“You can’t come,” his older brother said.
George spoke in a low voice, even though the rest of his friends — a neighborhood group of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who styled themselves the Rip-Ass Raiders — were up at the end of the block, waiting for him. Not very patiently. “It’s too dangerous.”
Pete said, “I’m not afraid.” He spoke stoutly enough, although he was afraid, a little. George and his friends were headed up to the sandpit behind the bowling alley. There they’d play a game Normie Therriault had invented. Normie was the leader of the Rip-Ass Raiders, and the game was called Paratroops From Hell. There was a rutted track leading up to the edge of the gravel pit, and the game was to ride your bike along it at full speed, yelling “Raiders rule!” at the top of your lungs and bailing from the seat of your bike as you went over. The usual drop was ten feet or so, and the approved landing area was soft, but sooner or later someone would land on gravel instead of sand and probably break an arm or an ankle. Even Pete knew that (although he sort of understood why it added to the attraction). Then the parents would find out and that would be the end of Paratroops From Hell. For now, however, the game — played without helmets, of course — continued.
George knew better than to allow his brother to play, however; he was supposed to be taking care of Pete while their parents were at work. If Pete wrecked his Huffy at the gravel pit, George would likely be grounded for a week. If his little brother broke an arm, it would be for a month. And if — God forbid! — it was his neck, George guessed he might be whiling away the hours in his bedroom until he went to college.
Besides, he loved the little cock-knocker.
“Just hang out here,” George said. “We’ll be back in a couple of hours.”
“Hang out with who?” Pete asked morosely. It was spring vacation, and all of his friends, the ones his mother would have called “age appropriate,” seemed to be somewhere else. A couple of them had gone to Disney World in Orlando, and when Pete thought of this, his heart filled with envy and jealousy — a vile brew, but strangely tasty.
“Just hang out,” George said. “Go to the store, or something.” He scrounged in his pocket and came out with two crumpled Washingtons. “Here’s a couple of bucks.”
Pete looked at them. “Jeez, I’ll buy a Corvette. Maybe two.”
“Hurry up, Simmons, or we’ll go withoutcha!” Normie yelled.
“Coming!” George shouted back. Then, low, to Pete: “Take the money and don’t be a boogersnot.”
Pete took the money. “I even brought my magnifying glass,” he said. “I was gonna show em—”
“They’ve all seen that baby trick a thousand times,” George said, but when he saw the corners of Pete’s mouth tuck down, he tried to soften the blow. “Besides, look at the sky, numbo. You can’t start fires with a magnifying glass on a cloudy day. Hang out. We’ll play computer Battleship or something when I come back.”
“Okay, chickshit, seeya later!” Normie yelled.
“I gotta go,” George said. “Do me a favor and don’t get in trouble. Stay in the neighborhood.”
“You’ll probably break your spine and be fuckin’ paralyzed for life,” Pete said. then hastily spat between his forked fingers to take the curse off. “Good luck!” he shouted after his brother. “Jump the farthest!”
George waved one hand in acknowledgment, but didn’t look back. He stood on the pedals of his own bike, a big old Schwinn that Pete admired but couldn’t ride (he’d tried once and wiped out halfway down the driveway). Pete watched him put on speed as he raced up this block of suburban houses in Auburn, catching up with his homies.
Then Pete was alone.
He took his magnifying glass out of his saddlebag and held it over his forearm, but there was no spot of light and no heat. He looked glumly up at the low-hanging clouds and put the glass back. It was a good one, a Richforth. He’d gotten it last Christmas, to help with his ant-farm science project.
“It’ll wind up in the garage, gathering dust,” his father had said, but although the ant-farm project had concluded in February (Pete and his partner, Tammy Witham, had gotten an A), Pete hadn’t tired of the magnifying glass yet. He particularly enjoyed charring holes in pieces of paper in the backyard.
But not today. Today, the afternoon stretched ahead like a desert. He could go home and watch TV, but his father had put a block on all the interesting channels when he discovered George had been DVR-ing Boardwalk Empire, which was full of gangsters and bare titties. There was a similar block on Pete’s computer, and he hadn’t figured a workaround yet, although he would; it was only a matter of time.
“So what,” he said in a low voice, and began to pedal slowly toward the end of Murphy Street. “So. fucking. what.”
Too little to play Paratroops From Hell, because it was too dangerous. How sucky. He wished he could think of something that would show George and Normie and all of the Raiders that even little kids could face dan —
Then it came to him. He could explore the abandoned rest area. Pete didn’t think the big kids knew about it, because it was a kid Pete’s own age, Craig Gagnon, who had told him about it. He said he’d been up there with a couple of other kids, ten-year-olds, last fall. Of course the whole thing might have been a lie, but Pete didn’t think so. Craig had given too many details, and he wasn’t a particularly imaginative boy.
With a destination in mind, Pete began to pedal faster. At the end of Murphy Street he banked left onto Hyacinth. There was no one on the sidewalk, and no cars. He heard the whine of a vacuum cleaner from the Rossignols’, but otherwise everyone might have been sleeping or dead. Pete supposed they were actually at work, like his own parents.
He swept right onto Rosewood Terrace, passing the yellow sign reading DEAD END. There were only a dozen or so houses on Rosewood. At the end of the street was a chain-link fence. Beyond it was a thick tangle of shrubbery and scraggly second-growth trees. As Pete drew closer to the chain-link (and the totally unnecessary sign mounted on it reading NOT A THROUGH STREET), he stopped pedaling and coasted.
He understood — vaguely — that although he thought of George and his Raider pals as Big Kids (and certainly that was how the Raiders thought of themselves), they weren’t really Big Kids. The true Big Kids were badass teenagers who had driver’s licenses and girlfriends. True Big Kids went to high school. They liked to drink, smoke pot, listen to heavy metal or hip-hop, and suck major face with their girlfriends.
Hence, the abandoned rest area.
Pete got off his Huffy and looked around to see if he was being observed. There was nobody. Even the annoying Crosskill twins, who liked to jump rope (in tandem) all over the neighborhood when there was no school, were not in evidence. A bald-ass miracle, in Pete’s opinion.
Not too far away, Pete could hear the steady whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of cars on I-95, headed south to Portland or north to Augusta.
Even if Craig was telling the truth, they probably fixed the fence, Pete thought. That’s the way today’s going.
But when he bent close, he could see that although the fence looked whole, it really wasn’t. Someone (probably a Big Kid who had long since joined the ranks of Young Adults) had clipped the links in a straight line from top to bottom. Pete took another look around, then laced his hands in the metal diamonds and pushed. He expected resistance, but there was none. The cut piece of chain-link swung open like a farmyard gate. The Really Big Kids had been using it, all right. Booya.
It stood to reason, when you thought about it. Maybe they had drivers’ licenses, but the entrance and exit to the Mile 81 rest area were now blocked off by those big orange barrels the highway crews used. Grass was growing up through the crumbling pavement in the deserted parking lot. Pete had seen this for himself thousands of times, because the school bus used I-95 to go the three exits from Laurelwood, where he got picked up, to Sabattus Street, home to Auburn Elementary School No. 3.
He could remember when the rest area had still been open. There had been a gas station, a Burger King, a TCBY, and a Sbarro’s. Then it got closed down. Pete’s dad said there were too many of those rest areas on the turnpike, and the state couldn’t afford to keep them all open.
Pete rolled his bike through the gap in the chain-link, then carefully pushed the makeshift gate back until the diamond shapes matched up and the fence looked whole again. He walked toward the wall of bushes, being careful not to run the Huffy’s tires over any broken glass (there was a lot of it on this side of the fence). He began looking for what he knew must be here; the cut fence said it had to be.
And there it was, marked by stamped cigarette butts and a few discarded beer and soda bottles: a path leading deeper into the undergrowth. Still pushing his bike, Pete followed it. The high bushes swallowed him up. Behind him, Rosewood Terrace dreamed through another overcast spring day.
It was as if Pete Simmons had never been there at all.
The path between the chain-link fence and the Mile 81 rest area was, by Pete’s estimation, about half a mile long, and there were Big Kid signposts all along the way: half a dozen small brown bottles (two with snot-caked coke spoons still attached), empty snack bags, a pair of lace-trimmed panties hanging from a thornbush (it looked to Pete like they’d been there for a while, like maybe fifty years), and — jackpot! — a half-full bottle of Popov vodka with the screw cap still on. After some interior debate, Pete put this into his saddlebag along with his magnifying glass, the latest issue of American Vampire, and a few Double Stuf Oreos in a baggie.
He pushed his bike across a sluggish little stream, and bingo-boingo, here he was at the back of the rest area. There was another chain-link fence, but this one was also cut, and Pete slipped right through. The path continued through high grass to the back parking lot. Where, he supposed, the delivery trucks used to pull up. Close to the building he could see darker rectangles on the pavement where the Dumpsters had been. Pete lowered the kickstand of his Huffy and parked it on one of these.
His heart was thumping as he thought about what came next. Breaking and entering, sugarbear. You could go to jail for that. But was it breaking and entering if he found an open door, or a loose board over one of the windows? He supposed it would still be entering, but was entering all by itself a crime?
In his heart he knew it was, but he guessed that without the breaking part, it wouldn’t mean jail time. And after all, hadn’t he come here to take a risk? Something he could brag about later to Normie and George and the other Rip-Ass Raiders?
And okay, he was scared, but at least he wasn’t bored anymore.
He tried the door with the fading EMPLOYEES ONLY sign on it, and found it not only locked but seriously locked — no give at all. There were two windows beside it, but he could tell just by looking that they were boarded down tight. Then he remembered the chain-link fence that looked whole but wasn’t, and tested the boards anyway. No good. In a way, it was a relief. He could be off the hook if he wanted to be.
Only. the Really Big Kids did go in there. He was sure of it. So how did they do it? From the front? In full view of the turnpike? Maybe so, if they came at night, but Pete had no intention of checking it out in broad daylight. Not when any passing motorist with a cell phone could dial 911 and say, “Just thought you might like to know that there’s a little kid playing Freddy Fuckaround at the Mile 81 rest area. You know, where the Burger King used to be?”
I’d rather break my arm playing Paratroops From Hell than have to call my folks from the Gray State Police Barracks. In fact, I’d rather break both arms and get my dick caught in the zipper.
Well, maybe not that.
He wandered toward the loading dock, and there, once again: jackpot. There were dozens of stamped-out cigarette butts at the foot of the concrete island, plus a few more of those tiny brown bottles surrounding their king: a dark green NyQuil bottle. The surface of the dock, where the big semis backed up to unload, was eye-high to Pete, but the cement was crumbling and there were plenty of footholds for an agile kid in Chuck Taylor High-Tops. Pete raised his arms over his head, snagged fingerholds in the dock’s pitted surface. and the rest, as they say, is history.
On the dock, in faded red, someone had sprayed EDWARD LITTLE ROCKS, RED EDDIES RULE. Not true, Pete thought. Rip-Ass Raiders rule. Then he looked around from his current high perch, grinned, and said, “Actually, I rule.” And standing up here above the empty back lot of the rest area, he felt that he did. For the time being, anyway.
He climbed back down — just to make sure it was no problem — and then remembered the stuff in his saddlebag. Supplies, in case he decided to spend the afternoon here, exploring and shit. He debated what to bring, then decided to unstrap the saddlebag and take everything. Even the magnifying glass might come in handy. A vague fantasy began to form in his brain: boy detective discovers a murder victim in a deserted rest area, and solves the crime before the police even know a crime has been committed. He could see himself explaining to the drop-jawed Raiders that it had actually been pretty easy. Elementary, my dear fucksticks.
Bullshit, of course, but it would be fun to pretend.
He lifted his bag onto the loading dock (being especially careful on account of the half-full vodka bottle), then climbed back up. The corrugated metal door leading inside was at least twelve feet high and secured at the bottom with not one but two humongous padlocks, but there was a human-sized door set into it. Pete tried the knob. It wouldn’t turn, nor would the human-sized door open when he pushed and pulled, but there was some give. Quite a lot, actually. He looked down and saw that a wooden wedge had been pushed under the bottom of the door; a totally dope precaution if he’d ever seen one. On the other hand, what more could you expect from kids who were stoned on coke and cough syrup?
Pete pulled the wedge, and this time when he tried the inset door, it creaked open.
The big front windows of what had been the Burger King were covered with chickenwire instead of boards, so Pete had no trouble seeing what there was to see. All the eating tables and booths were gone from the restaurant part, and the kitchen part was just a dim hole with some wires sticking out of the walls and some of the ceiling tiles hanging down, but the place was not exactly unfurnished.