About the Author
Brent Hartinger is the award-winning author of a number of novels, mostly for and about teens, including Geography Club (2003) and five companion books, The Last Chance Texaco (2004); Grand & Humble (2006); Project Sweet Life (2008); and Shadow Walkers (2011). A feature film version of his first novel, Geography Club, was released in November 2013, costarring Scott Bakula, Ana Gasteyer, and Nikki Blonsky.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Three Truths and a Lie 1
It was my fault, everything that happened that weekend.
It’s hard for me to admit that, but it’s the truth. I was the one who suggested going away in the first place. If I hadn’t had that dumb idea, who knows how things would’ve ended? Somehow, I’m going to have to live with that for the rest of my life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to start at the beginning. That’s the only way you’re ever going to understand what really happened.
I guess it all began with the tattoos.
It was night, and I had gone downtown with my friends Liam, Mia, and Galen. I, Rob, was getting a tattoo! We all were, matching ones. We’d come to this tattoo parlor, the single open business in a row of darkened storefronts. They say the most important thing about a tattoo parlor is that it looks clean, and this one did, mostly. But it didn’t feel clean. Maybe it was the fact that the building was old: the linoleum was warped, and there was a mustiness in the air along with the smell of ink and rubbing alcohol and sweat. Or maybe it was because the room was filled with a zillion tattoo designs, all brightly colored, on laminated pages tacked to the walls or bound in thick albums on the coffee table. Given the dreariness of the rest of the room, and the neighborhood outside, it was like they were overdoing it, like they had something to hide.
Liam, my boyfriend, was in the tattoo chair, which was sort of like a dentist’s chair. The artist was this tall, gawky woman who didn’t have any tattoos herself, at least not any visible ones, which I thought was weird. She was sitting on a stool next to Liam, hunched over like a vulture eating roadkill, putting the finishing touches on this little tattoo on the inside of his wrist. It was of a spiderweb, not half an inch long.
Mia, Galen, and I were watching it all from the waiting area, about ten feet away.
“I thought you said it wouldn’t hurt,” Liam said, wincing repeatedly.
“I lied!” Mia said, letting out an actual cackle.
She and Galen had already gotten their tattoos, and now their arms were wrapped with white bandages, like they’d both tried to kill themselves by slitting their wrists. Looking back, I don’t really remember which of us chose the spiderweb design or why.
Overhead, the fluorescent lights flickered. All the while, the tattoo machine buzzed. Or maybe it was more of a high-pitched whine. Anyway, I could feel the vibration of the needle through the floor, even from ten feet away. Once Liam was done, it would be my turn, and as I watched the artist work on him, I could almost feel that needle against my skin. The pricking, the stinging, the oozing of blood.
I was scared of getting a tattoo, about forty percent sure I was going to end up catching hepatitis C, or worse. But if I’m going to be honest, I was a little excited too.
Truthfully, I wasn’t the kind of person who got tattoos. People always say I’m clean-cut, even wholesome, but I know what they really mean is that I’m boring. But I don’t care if people sometimes ignore me, if I’m not usually the center of attention. Besides, everyone has tattoos these days, so I don’t see how that gets people to pay attention to you anyway.
Liam was the same way. If anything, he was even dorkier than I was, more cautious, even more high-strung.
But that was okay. It’s part of why I liked him so much. We’d only been going out for three months, but we were already in sync. People said it was kind of eerie how alike we were, but I loved it. We watched the same movies, listened to the same music, played the same video games. On our first date, at Chipotle, we ordered separately but ended up getting exactly the same thing, right down to a black bean burrito with the same two kinds of salsa, roasted chili corn and tomatillo green chili.
Outside the tattoo parlor, a car backfired and I jumped. At least I hoped it was a car. We weren’t in the best part of town.
“Looks good,” Mia said, staring at Liam’s tattoo as the artist dabbed it with a square of bloody gauze. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to me or him, but I nodded anyway.
Mia was the real reason Liam and I were even here. If Liam and I tended to blend into the background, Mia stood out like, well, a colorful tattoo parlor in a row of darkened storefronts. She was good-looking, with a mane of long brown hair and a body like she belonged on a beer poster, but that was actually the least of it. It was more her whole attitude about the world, like life was just one big dare. She could be crude and bossy and impulsive, and she did always have to be the center of attention, which sometimes got annoying. But she could also be spontaneous and fun and funny, and was probably the least pretentious, least judgmental person I’ve ever met. She didn’t take anything too seriously for long. For her, the most important thing was having a good time. It was all about the here and now.
For weeks I’d wondered how Liam had ended up friends with someone like her. I guess they’d met early in their freshman year, back when everyone is a loser and you pick your friends because they have a locker or a desk next to you, not because you have anything in common. But for whatever reason, they’d stayed friends, even after Mia started running with the wolves. Now she and Liam were almost inseparable.
Truthfully, she made me uneasy. I resented how close she was with Liam. I had a few of my own friends, but nothing like what Liam had, nothing like Mia. And I wanted to be going out with Liam, not Mia. It’s not just that I didn’t have a lot in common with her, it’s that Liam didn’t seem to have a lot in common with her. So why were they even friends? What did it say about Liam that I didn’t know why he was drawn to someone like that? Or why she was drawn to him? It was like they shared a secret I didn’t know. Liam and I seemed so in sync in so many ways, but this was the one thing I didn’t understand about him. And I couldn’t help but wonder if it meant I didn’t understand him as well as I thought.
But I’d accepted they were sort of a package deal. And it was more than just being okay with being around her. If I wanted my relationship with Liam to work, I knew Mia had to like me too. That’s why I’d agreed to get this tattoo in the first place, to come along with the others. It had been Mia’s idea, and Liam and Galen had seemed excited, so I hadn’t said a word. I’d gone along to get along.
It wasn’t just that. I did sort of like that Mia pushed me to do things I wouldn’t do otherwise. I’d spent my whole life inside my comfort zone, which is nice and safe and predictable, but also kind of boring.
The needle kept whining as the artist put the last touches on Liam’s tattoo. Soon it would be my turn. But all of a sudden my comfort zone was back to looking pretty good. What kind of idiot wanted out of their comfort zone?
“Hey,” Galen said to me. “You okay?” Mia’s boyfriend was part hipster, part jock. He had a body like the figure at the top of a high school trophy—lean and solid and golden—with facial hair that was a cross between a chin strip and a goatee. But the most interesting thing about him, the quality that was both hipster and jock, was his cool, above-it-all attitude. If Mia was a prize fighter punching her way through life, Galen was a cloud flowing around anything that got in front of him. In the few months I’d known him, I’d never seen him get upset about anything. The worst you could say about him is that he got kind of moody in the afternoons at school, but I’d always thought that was like how the animals at zoos all look listless because they’re forced to live in cages.
“Huh?” I said to him. What had he asked me again?
“You look like you’re in pain.”
I wasn’t in pain yet, but I could tell from Liam’s expression that he was. Which meant I was going to be in pain soon too.
“No,” I said, relaxing my jaw. “I’m okay.”
“Hey,” Galen said. “A guy with a tattoo walks into a bar and hears a voice say, ‘That is a fantastic tattoo. And the color really goes with your eyes!’ The guy looks around and doesn’t see anyone, so he says to the bartender, ‘Who just said that?’ And the bartender says, ‘The complimentary peanuts.’”
Galen laughed, and I did too, mostly because I knew Galen was trying to cheer me up, but also because he really had sold the joke. Galen told a lot of corny jokes—lately, it was the “guy walks into a bar” kind—and somehow he made those seem cool too.
“Okay,” the tattoo artist said, leaning back on her stool. “You’re done.”
At some point, the whining of the needle had stopped. I guess Galen really had distracted me.
I looked down at Liam’s wrist. It was bandaged now, like Mia’s and Galen’s.
“You’re up next,” the tattoo artist said.
Was she talking to me? Of course she was. There was one other person waiting, but we had come in as a group, and Mia, Galen, and Liam all had their tattoos. I was the only one who didn’t.
I stood up.
“Oh shit,” Galen said, turning away from the front window, giving it the cold shoulder. It was like he’d seen someone on the street outside and now didn’t want them to see him.
“What is it?” Mia asked. She scratched her bandage.
“Nothing. But we need to go.” There was a weird urgency in his voice—weird for anyone, but especially for Galen.
Mia looked up, confused. “What are you talking about?”
I looked out the window behind Galen. Three figures beelined toward the tattoo parlor from the other side of the street, making the cars stop right in the middle of the road. It was dark, and one of the streetlights was out, so I couldn’t make out their faces, how old they were. But I could tell they were angry just by the way they were walking, the way their heads didn’t bob when they moved. I could also tell they’d spotted Galen. One of the guys had his hand in the pocket of his jacket, and I didn’t even want to think about what might be in there.
“It’s someone I don’t wanna see,” Galen said. He breezed over to the front door, still not panicking exactly, but he flicked the dead bolt with a loud snap.
The tattoo artist heard the sound and looked over. “What are you doing?” she said.
“Just for a second, okay?” he said. He opened his wallet and flashed her a fan of bills, then left it all by the cash register. “Is there a back door? Where does it lead?”
“The back alley,” the woman said, now weirdly indifferent, casually wrestling with a package containing a fresh tattoo needle.
Maybe she was used to this kind of thing, but I sure wasn’t.
“Come on,” Galen said, commanding Mia, Liam, and me like dogs, leading us toward the exit.
I was about to point out that I still hadn’t gotten my tattoo, but then I remembered I hadn’t even wanted that tattoo to begin with.
We hustled to the back door. Behind us, someone yanked on the locked front door, and the windows rattled.
Galen threw open the rear door and the four of us stepped out into the night. There was hardly any light in the alley. After all the bright colors in the tattoo parlor, it felt like stepping into a black-and-white movie, like stepping from Oz back into Kansas.
Galen turned left and slipped off into the darkness. I could hear the thump of his footsteps—he was already running. I wanted to ask him what was going on, call out for an explanation, but none of us dared make a sound. Instead, Mia, Liam, and I hurried after him, past Dumpsters and garbage cans. A TV blared out of one of the windows above us, music from some soapy romance.
“Galen!” someone called from behind us, a voice that cracked like a whip. “I know it’s you, you asshole! You better hope we don’t catch you!”
At the end of the darkened alley, the streetlights shone down like the glow from the top of an aquarium. But right in front of me, Galen’s silhouette turned sharply right, disappearing into a slash of darkness.
“In here!” he said. “Quickly!”
It was some sort of side alley, really narrow, sandwiched between two buildings. Too narrow for Dumpsters or even garbage cans.
A figure stepped into the aquarium glow at the end of the main alley—someone different from the person behind us. Whoever was chasing us must have split up and circled around to cover both ends of the alley. The person in front of us had his hand in the pocket of his jacket again.
I followed Galen into the side alley. It was even darker than the main alley, like a black curtain had fallen behind me. There may not have been any cans, but there was plenty of garbage. I scrambled over it in the dark, sometimes tripping, sometimes slipping in slick, gooey pools. This was exactly the kind of place where you’d step on a nail, but that was the least of my worries now. My pulse pounded and I sucked down the foul, oily air. I was desperate to get to the end of the alley. Did Galen know where he was going? What if there was someone waiting for us there too? What the hell was that nonsense about my wanting to leave my comfort zone?
A wooden fence blocked our way, the dead end of a maze.
My pulse pounded, and now I couldn’t even breathe.
“Climb!” Galen said, already clawing his way up. “Just climb!”
I searched for the cross-slats in the dark—something to hold on to. The wood was old and splitting, and I could already tell I was going to get splinters, but I climbed anyway. The four of us fumbled our way upward, and the boards squeaked around me like rats. The fence was narrow, the width of the alley, so we jostled against one another, a little like rats ourselves. Someone even kicked me in the head, but I couldn’t make out who it was in the dark.
Finally, my hands reached the top and I pulled myself up into the light. The others had beaten me over the fence and were now standing on the other side.
“Hurry!” Mia said.
I lowered myself down.
After the darkness of the alley, the streetlights and colors on the other side of the fence were blinding—we’d stepped back into Oz. We were on a different street on a different block, but it wouldn’t take a genius to figure out where we’d gone.
A taxi glided down the street in front of us.
Galen leaped out into the street in front of the cab. “Stop!” he said. “Stop!”
The tires squealed, but at least it stopped. The taxi’s light was on, which I guess meant it was vacant.
We climbed into the cab—I took the front seat—and slammed the doors. A figure appeared at the far end of the street, hand in pocket. I still couldn’t see his face, but I knew his eyes were tracking us.
“Go!” Galen said to the driver.
The driver sped off, and I gripped the armrests. I had splinters from the fence, just like I’d thought.
As we passed the corner, I ducked down. If that guy really did have a gun in his pocket, who’s to say he wouldn’t use it?
“What about my car?” Mia said.
“We’ll come back later,” Galen said, a whispered hiss, even more urgent than before.
That shut Mia up. After that, we all held our breath—even the driver, I think.
Finally, a couple of blocks later, Mia sat upright again. “Okay, what the fuck, Galen?”
Galen shrugged innocently, and somehow, even after everything that had happened, he sold that too. “That wasn’t anyone. A guy and his friends. He’s a dick.”
Mia just glared at him.
“Okay, I may have screwed his girlfriend. Twice. But this was way before I met you.”
Mia rolled her eyes, and I glanced over at the cab driver. His face was flat ...
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