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Chapter 1

I never knew the world could be so damned cold.

Back there, where I’m from, the stone walls chilled bones, the broken windows let rain puddle, and the uneven floor tripped feet and invited stubbed toes. But at least those walls provided protection from biting winds, pelting sleet, and piles of snow and ice.

Out here, though, I’m exposed. The wind whips through the holes in my clothing. The icy snow slips under my shirt and slides down my back. The sleet stings my face.

But I’m free.

A fair trade as far as I’m concerned.

My numb ears pick up the sound of car tires hissing through the snow. I turn and squint against the storm. A glow of headlights grows from beyond the curve in the mountains. A car is coming down the desolate highway.

I curse under my breath. I’ve got to keep my mind from wandering off. In my inattention, I almost violated his first rule:

Never let them see you.

A rush of adrenaline courses through my exhausted body, providing the boost of energy I need to scramble over the guardrail. I wriggle into a crevice and deep into the shadows between the icy boulders lining the edge of the highway.

The car comes into view. Heavy snowflakes glitter in the beams of light arcing over my head. I cower until the car sloshes past, praying the driver is unaware that I’m hunkering just feet away. The whine of the engine drops and fades into the distance.

I smile despite the frigid weather. For the first time in my sheltered life, Doppler effect is more than words I read in a dictionary.

Doppler effect—the change in the frequency of sound waves as an object moves closer or further from a listener.

It’s real, not some concept I’ve only read about. The approaching roar of a car. The swoosh of its pass. The drop in frequency. The dwindling drone as it drives into the distance.

I never knew the world could be so magical.

In our isolation, we spent hours quizzing each other from the dictionary, one of the few books other than the little kids’ picture books we had hidden away. We could only read the tongue twisters of Dr. Seuss and look at the stunning images of Where the Wild Things Are so many times before we memorized them. New books arrived infrequently. Not every kid came to us with a backpack.

The dictionary, which we’d found hidden in a blue satchel with pens, notebooks, and a ruler, enlarged our little world, revealing something new every time we opened it. We struggled to pronounce words correctly and erupted in muffled laughter at our mangled attempts. Each unraveled definition compelled us to look up more words. We had little practical experience to understand anything we learned, but the word games helped us pass the time, which felt interminable.

Interminable—having or seeming to have no end.

Unlike the Doppler effect, we experienced interminable. Day after day after day, we wondered when the end would come.

From my perch behind the protective rocks, I watch the taillights dwindle into the fog. The fear of being spotted subsides. My heart slows its pounding inside my thin chest. I’m grateful for an unexpected bonus—my hiding place shelters me from the fierce winds. I sit in relative comfort and watch the ruts created by the car turn white as the falling snow fills the void.

I cup my hands and blow warmth across my fingers, silently begging the feeling to come back. A shrill pain lights them up as the numbness fades, stabbing to the bone as I wriggle my digits to get the blood flowing. Though they don’t feel anything close to normal, I take it as a sign to resume my march down the road.

I clamber back onto the pavement. The wind beats my back and blows ice crystals from my shaggy hair. I wrap my arms around my thin shirt, shivering against the air rippling through the holes of my jeans and stinging the bare skin below. I tighten the rope threaded through the belt loops, cinching the pants to my waist. Hunched against the weather, I force my burlap-wrapped feet to shuffle through the snow and into the blackness that once again envelops the canyon and hides my presence.

I haven’t been as lucky hiding all night. My mind wanders down tangents and I drop my guard. A few hours ago, a guy in a dress shirt and loosened tie spotted me and slowed his car. He gawked at me, his eyes popped wide in surprise as I disappeared into the shadows off the side of the road.

Later, a trucker stopped his giant rig, a vehicle so large I had never imagined such a thing even existed. At first, I was startled by the rumbling engine and the hiss of the air brakes, a dragon exhaling its threat. The driver pushed open his door and climbed down the ladder of his cab as I scrambled into the brush. He stood in front of his growling beast and yelled into the wind for me to come to him. I stayed low, hidden away as he paced, shining a flashlight in hopes of spotting me. He meant no harm, he claimed. He said he wouldn’t hurt me and only wanted to get me somewhere safe and warm, but I knew he was a threat. All strangers are.

I remained tucked away, shivering but silent, until he finally surrendered his search with a shrug. With a last look over his shoulder, he climbed back into his warm cab. The gears ground, and he drove away, leaving a cloud of diesel exhaust.

Perhaps they wondered why I didn’t accept their offers of help.

The answer is simple. The first rule:

Never let them see you.

I wonder how many more times I’ll have the energy to pull myself back out of the shadows and onto this road. Another car will inevitably pass my hiding spot and, from sheer exhaustion, I’ll resign myself to my fate and refuse to move again. I’ll lower my head onto a granite pillow, the desire to close my eyes and rest outweighing the pull of moving farther down the road. I’ll drift into an eternal sleep, my heart slowing until it surrenders and ceases beating. My life will end as I have lived it, hidden from the world.

Even nature will conspire against me then, as it is doing now. He taught us that bodies needed to be buried deep to keep the animals from ravaging them. If I die out here with no one to tend to my remains and hide them out of reach of nature’s creatures, then the coyotes will emerge from the canyon, sniff my lifeless body, and drag it away. No one will ever find me. It’ll be a fitting end to my invisible life.

My foot hits a patch of ice and I tumble to the ground. The pain rattling my body saves me, breaking my wandering mind from its morbid reflections and forcing me back to cold reality. Horrified by my thoughts, I push myself to my feet, brush the snow off my body, and carry on. As bad as the odds are against me, I refuse to quit.

In all these years, I never have. I’ve watched others surrender and fade, their hope gone as their lives slip from their grasp, but something inside me kept pushing to live just one more damned day.

Not because I had anything to live for. There was no future back there. I just didn’t want to die in that dank, dark place.

I won. I didn’t die there. I made it out into the larger world—a much colder and snowier world than I expected, but I’m in it. And that’s a good thing. But now I need a new goal.

I pause and look around the dark canyon. A river runs loudly somewhere far below. Forested walls rise high on either side. The stars are obliterated by thick cloud cover and falling snow.

I’m tired of living in darkness, so I set myself a new goal—to see a sunrise. I’ve never seen one, but I know what others have told me. The brilliant pink and red hues shimmering against the dark blue sky. The magical light peeking over the horizon and extinguishing the stars one by one. The warmth of the sun on their skin. That warmth would feel great right now.

So that’s it. I want to experience a sunrise before I die.

Energized with a new goal in mind, I map the process in my mind. Step one—live through the night. It won’t be easy, but nothing ever has been.

I look to the east. At least, I think it’s east. This road has so many twists and turns as it follows the canyon carved out by the ancient river that I don’t know which way I’m facing. When I walked up to this big highway on the two-lane road from deep in the mountains, the red-and-blue signs had said east to the right and west to the left.

I’d taken the access ramp to the right—not because I’d thought of sunrises yet, but because it was closer than crossing under the bridge to turn left. Maybe it was fate that I’d turned in the direction of a sunrise. But a quick glance tells me the sky in front of me is still dark. There’s no hopeful, faint glow teasing a brighter day ahead.

I have no choice but to keep moving—to keep living—at least through the night if I want to see a sunrise. Then I can die happy.

Or maybe I’ll set a new goal and try to live another day.

I lower my head, lean against the wind, and trudge through the snow, hoping to survive until the sky in front of me brightens.

I never knew the world could be so damned cold.

Chapter 2

Deputy Jon Patterson slowed his cruiser on Interstate 40, his headlights illuminating the “Welcome to Tennessee” sign through the swirling snow. He followed a pair of snowplows U-turning via a short, paved access road connecting the westbound lanes to the east. The plows, fighting a losing battle against the falling flakes, dropped their blades to the pavement and roared back into North Carolina.

He brought his car to a stop beside a black-and-cream Tennessee highway patrol car facing the other direction in the median. With a tap of the button on his armrest, the driver’s window opened. The trooper balanced a steaming cup of coffee in the glow of his dashboard lights and nodded a hello. “Haven’t seen a Miller County deputy out this far in a long time.”

Patterson couldn’t dispute that. The sheriff’s department had only six deputies patrolling the sprawling mountainous county at any given time. They had little time or reason to venture into its remote northwestern corner when so little of it was under their jurisdiction.

Over two million acres of undeveloped federal lands—the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Pisgah and Cherokee National Forests—straddled the state line and fell under the control of the federal park and forest rangers. The two states’ highway patrols handled their respective portion of the interstate winding through the Pigeon River Gorge, which bisected the parks.

Only a few hardy souls lived in the remote wilderness outside of the federal or state lands and were subject to the sheriff department’s jurisdiction—independent-minded people who prided themselves on self-sufficiency. They resented any government interference, particularly from someone wearing a badge and intent on telling them how to live. Little crime happened outside of brewing homemade whiskey, fishing for dinner without a license, or hunting out of season. Violence was unheard of or at least unreported. Disputes were settled without calling the law.

They responded to any reported crime in the remote district, of course, not that any reports were ever made. They also quickly backed up any ranger or trooper requesting assistance, but that was rare. Patterson had never been out there in his year of being a deputy—not even with his training officer. The deputies’ routine patrol time was better spent in the eastern portion of the county, among the smaller tourist towns closer to Asheville.

Off-duty, he joined others coming to the area seeking a great place to hike and camp. Even then, he didn’t encounter the reclusive people who lived there. They wanted to be left alone.

“The roads are a mess down around Asheville. The troopers on our side of the line are swamped with fender benders.” Patterson watched the snow dance in front of his car. “If there is a kid out here…”

The trooper nodded and sipped coffee as he studied the dark road. Few cars traveled that stretch of interstate at two a.m. on a normal night, but the snow had reduced the number to almost none. Without any approaching cars to monitor, the dash-mounted speed detector remained blank. After a long pause, he asked, “Think he’s really out here?”

The soft hiss of falling snow filled the silence of their halting conversation. “Doesn’t make sense. I haven’t seen any sign of him, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine anyone walking down the highway in this weather. If it was someone with a stalled car or who’d been in a wreck, they wouldn’t hide from people offering help.”

The trooper snorted. “Which means if they exist, they are up to no good and don’t want to get caught.”

“How much trouble could a boy”—Patterson glanced at his glowing laptop screen mounted on the dash—“between ten and thirteen years old cause out here?”

A chuckle floated from the highway patrol car. “Bad news. One of our callers said girl.”

“Great. We don’t even know what we are looking for.” The deputy ran his finger down the lists of descriptions received from the various reporting parties. “RPs say between four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half feet tall, with shaggy black, brown, or blond hair. Most say wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, but they can’t even agree if he’s wearing a hat and a coat. And all sorts of conflicting reports of where they saw him”—he paused and looked over at the trooper—“or her…” Getting a smile in return, Patterson continued reading aloud. “…Along a thirty-mile stretch of highway running through the gorge. They can’t even decide if he’s on your side or our side of the state line. Damn needle in a haystack.”

The trooper settled his coffee cup back in its holder. He peered into the darkness surrounding them, stretching his back and shifting his bulletproof vest. “Still, if it’s true, he isn’t going to last long out here. I’ve stopped and checked a dozen drifts, just in case.”

The deputy nodded quietly in agreement. He knew he got the call because he was the least experienced deputy on the shift—no longer classified as a rookie, but barely. Still, he would rather have wasted his time driving up and down the snow-covered interstate than fail to find some poor kid before he froze to death. As hardened as officers became dealing with the tragedies they saw every day, they all shared a soft spot for innocent kids caught up in bad situations. Besides, if he hadn’t been sent out, he would have been handling some drunken domestic disturbance in town.

Thinking out loud more than talking, he mumbled, “Who the hell leaves a little kid alone on a highway? Especially in this weather.”

“Scum.”

The two men sat in their respective cars, warm and comfortable but thinking of how cold and lonely it would be walking these mountainous roads.

Chapter 3

I slap my hands on my thighs, willing my frozen muscles to move. As I take a step forward, a scraping sound—metal dragging across pavement—comes from behind me, accompanied by the roar of heavy engines. The rock canyon walls reflect strobing yellow lights. I turn as a pair of snowplows round the bend, their blades scooping snow off the pavement and throwing it in a high arc to the side of the road.

Never let them see you.

Especially them.

Government people. The worst kind of humans. They have all these rules telling people what they can and can’t do, even on their own land. And they’ll take that land if they want to, just like they took his grandpappy’s land and made him poor. Government people can’t be trusted, so never, never, never let government people see you.

Government people drive those big snowplows roaring down the highway, so I have to hide.

I turn to the side of the road in a feeble attempt to run for the camouflage of shadows, but my feet, numb from walking in the freezing snow, slip from under me. I slam to the ground on my belly, knocking the air from my lungs. The world goes gray, and the guardrail slips in and out of focus. I suck the frigid air into my lungs, desperate for strength, struggling to push myself up onto my hands and knees. Too cold, hungry, and weak, I collapse onto the ground and gasp for air. The bright lights of the approaching vehicles haven’t reached me, but my shadow is coming into focus on the boulders in front of me. I have to hurry. His command echoes in my brain:

Never let them see you.

I wriggle my fingers through the frozen layers of snow and ice to gain purchase on the asphalt below. Inch by inch, I drag my body forward. A nail rips off the middle finger of my left hand. I hold my arm up in the growing light, startled to see fresh blood dripping around the dangling nail. For seconds I feel nothing, my frozen body refusing to acknowledge the loss until a searing pain flashes up my arm. I wince against the agony, but it shocks my body into action and gives me the strength I need.

Kicking with my feet, I slide on my belly across the ground and under the guardrail. I roll into the weeds and land in a pile of discarded trash. Curling into a small ball and cradling my injured hand, I hide in the shadows and pray that the drivers of those roaring machines didn’t notice my escape.

The front-mounted plow scrapes across the road and clears a path, allowing the chains on the giant tires to clatter against the newly bare pavement. The sounds echo off the walls around me. The first truck roars past in the far lane, the ground vibrating as its blade rakes across the asphalt, hurling the offending snow into the near lane. It rattles off the metal guardrail with a deafening sound as the ice pings the metal.

I try to roll away from the falling debris, but my movement must have caught the attention of the driver of the second plow. We lock eyes, and his head swivels to keep me in his sight as he passes. His mouth forms a shocked O, and then I am pummeled with the slush falling around me. Chunks of ice ricochet off of the rocky cliff. A mixture of freezing cold water, ice, snow, and salt hammer my aching body and soak my clothes.

The truck brakes hard, stopping the small cluster of cars following him in the safety of the freshly exposed pavement. The driver jumps out of the cab and runs alongside the road, shouting and searching, but he can’t see me buried under the piles of snow. He and the driver of the other plow argue, but I can’t hear their words over the roar of the wind.

One of them grabs an orange cone off the back of his plow and settles it over the guardrail post. He then climbs back into his vehicle. I hear the air brakes and the grind of gears, the plows resuming their clearing of the road.

As the noise fades, I raise my head, snow sliding down the neck of my shirt, and watch the last of the taillights disappear around the next curve. Shivering, I slide back under the rail and onto the pavement. I stagger to my feet and stand, weaving in the wind. The sky remains pitch-black with no hint of a coming sunrise. I doubt I will live long enough to see it.

I wrap my arms around my body, my drenched clothing already freezing against my skin, and take another step down the road.

Chapter 4

Patterson’s radio crackled, the warm, soothing voice of the dispatcher muffled by static in the remote location. “A snowplow operator says he saw the boy on the side of the east-bound lanes a quarter mile beyond mile marker three. White male, approximately twelve years old, five-foot-two, one hundred pounds, shaggy dark hair, flannel shirt, blue jeans.”

The trooper and deputy exchanged glances as Patterson picked up his microphone. “Do they have him?”

“Negative. He scrambled under the guardrail, toward the river. They looked for him. Couldn’t locate but marked the exact spot with an orange cone.”

“Bunch of orange cones in the gorge, dispatch.” Construction repairs were a constant hazard, thanks to the numerous mudslides.

“Yes, but they said they put it on the guardrail support itself. Said it would be obvious.”

“HP Notified?”

“Highway Patrol ETA is thirty minutes. Closest is down near Asheville.”

“Ten-four. Responding.”

As Patterson shifted his vehicle into gear, the trooper called out, “Snowplow operators. Good sighting.”

“Best we’ve had since that trucker.”

“Good luck. Call if you need me.”

With a nod to the Tennessee trooper, Patterson rolled his window up and maneuvered his cruiser through the accumulating snow back onto the deserted highway and reentered North Carolina. He accelerated and pushed the car as hard as he dared around the sharp curves as the chains on his tires clacked against the pavement. He struggled to keep his car between the lane markers disappearing from view in the drifting snow, but he didn’t want to miss the golden opportunity provided by the best lead of the night.

Snowplow operators memorized every curve and pothole from their regular sweeps for snow removal. They knew where ice and snow accumulated, where a dip in the road could catch the blade and twist the steering wheel from the impact. If they said just east of mile marker three, that’s where the boy was. Patterson thought the long, cold night might end on a good note yet.

The deputy’s spirits rose as the mile marker glowed in his headlights, its “3” barely visible under the crusting ice. A few hundred yards later, a reflective orange cone perched atop the guardrail. He scanned the shadows for any movement as his wipers clunked back and forth, shoveling the accumulating powder off the windshield. The boy had to be close.

He slowed the car to a crawl, rubbed his tired eyes, and cursed the lack of visibility. The defroster ran full blast, pumping warm air but struggling to stay ahead of the encroaching haze building on the inside of the glass. The wipers fought against the accumulating snow outside. He peered along the beam of his headlights and scanned the sides of the road, but the snowflakes swirled in a blinding fury and obscured his view.

He swiveled his bright searchlight and strained to see anything in the dark gloom. The brilliant beam illuminated the edge of the road, but his spirits sank as he continued to see nothing. The blowing snow erased any signs of footprints. The plows had piled snow several feet deep along the edge of the highway, deep enough to hide the giant boulders. They certainly could have hidden the body of a child.

Chapter 5

I stagger down the side of the road, my arms wrapped around my body, trying to preserve any heat left inside my ice-encrusted clothes. I have been cold before, but never like this. But I haven’t been warm much either.

Sometimes, back there, I was allowed outside. I would swing the ax, splitting logs, pile firewood, cut brush away from the house with a sling, or dig holes as deep as he demanded, spending every minute under his critical eye as he sat in the shadows, caressing his shotgun, silent except for hurled criticisms.

Those are the best memories I have. Working, moving my muscles, and taking pride in my accomplishments felt good. His harsh words would ring in my ears—I was too slow or doing it wrong—but they were simply the price I paid to be out in the midst of the hottest summer day. Suffocating humidity cloaked the still air, but the shade and altitude kept the temperatures cool. Beams of sunlight penetrated the thick canopy of leaves wriggling their way to the moist ground and dancing among the detritus from rotting trees and vegetation.

Detritus. That’s a good one. Loose material such as rock fragments or organic particles that results directly from disintegration. It felt good between my bare toes, a welcome respite to the hard-packed floor of the basement. I savored the time outdoors, as rare as it was.

Soon enough, though, he tired of watching me work. I stored the tools under his incessant gaze, which prevented me from smuggling even the smallest implement. Then he marched me back inside the gloomy house, where the air sat stuffy and still. The grimy windows filtered the indirect light. No electric lights illuminated the interior, so the house was always cloaked in thick, cool shadows.

While being outside was a delight, being inside was not. I never wanted to linger, praying under my breath that he wanted nothing else until he extracted his keys, unlocked the padlock, and opened the cellar door. Lest he changed his mind, I moved quickly down the creaky steps and into the dank room below.

Only a little light slipped through the few small, rectangular windows of broken glass high above our heads. I knew from my time outdoors that the portals were mere inches above ground level, hidden behind the weeds and brush growing against the house, but inside, they were out of our reach, just below the floor joists.

A hint of sunlight but nothing more leached through to us below. The stone walls and dirt floor kept the temperatures cool through the day. At night, in the darkness, the room chilled, and we shivered in our sleep. Still, the summer was more tolerable than the rest of the year.

Spring brought torrential rains. Another terrific word: torrent—a violent stream of a liquid.

Violent was right. The temperature plummeted. Lightning flashed through the sky, briefly illuminating our world below. The crashing of thunder followed, felt through the trembling walls as it rattled the windowpanes. And then the water would fall in waves. It seeped underground and through the walls of the basement, leaving slick, slimy layers of mold on the exposed fieldstone, chilling our bodies if we dared lean against them. We huddled in the center of the dark room, wrapped in threadbare blankets, shivering and hoping to steal body heat from each other. We warmed our hands from a flickering candle or a smoking oil lamp when we were lucky enough to have those, which was only when he forgot and left them behind.

Despite the frigid nights, at least spring brought the promise of summer. The falling temperatures and shortening days of autumn, however, hinted at the misery of the winter to come. The leaves fell from the trees outside, so more sunlight hit our sparse windows, but that only teased us as the days grew shorter and the nights longer. We would wake most mornings to our own breath forming fog in the air.

The winters were the worst of all. Fierce winds whipped over the mountain ridges, rattling the denuded tree branches before whistling into our confines through the gaps of those meager windows. Snow trickled through the shattered glass and piled into drifts on the dirt floor, creating yet another obstacle for our bare feet. We wrapped them in the burlap sacks we used as blankets. We weren’t allowed shoes.

The temperatures dropped so much on the worst days that the moisture accumulating on those stone walls froze into sheets of thin ice, removing even the slight comfort of being able to recline against that support. The chill pooled and extended its icy tentacles throughout our dungeon, making escape from its arctic grip nearly impossible.

Upstairs, the logs I had carefully gathered and stacked during the warmer months blazed in the old stone fireplace. Plastic taped over the frosty windows trapped the radiant heat and kept the temperature inside his little den tolerable, though the rest of the drafty house was barely better than being outside.

The crumbling chimney restricted the escaping smoke, so some of it curled through the room and streaked the walls with soot. The fumes slipped under the cellar door and crept down the steps, taunting us with the scent of heat without giving us any of its comfort.

But not even the chance to warm ourselves in front of those flames made any trip upstairs worthwhile. There are things worse than being cold. Much worse.

When he opened the door and stood at the top of those stairs, scanning us as we cowered in the shadows, we always prayed the same thing—Pick someone else. Not me. Please, not me.

He would indicate his selection with a gesture or a mumbled name. Those of us unchosen would cast our eyes down at the ground, silently whispering our gratitude. The poor boy selected would look to us with wide, begging eyes, knowing in his heart that we were doing what he would have done if one of us had been selected but begging and praying this time would be different.

It never was.

We never revolted. None of us except the selectee wanted the man to change his mind and pick someone else instead. I didn’t want to hear my name. No one else did either. The condemned, knowing we were not going to rise up to defend him, would trudge up the stairs, resigned to his fate.

Hours later, the door would open, and the boy would slink back downstairs, curl in a corner, and cry until exhaustion brought sleep. When he finally awoke, we carried on as if nothing had happened. Some topics were better not discussed. We all knew what went on upstairs.

We also knew that sometimes the door never reopened to return the chosen one. We never discussed that, either, mostly because we couldn’t decide whether it was better to return or not.

But now I know the answer. Anywhere, even freezing to death in a snowstorm, was better than there.

The chilly basement, even with its ice-covered walls and drafty windows, afforded some protection from winter’s assault. Out here, I have nothing to block the howling wind and blowing snow. But I never plan to return, even if the only alternative is that the cold kills me.

I am here, wherever here is. That’s an improvement.

Back there, death was certain.

Out here, it’s only likely.

Chapter 6

Dispirited, Deputy Patterson reached for the microphone to report his lack of success when a shadow a hundred feet up the road stood out from the others. Training his searchlight down the road, he watched a figure stumbling along the edge. He closed the gap with his car, balancing his fear that the boy would bolt over the guardrail against his desire to be as close as possible before getting out on foot. His luck held. The boy didn’t break his stumbling stride.

As the boy’s shadow took shape, Patterson assessed his target. He was barely over five feet tall and maybe one hundred pounds. His shaggy hair was coated in snow. But it was his clothing that shocked the deputy the most. A tattered flannel shirt flapped in the wind. Baggy jeans were cinched around his waist with a hemp rope threaded through the belt loops and knotted in the front. He didn’t have visible boots or shoes. Instead, what appeared to be burlap seed bags were wrapped around his feet and tied with twine. No coat, hat, or gloves protected him from the storm. With so little protection and the first report hours earlier, he should have been dead under a drift of snow.

Patterson pulled his patrol car into the breakdown lane a few feet behind the boy and shifted the car into park. He pushed open the driver’s door and stepped into the howling storm. He tried to shout a friendly hello, but the wind whipped across his face and ripped the words away.

The boy paused, appearing to have heard him, and slowly turned his head. His ice-crusted eyebrows glinted in the lights as he faced the deputy. Patterson held his breath, watching the boy debate his options, knowing he was too far away to stop him if he decided to scramble over the cliffs. After several agonizing seconds of indecision, the boy shrugged and swayed in the wind.

Maybe, Patterson thought, he was too exhausted to continue to hide. He pulled his own padded coat tight against his body and stepped around the open door and in front of the idling car. The lights stretched his shadow down the road beyond the approaching boy as he called out, “Son, are you okay?”

In the bright lights, Patterson could see the boy’s eyes widen in fear. He hesitated for a second as their gazes locked. To the deputy’s surprise, the boy turned and bolted toward the edge of the road.

The boy’s sudden movement caught Patterson flat-footed. He watched the boy pivot and race toward the guardrail and the boulders beyond. The burlap on the fleeing kid’s feet slipped and slid on the snow-covered road, slowing his escape.

With the deputy’s heavy shoes gripping the slick ground, he closed the gap between them. He reached out and snagged the kid’s shirt collar. They stumbled together, lost their footing, and crashed hard to the pavement, the boy’s chin plowing through the snow. The deputy planted his hand firmly on the boy’s back, pinning him to the ground. The kid’s quivering body recoiled from the touch, and he struggled wildly to escape. A high-pitched whine escaped his lips. Blood dripped from his scraped chin and dotted the white ground. He pushed his hands into the snow and strained to work his legs underneath him. His attempt to stand failed. The boy was too weak to overcome the deputy’s advantage in size and strength.

With his other hand, the deputy gripped the rope threaded through the boy’s belt loops and waited for the fight to melt out of him. His stringy back muscles relaxed. The boy’s trembling body surrendered, and he collapsed into the snow. Unable to escape, the boy turned his head to look back at the deputy with wide eyes. He whimpered, “Please don’t hurt me.”

Patterson recoiled at the words. His bulletproof vest offered no protection from the pain in those terrified eyes. He loved police work but hated domestic-violence calls because of the kids cowering in the corner of a house, desperately wanting things to be better but not wanting to tell on Mom or Dad. Even in only the light from his car, he could see the kid was in worse shape than anyone he had seen before.

Leaving his hand resting on the boy’s back in case he tried to flee again, the deputy leaned back on his haunches and stared into his face. “Son, I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help.”

The boy’s blue lips moved rhythmically as he recited a mantra over and over as if he was praying. Patterson struggled to understand, but the voice was too soft, and the wind was blowing too hard. He leaned over to hear the words.

“Never let them see you. Never let them see you. Never let them see you.”

“Never let who see you? Who are you afraid of?”

The boy didn’t answer but continued his recitation. His eyes darted about, searching for an escape. Patterson slipped his arms under the boy’s body, balanced in a crouch, and stood, easily lifting the kid into the air. He was paper-light, with bone-thin arms and legs and protruding ribs. The boy didn’t resist, but nor did he help or wrap his arms around the deputy’s neck. His body slackened in total surrender. He shivered uncontrollably as he repeatedly muttered, “Never let them see you. Never let them see you. Never let them see you.”

Patterson carried the light load cradled in his arms to the rear of his cruiser and balanced him while opening the back door. As easily as he would a bag of groceries, he laid him across the plastic backseat then closed the door. He extracted a bright-yellow emergency blanket from the trunk of his car and reopened the back door. The dome light went on, and the boy scrambled across the seat to the other side of the car, curled into a tight ball, and quaked in fear. Careful not to move too quickly, the deputy unfolded the blanket, leaned into the car, and stretched it across his shivering body.

With his charge safely stowed in the backseat, Patterson returned to the driver’s seat and cranked the heat. Through the rearview mirror, he watched the boy clutch the blanket across his body. Their eyes met, and the boy began franticly clacking the door handles. “They only open from the outside, son.”

The boy slumped and returned the deputy’s stare with wide, fearful eyes hidden under frozen locks of shaggy brown hair. “Oh.”

Patterson didn’t have kids and wasn’t even married, but he had a nephew he adored. The boy was eleven. Healthy. Athletic. They spent hours in the river together, trout fishing, telling jokes, and laughing with each other. The kid in the backseat didn’t look anything like that—he was more like an injured animal, cornered and scared. “You thirsty?”

The boy shrugged.

Patterson removed a water bottle from the small cooler on the floorboard of the passenger side of the cruiser. He cracked open the lid and held the bottle through the cage.

The boy eyed it and licked his lips.

“Go ahead, son. You can have it.”

A bloodied hand shot forward, grabbed the bottle, and pulled it back into the shadows. He tilted it upwards and guzzled the liquid, water sloshing across his chin and dribbling on his shirt.

“You’re okay, son. Just relax.”

The boy’s hand wiped the dripping water from his chin. His eyes flicked across the steel cage separating the backseat from the front before looking outside into the storm.

“Son, I’m not gonna hurt you. Whatever is wrong, I can help.”

The boy curled back into a tight ball against the far door and wrapped the blanket firmly around himself. To Patterson, he appeared to be attempting to vanish into the corner. The melting snow and ice clung to his stringy hair, partially hiding his gaunt face. His fear-filled eyes were cold, gray, and lifeless. A strong stench of body odor emanated from him and filled the car. His teeth were crooked and dirty. Worse, Patterson noted, several teeth were missing. A jagged scar stretched from his right ear to his mouth. His lips were cracked and bleeding. Blood dripped from his chin and stained his left hand.

“Were you in an accident?”

A shake of the head.

“Are your parents okay?”

A pause followed by a small shrug.

Patterson opened the paper sack sitting on the passenger seat and extracted half a sandwich. He unwrapped the plastic and slipped the food through a slot in the mesh. “You hungry?”

The boy eyed the sandwich warily. With the same sudden swiftness used to retrieve the water, his hand shot forward, grabbed the bread, and yanked it back. He stuffed it inside his mouth and devoured the food as if he didn’t remember his last meal or know when the next was coming.

“Slow down. There’s plenty more food where that came from.”

The boy gagged and coughed but swallowed as quickly as he could. He didn’t appear to believe in endless food supplies.

“Where are your parents? How do I get in touch with them?”

The boy shrugged again and licked the crumbs from his fingers. Patterson grabbed another bottle of water from the seat beside him and offered it through the cage. Again, the boy eyed him closely before snatching the bottle and retreating into his corner. His frozen fingers fumbled with the cap before spinning it off. He drank deeply, but more slowly and controlled than before.

“Did you run away? Don’t you think they’re worried about you?”

The boy glanced up into the rearview mirror and locked eyes with the deputy before shaking his head.

“Look, kid, if you’re running from something, I can help. Just tell me what’s going on.”

The boy shrugged his scrawny shoulders.

Patterson sucked on his lower lip. “Okay, let’s back up and start with an easy question. My name’s Jon. What should I call you? Can you give me a name?”

Chapter 7

A name? Sorry, Deputy, but that’s not an easy question.

He called me Teddy. If he was in a good mood, it might be T-Dog. If he was being sarcastic, I got called Terrible Ted. If he was pissed off about something, which was often, he had more colorful labels for me—Dipshit, Asshole, Dufus, Dumbass, or other derogatory monikers. Lots of times, he didn’t bother with a name at all and just called me “boy” or even “Hey, you.”

It wasn’t just me. He did things like that to everyone.

I replied no matter what he called me because not answering resulted in beatings. The name didn’t matter when his fists flew.

But now, I’m away from him. My name matters. It matters a lot. I don’t want to be Teddy anymore, the name he gave me, because it’s not really my name.

Every kid got a new name on their first day.

Sometimes, when that door to the cellar opened and we cowered, praying, not me. Please don’t pick me, he wasn’t there to call one of us upstairs. Instead, he would shove some new kid down that flight of steps, watch him tumble head over heels, and then shout, “This is Joey. Welcome him to our family.” Or Chad or Mike or Steve or Dave or whatever.

Joey would be bruised, beaten, bleeding, and worse. And he would be crying for Mommy and Daddy, telling us over and over his name wasn’t Joey.

We comforted him and told him it would be okay. It wouldn’t, but it would have done no good to tell him that.

And we would tell him to get used to being called Joey. Get used to it real quick. We didn’t want the man to overhear the new kid’s protest, rip that door open, and storm down the steps to teach the kid a lesson about living in his brand-new home. Not that we cared much about the new kid, but those things tended to get out of hand. We didn’t want to be collateral damage.

Besides, beatings would happen soon enough, so there was no need for Joey to rush things.

He gave us new names because, he said, old names reminded us of old things. Our pasts. Our friends. Our families. Things that were gone and never coming back. The past didn’t belong to us anymore, so no good could come from remembering it. We each got a new name suitable for our new home with a new family and new friends.

The sooner Joey figured that out and accepted his fate, the easier things would be, for him and for the rest of us. So we called him Joey. Loudly. We wanted him to know we understood the rule and embraced the names he had given us.

Some kids accepted it quickly. Some were slower. I don’t know how long it took me. I can’t remember my first day. I’ve been Teddy forever.

Sometimes, when we thought he couldn’t hear, we rebelled in our own little way. The upstairs door closed, the lock snapped shut, darkness descended on us, and we couldn’t hear him stomping around upstairs. Then—and only then—some of us, the braver ones, rolled out past names and told stories about past lives. A little bit of resistance, even though it was done quietly and hidden from him, freed our imprisoned souls.

Kevin did that. He was my best friend, the boy closest to my age, and we both had been there for a long time. The new kids, the Joeys, came and went, but Kevin and I remained. We huddled together for warmth and whispered tales of our previous lives. He told me about his old friends and the games they used to play. He spun tales about his family and told funny stories about his brother and the stupid things they used to do. Sitting shoulder to shoulder, swapping fables about past lives, kept us sane.

As much as we hated the suffering a new person faced, we also rejoiced that a newbie livened things up because their stories were new. We would coax them into whispering all about their previous life—family, friends, siblings. The new stories enlivened our little world for a while, but once we tired of them, we resorted to retelling ours again and again.

For those who never returned from a final trip upstairs, we honored their memory by sharing their stories and weaving them into our own. Sometimes, we told it as their story, and sometimes, we told it as our own. We didn’t mean to lie, but our histories became so intertwined that it became difficult to remember whose past was whose. Our personal histories grew foggy with the mingling of fact and fiction.

We made up nicknames for each other too. We called one kid Digger because he was convinced he could tunnel out of the cellar, though he never made it past the stone walls. Another went by Mad Dog because he yelled at one kid for trying to eat more than his fair share of our meager rations. We had a Twinkletoes because, weak from hunger, he fainted and busted his lip on the stone floor. Bucky earned his nickname after the man upstairs said he was bucking his rules, though he didn’t learn of the new name until he regained consciousness. Someone was Spidermonkey because he had long arms and legs on a skinny body. I remember a kid called Biscuit, though I can’t remember why.

So, Deputy, what’s my name is a tough question. In the telling and retelling of our stories, in the myth-making and bullshitting, in all of the years of living in that hellhole, I’ve heard many names.

I wade through them one by one and discard them. I reach back through my memories to an ancient time, a time I can remember only through a haze. The day before the day I arrived. Back in history when life was lived outside, happy and away from the awful place. Back to when the warm sun shined on my face and I had a family who loved me and cared for me and wanted the best for me.

I reach back through my memories for that warm embrace, for a real name, not a made-up one. Not one given to forget, but one given to remember. I open my mouth, my voice cracks, and I say words I haven’t uttered in a very long time.

“Jaxon. With an X.”

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Six-year-old Jaxon Lathan disappeared while playing in a park. Ten years later, he’s found wandering a deserted highway.

Six-year-old Jaxon Lathan disappeared while playing in a park. Ten years later, he’s found wandering a deserted highway.

The boy’s family races to the hospital to see him, but they are shocked at the sight. The bubbly youngster has been replaced by a scarred and emaciated teen. As they bridge the lost years and rebuild their bonds, they must wrestle with their own guilt and demons.

Fearing other children are at risk, the sheriff follows the clues deep into the Great Smoky Mountains. He finds half-buried secrets, a twisted family, and his own missed opportunities. When he peels back the last layer of the mystery, the revelation shakes everyone.

Jaxon dreamed for years is to be with his family. Has too much happened or can he find his way home?

Jaxon with an X is an emotionally charged standalone literary fiction novel. If you like rural settings, broken families learning to heal, and stories of personal endurance, you’ll love D.K. Wall’s absorbing tale.

 Empathy, compassion, forgiveness and hope. There is a light at the end of the dark, twisting tunnel, and the book has a very satisfying ending.  

 A secret so intense, it took me four days to process, before I was able to pick up the book again.  

 I loved this book and I hope someone grabs it up to turn it into a movie!