January 14, 1994
The vehicle streaked westward on a dirt road through
sparse woodlands, kicking up dust in its wake. Behind the wheel, Randy
Stevenson, soon to turn eighteen, monitored the road ahead. Tall and broad
shouldered, he was a gracefully muscled athlete. Shaggy black hair framed
his face – a sensitive, enigmatic face that captivated girls at Verona
Only people who knew him well – and the two boys
with him knew him as well as anyone – would know how agitated he was behind
his stony expression. His nostrils flared to accommodate his rapid, shallow
respiration. His hands were not trembling only because they held the steering
wheel in a tight grip.
A crescent moon hung in the sky ahead, glowing
through a hazy cloud cover. It was eight o'clock. The temperature hovered
around forty degrees and the boys wore lightweight jackets over their jeans
Randy's eyes darted to the rear view mirror. In
the distance, a dusk-to-dawn light cast a circular glow in the darkness
and shone down on the riverside cabin the boys had departed moments before.
The cabin and the half dozen vehicles parked around it disappeared as trees
closed in behind the car.
The two-year-old white Sable belonged to Randy's
mother and the music playing softly on the radio was one of her oldies
stations. On the drive to the cabin earlier, the trio had been in such
high spirits, yakking and laughing nonstop, they hadn't noticed the radio
Now it annoyed Randy. He turned it off and broke
the ensuing silence. "John Mark?"
"Yeah," answered a subdued voice from the shadowy
back seat. "I'm okay."
"Shelby." Randy glanced to his right. The dashboard
lights dimly outlined his friend slumped against the door, his head tilted
back, wedged between the door and the headrest, and his blonde moptop falling
away from his face. His eyes were fixed on the headliner.
"I'll be arright," Shelby muttered.
The road emerged from the woods into a scrubby
flatland and Randy eased up on the gas pedal. An intersection with a county
blacktop road lay just ahead.
Randy braked at the stop sign and made a left turn
toward town. They'd traveled no more than a few yards when Shelby lurched
upright and growled, "Pull over!"
The Sable slowed and bounced as its tires hit the
weedy, rutted shoulder. Shelby opened the door and hung his upper body
out, retching, before the vehicle came to a complete stop.
In the dome light's glow, Randy caught John Mark's
gaze in the rear view mirror.
John Mark tilted his head toward their friend.
"We need to take him to the emergency room."
"No," Shelby said. He leaned out the door a few
moments after his heaving stopped, spit a couple of times, and raised up,
breathing heavily between parted lips. He wiped his eyes, glanced at Randy
and half turned to look behind him. "No. I'm fine."
John Mark returned Shelby's glare. "Don't be stupid.
If that really was LSD she gave you--"
"I didn't swallow any," Shelby insisted. "I rinsed
my mouth out four, five times before we left. Besides, I ain't sure LSD
makes you puke. Bein' kissed by Tiffany Bratcher is what made me puke."
Randy gave him a quick appraisal. "You done?"
"Yeah." Shelby shut the door and murmured, "Let's
Conversation was sparse on the twenty-minute drive
to Verona. It was still early on a Friday night and the cinemas, restaurants
and convenience stores were doing a brisk business.
"Guess it's time to call it a night," Randy said
as the Sable rolled down busy Chilton Avenue, a brightly lighted commercial
"No, I don't want to go home," Shelby said. He
looked much better, sitting upright, his hands clasped around an upraised
knee, but his blue-gray eyes were restless, troubled. "I feel like us sticking
together a while."
"Me, too," said John Mark.
Randy nodded. "All right. Where to?"
A momentary silence fell as they considered their
"My house," John Mark said. "Let's stay there tonight."
"I thought your folks went to Tennessee," Shelby
"They did. But they won't care. I'll call their
motel and let them know and y'all can call your folks and tell them where
"Works for me," Shelby said.
The light turned green and Randy accelerated, his
eyes flitting to Shelby. "I don't like it. What if you have some kinda
delayed reaction to that drug?"
"If it even was a drug," Shelby replied. "You know
what liars Wes and Tiffany are. I don't feel anything from it. Y'all just
keep an eye on me and if I start acting weird, take me to the emergency