hum. Miss your piked salto on beam? You’re the scandal of the squad.
Those two inches were in my leg bones, but they were really in my head. There’s no stopping in gymnastics. Not for injuries. Not for off-season. But after my freshman season, I relaxed. It felt like . . . freedom. That was the last straw. And that straw led into a milkshake. It was amazing—probably the first dairy treat I had since I was ten. I eased off the workouts . . . learned to enjoy gluten-based products, and filled out upstairs, too. Yeah—these are new. I didn’t always look like a garden variety Instagram model. Great for most girls; a nightmare for a gymnast. A gymnast needs to stand up straight as a laser and still see her toes. It grounds you before you start a routine. Now when I look down, Baskin and frickin’ Robbins are blocking my view.
I caught up with Spencer in Horticulture. He had some big book—I couldn’t see the title. I’m not sure he did either. He just stared into it, letting the pages flip by. The book was set aside in exchange for a notebook, pulled from his backpack, which was sagging and rounded at the bottom by Evie. He checked on her, scribbled in his book, then marched back toward the elevator.
I ran up the stairs in time to see him exit onto the rooftop garden. The adventure at the library had wrapped up fast. I hustled back down to street level, switching back to shades and Celtics, and once outside, I took a post near the base of the big staircase.
I waited a long time.
Kids dawdle, but not the daywalker. He was determined. I tried not to panic; it’s a nice garden up there—it could distract anyone. Maybe he was looking for Macadamia in the garden. I decided I wouldn’t change my position for ten minutes. Obviously, a lot of horrible things can happen in ten minutes, but, I reasoned, library gardens are not the place for pedophiles to lay their traps. Anyway, it’s always someone you know, right? That’s what they tell you. And I doubted anyone was up there in the July heat just before closing.
At nine and a half minutes, a furry white flash zipped by. It was Evie. She’d found a homeless millennial to beg from. There was no barking—that’s not Evie’s style. She’s a wagging smiler. But she had no boy behind her. I went from one unlikely problem, a lurking predator, to two real problems: making sure nothing happened to Evie, and finding Spencer. This homeless guy wasn’t the variety that stands on the corner with a sign, wearing shoes nicer than my Reeboks. He was the grimy, wearing a winter coat in July, constantly picking at himself type, having a fentanyl-fueled conversation with a dog.
I decided to get the dog first. Keeping it cool, not heading directly for fent-man, I’d just pivot, scoop her up, and head back to the spiraling stairs, where I expected to find Spencer trapped in a hallucination, hopefully without a crowd.
Watching fent-man’s one-sided conversation with Evie took me back to last semester. We studied fentanyl in Chem 1—I could’ve drawn the molecule by heart. He was becoming agitated, getting louder and scratching himself harder. Evie responded with even greater optimism. I was ten feet away when I heard fast, clunky steps coming up behind me.
“Eddie Vedder, what’d you find out?”
I was caught between two delusional freaks demanding information from the same dog. Evie dashed off toward Spencer and I veered away, never breaking stride. She spun an enthusiastic circle at Spencer’s feet.
Fent-man moved on. With no present danger, I headed toward the R-11 station. Spencer and Evie would be coming up behind me.
“You think it’s a local dialect?” I heard Spencer ask.
I dared not look back.
Then Spencer asked, “Perish Caverns?” like he was repeating something he’d heard.
Across the intersection, I found a bench in the shade and resumed my sneaky, superspy stance just in time to see Spencer and Evie crossing the wrong street. I dialed my dad.
“He’s waiting for the R-10. Is he meeting Michaela somewhere for dinner?”
“No,” he said. “She’s planning a birthday dinner at home.”
I dropped the phone in my backpack and ran across the street to my bike. The westbound R-10 line was pulling into the station. I’d never make it.
“Madi?” my dad yelled from my backpack as I worked the lock. “It’s his birthday. He doesn’t have a lot of friends. He deserves more than a minor league baseball game.”
I scanned for a safe route to the next stop through the people and the light Sunday traffic.
As the train pulled into the station, Spencer didn’t get up.
I fished out my phone. “He’s going up to campus on the R-10,” I reported.
“Can you get on without being spotted?”
“Aren’t we past that?”
“You don’t have to ruin it. Just get on the train and see where he goes. You can make this his best birthday yet. He’ll never forget it.”
This time I sighed long and loud. “Keep your phone with you.”
I crossed over and waited at the opposite end of the R-10 station. His little face was scrunched, his chin resting in his hand. His posture was, from head to dangling toes, that of a serious thinker thinking serious thoughts, except for his right hand, which was in his bag. To any observer, he was just a waif feeling around his backpack for a specific treasure. But I knew he was calming Evie. And to any observer, I was a poor and somber college girl/Celtics fan without the energy to ride back up the hill to campus, which was mostly correct.
He was mumbling to himself, something the daywalker does when he thinks he’s alone. I leaned my bike against the rail, took out a stick of gum, and strolled to a wastebasket behind him.
“But we’re not treasure hunters,” Spencer said.
“Doesn’t matter,” he replied to himself. “No one comes out of Perish.”
I went back to my spot and took out my phone.
(end of excerpt)
THINK LIKE THEM. KEEP MOVING. BE READY TO RUN. FIGHT LIKE HELL.
In a few hours we’ll be prey in a strange city.
“I couldn’t get enough . . . Had no choice but to read the book in one sitting . . . At every turn the world becomes darker, colder, more unforgiving, more violent . . . A truly incredible story.”
—Lanre Akinsiku, author of the Blacktop series
Evade the Dark won the 2020 Utah Original Writing Competition
sponsored by the Utah Department of Heritage & Arts.
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