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Even great ones have humble beginnings.

There are moments Sarah Swingle will never forget. Landing the lead in the fifth-grade play. Her first kiss. The day her daddy left and never came back.

If there’s one thing Adam Archer doesn’t want anyone to know, it’s how hard school is for him and how little he understands. He spends half his time hiding behind the stories he writes and the other half hiding from the bullies.

When they’re both drawn to a horrible tragedy that stirs the sadness of the nation, Sarah and Adam find each other. Their friendship defines them both. As they grow up, they dream of leaving one day and running away together to live in their own private world of dreams.

Neither has any idea what it will cost them.

Joe continues the saga begun in Weston – the second chapter of Gregory Attaway’s The Great Ones. It’s a story about the loss of innocence. A story of true friendship. Of dreams.

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Release dateMay 9, 2016
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Gregory Attaway

Gregory Attaway lives in Irving, Texas (a suburb of Dallas), which suits his literary leanings well since the city is supposedly named for Washington Irving, famed writer of Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He has lived in and around Dallas for most of his life, having also lived briefly on both coasts. A graduate of the University of North Texas, Gregory lives with his two dogs, Cara and Lois, and his imaginary friends.A writer since the second grade, Gregory’s completed projects include The Glen Headwood Show – exclusively available for free to subscribers to his e-mail list. Sign up at www.gregoryattaway.com!He has written three other books in The Great Ones series – Weston, Joe, and Freshmankind. The fourth book, Dreams, will be released on December 26, 2018. It started as a series of six screenplays written in the early 2000s, and there are more books coming in the next few years.Other stories are in the works as well. For information on upcoming releases and other updates, make sure to sign up for his e-mail list (and grab your free book).Feel free to follow him on Twitter, get in touch with him on Facebook, or send him an e-mail (through his website). He looks forward to hearing from you, and will answer all e-mails personally.

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    Joe - Gregory Attaway



    Gregory Attaway

    Even great ones have humble beginnings.

    The Great Ones

    Part II

    JOE Copyright © 2016 by Gregory Attaway.

    All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

    This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

    Cover Photography: Image used under license from www.shutterstock.com

    For information or contact, go to www.gregoryattaway.com

    First Edition: February 2016

    10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1


    Part I Brandon






    Part II Eden

    1993 CONTINUED




    Part III JOE

    1996 CONTINUED


    More from Gregory Attaway


    Reviews are the lifeblood of writers. Like the book? Hate it? Either way, if you have time, a quick review would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you!

    For Michael, Eric, Jason, Robby, and Cory


    The Glen Headwood Show

    The Great Ones Prelude

    It’s not a sitcom. It’s an experiment.

    1964. Benny Camden and his friends leave the University of Southern California with their newly minted master’s degrees and a project that was the talk of the campus. The Glen Headwood Show is fresh. It’s new. It defies genre and rifles praise from its critics. Is it a talk show? Variety? Sketch comedy? Drama? One thing it’s not: on television.

    Now he wants to sell it to a network, and that’s when reality sets in. It’s not that no one is interested. It’s that Hollywood wants to commercialize his vision, and to see it come true he may have to give up the things that made the show great.

    At what point does a dream turn into a disaster?

    Before Weston, there was Benny Camden. The Glen Headwood Show is the prelude to Gregory Attaway’s The Great Ones, and it is available for free, now and always, at gregoryattaway.com. See the boy before you see the man.

    Get your copy right now!

    Available For Free Forever

    Part I




    Sarah Swingle hopped off of her bed and took a step back to examine her work. Her Punky Brewster poster was stashed in the back of her closet, replaced by an even better one. It had been a great show, and she’d never missed an episode, but Punky was off the air, and as much as she loved Soleil Moon Fry, there was another child actress she loved even more. Cara Camden hung on the wall now, standing beside Lukas Haas, where Sarah could look at them when she lay down. Adventure Lane. She’d seen the movie three times over the summer, and that hadn’t been enough. Labyrinth, Willow, The NeverEnding Story – these were decent. But Adventure Lane brought the fantasy world and the real world together better than any other movie she’d ever seen. She was too old for such play now, but it was the kind of film that would have made her younger self drape her blanket over her head and imagine a portal to a world of dreams that no one else could see.

    Everything in her room was in place for the start of fifth grade. Her alarm was set for 6:45, and the only thing she still had to find a place for was the orchid her daddy had brought her from work. He’d given her an awkward twist of a smile, standing in her doorway longer than usual before heading into the kitchen. The nightstand had enough room, and that would leave it close. Orchids were her favorite.

    The shattering of glass somewhere in the house swept through the air as her hand froze against one of the petals. The impact was so strong that she could imagine a baseball bat splintering a mug instead of cracking a ball into the outfield. The intrusive noise was followed quickly by the muffled shrieks of her mother’s voice, vibrating into falsetto and back again. Her father’s shouts were even louder, but Sarah couldn’t make out anything he said either, only the rise and fall of his baritone.

    Sarah knocked her flower to the floor, stumbling backward at her mother’s shrieks. She fell to her knees at the door, pressing her ear into the wood. Her mother never yelled, and those rare times when she did always meant the worst punishments – a spoonful of garlic juice being the worst of all. She focused on the doorknob, wanting to turn it and hear better what was happening but too afraid to make the move.

    Her fingers grasped the knob and turned, slowly. The door cracked open, filling her nostrils with a puff of orange-scented carpet freshener.

    Get out of here! her mother screamed. Get the hell out of my house!

    That’s the idea! her father shouted back.

    A moment of numbness ran across her skin as she closed the door to a crack, smelling the fresh paint more than she’d smelled the orange. She leaned into the opening, trying to hear more. The metallic lurch of the opening garage in the far back resonated across the house from the opposite side. She felt it more than she heard it. Then a car engine rumbled to life, barely audible.

    Sarah forgot the poster, moving across the room to her window, crushing the flower under her socks. She could feel her father’s soft hug from when he’d given her the orchid, could see the flickering of his eyes like a bad clock with a shifty second hand. She lifted her pink curtains to reveal the twilight of kids riding their bicycles home for the evening, their neighbor walking the Great Dane that weighed as much as she did, maybe more. Her father’s dark blue Aerostar rounded the turn from the side street and slowed to a halt in front of the house, beside the mailbox. She couldn’t make out his face, only his hands on the steering wheel. His right hand clawed at his left with feverish strength until he swatted down as if he were throwing something. She could see him looking around at the yard, the house, the street, but only through the turning of his neck. Her stomach tightened into a fist as she watched.

    She focused on where his head should be, and she thought she could see his shoulders, but nothing more. There was motion in the driver’s seat, but she couldn’t see his face. She could only hear the engine humming.

    Then he peeled from the curb and the wheels turned slowly as he disappeared into the neighborhood.

    After a moment, she backed away from the window and cradled the ruined orchid. She opened the door again, peering into the empty hall. Her mother’s soft, defeated whimpers echoed from the kitchen.

    - - -

    The next morning, the dingy red Ford Tempo shuddered as Karen Swingle pressed on the gas and made the turn off of Crossbow Lane, down the main road toward the elementary school. Sarah hadn’t been up this early since May, and she’d hardly slept the night before. First day jitters replaced dreams, but there was more than that. She glanced at her mother, eyes fixed on the road as a wet streak traced the curve of her cheek.


    Karen wiped herself, offering an attempt at a smile. Yes?

    Sarah ran her hand along the scraped sticker around the edges of the red plastic box in her lap, cracking it open and getting a whiff of peanut butter. Can I have a new lunch box?

    They passed the woodsy area on the right, and Sarah put her window up quickly as her nostrils filled with the stink of a nearby skunk. Nothing wrong with the one you have, her mother said.

    I don’t like Barbie anymore. The paper was loose from the plastic, and it snagged when she ran her finger across the surface. One good hard tug would have probably pulled it right off. "K-Mart has an Adventure Lane one."

    Sarah watched her mom, focused on the road. The clicking of the blinker filled the cabin as the familiar orange vests of the safety patrol appeared, scattered across the driveway into Big Winters Elementary. The car turned, and she saw the marquee in lights against the beige brick. Choir Auditions/September 25-28/3:30-5pm.

    Sarah pictured the face that she hadn’t been able to see, shrouded in shadow, and imagined it watching her from within the blue van outside the house before speeding away into the distance the night before. She thought she remembered a brief glimpse of his eyes, shifting across the windows from one side to the other, but never noticing her looking back. She and her mother had slept alone in the house. Is he picking me up after school? Sarah asked.

    I don’t know. Someone will.

    With every car length they moved forward, she gripped her lunch box tighter. Kids were swarming the front grounds, gradually heading in the direction of the open front doors. Leo Moon had knelt in the grass to tie his shoe, his bowl-cut black hair bobbing as his fingers worked. Maya Fernandez hung by her mother’s side, grasping her hand and looking around at the other children, sporting a Princess Bride shirt, from the looks of it. Maya lived down the street, but she never went outside to play.

    The hallways were dreary and dark as Sarah peered through the glass doors. She turned back to the drive as a sleek silver Lexus crunched to the curb a few spaces up. Ooh, look. She shot her arm out, finger pointing. Mallory’s mom’s new car.

    The door swung open, just missing the concrete, and Sarah’s best friend, Mallory Mitchell, put her feet to the sidewalk, her long red hair now shorter, pulling up on the cuff of her jeans. Sarah gripped the door handle. Can I get out?

    Karen’s composure broke, and she made a gushing noise as she pulled Sarah close. Oh, baby, baby. Sarah didn’t move, letting her mom hold her. Her mother’s lungs were strong and sad, traces of pain in her breaths. I love you so much. Karen let go and brushed the hair out of Sarah’s face. I’m so proud of you.

    She wanted to say something, to let her mother know her concern, but she took another glance at Mallory as she pulled back her seatbelt. Can I go now?

    You want me to walk you in?

    She popped the door open. No way!

    The morning air was already warm as Sarah shut the door and scampered away from the car. Mallory’s little brother Joel had been dogging Mallory up the sidewalk, and she gave him a shove. Buzz off, twerp, Mallory said, and Joel sauntered up the walk to the main entrance as Sarah stepped in beside her. Girl! Look at you! Mallory pulled her in for a hug, and Sarah got her first glimpse in two years of Mallory’s smile without braces. The Mitchells had moved off of Sarah’s street a while back, and they’d been in and out of vacation most of the summer. She hadn’t seen her friend in a month, and she’d changed. Straight teeth, shorter hair, maybe even a little taller.

    Sarah brushed her own blonde hair behind her shoulders, still the same length as they had both worn it in the fourth grade. Size me up, why don’t you? Get a good look!

    Mallory shot back with the next line from The Piano Girls. ’Cause I’m gonna play you down ’til your fingers bleed!

    Sarah and Mallory had been best friends since kindergarten, when they’d gone around singing Girls Just Wanna Have Fun for a month straight and calling all the boys in the class Clydesdales, and Mallory had teased her for being scared by Ghostbusters. Their favorite movie had been The Fox and the Hound, and when Mallory started taking piano lessons from Sarah’s teacher, Mrs. Allen, they’d played a duet every time there was a recital. It was only natural that when Cara Camden and Kambree Daniels lit up the screen in The Piano Girls, Sarah and Mallory sat through the film four times.

    Sarah noticed the lunch box dangling from her friend’s hand. "You got the Adventure Lane." Her own box was turned so the Barbie picture was pressed up against her leg.

    Mallory hefted it so Sarah could get a better look. Sweet, right? I’d rather die than eat cafeteria food again. So totally ralphy.


    "I wanted Miss Bliss, but my dad doesn’t like Zack. Mallory released a throaty sigh. Oh, Zack." The girls had memorized every episode of their favorite show, Good Morning, Miss Bliss, but they’d gone and moved it to a different channel, and Miss Bliss, the teacher, wasn’t going to be on anymore. Now it was just going to be about the students. Don’t you think Mrs. Hammer looks like Miss Bliss?

    Yeah, Sarah said. Mallory brushed her hair behind her shoulders, and Sarah took a look at the pink denim of Mallory’s Levi’s shirt. She’d never seen it before, and it made her want to wrap her arms around her old white Mickey Mouse shirt with the fraying collar.

    They moved up the steps into the freezing hallways. The corridors were long, with doorways dead center between the crossways, leading into the sanctuaries of the different grades. They passed the office, weaving their way through the new kindergarteners and their parents, all running around like they were lost, and Sarah spotted the fifth-grade hallway just ahead. Teachers’ names on little flags hung from poles shooting up above the doors. Mrs. Hammer, one of them said.

    Mallsy! The high-pitched whine broke the air. Mallory swiveled as Becky Sutton joined them. Her pants were puffed up like they were inflated; she looked like a billboard for Cavaricci jeans. Her shirt shouted out the Cavaricci logo as if it were afraid someone might not see it. Becky was one of the Spring Park crew – the rich kids, the popular crowd. Sarah couldn’t remember Becky or any of her friends ever speaking to either one of them before. But six months ago, after Mallory’s father had made a lot of money doing something called day trading, her family had moved into a big two-story house on Spring Park Way with a swimming pool in the back.

    Mallory raised her arms with an airy squeal. Becks! Oh my God, I love your hair! The two of them shared a hug that was more spectacle than heartfelt, just like all the Spring Park crew. Sarah didn’t know where Mallory had learned to do that, or more importantly, why.

    Yours looks like Molly Ringwald, ‘Becks’ replied. That was a stretch, but Mallory just pawed at her new do and purred. Hey, Sarah, she added.

    Hey, Becks, Sarah said. The other girls giggled at that, and a warm flush ran up her cheeks.

    Nice…Barbie lunch box, Becky said. Sarah realized she’d accidentally turned her box for everyone to see.

    Mallory swatted Sarah’s arm. D’you hear Becks went to Europe?

    Like, you moved there? As soon as she asked it, she realized how dumb of a question it was.

    No, retard, she went on vacation. For a whole month.

    Wow. Sarah wondered when the rest of the Spring Park crew was going to sweep by and drag Becky off where she belonged.

    My dad took us with him on business. It was sweet, like you wouldn’t believe.

    I’m so totally jealous, Mallory said. First I had to go to church camp. Then my dad took us to see the Grand Canyon. It was so totally lame.

    Your dad take you anywhere this summer? Becky asked. Another flash of memory from the night before – the unsettling quiet of her father’s voice when he gave her the orchid.

    She eyed the doorway to their class, wishing the girls would go on in. Six Flags.

    Wow, Becky chuckled. I’m so totally jealous.

    Sarah lowered her gaze, slinking behind them as they stepped into Mrs. Hammer’s classroom. While the hallways were dim and depressing, white lights burned inside. The desks were organized in rows like a massive tic-tac-toe game. She always preferred it when teachers were dumb enough to put the desks together in clumps. It was much easier to goof off collectively.

    The Piano Girls are here, Sage Owens croaked to everyone in earshot. His dark green shirt with the alligator emblem was tucked neatly into a pair of brown Cavariccis ballooning out from his legs like they were inflated to near capacity.

    Still? Mallory asked. Despite Sage’s use of the moniker the Spring Park crew had given them, Sarah took a gulp of the room’s stale air. In the fourth grade, she had been caught writing Sarah Owens in the margins of her notebook, and when Sage heard about it, he’d given her a knee-buckling smile. Probably laughing at her along with it, but she hadn’t cared.

    Mallory, you look different. Good different.

    Not afraid of cooties anymore? Becky asked, offering Mallory a high five, which Mallory slapped hard.

    Sage’s smile melted. Screw you! The girls burst into laughter as soon as he turned away.

    You are so bad, Mallory chided.

    Becky shrugged. It’s his own fault he got lice.

    While Mallory and Becky chattered, Sarah approached the cubby holes that served as lockers. She found an empty one and shoved in her Barbie lunch box, pushing her bag in to cover it up. As she glanced away, her eye caught onto a sheet of piano music sitting in somebody else’s cubby. Maple Leaf Rag. She and Mallory had been the only piano players in their grade. Looked like there was a new kid in the class.

    Mrs. Hammer was short and pretty, and Sarah saw a definite resemblance to Hayley Mills, the actress who’d played Miss Bliss. Mrs. Hammer’s hair was a little blonder, and longer, and her face was a bit more slender, but they both had the most welcoming of smiles. She started off the class in the usual way: introductions, rules, textbooks. As she wrote their schedule on the board, Mallory leaned into the aisle.

    Hey, check out Screech. She gestured to a boy sitting on the back row. The scrawny, pale-skinned kid wore a blue-and-red-striped long sleeve shirt two sizes too big over awkwardly baggy forest green pants. He topped off his ensemble with a shaggy bowl haircut and cheap black plastic glasses.

    Dweeb alert, Sarah said.

    He goes to my church, Mallory whispered. He’s so totally ralphy.

    Mrs. Hammer cleared her throat and the girls sprang back to attention.

    The first day flew by without Sarah actually having to learn anything. After school, she buckled her seatbelt, nestled in the back of Mallory’s mom’s shiny new Lexus. Are you all good back there? Mrs. Mitchell asked.

    The backseat smelled like apples, and the new Paula Abdul tape was playing. Sarah’s parents never let her listen to that kind of music in the car. Why isn’t my dad picking me up?

    Mallory’s mother gave her a sad smile that tightened a knot in her stomach. He couldn’t make it, honey. But we’re going to have a good time, aren’t we?

    Is he all right?

    Mrs. Mitchell looked to Mallory and back to Sarah, responding with a bit of delay. I’m sure he’s fine.

    Wanna play duets? Mallory asked. "West Side Story?"

    OK. They pulled away, and the seatbelt pressed into her lap as they turned onto the road, headed for Mallory’s new house in Spring Park.


    It was four weeks into the school year. The air had a morning chill for the first time since the spring. In previous years the Swingles had gone all out in decorating for Halloween. Family pictures would come down off the walls in exchange for spooky images – old photographs with odd twists like ghosts in the background. Pumpkins would sprout up all over the house, a different jack-o’-lantern in every window, all lit with white candles. Sometimes Sarah’s parents had even decorated the roof with a sinister smile and creepy narrow eyes.

    No decorations this year. Sarah would be wearing her witch costume from the last two Halloweens. Every time she looked into the empty windows, she wondered where her father was. Divorce – the word had permeated the Swingle house. She’d linger outside her mother’s door when she was on the phone but never heard what she wanted to hear. And whenever she’d ask why she couldn’t see her father, her mother would give her the same answer. He’s a son of a bitch. Custody – that was another word she constantly overheard, especially when her mother was on the telephone with her lawyer.

    Sarah rushed into the school as her mother drove away, slowing to a brisk walk as she passed Dr. Dollar, the principal, standing outside the cafeteria with her hands behind her back, holding the traffic steady and the behavior clean with her scolding glare. Sarah’s minty mouthwash had left her thirsty. She hit up the water fountain for a drink, wishing the water was colder than room temperature. Then she whipped past the other kids, past the library and into Mrs. Hammer’s room. Her eyes set on the red hair across the way, by Mrs. Hammer’s desk. Mallory laughed with Becky and the horrible Margot girl who insisted on spelling her name Margeaux and sometimes outright ignored Sarah when she’d say something to her. She fought past her reservations and approached, tapping Mallory on the elbow.

    What? Mallory asked, blinking at her as if she’d interrupted some important conversation.

    Come here, Sarah said, beckoning away from the others and ignoring the sharpness of Mallory’s greeting. Once they were alone, she unzipped her backpack and thrust her hand inside. Remember when I wrote the letter to Cara Camden?

    I remember she never wrote you back.

    I wrote to Mary Tyler Moore, too. Mary had played the mother in Maggie Migglesly, Cara’s first movie. When Sarah’s favorite actress never responded, she’d tried a different approach, sending all of her questions to Mary instead, along with a picture of Cara to autograph, which she wouldn’t mention because, in retrospect, it had been a pretty dumb thing to do. She carefully pulled out the letter she’d received in the mail the day before. Look. She wrote me back!

    Mallory accepted the pages with little flair. Huh. Sarah slipped out the last bit and laid her new autographed picture of Mary Tyler Moore over the letter. What’s the big deal with Cara Camden, anyway? Seriously.

    Sarah had expected Mallory to be excited, even if the letter wasn’t from Cara herself. The two of them were, after all, the real-life piano girls, like the movie. She took back her prized possessions much more slowly than she’d offered them. As Mallory crossed her arms, Sarah realized that the friendship bracelet she’d given the girl last year was no longer on her wrist. She saved the world, Sarah said. It hadn’t been that long ago that Mallory knew more about Cara than Sarah did. In Maggie Migglesly, Cara had been the only real child of a family that ran a foster service. All her character had ever wanted was a brother or sister, and every one she gained she had to let go of eventually. Sarah had also always wanted a sibling, and the movie had stuck with her for a long time. She’d liked to imagine Mallory as her sister, but at night, when she was lonely, she’d put in the movie and imagine she was the child coming to live with Cara.

    Throughout the first part of the day, Sarah was silent. She followed along with the lessons, but she kept wanting to pull out her letter and read it again, or find someone else to show who might appreciate it. Cara’s father was like a brother, according to Mary. Sarah wished she’d asked more questions about Mary herself.

    The class moved about the room, collecting paper sacks and lunch money when it was time to head to the cafeteria. Sarah slid her book under her desk as Mallory checked her lunch box. Gag me. Lunchables. Where’s yours? Mallory asked, hiking down the collar of her denim jacket. She’d forgotten the letter, and Sarah wouldn’t bring it up again, although she grabbed her backpack in case she wanted to look at it during lunch.

    I’m buying, Sarah said. The class filed out the door as she double-checked the money tucked in her pocket.

    Since when do you buy?

    I don’t know. Mom’s busy, Sarah said.

    At least you don’t have to use that retarded Barbie box, right? The dork in the bad glasses passed them, clutching a notebook under his arm and wearing a gray baseball uniform. He must have left his tutu at the cleaners, Mallory giggled. Sarah had heard Mallory’s mother talk about people that way.

    Becky laughed at the joke as she joined them, the silky curl of her ponytail bouncing like a spring. She had on a pair of pink fingerless gloves just a shade lighter than the ones Mallory wore. Sarah hadn’t seen gloves like that in at least a year or two. Hey, Sarah, guess what.


    Saw your dad yesterday, Becky said.

    Her shoulders tightened. You did?

    Yeah. At Chili’s with some other girl. Little five-year-old or something.

    He…he was?

    A snort of laughter spewed from Becky’s lips. "Some little geek girl, with this ralphy Punky Brewster shirt."

    Mallory’s laugh exploded from clenched lips. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! Mallory said, but her face said otherwise. So sorry!

    The girls kept talking. Sarah followed close behind them, not quite listening to what they had to say. She’d heard a rumor that her dad was out there somewhere, with a new girlfriend or wife or something like that. It had come from the Spring Park crew, and part of her wondered whether it was for real or not. She pictured the encounter, her daddy sitting beside another little girl, buying her a hamburger and sharing his fries. In her mind, the child looked like Soleil Moon Frye, short and freckled with fluffy strands of pigtails spouting off the sides of her head. Shiny black eyes. Patches on her jeans. Punky.

    Sarah entered the lunchroom in single file with everyone else. Mallory and Becky made for the tables as she waited in line. She stared at the Velcro shoes of the boy in front of her, but all she saw was her father’s face. Rolling around with her on his bed, making silly noises. Beaming with pride at her piano recital when she’d played the Beethoven sonatina in F major. Teaching her about which flowers grew best in which soil, and the differences in how much water they needed. Holding her when she had a nightmare. His soft gray eyes flickering across the pages when he used to read her bedtime stories. Hidden in shadow behind the steering wheel before fading into the distance.

    Sitting beside some little Punky Brewster, giving her an orchid.

    She’d asked her mother when she would see her father again. He’s not coming back. When Sarah had asked why not, her mother had given an equally confusing answer. Because he’s a son of a bitch. She wondered if it had to do with this new girlfriend. The lawyer had come by to visit over the weekend. He wore a nice blue suit and had kind eyes. From what she’d overheard when she was supposed to be watching television in her room, her mother was keeping the house and her father was keeping the flower shop. Only she’d also heard that he was selling the flower shop. Every time she brought it up, the conversation died. He’s a son of a bitch.

    The smell of greasy spaghetti hit her nostrils as she entered the alcove and picked up a red tray, still not dry from its previous use. She looked beyond the shoes of the boy in front of her to the gray grass-stained baseball uniform hanging on his thin frame, beneath his pale face and those cheap plastic glasses. He didn’t look like much of an athlete.

    She dropped her faded dollar and two clean quarters into the lunch lady’s bony hand and turned into the cafeteria. An empty stool waited for her beside Mallory, but something inside her froze. She gripped the tray, looking for another seat, when she spotted the new kid. He had just set his tray down to the side and was opening up a notebook in front of himself, alone. There were only a few spaces between him and the rest of the class. She lingered, looking between the empty seat beside Mallory and the six or seven beside the new kid. A shrill lilt of laughter erupted, and several heads from Mallory’s side had turned in her direction. She lowered hers.

    The boy looked up from the notebook, where he’d begun writing something, as Sarah approached the empty seat across from him. Anyone sitting here, Slugger?

    The pencil wavered in his fingers. No.

    Sarah eased her way down onto the stool across from him. He continued with his work, and she took the opportunity to glance in Mallory’s direction. Drew Hunter had claimed the empty seat. When she turned around, she could tell from the way the new kid was looking at her that he had spoken. I’m sorry, she squeaked. What did you say? He closed his notebook, which bore a bright red-and-yellow Superman shield on a blue background.

    I said my name is Adam.

    Oh. I’m Sarah.

    The kid gave her a soft nod. Cougars, his uniform said. I know who you are. You’re one of the Piano Girls.

    Right. She wondered when that was going to finally die.

    I play the piano, too. He gave her a warm smile from behind the dorky glasses as he pushed them up to the top of his nose. This close, she could tell they were either too loose or too big for his face.

    That’s cool. Sarah jabbed her fork into her spaghetti and turned it, wrapping the noodles around the tines. She didn’t have much of an appetite.

    I try to write music, but I’m not very good, he said. Sarah glanced at his abandoned notebook, wondering if he’d written any music in it. As many years as she’d been practicing, she’d never written anything of her own. Aren’t you Mallory’s best friend?

    Yeah. She didn’t look up.

    Why are you sitting over here?

    She turned the carton of chocolate milk on her tray, watching the corners spin. An old grass stain on his elbow clashed with the gray. You play baseball?

    Yeah, I have a game after school.

    Cougars. That’s why you wore the uniform.

    You like baseball?

    Not really. She nodded at his notebook. You’re always writing in that thing. He sipped on his apple juice. Even at recess.


    Yeah, but even at recess? she asked. He gave her a weak smile, and his expression reminded her of her attempts to hide her beat-up lunch box. What is it you write in there?

    He spread his palm flat across it. My stories.

    What are they about?

    Lots of things, he said.

    Mallory’s laugh echoed from the far end of the table. The baseball dork turned to look that way for a moment, then back to Sarah. Notebook closed, lunch uneaten, she had his full attention. With a moment’s hesitation, she hefted her backpack onto the table. Want to see something cool?

    Sure, he said. She slid her autographed Mary Tyler Moore photo across the table. Neato! Is this for real?

    Yeah. I wrote her a letter, and she wrote me back. She waved the letter, pleased by the crack in his voice when he’d said Neato! She let him read it, watching his eyes dart back and forth behind the glasses. They’d slipped down from his field of vision, yet he read on without adjusting them.

    She has diabetes? he asked, handing it back to her.

    Yeah. I don’t really know what that is.

    Me neither, Adam said. And I don’t want to! I wrote Bill Cosby a letter once. He never wrote back.


    Adam sat in the squeaky yellow bus as it headed from his church toward the Richardson 6 Cinema near the mall. The overcast sky was bright white, as if the sun was melting the clouds away and would pop out at any moment. All the benches were full of church kids. The parental chaperones sat at the front, and as the bus made a hard turn onto Plano Road, Adam’s seatmate leaned into him, just enough to thrill him as he caught a whiff of her fruity hairspray. It was far more pleasant than the old wet dog aroma of the cracking seat cushions.

    Mallory pulled away from him as quickly as she could. He grinned back, pushing his glasses into place with his index finger. You know, the mermaid looks like you, he said, picturing the red-headed half-woman from the commercial for The Little Mermaid he’d caught on television a few times.

    Thanks, she said. My parents would kill me if I dressed like her.

    Adam was drawn to the feathery texture of her jacket when it had rubbed against his cheek in the hard right turn. He felt the velvety strands between his thumb and index finger. Is this real fur?

    No, but you’re the first one who noticed.

    Looks pretty real, he said.

    Mallory swiveled toward him. So let me ask you a question. I heard that you don’t really need glasses, but you wear them anyway.

    Well, I don’t need them now, but I’m gonna need them later.

    Why? she asked.

    Adam pressed them firmly against his face. Because, you know…


    He leaned forward and his voice dropped. You know, just in case, if something happens to me, and I get…superpowers. I might need a disguise.

    Mallory’s lips slithered into a smile like a snake inching across the grass. Well, isn’t that something.

    You think I’m weird, right? Most people tease me when they find out.

    Maybe you’re just special, she said.

    Adam waited with the other kids while the chaperones bought all the tickets from the booth outside the theater. As the others buzzed with excitement, he stepped to the side, inspecting the poster for Back to the Future II. He’d almost finished reading the book, but he didn’t know when, or if, he would get to see the movie. He had all but wandered from the group before one of the parents caught him by the shoulder and ushered him inside. The hallway was lined with more posters, most of them looking too adult for his interest. He had nearly passed the door, continuing with his tour, when someone guided him into where he was supposed to go. And when he was directed into their row, his ten-year-old heart raced with excitement as he claimed a seat beside the prettiest girl he knew. Mallory gave him a weak nod, but he didn’t care. It was going to be hard to follow the movie with her sitting so close.

    Mallory munched on a bag of popcorn that she’d been wearing down for a while. Adam kept his hands between his legs as the smell of it made his mouth water. One armrest had a smear of green gum dried up along the edge, and the other had Mallory’s hand. Her red fingernails tapped along to the singing, and the rhythm of her fingers was more interesting than Under the sea, under the sea.

    Adam had met Mallory when they were four years old, when his family had first moved to town. They’d played house in the childcare room at church, and he’d been smitten ever since. His parents had moved again, to Fort Worth, and after a year they’d started driving back to Richardson for church again. He’d been to her house, and she to his. It wasn’t until they’d moved back, and he’d lucked into going to her school, that she’d ever been anything but sweet to him. She’d started acting different almost a year ago, after her family moved too.

    He sat in silence, not paying as much attention to the movie as he should. The fish did this and that, and there was an octopus lady, and the mermaid with the thick red hair only reminded him of the redhead beside him. He figured she wouldn’t think of him as the prince, but that was all right, because the prince was kind of boring anyway. Adam didn’t know why the mermaid liked him so much. And then the music slowed and the crab began to sing.

    Kiss the girl.

    Adam turned from the screen. The colors played across Mallory’s face as she slipped another kernel onto her tongue. Heartbeat quickened. Lightheaded. The song continued.

    Kiss the girl.

    Mallory’s jaw moved up and down as she chewed, and her lips puckered out. Her fingers were still tapping. Her cheek was so close.

    Kiss the girl.

    He moved in, and she twitched, making it a game of Pin the Kiss on the Mallory. He planted it just to the left of her ear as she squirmed back. Popcorn went flying. Ralphy! she gasped, and he sank down hard in his seat as heads spun in their direction. Mallory flung her popcorn bucket at him, covering him in the remains of her kernels. Warm butter ran down the side of his face.

    - - -

    Sarah wiped her mouth dry as she left the water fountain and stepped outside onto the covered blacktop. Rain poured down relentlessly as if the school was at the bottom of a waterfall, and the children were clustered together in a poor excuse for recess. The constant staccato was enough to make it hard for them to hear each other without shouting. Some played wall ball, but most just stood around talking. Mallory was across the way in her jacket with the fur collar, babbling about her brush with nausea at the movies. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life. And I’m ten-and-a-half years old!

    Adam sat with his back against the brick wall, head down, writing in his notebook. He shivered in the cool air, and after a quick look around at her other options, Sarah scraped her sneakers against the asphalt in his direction.

    Where’s your jacket, Slugger?

    Forgot it. His pencil rounded in slow curves, and his shoulders were slumped.

    What’cha writing?

    Adam stopped his circle, clicking his pencil against the paper in a nervous beat, head still down. It’s about a superhero. And no, it’s not about me.

    I didn’t say anything. A soft thunder rumbled somewhere as the Spring Park crew’s laughter echoed across the blacktop. Sarah dropped down beside him, little pebbles digging into her ankles. What’s it about?

    He finally looked up, probing her to see if she was teasing him or if she was really interested. She hoped she’d put on the right face. Well, it’s about this guy – he’s a policeman. He’s a policeman in Washington, D.C., and he gets infected with this stuff called diamond juice, from another planet.

    Diamond juice, she repeated, and the corner of his lip flickered up.

    Yeah, and it gives him these powers. He can start fires, and put them out. He can walk through fire. And he can, you know, fly.

    What’s his name?

    Fireman, he said.

    Sarah smiled, and as his glasses slipped down, he pushed them back up again, but not before she got a glimpse of his cool baby blues without his mask. Cute. He glanced in the direction of the Spring Park crew, then back to his notebook. So you got a crush on Mallory? she asked.

    None of your business.

    Sorry – sorry. It’s just…


    Sarah looked at her old friend with the Spring Park crew, then pressed her back against the brick beside her new one. Nothing.

    Hours later, the final bell of the day rang loud, making Sarah reach for her ears as it always did, and the bus riders filed out the door toward the back of the school. She sat a moment longer in her desk, taking her time so that nobody would see her walking home. Her mother had taken on longer hours at the hospital where she worked, something Sarah wanted to keep secret.

    She zipped her bag, and as she scooted out of her chair, Mrs. Hammer said, Sarah, can I see you for a second before you leave?

    Sure. Sarah hefted her backpack onto her shoulder and grabbed her lunch box, the Barbie art long since scratched off. She moseyed to the teacher’s desk, still taking her time. Mrs. Hammer remained seated.

    Her smile usually put Sarah at ease, but Mrs. Hammer’s lips were straight. I just wanted to make sure you’re doing OK.

    Sarah planted her feet hard on the tan carpet as she avoided eye contact. Sure.

    Is everything OK at home?

    She didn’t know what to say.

    Have you…seen your dad? Mrs. Hammer asked.

    Punky Power! she imagined Soleil Moon Frye shouting in her Punky Brewster pigtails and freckles. No, ma’am. Once, when her mother wasn’t home, she’d gone through the office, the bedroom, the closet, looking for clues to the things that were being kept from her. Her father’s clothes were gone, as were his file cabinets, his easy chair. She’d scanned through some of the papers and stopped at one with custody near the top. She couldn’t make sense of it all, but there were three things she knew, some from snooping and some from eavesdropping. Her father had a mistress. The mistress had a child. A judge had given sole custody to her mother, and her father hadn’t fought it. She’d needed a dictionary to make sense of it all. She supposed it had been summary when her mother called him a son of a bitch.

    Mrs. Hammer put her hand on Sarah’s shoulder. I know it’s not easy, honey. I went through the same thing when I was your age.

    You did?

    Mmm hmm. My parents got divorced. Only I stayed with my daddy. My momma left him. Sarah held the woman’s gaze for a moment, then broke it. I just wanted to make sure, Mrs. Hammer added.

    Sarah turned to leave, and as she reached the door, she noticed Adam’s name on the tip of a crumpled paper sticking out from the trashcan. Beside his handwriting, almost hidden, was the grade: 39. She glanced over her shoulder at the teacher, lost in her after-school work, and quickly snatched the paper from the garbage.

    It was their math test.

    She overheard two voices speaking in the hallway and stuffed the test in her bag. Her gaze dropped to the floor as she listened.

    I’m sorry I kissed you. Adam.

    "You’re sorry?" Mallory.

    Shouldn’t I be?

    Why’d you do it?

    All those things you said last summer. Last summer. Sarah leaned in closer.


    I was thinking maybe I could be your boyfriend. Like we used to pretend.

    Light laughter. Are you serious?


    Adam, you’re too much.

    The voices faded, and after they were both out of sight, she stepped into the hall. The streets were quiet and empty as she walked home. A few times she thought she saw Adam, up ahead of her. She wondered which house was his.

    She wondered where her father was. Surely not in Camelot, not in any of the houses she passed. Maybe in Richardson, maybe one of the other Dallas suburbs. She didn’t know where the mistress lived, but she bet that’s where he lived now too. There was nobody else on the street, and the blocks seemed to go on with no end in sight.

    That night, as Sarah turned off the bathroom light, ready for bed, she heard the soft, now familiar sound of her mother crying. Her mother’s bedroom door was cracked open. She crept down the hall. With an eye against the slit, Sarah saw her, crumpled in a ball on her unmade bed, pillows scattered to the floor. She pressed the telephone to her ear, crying softly. It’s so hard. Sarah doesn’t even really understand. It’s too hard to tell her. Sarah listened in silence for a few minutes, wondering who was on the other end, wondering what else was being said. She knew she wasn’t meant to hear this, and she pulled back at the sound of the weakened whimper. I don’t believe true love is a fairy tale. I want it more than anything.

    The door shut, the lights out, she cracked open her blinds and gazed into the emptiness of the night. Twin headlights traced the lines of the houses on her street. They grew brighter, nearer, and even though she knew better, she imagined that they were familiar. That they were coming back for her.

    The car drove past and disappeared around the corner.

    As she watched the empty street, she thought of the sleepovers she and Mallory used to have. Watching The Piano Girls and, when they were at Mallory’s house, Dirty Dancing. Mallory’s parents never seemed to care so much what they watched. They’d stay up late, talking about the boys in their class – Sage, Drew, Marlon who moved in between third and fourth grade without telling anyone he was leaving. They’d seen every episode of Punky Brewster and Good Morning, Miss Bliss. They’d given each other friendship bracelets. Sarah still wore hers.

    She turned on her bedside lamp and rubbed the crinkles out of Adam’s test. The first page had almost as much red ink as pencil. She read over his answers and the teacher’s comments, understanding Mrs. Hammer’s confusion. Adam’s nearly illegible handwriting filled each blank with mathematic gibberish. Numbers, symbols, equations, all mashed together and looking like actual answers, but none of it made any sense.

    Then, at the bottom of the last page, in the answer space of the simplest question on the test, he had sketched a crude figure in a cape, arms spread, with squiggly lines all around him.

    Fireman, he had written in careful letters beneath the drawing.

    She stashed the test beneath her alarm clock and shut off the lamp, blinking in the dark. Cara Camden’s face looked down at her from the wall.



    Sarah turned the corner onto her block of Crossbow Lane after school on the first Wednesday back from Christmas break. Her ears stung from the cold, and she wished for the third time that she’d brought her earmuffs with her that morning, or even a wool hat, which would have messed up her hair but not left her extremities in pain.

    Four houses away from home, she slowed. Parked in front of their mailbox was the dark blue Aerostar. Her father’s minivan. She almost stopped on the sidewalk as all the questions and re-imaginings of the night he left came swarming on her at once. But the biggest question wasn’t any of those. It was Why are you here?

    She moved quickly down the walk and up to the porch. The door was unlocked, and she came into the empty front living room. The lights were off. She skirted through the hallway and peeked into the kitchen. Empty. The den. Empty. Back down the hallway. Her mother’s bedroom door open – empty. She checked all the other rooms. Nothing. Her heart thudded harder than it had during dodgeball in gym class as she slipped her backpack to the floor in her room and peeked out the window to make sure the van was still there.

    Hello, Sarah.

    Her father stood in the doorway. His hair was shaggier than she remembered, and he had a bit of a beard. Same strong shoulders and big arms. She thought she’d fling herself at him, but instead she approached in slow, cautious steps. Daddy? Careful arms slid around his waist, and the tighter she hugged him, the tighter she needed to hug.

    He took her to her bed and sat down with her. His hands ran through her hair, but it wasn’t how she’d imagined. She thought she’d be ecstatic, full of joy. But he didn’t smell like her father anymore. No aftershave. A hint of chili on his breath. And his fingers made her want to recoil, just a bit.

    Why did you leave? she asked, pulling her neck away until he dropped his hand.

    Your mom and I…fell out of love. And…I fell in love with someone else.

    Her ears had warmed up, but the pain had moved to her throat. Where did you go?

    I’m… His voice wavered on the word. I’m moving. Away. With my… He didn’t finish the sentence.

    How come I don’t get to see you anymore?

    Paul. They both turned to the doorway, where her mother stood with her arms around a brown cardboard box. Attic was written across it in her father’s handwriting. I think this is everything.

    His hand dropped to Sarah’s leg, and like her hair, it was different than she thought it would be. I have to go now, honey, he said.

    But…but Daddy…

    Give her a minute, at least, her mother said.

    He leaned in and put his arms around her, softly, and kissed the top of her head. I have to go, Sarah. I’m sorry.

    Fresh questions came to mind, but she sat on the edge of her bed in silence as he stood and followed her mother down the hall. She could hear them talking but couldn’t make out most of the conversation. She heard two words clearly. Child support. Part of her wanted to chase after him, but he had appeared so suddenly, she didn’t know what to do. I’m moving. Away. With my… She heard the thud of his car door and swiveled to peek out the blinds. She couldn’t make out his face as he drove away any better than she could the first time. She sat, watching the empty street, until she felt the jostle of the bed and heard her mother’s sad breathing.

    I know it’s not fair, baby, her mother said, resting a hand on Sarah’s back. Trust me, it’s not fair to me, either. But this is how it is.

    Why’d he have to go so fast? Sarah asked, letting the blinds snap back into place.

    Your daddy’s…with someone else now. And she…she doesn’t want him around us. That’s why they’re moving.

    Where’s he going? she asked.

    Her mother pulled her close and rocked her slowly. California.

    California. Sarah looked up to her wall, where Cara Camden’s face looked back at her.


    Sarah should have been finishing her homework, but as she did most afternoons until her mother got home from work, she kicked her feet up on the coffee table, flipping through the channels, watching nothing in particular and perusing the latest issue of Teen. She used to read books about flowers, the ones her father would get her, but those were stuffed under her bed with her old My Little Pony collection.

    Sometimes she would get to go to Mallory’s after school, which used to be fun, but lately Mallory would put everything aside to do homework with her, and after that there was the phone, always ringing, and Mallory always needed to answer, which would leave Sarah alone with Mallory’s kid brother Joel. On Tuesdays she would ride her bike to piano lessons at Mrs. Allen’s house. But it was a Friday and her mother was running late, and she didn’t want to spoil her appetite on pizza night, so she curled up on the sofa, ignoring her stomach’s protests. She’d made herself a butter sandwich, figuring that without any meat or anything, it didn’t really count as a meal. It was pretty gross. Her mouth still tasted like straight butter.

    The rerun of Full House ended and the evening news began. Sarah rummaged for the remote but stopped when she saw the image on the screen, the flashing red and blue lights of police cars and a street full of people with empty, broken faces. Behind them all, and behind a wide fence, was a massive house that looked to have more than two floors. Sarah had never seen a house that big.

    Tonight’s top story: fans of Hollywood legend Benjamin Weston Camden have gathered to pay their respects to the Great One, who was found dead in his Beverly Hills home this morning. Sarah shifted forward on the couch, leaning in as the room grew quiet. Wind whipped at the reporter as a young woman behind her sobbed softly. Shot to death, the controversial celebrity bad boy-turned-father figure, known to his fans as Weston, was discovered by his wife, world-renowned artist Sheila Camden, moments after her return home from a lecture series at the University of Chicago. Reports are conflicting at this time, but it is believed that Weston and his daughter, Cara, were held hostage in the kitchen of their home on Camden Drive, which you see behind me. Young Cara and her father were both tortured, but she did not share Weston’s tragic fate.

    Sarah’s throat clenched as she glanced down at her magazine, at Cara’s happy face on the cover. The crying grew louder as a microphone hung in the face of one of the mourners. He was the greatest, the chubby woman with sunken eyes and curly hair said amidst her sobs. He loved that little girl so much. I can’t even imagine what she’s feeling now that he’s gone.

    Mrs. Hammer had just announced the annual fifth-grade play was going to be Brandon the Great, a play written by Mr. Camden for Cara’s school only a year or two ago. Sarah had never thought of him as anything but Cara’s father. A lot of grown-ups loved him as much as she loved Cara. Sarah’s mother was one of them. She’d told stories about sneaking out with her teenage friends one night to see Sinner’s Eclipse, which none of them were allowed to see because it was a movie for grown-ups, as she’d put it. Mr. Camden once had a television show that had been her mother’s favorite when she was younger. As many times as Sarah had seen all of Cara’s movies, she’d seen each of them at least once with her mother.

    The screen cut to a shot of Cara’s father from years earlier, sitting in front of a poster for The Piano Girls, which he had directed. He crossed his legs in dark jeans and black boots, lounging with an arm draped behind his chair. Cara’s my favorite actress, he said. Sure, I’m biased, but I see something in her that’s going to make the world stand still and listen one day. I want her to have every opportunity to reach people in a way I never could.

    As the report continued, Sarah looked at Cara’s face on the magazine. She remembered her father’s car disappearing down the street both times, and the check he’d sent her for Christmas – Merry Christmas, Sarah, he’d written on the comment line. Her eyes slowly pooled with tears.


    A few streets over, Adam sat in a faded blue recliner with his arms wrapped around his knees, rocking slowly. His notebook was forgotten on the carpet below as he watched the television. The first images from within the gates of the Camden home were coming in. As the reports were given, vague and evasive when it came to what had actually happened to this Hollywood man, the footage cut to a still frame of Cara Camden’s face, frozen in time. A single tear hung from her left eye like a raindrop that had yet to fall. Then the footage resumed, and Cara blinked against the camera lights, staring through the lens as if she didn’t know where she was, seeing something no one else could see.

    The tear fell.

    Adam, his mother called from the kitchen. Can you help set the table?

    Be right there, he said. As the station cut to commercial, he switched to a different network. They were all playing the same story that evening. As far as he could tell, it had been playing all day.

    We’re getting the first reports of what actually happened last night. If you have kids in the room, we urge you to change the channel, the local news anchor said. An as-yet-unidentified assailant broke into the house somewhere between two and three in the morning. Weston was bound to the refrigerator and his daughter Cara to the oven. Cara wasn’t privy to most of the torture, as I’m sure we are all thankful to hear. The intruder covered her face with a blindfold. What followed is…we still don’t know a lot of specifics, but this was Manson-like. It was dragged out over the course of the night. His legs were… He paused, collecting himself. …I can’t. It’s just…This is evil. I’m sorry. It’s evil.


    The live feed cut to passing pictures of the dead man and his family. "Weston and his then-girlfriend Sheila Green stunned the world with their Oscar-winning film Color Twenty."

    The pictures dissolved to footage of the man at the podium of the Academy Awards. Based on his clothing – wide-lapelled tuxedo, frilly bow tie – Adam guessed it was from before he was born. "With Color Twenty, Mr. Camden said, we tried to transcend art and culture. Maybe we succeeded, maybe we failed. I leave that up to you. All I know is, all I’ve ever wanted to be was a Teller of Tales, to give the world something to dream about, and I thank you, from the bottom of

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