In Draft 2, Will spent a lot of time being homeless in Barstow. 40 days, actually. Yes, that was an allusion to another great hero who spent 40 days in the desert. The instigating event was the same as it is in the published version – an uncomfortable run in with Feral and an anonymous guest at SPARK.
“Will ran away to SPARK because it was the last place he remembered being happy, and now he’s going to let some girl flipping him off keep him away from SPARK for 40 days? Really?” asked the wonderful @StephMatthieson (my developmental editor).
Okay, in fairness, that made Will more of a whiny snowflake than I wanted him to be. 40 days became 3ish, and the stuff he did during that time had to go.
In the original version of the book, there was a dog. I love dogs. I struggle to imagine the despicable loneliness my childhood would have been without a dog.
Well, it probably would have been okay. After all, I had parents, a bedroom of my own, a parade of decent cats, and a really great sister. Still, every boy needs a dog. Every dog needs a boy. Every girl needs a dog. In fact, I’m pretty sure the world would be a better place in toto if everyone had a dog to care for and to care for them.
Anyway, in the original telling, Will befriended a stray dog during his homeless time in Barstow. That disappeared due to the twin issues of page count, and relevance to the story. When my editor asked for a different beginning, a dog, Hannibal, appeared but belonged to Will’s neighbor, Mrs. Derr.
That’s not the same, so here’s the original version of Will and his (temporary) dog. Again, since this was cut, I didn’t spend any time refining it, so it’s a bit raw. And there may be typos. Don’t be a whiny snowflake, just read and enjoy.
Reality set in quickly. $2000 turned out to not be much when there wasn’t anything coming in. His bus ride out here from Houston had cost him $250. A single day at Spark cost $200. A meal at Mickey’s was close to $20. Will quickly economized. Summer here was hot, but dry. Dust and dirt accumulated. Nobody was interested in offering work to a kid that looked homeless. Will discovered he could stay somewhat clean by finding golf courses and public parks. Both had irrigation systems that sprayed high-pressure water through pop-up sprinklers. He had to continually circle the sprinkler head, but the water blasted him and his clothes clean. The warm air and hot sun dried him quickly but made cool mornings cold. Even clean Will discovered that no one was going to hire a 14-year-old runaway. He tried lying about his age, but places that might hire him, like the world’s largest McDonalds, wanted documentation and proof. Will wasn’t even sure he had a social security number. He knew he didn’t have a copy of his birth certificate. He certainly didn’t have parental permission.
He was scared to give his real name. Foster care had been brutal, and he wasn’t back. Giving his real name meant the possibility of being turned over to the authorities. No thanks. He tried doing cash jobs – mowing lawns, washing cars, cleaning up parking lots and got turned down more than accepted. He figured out where the day laborers hung out and tried that. Speaking fluent English should help. His lack of Spanish was a bigger problem. After taking a punch or two from guys he didn’t understand, he tried hanging out a hundred meters or so away from the main group. Even though he was built like a fire hydrant, Will wasn’t much of a fighter.
There were some job offers, invitations to SCAZ, but Will had no interest in a career as an underage, unlicensed sex worker, so he turned those down. He was burning cash quickly on food and learned he could live on PB&Js. He befriended a stray dog. She was a scraggly gray thing. Wiry fur and dark eyebrows that gave her the look of having four eyes. There was a sense of wildness about her.
“I’ll call you ‘Daisy,’ thinking of a series of vids where righteous justice was dispensed after the dog was killed, then changed his mind. Daisy might be bad luck. Will fed her half a sandwich and smiled as he watched her work her way through the peanut butter. When she was done, she broke into zoomies around the abandoned outfield making 90 or 180 turns that seemed impossible. She abruptly stopped, flopped onto her back, and writhed in joy as she scratched herself on the grass. Her tongue lolled out and she hopped back up and trotted back to Will.
“You’re nuts. You’re a lunatic.” He snapped his fingers. “That’s it. Your name is Luna.”
In the morning, all his bread – nearly a full loaf – was gone and Luna’s stomach was distended.
“Dang dog,” he muttered.
He spent his last money on more bread. At night he stashed his backpack on top of the dugout. The dugout was ground level with a wooden roof that sloped gently – just enough to channel any rain to the ground behind the players.
“That should be out of your reach,” he told Luna and went to sleep on the bench.
Two mornings later, she was gone. He looked around. The sprinklers were erupting from the ground to begin their morning circuit of the outfield and park, but no Luna.
Will stood and pulled himself up on the fence to grab his backpack, and came face-to-face with the dog.
“What the heck? How’d you….” Then he saw her belly again ballooned by excess food, and his opened backpack laying to the side, next to a plastic peanut better jar that had been licked clean.
“Bad dog. Bad dog!” He ranted at her long enough that she looked somewhat ashamed, while still appearing pleased with herself.
He grabbed his pack and stormed off, turning back to shake a finger at Luna.
“You got yourself up there, you can get yourself down!” She laid her head down to sleep off her gluttony.
Will headed to the homeless shelter. They were usually good for a decent meal, even if they did get a bit preachy. He tried to avoid the place, but the steady diet of PB&J and the insult of his dog eating the rest of his food put him in the mood for something better. When he turned the corner and saw that the line was already long and there was a police cruiser parked out front.
You could be an adult and be homeless or you could be a kid with a parent and be homeless, but you couldn’t be a kid and homeless on your own. Remo had taught him that.
“They’ll nab you and jack you right back into the matrix.” I wonder how Remo’s doing, Will thought as he veered away from the shelter. Probably still biding his time in a group home. Remo had the system figured out. He didn’t bug anyone and was big enough that no one bugged him. Went to school. Did okay and counted the days to eighteen. Didn’t even want to be fostered, much less adopted.
It took him nearly an hour of walking to get to the All Foods grocery store. It was at the urban-suburban interface and Will never saw any of chronically homeless there. They stuck to the shelter and the stores in town. Out here the dumpsters were taller, and the side panels locked. Why lock access to stuff you’re throwing away? He pulled himself up and got a foot into the channel where the big garbage trucks stabbed the sides of the dumpster. Will levered himself up and threw a leg over the top.
Good, the truck hadn’t been here yet. Will swung his other leg over and dropped into six feet of grocery store throwaways. Bread that had aged out. Cheese that managed to turn green even when it has hermetically sealed by some factory in Wisconsin. Dented and misshapen cans. He stayed away from anything canned that looked swollen. He scored a can of DogPo for Luna. It was bent almost into a “C” but still held a seal. When his pack was full, he threw it over the side, built a ramp of suburban detritus, and jumped high enough to grab the lip and scale the wall of the dumpster. He dropped to the ground, rescued his pack, and headed home. He was feeling guilty that he hadn’t helped Luna down but was still mad at her. She climbed up there, she can get her fuzzy butt down, he reasoned.
As he approached the ballpark, a sense of dread overcame him, and he began to run.
It’s Saturday. There’s going to be a tournament. There’s always a tournament. Dang it. Dang it. Dang it!
Will trotted into the parking lot, backpack bouncing on his hips and tugging at his shoulders. Every spot was full, and the fields were all in use.
Please. Please. Please still be here. He sent his most powerful wishes to a dog he had only known for a week and who had eaten all his food twice.
As he came within view of the baseball diamond nearest the far edge of the park, where it blended into a copse of stupidly planted cottonwood trees, the diamond Will thought of as “his,” he could see that Luna was gone. A game was underway and there was no four-eyed, scraggly gray, medium-sized dogs in evidence.
“Luna! Luna!” he called. That’s stupid, he thought, I’m not even sure she knows it’s her name.
“Luna!” he called again, slowing to a walk. He choked up. She’s gone. They scared her off. I’ll have to look in the woods. Then he saw her.
She was being led away by an older man, gray hair to match the dog, and a bit of a paunch. She seemed happy enough to be trotting along next to him.
Will jogged over.
“Hi. Hey, uh, sir, is this your dog?”
“Yep,” the man replied. “This is Dixie.” He looked at Will. “Why? You been taking care of her?”
Will paused for three breaths then admitted, “Yeah. I thought she was a stray. She seemed content to hang with me.”
“That’s Dixie. She’ll stay with anyone who feeds her. Doesn’t like loud noises. Some kids set off some fireworks on the Fourth, and she bolted. Couldn’t catch her. Thought maybe this time she was gone for good. Kids were heartbroken.” He eyed the dog. “Doesn’t look like she’s missed any meals.”
“No,” Will forced a laugh. “She ate nearly a whole loaf of bread this morning. Snatched it when I wasn’t looking.”
“Yep,” the man said again. “She’s a chow hound. Turn your back and she’ll eat anything.” He looked at Will and seemed to understand. “Son, she’s been with us for six years. We rescued her. I’ve got to take her home.”
Will nodded, fighting back tears. How can I get so attached to a stupid dog so quickly?
The man pulled out his wallet and handed Will $50.
“It’s the least I can do to thank you for taking care of her.”
Will tried to refuse the money, but the man insisted. Finally, he relented and stuffed the bill in his shorts.
“See you around, girl.” He turned and walked away, no longer able to restrain the tears that leaked from his eyes.
“Take care, son,” the man called after him.
Will climbed into the nearest set of bleachers and forced the tears to stop. She ate too much, he reasoned.
Later, after the team in orange had defeated the team in maroon, and the park grew quiet and dark again, Will thought, DogPo might be okay. I’ll hang on to it.
Dixie was another dog of ours – one loud noise and she was gone for days!
Next up: A review of The Midnight Library.