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Lost Boys: A Novel

Orson Scott Card


  To Erin and Phillip Absher

  for sharing your lives with us

  and for your love and care

  for Charlie Ben


  My thanks to:

  The students of Watauga College at Appalachian State University, who heard the first impromptu telling of this tale on Halloween;

  Ed Ferman, for believing in the original short story;

  The people who wrote heartfelt letters responding to the short story, which helped me keep this tale alive;

  Eamon Dolan, my editor, for insightful suggestions and patience beyond belief;

  Wayne Williams, for an extra week at the beach, where the first half of this novel was written;

  Clark and Kathy Kidd, for the second half (among so many things);

  Scott Jones Allen, for downloading reams of text and a thousand other helps;

  Clark L. Kidd, for the third word of Chapter 8;

  Dave Dollahite, for a parallax view;

  Jay Wentworth, for filling in and making the show go on;

  Erin, Phillip, Jones, Kathy, Geoff, and Emily, for reading and responding to chapters as they came;

  Kristine, for keeping the children alive, the cars running, the floors dry, and both story and storyteller in balance;

  and Charlie Ben, for the heart of the tale.





  1. Junk Man

  2. Maggots

  3. Gallowglass

  4. Yucky Holes

  5. Hacker Snack

  6. Inspiration

  7. Crickets

  8. Shrink

  9. June Bugs

  10. Independence Day

  11. Zap

  12. Friends

  13. God

  14. Christmas Eve

  15. New Year

  About the Author


  Also by Orson Scott Card


  About the Publisher


  This is what his father always called him whenever he’d done something bad: “Where were you when this happened, Boy? What did you think you were doing, Boy?”

  He took that word inside himself and it became the name for all his bad desires. It was Boy who made him play pranks that weren’t funny to anybody, Boy who made him cheat on tests when he felt like it in school, even though he always knew the answers and didn’t have to cheat. It was Boy who made him stand and watch from the closet when his parents thought he was in bed and he saw them do the dog thing, Father’s belly so loose and jiggly, Mother so white and weak and dead while it happened, her breasts flopped out flat to either side like fish. It was the worst thing Boy had ever made him do, to watch that, and to his surprise Boy didn’t like it, no, Boy hated it even worse than he did, to see Father be so bad.

  I will never do that, said Boy inside him. It’s ugly to kill a woman like that and then make her still be alive afterward so you can do it all again.

  From then on when he looked at big women with their breasts and their secrets and their faces that could turn dead looking at a man, Boy went away. Boy didn’t want to be part of that game.

  But that didn’t mean that Boy was gone, no, nor silent neither. Boy was still there, and he got his way sometimes, yes; and he found new things to want. Only Boy wasn’t careful. Boy only wanted what he wanted until he got it and then he went back into hiding and left him to take care of everything, to take all the blame for what Boy had done even though he hadn’t wanted to do it in the first place.

  Now none of his people would let him near their children because of the things Boy had decided he had to do. Damn you Boy! Die and damn you!

  But they promised not to tell, says Boy. The children said they wouldn’t tell but then they did.

  What do you expect, you stupid ugly Boy? What do you expect, you evil Boy? Didn’t you ever think maybe there’s another Boy inside them that makes them lie to you and promise not to tell but then they break their word because their Boy made them? And now here you are, and that’ll show you, Boy, because nobody will let you near their children anymore so you’ll just have to chew on yourself when you get hungry and drink yourself when you get dry.

  No I won’t, says Boy. I’ll make a place and I’ll take them there and I won’t ever believe them when they promise not to tell. I’ll take them there and nobody will know where they are and they’ll never come back and so they’ll never tell.

  You won’t do anything like that, Boy, because I won’t let you.

  And Boy just laughed and laughed inside him, and he knew that he would do it all, he would prepare the hiding place and then he would go and find them for Boy and bring them back, and Boy would do what he wanted. Boy would not be afraid. Boy would do everything he thought of doing, because he knew that they would never leave and they would never tell.

  That was why those little boys in Steuben started disappearing, and why not one of them was found till Christmas Eve in 1983.



  This is the car they drove from Vigor, Indiana, to Steuben, North Carolina: a silvery-gray Renault 18i deluxe wagon, an ’81 model with about forty thousand miles on it, twenty-five thousand of which they had put on it themselves. The paint was just beginning to get tiny rust-colored pockmarks in it, but the wiring had blown about fifteen fuses and they’d had to put three new drive axles in it because it was designed so that when a ball bearing wore out you had to replace the whole assembly. It couldn’t climb a hill at fifty-five, but it could seat two adults in the leather bucket seats and three kids across the back. Step Fletcher was driving, had been driving since they finally got away from the house well after noon. Empty house. He was still hearing echoes all the way to Indianapolis. Somewhere along the way he must have passed the moving van, but he didn’t notice it or didn’t recognize it or maybe the driver had pulled into a McDonald’s somewhere or a gas station as they drove on by.

  The others all fell asleep soon after they crossed the Ohio River. After Step had talked so much about flat-boats and Indian wars, the kids were disappointed in it. It was the bridge that impressed them. And then they fell asleep. DeAnne stayed awake a little longer, but then she squeezed his hand and nestled down into the pillow she had jammed into the corner between the seat back and the window.

  Just how it always goes, thought Step. She stays awake the whole time I’m wide awake and then, just as I get sleepy and maybe need to have her spell me for a while at the wheel, she goes to sleep.

  He pushed the tape the rest of the way into the player. It was the sweet junky sound of “The E Street Shuffle.” He hadn’t listened to that in a while. DeAnne must have had it playing while she ran the last-minute errands in Vigor. Step had played that album on their second date. It was kind of a test. DeAnne was so serious about religion, he had to know if she could put up with his slightly wild taste in music. A lot of Mormon girls would have missed the sexual innuendos entirely, of course, but DeAnne was probably smarter than Step was, and so she not only noticed the bit about girls promising to unsnap their jeans and the fairies in a real bitch fight, she also got the part about hooking onto the midnight train, but she didn’t get upset, she just laughed, and he knew it was going to be OK, she was religious but not a prig and that meant that he wouldn’t have to pretend to be perfect in order to be with her. Ten years ago, 1973. Now they had three kids in the back of the Renault 18i wagon, probably the worst car ever sold in America, and they were heading for Steuben, North Carolina, where Step had a job.

  A good job. Thirty thousand a year, which wasn’t bad for a brand new history Ph.D. in a recession year. Except that he wasn�
��t teaching history, he wasn’t writing history, the job was putting together manuals for a computer software company. Not even programming—he couldn’t even get hired for that, even though Hacker Snack was the best-selling game for the Atari back in ’81. For a while there it had looked like his career was made as a game designer. They had so much money they figured they could afford for him to go back to school and finish his doctorate. Then the recession came, and the lousy Commodore 64 was killing the Atari in the stores, and suddenly his game was out of print and nobody wanted him except as a manual writer.

  So Springsteen played along to his semi-depressed mood as Step wound the car up into the mountains, the sun setting in the west as the road angled them mostly east into the darkness. I should be happy, he told himself. I got the degree, I got a good job, and nothing says I can’t do another game in my spare time, even if I have to do it on the stupid 64. It could be worse. I could have got a job programming Apples.

  Despite what he said to encourage himself, the words still tasted like failure in his mouth. Thirty-two years old, three kids, and I’m on the downhill slope. Used to work for myself, and now I have to work for somebody else. Just like my dad with his sign company that went bust. At least he had the scar on his back from the operation that took out a vertebra. Me, I got no visible wounds. I was riding high one day, and then the next day we found out that our royalties would be only $7,000 instead of 840,000 like the last time, and we scrambled around looking for work and we’ve got debts coming out of our ears and I’m going to be just as broke as my folks for the rest of my life and it’s my own damned fault. Wage slave like my dad.

  Just so I don’t have the shame of my wife having to take some lousy swingshift job like Mom did. Fine if she wants to get a job, that’s fine, but not if she has to.

  Yet he knew even as he thought of it that that was what would happen next—they wouldn’t be able to sell the house in Vigor and she’d have to get a job just to keep up the payments on it. We were fools to buy a house, but we thought it would be a good investment. There wasn’t a recession when we moved there, and I had a good royalty income. Fools, thinking it could just go on forever. Nothing lasts.

  Feeling sorry for himself kept him awake enough to keep driving for an hour. The tape was on its second time through when he started down the steep descent toward Frankfort. Good thing. Bound to be a motel in the state capital. I can make it that far, and DeAnne won’t have to wake up till we get there.

  “Dad,” said Stevie from the back seat.

  “Yes?” said Step—softly, so he’d know not to talk loudly enough to waken the others.

  “Betsy threw up,” said Stevie.

  “Just a little bit, or is it serious?”

  “Just a little,” said Stevie.

  Then a vast, deep urping sound came from the back seat.

  “Now it’s serious,” said Stevie.

  Damn damn damn, said Step silently. “Thanks for telling me, Steve.”

  The sound came again, even as he pulled off the road, and now he could smell the bitter tang of gastric juices. One of the kids almost always threw up on every long trip they took, but usually they did it in the first hour.

  “Why are we stopping?” DeAnne, just waking up, had a hint of panic in her voice. She didn’t like it when something unexpected happened, and always feared the worst.

  Springsteen had just sung about the fish lady and the junk man, so for the first time in a long time, Step remembered where his pet name for DeAnne had come from. “Hey, Fish Lady, take a sniff and see.”

  “Oh, no, which one of them?”

  “Betsy Wetsy,” said Stevie from the back. Another old joke—DeAnne used to get impatient with him for the irreverent nicknames he gave the kids. She hated the nickname Betsy, but because of the joke, the name had stuck and now that was what Betsy called herself.

  “More like Betsy Pukesy,” said Step. Stevie laughed.

  Stevie had a good laugh. It made Step smile, and suddenly it was no big deal that he was about to be up to his elbows in toddler vomit.

  Step had parked on the shoulder, well off, so that he could open Betsy’s door without putting his butt out into traffic. Even so, he didn’t like feeling the wind of the cars as they whooshed past. What a way to die—smeared like pâté on the back door of the car, a sort of roadkill canapé. For a moment he thought of what it would mean for the kids, if he died on the road right in front of their eyes. The little ones would probably not remember him, or how he died. But Stevie would see, Stevie would remember. It was the first time Step had really thought of it that way—Stevie was now old enough that he would remember everything that happened. Almost eight years old, and his life was now real, because he would remember it.

  He would remember how Dad reacted when Betsy threw up, how Dad didn’t swear or get mad or anything, how Dad helped clean up the mess instead of standing there helplessly while Mom took care of it. That was a sort of vow he made before he got married, that there would be no job in their family that was so disgusting or difficult that DeAnne could do it and he couldn’t. He had matched her, diaper for diaper, with all three kids, and a little vomit in the car would never faze him.

  Actually, a lot of vomit. Betsy, white-faced and wan, managed a smile.

  By now DeAnne was outside and around the car, pulling baby wipes out of the plastic jar. “Here,” she said. “Hand her out to me and I’ll change her clothes while you clean up the car.”

  In a moment DeAnne was holding a dripping Betsy out in front of her, taking her around the car to her seat, where she had already spread a cloth diaper to protect the leather.

  Robbie, the four-year-old, was awake now, too, holding out his arm. He had been sitting in the middle, right next to Betsy, and there was a streak of vomit on his sleeve. “Wasn’t that sweet of your sister, to share with you,” said Step. He wiped down Robbie’s sleeve. “There you go, Road Bug.”

  “It stinks.”

  “I’m not surprised,” said Step. “Bear it proudly, like a wound acquired in battle.”

  “Was that a joke, Daddy?” said Robbie.

  “It was wit,” said Step. Robbie was trying to learn how to tell jokes. Step had given him the funny-once lecture recently, so Robbie wasn’t telling the same joke over and over again, but the different kinds of humor still baffled him and he was trying to sort them out. If Stevie’s experience was a fair sample, it would take years.

  DeAnne spoke to Robbie from the front seat. “We’ll change your shirt as soon as your father has finished wiping up Betsy’s booster seat.”

  Step wasn’t having much success cleaning down inside the buckle of Betsy’s seat belt. “The only way our seat belts will ever match again,” he said, “is if Betsy contrives to throw up on all the rest of them.”

  “Move her around in the car and maybe she’ll have it all covered by the time we get to North Carolina,” said Stevie.

  “She doesn’t throw up that often,” said DeAnne.

  “It was a joke, Mom,” said Stevie.

  “No, it was wit,” said Robbie.

  So he was getting it.

  The baby wipes were no match for Betsy’s prodigious output. They ran out long before the seat was clean enough for occupancy.

  “When they hear you’re pregnant for the fourth time,” said Step, “I think Johnson and Johnson’s stock will go up ten points.”

  “There’s more wipes in the big gray bag in the back,” said DeAnne. “Make sure you buy the stock before you announce it.”

  Step walked around to the back of what the Renault people called a “deluxe wagon,” unlocked the swing-up door, and swung it up. Even with the bag zipped open he couldn’t find the baby wipes. “Hey, Fish Lady, where’d you pack the wipes?”

  “In the bag somewhere, probably deep,” she called. “While you’re in there, I need a Huggie for Betsy. She’s wet and as long as I’ve got her undressed I might as well do the whole job.”

  He gave the diaper to Stevie to pass fo
rward, and then finally found the baby wipes. He was just stepping back so he could close the wagon when he realized that there was somebody standing behind and to the left of him. A man, with big boots. A cop. Somehow a patrol car had managed to pull up behind them and Step hadn’t heard it, hadn’t even noticed it was there.

  “What’s the trouble here?” asked the patrolman.

  “My two-year-old threw up all over the back seat,” said Step.

  “You know the shoulder of the freeway is only to be used for emergencies,” said the cop.

  For a moment it didn’t register on Step what the cop’s remark implied. “You mean that you don’t think that a child throwing up in the back seat is an emergency?”

  The patrolman fixed him with a steady gaze for a moment. Step knew the look. It meant, Ain’t you cute, and he had seen it often back when he used to get speeding tickets before his license was suspended back in ’74 and DeAnne had to drive them everywhere. Step knew that he shouldn’t say anything, because no matter what he said to policemen, it always made things worse.

  DeAnne came to his rescue. She came around the car carrying Betsy’s soaked and stinking clothes. “Officer, I think if you had these in your car for about thirty seconds you’d pull off the road, too.”

  The cop looked at her, surprised, and then grinned. “Ma’am, I guess you got a point. Just hurry it up. It’s not safe to be stopped here. People come down this road too fast sometimes, and they take this curve wide.”

  “Thanks for your concern, Officer,” said Step.

  The patrolman narrowed his eyes. “Just doing my job,” he said, rather nastily, and walked back to his car.

  Step turned to DeAnne. “What did I say?”

  “Get me a Ziploc bag out of there, please,” she said. “If I have to smell these any longer I’m going to faint.”

  He handed her the plastic bag and she stuffed the messy clothes into it. “All I said to him was ‘Thanks for your concern,’ and he acted like I told him his mother had never been married.”