Twelve-year-old Caleb Prescott was afraid to go home.
All he could think about was what his foster father was going to do to him when he got there.
He stood motionless for a long time. Until the neon sign of the pizza joint across the street turned off, signifying the late hour.
And Caleb knew it was now or never.
Snapping out of his hypnotic trance, he looked down and was surprised to see the aluminum bar of his mountain bike between his knees; he’d been straddling it the entire time. His grip on the handlebars felt stiff and achy. And the wind moaning through the half-naked trees sounded like the ghost that haunted his dreams each night.
“You got this,” he told himself. “Just sneak back down to the dungeon, and then you can cry yourself to sleep remembering the flowery smell of her long soft brown hair.”
But the truth was that holding on to those memories using the most fleeting of senses– the sense of touch and smell that fades so fast– was getting harder with each passing day. Spending a night in a cemetery filled with evil spirits would be easier, he reasoned.
Case in point, wasn’t he pretty much doing that now? All alone on a dark deserted street, teeth chattering in fear from a creepy sound seemingly getting closer? Like a pissed-off ghost coming for him any minute?
Only this ghost, when he calmed down and listened more intensely, sounded different. More like crying. Like someone in trouble. Not so much a ghost, perhaps, but a real person. Separating the sound from that of the breeze, Caleb decided it was coming from the alleyway.
In a flash, his feet found the pedals and he sped towards the noise, a small-for-his-age, but quick and nimble kid, now on a mission.
Rounding the corner, he hit the brakes and skidded to an abrupt stop.
There on the pavement, under a nearby streetlight, he saw something that broke his heart, at least what was left of it. A Maltese terrier, its fur caked with mud, was whimpering loudly, as it lay trapped in a metal dog crate.
The anger exploded in Caleb’s head like shrapnel from a bomb.
Who would do such a thing?
Though he wanted to spring into action, to perform superhero maneuvers fast and all at once, it felt like the opposite was happening. Like everything was swinging in slow motion on a gigantic pendulum. That frustration of taking too long brought tears to pool in his green eyes, clouding his vision, slowing everything down even more.
Finally, his fingers forced the pin in the lock to come loose. Swinging the door open, he crawled on his hands and knees towards the frightened canine cowering at the back.
Caleb brought his face within inches of the little dog. He looked into her eyes and a tenderness seeped into his ragged heart, softening the edges.
The pup licked the teardrops snaking down his face and let him pet her.
“I’m going to name you Midnight even though underneath all that filth, you’re white. But I found you precisely at that time, so that’s your name. Right little one?”
Midnight’s reply was a bark that grew into three consecutive ones, and when she pushed her little snout past Caleb’s shoulder, he realized she was barking at something behind him. A second too late, he heard someone yell “Gotcha!” and turned around in time to see a chubby kid, sucking on a lollipop, slam the cage door shut with a clatter.
Caleb’s heart sank like a thousand-pound anchor to the bottom of the sea.
The freckled boy with orange hair and a Cheshire cat smile, deliberately, almost mockingly, pushed the pin down to lock Caleb and Midnight inside. Looking to be about fourteen, he wore tattered sweatpants and a stained yellow parka.
“Please, let us out,” Caleb begged. “My dog is hurt.”
“Your dog? Really?” the fair-haired bully drawled, “I don’t think so shithead. That dog ain’t yours, you just wanna steal it.”
His lips formed an o shape around the sucker and pulling it out of his mouth with a popping sound, he pointed the fluorescent green lollipop at Caleb. “I think you’re a turd who wants to be a hero by rescuing the ugly mutt, right? he snickered. “Except you’re no hero, you’re just a loser with a black eye. Your bike looks like garbage too, but I might just take it anyway.”
Tamping down on his anxiety, Caleb tried to think hard and fast on the fly.
“You’re right,” Caleb said. “I shouldn’t have lied to you. But if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your name?” and then quickly added, “So I can show you some respect.”
The teenager was speechless. And though Caleb had never been one of those count your chickens before they’re hatched kind of guys, he felt hopeful.
“Yeah jackass,” the boy exclaimed, “you should respect me, so you can call me Richie when you tell me what that bike’s worth.”
“Thanks Richie,” Caleb said, “and you’re right, that bike’s on its last legs. If it isn’t the chain falling off, then the handlebars don’t turn, and the worst part? The brakes are shot.” Richie,” he sighed, “it’s not worth more than a penny. But I’ve got something that’s much better.”
Richie pulled the bare stick of the sucker out of his mouth and Caleb could hear him crunching the last pieces of candy between his teeth. Throwing the stick on the ground, Richie scowled at the bike like it was a vile thing. Giving up on it, he turned back to his prisoner.
“Whatcha got?” he demanded, adding “it better be good or I’m gonna drown this mutt in the river.”
Caleb opened his mouth to speak but closed it again when Richie pulled a BB gun out of a duffle bag next to him and said, “go on, tell me, pinhead.”
Caleb said, “you let us out of here and I’ll give you my last ten bucks.”
He held his breath, then released it when Richie exclaimed “right on, show me the dough.”
With trembling hands, Caleb pulled a ten-dollar bill from his sock.
Richie’s open-mouthed laughter, revealing gaps from missing teeth amongst a few black ones, sent Caleb’s mind sailing back to when being reminded to brush his teeth, annoyed him. Especially when he was tired. Now, the gratitude for his mom’s nagging washed over him like a hot shower after getting caught in the freezing rain.
“You better not think about running before handing me that cash.” Richie warned. He aimed the BB gun, not at Caleb, but directly at Midnight. He said “that runt tried to bite me when I captured it and I wanna shoot it for payback. And fun,” he smiled. “But you give me the ten bucks, and I won’t kill it, got it?”
Caleb nodded vigorously, afraid to breathe until Richie opened the cage and stood aside to let them out.
Free at last, and seconds after Richie grabbed the money with his meaty fingers, Caleb made a beeline towards his bike, calling Midnight to follow him. But Midnight, terrified of Richie, froze when he suddenly stepped towards her, pointing the gun, once again, at her little face.
As Midnight edged away from him, Richie turned towards Caleb and hissed “psst, I was lying. I’m gonna put a bullet in its leg first and then stomp on its face till it’s dead.”
Caleb’s mouth went powder-dry, his stomach lurching like he was on a free-falling plane about to crash. He felt Richie’s threat slam into him, one sadistic word at a time.
With a roar, Caleb rushed at Richie, his right hand curled into a fist and, before Richie could react, he drove his knuckles into the spongy cartilage of his nose. The crunch of bone, followed by Richie’s earsplitting howl, ricocheted down the alley. Blood gushed from Richie’s face. Moments later, the agony splintered through Caleb’s hand like it was on fire.
Caleb wasted no time running towards Midnight.
But before he could reach the little terrier, Richie aimed the BB gun at the dog a third time, only this time, he fired as she took off with surprising swiftness. As Midnight rounded the corner at the end of the alley, she let out a tortured yelp, and Caleb felt sick when Richie cackled in glee for hitting his mark.
Hopping on his bike, Caleb followed Midnight at warp speed. But by the time he rounded that same corner, Midnight was nowhere in sight.
Car headlights, road signs, and blowing trash, all became a blur through the onslaught of Caleb’s tears. Every bit of the fear, anger, and grief he’d been holding so tightly within, tore loose, like a deluge of water from a broken dam. Not knowing where Midnight was, whether she was in pain or even alive, was a new kind of hell.
And speaking of hell, on top of his worry for Midnight, there were the horrors that waited for him when he got back to his foster home.
He still remembered when the social worker brought him there on a hot August morning, dumping him on the doorstep, and heading for the hills right after. The act Darlene, his new foster mom, put on, was worthy of an Oscar and good enough for the caseworker. Determined to make a swift get-away, she never even set foot inside the house. Never even bothered to see where Caleb would lay his head that night.
As soon as the woman drove away, Darlene grabbed him by the hair and pushed him hard through the door as she yelled “get the hell in there, march yourself down to your room in the basement, and stay there until my husband gets home. You understand me boy?”
Caleb understood when Donald came down the stairs three minutes later.
“You listen to me you motherless, unwanted, shit,” Donald spat. This room in the basement? That’s the only place you’re allowed. Food will be left outside your door two times a day, morning, and night. And you’re never allowed upstairs. There’s a toilet and shower here and that’s all you need. Got it?”
Caleb was so scared it felt like horses’ hooves stampeding across his heart, and, unable to stop himself, the moisture began seeping into his underwear, spreading through the fabric of his jeans. His bladder had already been full to begin with, but Donald’s speech, that ugly word “motherless”, made Caleb buckle under the strain. He could no longer hold it in. And now he just wanted to disappear, to die right then and there. Better to see his mom again in heaven, than live like this here in hell.
But it wasn’t over yet. When Donald saw that Caleb had peed himself, he hit him hard across the face, so hard that Caleb flew into the opposite wall. Donald barked, “you’re old enough to be toilet trained for God’s sake. Clean up and wash those filthy clothes in the sink. We don’t run a laundry service here.”
Now, for the millionth time, Caleb cursed the car accident that killed his mom and turned him into a foster kid at the tender age of ten. Missing her was like chemical lye rubbed on a wound, and it was this pain that brought disturbing dreams of ghouls and monsters to most of his nights.
But Midnight had changed something, soothed some of the hurt, like a cool salve applied to a burn.
He had to find her.
But then things suddenly got worse when Caleb spotted something terrible.
There, on a telephone pole, was a poster of a little girl holding a dog. A Maltese terrier. It looked exactly like Midnight. The child’s name was Amber, and she lost her dog, Ivory.
Only briefly did Caleb acknowledge the irony of the dog’s name. His pain was beyond raw and abrasive, it was sandpapering all the way down to the bone. Bad enough that Midnight was gone, but now she also belonged to someone else. Shakily he slid off his bike, leaning it against the metal pole, his legs unsteady causing the rest of his body to quiver. All he could do was stand there sobbing into his hands.
In the cold autumn night, something slammed into his legs. A small, soft, something, that let out an excited bark and wagged its tail. Midnight practically jumped into his arms. He was so happy, he cried even harder. After she licked every tear from his frozen face, Caleb put her down on the sidewalk and knelt to examine her, looking for any signs of an injury.
Other than a scrape on her ear, Midnight appeared to be okay. The BB gun bullet must have only scared her.
But his relief was short-lived. What about the kid on the poster?
Digging a quarter out of his pocket, he scooped Midnight up again and headed towards a payphone across the street. Maybe, he rationalized, he’d get an ‘out of service’ message and there’d be no chance of finding Amber’s family so Midnight would have to stay with him after all. Yeah, right, he thought.
One ring, two rings, three rings, … what would he do if the answering machine came on?
On the fourth ring, the machine did come on, but it wasn’t what Caleb expected.
The message told callers that Ivory had been found and was safe at home.
And Caleb’s world suddenly felt different.
With Midnight at his side, he walked his bike towards Donald and Darlene’s place. At least he had blankets in his room along with some hidden food for both of them.
But when they got there, the house was black. Specifically, a charred black, and those were only the parts that were still standing. The rest had burned down to ashes.
Smoke, thick and acrid, still hung in the air, and Caleb suddenly remembered the six hundred dollars his mom had sewn into the lining of his jacket. And the cheap motel down the road where the owner once overlooked his age and rented him a room. And where the vending machine had the best sandwiches, he’d ever tasted.
“Everything is changing,” he whispered in Midnight’s ear. From now on, he would slay all the monsters for her. And maybe even for himself too.