Authors: Carl Deuker
Houghton Mifflin Company
The author would like to thank the editor of this book
Ann Rider, for her advice and encouragement.
Text copyright Â© 2005 by Carl Deuker
All rights reserved. For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The text of this book is set in 11-point Scala.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Runner / by Carl Deuker.
Summary: Living with his alcoholic father on a broken-down sailboat on Puget Sound has been
hard on seventeen-year-old Chance Taylor, but when his love of running leads to a high-paying job,
he quickly learns that the money is not worth the risk.
[1. SmugglingâFiction. 2. AlcoholismâFiction. 3. Single-parent familiesâFiction. 4.Povertyâ
Fiction. 5. TerrorismâFiction. 6. Puget Sound (Wash.)âFiction.] I. Title.
PZ7.D493Ru 2005Â [Fic]âdc22 2004015781
Manufactured in the United States of America
MP 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
FOR ANNE AND MARIAN
I've read about kids who hate their parents for being alcoholics. I've never understood that. It'd be like hating a wounded animal for being wounded, which makes no sense at all. Lots of times my dad made me mad, lots of times he left me alone and lonely, but I never once hated him, not even when he was at his rock-bottom worst, not even when I thought he was both a coward and a drunk.
Nobody would ever call him a coward now, not with the way things ended. But talking about how things ended makes no sense without understanding how it all began. The hard part is knowing where to start. The stuff with my mother happened when I was in sixth grade, and my father got booted out of the army a couple of years before that. But those things are hazy to me. What's completely clear is this school year, beginning with September 11, the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
School is always different on September 11. This year, instead of going straight to class, we had an assembly first period. The choir sang patriotic songs, the principal gave a speech, the marching band played
The Star-Spangled Banner.
In every classâeven math classâteachers led boring discussions. Kids around me took turns talking about terrorism, and Iraq, and Osama bin Laden, and al-Qaida. It seemed like everybody had an opinion about something.
Everybody but me. I didn't say a word in any of my morning classes; I just sat in the back and kept my mouth closed. But that was nothing new; it's what I'd been doing from the first day I entered Lincoln High. What I'd been doing from middle school, even. I took whatever classes the counselors gave me, did whatever schoolwork I had to do to get a passing grade, and disappeared from campus as soon as the final bell rang. I was one of the ghost-walkers in school.
My last class was World Issues with Mr. Arnold. The first time I saw Arnold, I thought I was looking at my dad's long-lost twin brother. They're both in their forties; they're both tall and thin; they both have deep-set brown eyes and graying beards.
But then I looked closer, and I saw all the differences. Arnold probably works out in the gym seven days a week. His clothes are always clean; his hair and beard are always neatly trimmed. My dad has long straggly hair and a stubbly beard. His clothes are as dirty as his hair, and he's got the raspy voice of a smoker and the blotchy skin of a drunk. The only exercise he gets is walking to the Sloop Tavern, and he doesn't even do that much. Most days he just lies around the broken-down
sailboat that we live on, drinking and smoking and reading the sports page over and over.
After I found my spot in the back of Arnold's classroom that day, I looked out the window. That wasn't new, but the flock of starlings that were attacking the lawn was. Their beaks would hammer down into the grass, and then they would gobble up whatever bug or worm they'd grabbed. They knew what they wanted, and they got it.
Arnold pushed the classroom door open just as the bell rang. Behind him was some guy who didn't look much older than me. His face was bright and shiny, and he was wearing a crisply pressed army uniform. As soon as I saw him, I knew what was coming: a long talk about how rewarding it was to be in the army, serving America and defending freedom. I looked back at the birds.
One really good thing about Arnold is that he leaves you alone. You look out the window, it's OK with him, just so long as you don't bother other kids. So I planned on looking out the window for fifty-five minutes before finally going home.
At first, Arnold's voice was like background noise. He was rattling on about how our guest was a recent graduate of Lincoln High, how a few of us might remember him, how brave and courageous he was. "So please, ladies and gentlemen, let's give our attention to Mr. Brent Miller."
My eyes turned back to the front of the class. I looked, and then looked again. The last time I'd seen Miller, he had green-tipped hair, wore ripped pants that hung down to his thighs, and was drinking wine and smoking dope at Salmon Bay Park with a bunch of guys who looked just like him.
Miller had been a senior at Lincoln High when I'd entered as a freshman, but I'd known him before that, known him and hated him. His dad was a vet of the first Gulf War just like my dad, and his dad was a drunk, just like mine. The two of them had hung out at the same taverns along Ballard Avenue.
Sometimes, Miller and I would be stuck together in his dad's crummy apartment or on my dad's smelly sailboat while our fathers drank themselves into stupors. It didn't happen oftenâevery couple months or soâbut once would have
been one time too many. Brent and I would spend the hours glaring at each other.
A few weeks before I started at Lincoln High, Miller's dad and my dad got into some sort of shouting match at the Sunset Tavern. The bartender threw them both out, and on the sidewalk the shouting turned into a brawl. My dad ended up in jail for a couple of days; Miller's dad ended up at Harborview Hospital for the same amount of time. "I kicked his ass good," my dad told me when he got out.
Once school started, Miller made me pay. Every chance he got, he'd shove me up against the lockers and squeeze my face with his fat hand, putting on a big show for his friends. "You think this is bad," he'd say. "Someday, I'm going to get you alone. Then you'll find out what bad really is."
Just before Christmas break a message came to me during math class. I was to report to the office immediately. I was afraid something had happened to my dad; I was always afraid of that. He's not like drunk fathers in books. They're always no-good bastards who even beat their kids and their wives. My dad never hit me; never yelled at me. He was just a drunk.
I hustled down the main hallway, turned into a side hall that led to the office, and came face to face with Miller and one of his friends. Miller grabbed me, spun me around, and put his hand over my mouth. Then the two of them dragged me into the boys' bathroom and kicked open the door to one of the stalls. They flipped me over and started dunking my head into a toilet that was full of crap and piss. I wanted to scream, but I had to hold my breath. They'd pull me up; I'd gulp some
air; and then they'd dunk me again. After doing that six or seven times, they started flushing the toilet. I'd hear the roar of the water and the two of them laughing, then more roaring and more laughter. Finally, after what seemed like an hour but was probably a minute, they dropped me. My head smacked against the porcelain toilet bowl.
I ended up on my knees, gasping for breath, with snot coming out of my nose and toilet water dripping out of my hair. Miller leaned down close to me. "Your old man got kicked out of the army for being a piece-of-crap coward, and you're just like him." With that, he and his friend were gone.
A couple of minutes later some big guy, one of the football players wearing his letterman's jacket, came into the bathroom. I was sitting on the floor, crying and shaking. My face was bruised and my nose was bleeding. He picked me up by the shoulders, led me over to the sink, turned the faucet on, and then stood by me as I splashed warm water onto my face.
He stayed with me until I'd cleaned myself up and the shaking and crying had stopped. "I got to get back to class," he said at last. "But you tell Ms. Dugan who did this to you, and she'll take care of them."
"I will," I said, my voice shaky.
But I never did.
Now that same Brent Miller was back at Lincoln High, playing war hero. He stood at attention, looking out over the class. When our eyes caught, there was a quick flash of recognition. He smirked at me, and it was as if no time at all had passed, as if he were still holding me over the toilet. I quickly looked away. I wanted to keep my eyes turned away; I wanted to stare at those greedy birds and that green grass, but I just couldn't keep myself from looking back.
And I couldn't keep from listening either. Miller's voice was cool and confident. Someday he was going to be a tank commander. He hoped he'd be assigned to Iraq. He'd only been in the service nine months, but already he'd learned about teamwork and dedication and patriotism. Being in the army was the greatest job in the world.
Everybody else was falling for his patriotic trash, but I knew him for what he wasâa loser who'd joined the army because
he had no place else to go other than jail. As he droned on, waves of heat rolled over me, followed by waves of cold. The whole time my stomach churned. I wanted the hour to end, but time crawled along. What made it worse was that Heather Carp and Melody Turner and their whole group gaped at Miller as if he really were a war hero.
Finally he stopped. I thought it was over, that he'd leave, but Arnold came to his side. "Private Miller would be willing to answer a few questions, if you have any."
Brian Mitchell, who was in some sort of marine training already, shot his hand up. "Are you afraid of dying?"
Miller cleared his throat. "If I have to die for my country, I will. And if I have to kill for my country, I'll do that too." It was as if he were a really bad actor in some really bad war movie.
"Any other questions?" Mr. Arnold asked, looking around. No hands waved about. I let out a sigh of relief. But just as Miller was about to leave, Melody Turner raised her hand.
As usual, Melody was stuffed into a tank top two sizes too small for her, and she twisted sideways in her seat so he'd be sure to notice. She gave him her bad-girl smile and bit the end of her pencil. "This is a little off the topic," she said, "but what do army privates do for fun?"
Heather Carp and her other friends giggled; Miller grinned. "The same things you like to do, I'd bet," he said.
"Maybe we should get together, then," Melody said.
The class roared. Arnold waved his hands around like a cop trying to keep a car from driving into a ditch. "All right," he said, smiling, "that's enough of that."
Melody picked at her fingernails. "You said you wanted questions."
"I know I did, Melody," Arnold said. "But I meant serious questions." He looked out. "Does anyone have one?"
That's when Melissa Watts raised her hand.
I should have known she would. Her binder is plastered with stickers that read war is terrorism and war sucks. When she was a junior, she wrote an article for the school newspaper about the rights of gay students. Most kids don't like her much, but I've always thought she was OK.
I've known her for a long time. She runs cross-country, which is the sport I used to do before the divorce, back when I did sports. For a while I was the only person at Whittier School who could beat her. Our races always played out the same way. Even then she was tall and slender, and she'd eat up ground with her long stride, but I'd catch and pass her at the very end. She has green eyes, and as I raced by her to the finish line, those eyes would spit fire at me. I like that about her, too.
Arnold nodded to her. "What's your question, Melissa?"
"I was just wondering," she said, "if Private Miller has ever
read about the places he might end up. You know what I mean. Stuff on the history of the Middle East, or on Islam?"
It was a trap. Everybody in the classroom knew it except Miller. Melissa had the jaws ready to snap shut, and Miller walked right in. "Sure," he said. "I've read stuff about the Middle East."
Melissa made a big point of taking out her pen and opening up her notebook. "That's great. Could you give me titles of books you'd recommend?"
Miller's face reddened. "Titles? I'm not sure I can remember any titles."
Melissa leaned forward. "How about authors, then? Just one or two to get me started. You must remember some names."
Heather Carp turned in her seat and glared at Melissa. "You are such a bitch."
"Heather," Arnold said angrily.
"Well, it's true, Mr. Arnold. You know what she's doing."
Melissa's voice hardened. "If he hasn't read anything, why doesn't he just say so?" She looked at Miller. "You haven't read anything on the Middle East, have you? You're just saying exactly what the army tells you to say."
"Stop it, Melissa," Arnold said.
"Why do I have to stop it? We're all pretending he's some sort of expert just because he has a uniform on, but he doesn't know anything."
"I said stop it," Arnold repeated sharply. "Right now."
The whole class had turned on Melissa. They were all glaring at her. I couldn't leave her hanging out there alone. Not with Miller.
"What are you getting mad at her for?" I said, and now the class wheeled around to look at me. "She asked a simple question. Either he's read some books or he hasn't." I forced myself to look right at Miller. "So what's your answer? Yes or no?"