Dark Witness: A Josie Bates Thriller
Release date: December 3, 2019
Print pages: 366
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Behind the book
When I was a toddler my father was stationed in Alaska. The pictures we have are of a happy family in a bleak setting. Fifty years later I went back to see where I had lived but instead found an adventure into the interior of Alaska that made me realize how remote and terrifying and beautiful the place could be. That trip inspired Billy and Hannah's run for safety. But, like so many things that look like the answer to a problem, they find they have landed themselves in a hell they could never imagine.
Dark Witness: A Josie Bates Thriller
"Hannah. Come on, Hannah! We've got to go now."
I stand with my back to Billy, and I barely hear him. When I turn my head to look over my shoulder, I don't really see him. All I see is the phone booth; all I want is to hear Josie's voice. I take a deep breath and answer him.
"In a minute. I'll be there in a minute."
"I really think we should go now," he insists.
He's right, of course, but it's not as important as he's making it out to be. We can go now or later because running away is easy. I've been doing it all my life.
My mom, Linda Rayburn, turned running away into a high art: a sleight of hand that dipped into someone's wallet for a little stash, sweet lies to reassure a man of her undying love right up until the minute she left. A quick step. An open door. Done. Gone. Travel light. Turn on a dime. Smile, smile, smile because the next opportunity is in front of you. Grab it. Milk it. Run again when it goes south or you get bored. A bird in the hand isn't half as cool as the two in the next bush. If I was as good as her I wouldn't be standing on this hard-packed dirt, hungry, tired, and freezing my ass off. I wouldn't be eyeing a falling down old phone booth like it was the Taj Mahal. Yeah, running away is easy; it's staying gone that's hard.
I raise a hand and dismiss Billy as he huffs in frustration. He calls out to the truck driver who's waiting on us.
"Give us a minute. Just hang on."
Billy kind of dances my way while he does this. When he's at my side, he lowers his voice even though there's no one within a hundred yards to hear or a hundred miles who might care what he has to say.
"Hannah. If we don't go now he might leave us. It's so cold, Hannah. What are we going to do tonight if he leaves us?"
"He's not going without us." I say this even though there's a fifty/fifty chance it's a lie. I can't help myself. I want to make a call home so bad I can taste it.
The other part of his argument – the part about the cold – is something else again. We are as far from Hermosa Beach as we can get. We traveled through Oregon and Washington. We turned left at the Canadian border and made our way to Alaska on a fishing boat.
When I asked the captain for jobs he wasn't even curious about how old we were or why we looked half starved. He just asked if we got seasick and then put us to work: me in the galley and Billy hauling nets all the way to friggin' Alaska. When we got off that boat Billy asked:
"Where do we go now?"
That's what I wanted to say. Then I wanted to say:
How should I know?
I almost said that because I was scared, and I'm just a kid, and it was time for him to have some ideas. I didn't say that, of course. Billy doesn't have a home to go to. His sister is dead, and there is a crazy guy who wants to kill him because of a fifty-year-old blood feud that happened in Albania. We'd never heard of Albania or blood feud, but that's why his sister is dead and that's why we're running. It seems a blood feud never ends until the one they want dead is dead. When we got off the boat I just shut up, and we started walking again. We ended up here at this truck stop, and Billy is worried about all sorts of things. Missing our ride is one; me getting in that phone booth is the other one.
"Hannah, please. Don't do this. It's not good for you. It's not good for anyone."
"I won't do anything stupid."
I don't push him out of the way really. I just start walking and Billy steps aside. If the trucker leaves us, so be it. I'll find us somewhere to sleep. Not that it matters to me where we lay our heads. A doorway, a flophouse, a farmhouse, or a ditch, I dream about Josie. No, that's not exactly right. I dream about that dock in Malibu where we made a stand against Gjergi Isai. He wanted to kill Billy. He would have killed me to get to him. Josie got in the way, and every night I dream it was her he killed.
In my mind's eye I see her floating in a calm ocean, tall and lean, her arms out like she's been crucified face down. If there were waves to wash her toward shore I would go into them and pull her out even if it meant me dying. That's how much I love her. Archer isn't in my dreams. I'm sorry about that because I came to like him a lot. Max isn't there. He's probably sleeping in his doggie bed in Josie's house.
Luckily, I know positively that the man from Albania didn't kill Josie. If she were dead, Faye would have erased the message on the office answering machine and she didn't. I've heard it once before. Now, I need to hear it again even though making a call probably isn't smart like Billy says. I guess sometimes I'm not smart because I leave Billy turning circles in the dirt and get into the booth.
The glass is so dirty I don't want to touch it, but I do. I slam it shut and a miracle happens: a light comes on. I never did need more than a little bit of light to make me feel safe and now that I've got it I take stock. There a big, black, box of a telephone on the wall with a receiver attached by a fraying cloth cord. A phone book hangs in shreds from a rusted chain. Cold seeps through a crack in the glass that people have etched bad words on. It doesn't take long to figure out how this thing works, so I dig in the back pocket of my jeans and come up with two quarters, drop them in, and pick up the clunky receiver.
I do what actors do in old movies. I click the little silver thing up and down and curse.
"Come on, dammit."
I hit the box. Then there is movie-magic in the middle of Alaska. I get a recording. The box wants two more quarters. Luckily, I have them. I dial Faye's office. It's Saturday. Josie won't be there, so when I hear her recorded message I smile, lean my forehead on that dirty glass, and leave a message of my own.
"We're still okay. We'll be okay."
I don't say I miss her even though I want her to know that. I don't say I am afraid because I know she suspects it. I hold the phone to my ear long after the machine on the other end beeps that my time is up. Billy knocks on the door, but I press that receiver close like it has the power to suck me in and fly me over the wires to Faye's office or maybe even to my own bed in Josie's house.
When Billy inches into my line of sight, I can't pretend anymore. There is no magic; there are no miracles. I don't change into anything in that phone booth. There is no big red S on a blue jumpsuit for me. I'm sure not a super hero; I'm just sort of Billy's hero.
I hang up and put my hands on the glass doors, but for the first time since all this started I can't move. I am not wise beyond my years, or an old soul, or strong. Adults just assume I am all of those things because I am mostly silent. When I'm not, I talk tough to cover up. Adults want me to be wise so they don't have to be; they want me to be self-sufficient so they don't have to be responsible for me. I have spent years trying to tell them that the way I look is not what I am; the way I talk isn't what I know.
I look up through my lashes at Billy and my shoulders fall a little. His faith in me is heavy, but if I give up and we go back to Hermosa Beach Billy will go into foster care. He doesn't deserve that. If I leave him alone, he'll make a mistake and someone will kill him. He sure doesn't deserve that. If we keep running like Josie told us to do, there is a chance we'll be safe. I think we both deserve a shot at that.
"Can we go now?"
The glass muffles his voice, his nose is red and his cheeks are white with the cold. He keeps moving because he is anxious when I am gone from him too long, even if all that is between us is dirty glass. My fingers drum against the booth – once, twice, three times. I stop that as soon as it starts.
Touching and counting are things the old Hannah did, and all that fumbling never accomplished anything. There aren't any doors for me to guard any more. Everyone who has come into my life is gone except for Billy. I don't count the seconds until those people return. It's me. I'm the one who will have to go back; I just won't go back now.
"Yeah. I'm coming."
I push open the door, but it only goes so far. I have to squeeze out. In that one second when I am caught half in and half out of this little box, while the light flickers off and on, I think of all the things I want.
I want to put my fist through this glass booth; I want to rip the phone off its cord; I want to scream for someone to come help me.
Me. Hannah Sheraton.
I want to see Hermosa Beach again.
I want to take Max for a walk.
I'm a teenager.
I want to paint.
I want my hair to be long again.
I want to see Josie and Archer and Faye.
I am frightened.
I want. . .
"Hannah, what are you waiting for?"
"Nothing," I say.
I push my way out of the booth. Billy bounces from one foot to the other. His arms wrap around himself. I had a chance to pack stuff when we left Hermosa, but he didn't. I had the money I made from selling my paintings; Billy didn't have a dime. The captain on that boat screwed us out of our wages.
"What are you going to do?" he asked when I demanded that he pay us. "Call the cops?"
He was smarter than I gave him credit for which is more than I can say for most adults. When we left Hermosa the idea was to get Billy somewhere safe until the adults figured things out. I didn't think it would take this long or that we would have to go this far. I thought we were safe in Oregon, but when we heard a big man was looking for us I figured it was Gjergy Isai. We never laid eyes on him. We ran with all we had, and at that point we didn't have much. We have less now.
"You need warmer clothes. You need different shoes," I say.
"Yeah. Who knew Alaska would be so cold?"
He laughs at his own joke. It kind of ticks me off that he doesn't complain. I seem to be mad at him a lot. Mostly I'm sorry for it, so I don't say anything. Billy touches my shoulder, and I flinch. He seems sad when he says:
Billy motions toward a bunch of trucks pulled up near the giant gas tanks. Two of the operators are in the shop having coffee. Billy caught the third guy in the john at the back of the building and hit him up for a ride while they stood side-by-side peeing. I can't decide if I don't like the looks of the guy, or I'm just not happy that Billy didn't consult with me before arranging this. Either way I am not happy, and Billy is trying to figure out how to get my rear in gear.
"The shop guy isn't going to let us sleep inside."
He's right. Nobody wants two homeless kids anywhere near their stuff overnight. You never know what we might do. Of course, they never think of it from our perspective. We never know what the adults will do. Still, we can't stay out in the open Even sleeping bags won't be enough to keep us from freezing to death in another few weeks.
"Okay." I say this like I've made a choice even though we don't have one.
"We're coming." Billy waves at the trucker, flashing him a brilliant smile. He's so relieved he glows. Even from this distance I see the trucker glower. Then I make Billy crazy again.
"I've got to use the bathroom." I duck off into the little store while Billy hollers.
"She's got to pee!"
I roll my eyes. It's a good thing I don't embarrass easily. I open the door, and I am in and out in less than five because I didn't really have to pee at all.
I give Billy a puffy fleece jacket that is the most god-awful screaming yellow color. It was the only thing they had close to his size. Billy takes it like I just handed him the Golden Fleece. He wants it in the worst way, but says:
"I'm taking it back. We need the money."
I set my jaw, rip off the tags, tear them up, and toss them.
"Now you can't return it. Come on."
Grabbing my duffle, I walk away from the light and through the late afternoon dark of Alaska. It will only get blacker the further north we go and that is perfect for hiding. The bearded guy who's going to give us a hitch stands in a puddle of light cast by a single bulb strung on a wire above him. He wears a hat with earflaps. It takes a certain kind of guy to wear a hat like that the right way. He's not that guy. Billy pulls up beside me. The screaming yellow fleece jacket is even grosser when it's on him. He's got it zipped up to his chin, his hands are buried in his pockets, and there's a bounce in his step. He is so grateful for every little thing – even an ugly jacket.
In the next minute, I flatten my gaze and forget Billy. The trucker is watching us. Only he's not really watching us, he's watching me. I've seen too many men look at my mother like that, and I know it's not nice. The good news is that I'm not my mother. I stop in front of him. His dirty fingers wrap around the door handle.
"There's only room for one up front." His voice is like his beard: stubbly, sketchy and unattractive.
"It's okay. You ride up front, Han–” Billy begins to talk, but I cut him off. He's so clueless.
"We'll both go in back."
I cut my eyes to the container he's hauling on the flatbed. It reminds me of the place Josie was imprisoned. I flash on doors shutting, chains threading, locks ratcheting, rotten air, isolation, death and madness. I just know all of them are already comfortable in the cave-like corners of that metal box. I look back at the driver. He is just a stupid man, not a crazy maniac. I've seen a lot of crazy people up close and personal. Not everyone is a friggin' crazy person. I have to remember that.
I know that my stare shames him because of what he's thinking. Hitchhikers have to pay: ass, grass or gas. It's not Billy's ass he's after. I pull a twenty from my pocket and hand it to him.
He scowls and leads the way to the back. As he passes, I smell beer on his breath. When we get to the rear he unlocks the container and pushes one tall door back. The metal groans and the inside yawns like the passage way to hell. I feel sick, but I toss the duffle in and then grab the side of the door. If I go in fast it won't be so scary. Then the guy in the dork hat puts his hands on my butt, and his touch is like a cattle prod. I jump down and square off.
"Don't touch me," I growl.
I've got a fist up and my feet planted like I could really take him on. Billy isn't so sure I won't try, so he puts his arm between us. I can feel his whole being begging me not to make trouble. I hate trouble, too, but I didn't start it. Billy should do something so I don't have to. Then again, he's done as much as his good nature will allow. Finally, the driver shakes his head. He spits on the ground.
"I was helping, you little black bitch."
I ignore the slur. It could have been worse. He could have left us there. Instead, he waits until I climb in. Billy scrambles after me. We stand together, seeing our breath blow ice-white in the grey of the interior. The thing is half filled with boxes. The inside smells of something but it isn't food. The metal floor is buckled, and it pops under our weight as we shift to get the feel of our surroundings.
"Don't touch nothin'," The driver warns.
I look back at him. I want to say that we won't. I want to say thanks to make up some. He slams the door before I can. I thought I knew what dark was, but until that second I didn't have a clue how black the world could really be.
When I hear the latches bang and a chain run its course, the crazy-making itch of uncertainty, fear, and despair runs through me. I need a razor blade in the worst way to slice myself and bleed it out. This tight and nasty thing makes me feel like I did when my mother took hold of my shoulders and shook me, her face close to mine as she spit out words that made no sense except to her.
My last chance to have something good . . . you're a good girl
He needs to like you . . . men don't like kids
How can I take care of us. . . I'm saddled with you
"Hannah, I'm here," Billy calls, but I don't pay attention. That's what happens when I think of my mother. I only hear her voice.
The scars on my arms swell as if blood is pumping through them but that's impossible. None of them are new. There is no life in that ugly little map of mutilations on my forearms, but the fear is alive, writhing, and its tentacles are deep. I push out a hand, my fingers crunch into my palm. My nails are short now, but they still bite into my skin as they keep time with the numbers flashing behind my eyes. I am so afraid I can't speak. Funny that a slamming door can do me in when Gjergy Isai and the old judge, Fritz Rayburn, should have been far more frightening. Maybe they weren't as scary as this because I could see them coming. Suddenly, Billy is beside me, a young man wrapped in a ball of yellow fleece.
"I got you, Hannah." It's true. He has my hand. He squeezes it. I'm not real happy he's done this, but for now it's all good. "It's okay. Dude, it's okay."
I laugh because he calls me dude, because he comforts me in the same voice he uses to talk about everything. That voice is tinged with awe and sweet faith. Some things never change. Even though we can't see each other, I know he's smiling because my laugh is a relief to him. It means that I am not mad at him, and I am okay. As long as I'm okay, so is he.
The truck starts up with a deep rumble of an engine that sounds out of whack. We lose our balance, drop to our knees, and crawl to the side of the container. We laugh as the floor pops under us like metallic bubble wrap and then scramble between stacks of boxes to settle in. The cardboard will steady us and help us stay warm. The container lurches and shakes a little. The cargo is strapped; it's the truck that is unsteady. I wonder if the bumper has one of those 'how am I driving?' stickers on the back and if someone will report this guy. I hope not because we are on the road again, and we need to get to the end of the world. I don't know where that is, but I think we're pretty close to it in Alaska.
I am so deep in thought that I jump when Billy touches my head. Being touched gently in the dark like that always feels creepy. Someday, maybe, there will be someone I love and I'll welcome the touch that comes out of nowhere, but now I duck away. Billy doesn't take offense. He just stays on his own track.
"Cutting your hair was massive, Hannah. Really. It was awesome."
I smile even though I've heard this almost every night before he sleeps. What he really means is that he misses the Hannah he knew. The one with style, with a diamond pierced through her nose and a stutter of gold rings through her ears. He doesn't know this Hannah, the girl with the halo of kink and curls, dyed blond with a box of Clairol swiped from a sale table in front of a beauty supply shop back in Sanger. It was too dangerous to go in to pay for it when we were that close to home. I left a few dollars. I hope the girl from the counter found it. I touch the scrub of hair on my head and say the same thing I say every night:
"Yeah, I guess."
I don't point out that we've both changed. Billy's hair has grown past his shoulders and he parts it in the middle or pulls it back in a ponytail. It is beautiful, straight and sandy brown instead of beach-bleached white. I don't think he misses the beach after what he's been through but strangely I do. It was never the ocean that bugged me anyway; it was the people living near it who made me crazy. They were so happy. I've never been real comfortable with happy when it skims the top of person and doesn't sink further than a white-toothed smile. That kind of happy is like the froth on a latte; deceptively sweet and easily overpowered by the bitter drink beneath.
Thinking of Hermosa brings hot tears to my eyes, but I'm more angry than sad. Life isn't fair, and I'm so done with that. It's time for life to at least give me and Billy an honest-to-God break. I put my head on the floor, curl into the boxes on my side, and close my eyes.
"We should try to get some rest," I say.
"You look more like a black chick now." I hear him settling in against the boxes on his side. He's sleepy, but he keeps talking. I found that out about him early on. He talks himself to sleep. "Even if your hair's blond, you still look like a black chick. When your hair was long you looked Indian. From India, you know?"
"Yeah, I know." I truly do know, but he's not talking about what I look like. He wants to know if I will stay with him. I wish he'd just ask straight out, but he doesn't. It doesn't matter, really. I don't have the energy to reassure him when he never can be reassured. I can't even be truly honest with myself. Maybe some of my mother is in me – the part that eventually bolts for greener pastures.
"Do you miss it, Hannah?" he asks dreamily. "Your hair? Do you miss it?"
I shake my head. No, I don't miss my hair as much as I miss what might have been if I was still in Hermosa with Josie.
"You okay, Hannah?"
"I'm good. It's nice to ride. I was tired of walking. I didn't like the boat."
"It is nice to ride." Billy echoes me. Then there's a minute and he adds: "Yeah, you look more like a black chick now."
Billy Zuni stops talking. He sleeps. My eyes are open, and I stare straight ahead seeing nothing. His words echo in my head. Black chick. That's what I am. I am getting darker by the minute. But this black has nothing to do with the color of my skin and everything to do with my heart and my mind.
I am afraid of myself just a little bit.
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