But now the second to last day of the school year had just ended and because of an almost impossibly unlucky chain of events, Betsy was desperate for a ride home. Mr. Hesner had been visibly displeased to see her get on the bus, but her one-week ban had been over for months, so there was nothing he could say beyond, “I hope there won’t be no trouble,” which in itself was enough to make Betsy angry. She was one of the last to board the bus and as she walked to the back, she ignored the inquisitive looks of the younger and dorkier kids who sat in the front and middle seats. The back few seats were occupied by upperclassmen who were either too poor to own cars or too troublesome to have driver’s licenses. Most of them lived in the same rundown neighborhood exactly halfway along the bus route.
“Scoot over,” said Betsy to the kid in one of the second-to-last seats from the back. He was sitting sideways with his feet sticking out into the aisle. He wore a black stocking cap even though it was 75 degrees outside and even hotter on the bus. His black t-shirt had the name of a metal band printed on it in illegibly morbid text. His black goatee was almost not awful.
“Scoot over,” said Betsy again in the exact same tone as if the kid just hadn’t heard her the first time.
The kid sighed and stood up in the aisle. He was about six inches taller than Betsy. “You sit by the window, then.”
Betsy preferred the aisle seat, but she decided to be content with her victory. It had been a while since she’d ridden the bus. No need to test the limits of her authority. “I’m, like, the last one off anyway,” she said, and she shrugged out of her backpack, sat down, and slid over against the window, her bag on her lap. The boy sat down next to her and slumped down in the seat, his knees propped up even with his head on the back of the green vinyl-covered seat in front of him.
“So,” said Betsy as the buses followed one another out of the school parking lot and scattered through Multioak and the surrounding area. “How much do you hate Mr. Hesner, right?”
The kid’s name turned out to be Kendall. He knew who Abel was and was impressed that Betsy was dating him, although Betsy withheld the fact that she might not technically be dating Abel at the moment which was one of the reasons she was stuck on the bus. Even though she hadn’t ridden the bus in months, Betsy felt comfortable with the other kids in the back, all of them united in their distaste for school, the bus, Mr. Hesner, and the country music radio station Mr. Hesner refused to change, turn off, or turn down.
“I got kicked off like a month ago,” said Kendall.
“What’d you do?” asked Betsy.
“He spit a mouthful of pop out the window all over a car next to us at a stoplight,” said one of the two grinning girls in the seat across the aisle.
“It was an accident,” said Kendall, clearly hoping Betsy wouldn’t believe him.
“No it wasn’t!” said the other girl across the aisle. “You said, ‘Watch this, that’s my step-mom’s ex’ right before you did it!”
All the kids in the back of the bus laughed.
“Keep it down!” shouted Mr. Hesner, glaring back at the kids via the large mirror above the windshield before braking the bus to a complete stop at a train crossing and opening the door to look down the tracks.
“Ugh,” said Betsy. “We’re just laughing and he’s, like, immediately super mad.”
“I hate him,” said the kid in the seat behind Betsy and Kendall. “If I ever saw him off the bus somewhere, like on the street or whatever, I’d probably punch him in the face.” The kid was chunky and his hair was gelled down flat to his fleshy head. He wore a heavy flannel shirt buttoned all the way up and a pair of sunglasses with pale blue lenses that probably did little in the way of UV protection.
“Shut up, Fowler,” said Kendall. “You wouldn’t punch Hesner. He’d lose his mind and kill you, I bet.”
“You guys should do something to him,” said Betsy. “Like, TP his house or egg it or something.”
“We should,” said Kendall. “We totally should.”
“How would we find his house?” asked Fowler.
The kid in the back seat across the aisle from Fowler, staring out the window with his forehead pressed against the glass, said, “I know where he lives.” Betsy hadn’t known he was listening. Even with his mouth closed, Betsy could tell the kid had messed up teeth. He had acne and a long black pen-mark on his right cheek. He turned away from the window and Betsy saw an oily film on the glass where his forehead had been. “Hesner used to sell tomatoes from his garden at a stand in his front yard,” said the kid. “I went with my grandma a couple of times. It’s out in the country. I know how to get there.”
None of the other kids said anything. The two girls across from Betsy and Kendall looked at their hands. Fowler looked back out the emergency door window at the Home County County Roads Department truck following the bus.
“There you go,” said Betsy, pointing at the weird kid across from Fowler. “This guy knows how to get there. You guys just need a ride.”
“I can get a car,” said the kid.
“You guys should do it,” said Betsy. “You could slash the bus tires or put sugar in the gas tank or something.”
“Why stop there?” asked the kid.
Betsy shrugged. “It’s up to you guys. I’m not going. Do what you want. I’m just saying, like, Hesner sucks, so someone should get him.”
Kendall cleared his throat and took off his stocking cap, running both hands through his staticky hair before putting the cap back on.
“I could get him,” said the kid with the pen mark, and he turned back to the window.
After that, the conversation died. Everyone seemed absorbed with their own thoughts. The country music on the radio filled the bus with sticky, oozing nostalgia and hard-line stances on what constitutes a “country girl.” The sun shone through the window onto Betsy’s face and she closed her eyes and rested her head back against the seat. She dozed. She woke up briefly when Kendall, the two girls, Fowler, and the weird kid with the pen mark got off at their stop along with a few of the younger kids, but after they were gone, Betsy propped her backpack up against the window, laid her head against it, and fell asleep to the gentle crooning of a simple country man who desired nothing in the world but a magical return to the idyllic romances of his youth, innocent and blessed with nature’s approval.
When Betsy woke up, she was still on the bus, but the bus was not moving. Betsy sat up and looked around. Thick evening light streamed through the windows. There were no other people on the bus, not even Mr. Hesner. Every seat was empty. Betsy looked outside and saw long, unkempt grass, several shoddy outbuildings, scattered piles of junk surrounded by weeds, and beyond all that, fields. She pieced it all together quickly. Slouched down in her seat and asleep, Betsy hadn’t been visible when Mr. Hesner looked in his mirror at the end of the route, and since he wasn’t used to dropping her off anyway, he’d either forgotten she’d boarded the bus or else he’d assumed she’d gotten off at another stop. Either way, Mr. Hesner had driven home, parked the bus, and Betsy had continued to sleep until now.
She stood up and, carrying her backpack in front of her, walked up the empty aisle and used the lever to open the door. She descended the steps and exited the bus. The evening was humid. There were already crickets or cicadas or something going at it hard somewhere nearby, and beneath that sound, Betsy heard a low rumbling nose, and beneath that, a deep, rhythmic thump. She walked around to the other side of the bus.
There she saw, ten yards from the bus, Mr. Hesner sitting on an overturned five-gallon bucket outside the open flap of a shabby three-man tent. He wore cheap-looking flip-flops, jeans, and a white undershirt that looked uncomfortably tight on his soft, bulging torso. There was an open case of beer in the grass next to Mr. Hesner’s bucket. There were several crushed, empty cans scattered around the tent. Another fifty yards beyond Mr. Hesner and his tent, Betsy saw the back of a massive, white two-story farmhouse. Both the rumbling noise and the thumping noise seemed to be coming from the house.
When Mr. Hesner saw Betsy, he cursed, closed his eyes, and began to pound the side of his head with his left wrist while continuing to use his right hand to lift his current can of beer to his mouth for sips. He did not look steady on the bucket.
“I was asleep in the back,” said Betsy, walking toward Mr. Hesner, but stopping well short of his reach. “What time is it?”
Mr. Hesner stopped hitting himself and opened his eyes. “‘Round seven, I think. You gotta call your mom or dad to come get you from here and you gotta say this was your fault ‘cause it was. I knew you were going to cause trouble as soon as you got on the bus today. I told you not to and you did anyway.”
“Aren’t you supposed to check the seats at the end of the route to make sure everyone’s off?”
“No,” said Mr. Hesner. “Only sometimes.”
Betsy doubted that was true, but it didn’t really matter now. “Well, whatever, but I can’t use my phone ‘cause it got taken away at school while I was trying to text people ‘cause I was trying to get a ride so I wouldn’t have to ride the bus. Can I borrow yours?”
“Don’t have one,” said Mr. Hesner. “Seems like your bad behavior’s coming back to bite you again.”
“You don’t have a phone? Not even a land line?”
Mr. Hesner pointed at the tent. “You see any telephone lines hooked up there?”
“You live in the tent? Then who lives there?” Betsy pointed at the farmhouse.
Mr. Hesner swiveled around on his bucket as if he wasn’t sure what Betsy could possibly be pointing at. “Oh, there? The girls live there. I ain’t allowed. I stay out here.” He swiveled around to face Betsy again and took a noisy gulp of beer.
Betsy didn’t know what to think. It was starting to seem like it might take hours to understand the ins and outs of Mr. Hesner’s living situation and, in the end, it would definitely be depressing. Betsy decided to skip all that. “Do…the girls have a phone I could use?”
Mr. Hesner started to answer, then stopped himself, his face taking on an expression just short of shrewd. “Well, all those girls are on my cellular phone’s family plan and I ain’t paid that in months. I ain’t paid the bill for the land line either, but I don’t know if the phone company’s shut it off yet. But I’ll tell you what. I don’t have a car and I ain’t supposed to drive the bus unless I’m running the route, but I’ll take you right to your front door tonight if you get in that house and rescue my Matchy Humanois commemorative plate and bring it to me here.”
“Are you OK to drive?” asked Betsy. “‘Cause you don’t seem like it.”
“I’m fine,” said Mr. Hesner. “But if you go after that plate, I’ll stop drinking right now. I’ll be good to go by the time you get back. Good enough for the bus, anyway.”
“All right, whatever, I’ll do it,” said Betsy. She assumed that Mr. Hesner’s request was the result of some senseless, drunken impulse that only made sense to him. She was just glad it wasn’t something more difficult. Fetching a commemorative plate sounded simple enough. Someone at the house would know what he was talking about or, better yet, offer her a superior option for getting home.
“I have to warn you, though,” said Mr. Hesner. “Don’t trust those girls. I know you and me have had our troubles, but those girls are real trouble. They weren’t raised right and that’s my fault. Just make sure they think you and I are on bad terms and you’ll be fine. You can’t let ‘em know we’re allies now. They’ve probably been seeing us talk out those windows, but they don’t know you’re sympathetic to my plight now that you’ve seen it with your own eyes and can’t help but pity me for the bad hand life and them girls dealt me.”
“I won’t trust them,” said Betsy, her head beginning to ache from the strain of not rolling her eyes. “But you’ve got to describe this plate I’m supposed to get.”
“You’ll know it when you see it,” said Mr. Hesner. “It’s got Matchy Humanois on it. Mid-stunt. Upside down. Car in flames. Open helmet visor. One eyebrow arched. Left arm extended with cocked wrist and tiny ring finger. Mouth wide open lettin’ fly the Matchy Holler one final time. Classic Matchy. The stunt that killed him. And all those onlookers. Wish I could go out like that.”
“You want to die doing a crazy stunt?” asked Betsy.
“Oh, no, no,” said Mr. Hesner. “I meant I want to go out like all those onlookers. Crushed by the upside down flaming wreckage of Matchy’s final stunt on this earth.” His bleary eyes lit up as he envisioned it. “Did you know Matchy Humanois was born in Multioak? Well, I was too. Except his family moved away when he was little and mine didn’t. He was four years older than me minus two months. In one month it’ll be three years since he blew up and burned. I couldn’t afford a ticket for that show. Tried to sneak in, but they caught me. I was in the parking lot when that wreck happened. The last wreck, the one on the plate. Was he the best stunt driver of all time? I don’t know. Was he my favorite? Yes, ma’am, he was and always will be.”
“I’ll be back soon,” said Betsy. “Stop drinking.”
As Betsy walked around the side of the farmhouse, she passed a large generator which turned out to be the source of the rumbling noise. The rhythmic thumping was coming from inside the house and Betsy could now hear that it was the beat of electronic dance music played at high volume. The shades were drawn on every window that Betsy saw.
The front door to the farmhouse opened as soon as Betsy placed her foot on the first rickety step leading up to the wrap-around porch. A girl not much older than Betsy stood in the doorway wearing long khaki shorts over a pink one-piece swimming suit. She had short, curly black hair and a fragile-looking neck. Behind her, the inside of the house was dark. The music blasted around her and out the front door accompanied by a sharp, wet, fishy smell.
“What were you and my dad talking about?” asked the girl.
Betsy stopped at the top of the porch steps. “I fell asleep on the bus and woke up here. I tried to get him to take me home, but he won’t help me unless I help him.”
“He sent you to get the plate,” said the girl. “Didn’t he?”
“Exactly,” said Betsy. “What, is this a regular thing?”
The girl stepped out onto the porch and closed the front door behind her. “My dad can’t help you,” said the girl. “Didn’t you notice how drunk he is? How’s he going to take you home?”
“He’s not drinking anymore tonight,” said Betsy. “He stopped a little bit ago.”
“I guarantee you he didn’t,” said the girl.
Betsy was pretty sure she’d ridden with Abel while he was drunk once or twice and it hadn’t been that bad. They hadn’t gotten into any wrecks. But, of course, Abel hadn’t been driving a huge school bus. Betsy wasn’t sure if that would make it better or worse. It’d probably be more dangerous for other people on the road but less dangerous for her. And Mr. Hesner would be the one to get in trouble, not her.
“We can help you, though,” said the girl. “The land line telephone still works here. You could call someone to come pick you up.”
“Thank you so much,” said Betsy. “That’s really helpful.”
“But first,” said the girl. “You have to get the cellar key away from my dad and bring it to us.”
“So we can open the cellar.”
“But why can’t you do it?”
“Because he hid the key somewhere and he won’t tell us where. But if he thinks you’re on his side, he might tell you. Or give you a clue.”
Betsy rubbed the right side of her face. “Can’t you just let me use the phone? I don’t want to be involved with all this, like, family conflict.”
The girl waved a few flies away from her face. Betsy saw them land on the top of the girl’s head where she couldn’t feel them. “You know Matchy Humanois was a terrible person, right?”
“I don’t know anything about him,” said Betsy. “Except what your dad told me.”
The girl snorted. “Oh, there’s a reliable source. Do you know how many people got injured in Matchy’s failed stunts? How many people died? Do you know how many corners he cut, how many warnings from experts he ignored, how many times he attempted stunts that he knew were impossible?”
“No,” said Betsy. “I don’t know any of that.”
“Come back with the key and you can make all the phone calls you want,” said the girl. “Within reason. Tell my dad we’ve been eating ravioli off of his precious plate.” Then she went back inside and closed the door, the click of the lock faintly audible beneath the pulsing of the bass and the snapping of the snares.
“Where’s the plate?” asked Mr. Hesner. He reclined on the grass next to the bucket, which was on its side. Betsy suspected he’d fallen to his current position and elected to stay there. He was still drinking. He looked bad.
“They didn’t let me inside,” said Betsy. “They knew I was there for the plate right away.”
“You blew it,” said Mr. Hesner, trying to sit upright and failing.
“You said you were going to stop drinking,” said Betsy. “Now look at you. You can’t drive me home like this. You can’t even stand up.”
“Yes I can,” said Mr. Hesner. “You don’t need to stand up to drive a bus, girl. Bus drivers sit! The whole time they’re driving!”
“But you can’t even sit,” said Betsy. “Look at you. You fell off your bucket.”
“The bus has a seatbelt,” said Mr. Hesner. “I’ll be strapped in upright. Good to go.”
“Well, whatever, your girls won’t let me inside the house unless I bring them the key to the cellar.”
“Ha!” Mr. Hesner hurled his mostly empty beer can over the tent with surprising force. “They’re never getting in that cellar! Never!”
Betsy looked with disgust at Mr. Hesner sprawled in the grass. Maybe it would be better to try for access to the phone in the farmhouse. This situation would be a good excuse to call Abel. Surely he’d still come to help her even though they weren’t a couple anymore. And then she’d have some time alone in the car with him and maybe they’d be able to work through some of their problems and Abel would realize he’d made a mistake and ask her to be his girlfriend again and then she’d act hesitant and uncertain and he’d say some uncharacteristically intense, emotional things to her and she’d finally relent and their relationship would be stronger than ever before.
“If you give me the cellar key,” said Betsy. “Then I can trade it for the Matchy Whatever plate and then both you and your girls will have what you want and someone can help me get home.”
“Me,” said Mr. Hesner. “I’m the one helping you get home. I’m driving you home in the bus. They won’t help you over there. Did you smell the shellfish?”
“Is that what that stink was?” asked Betsy.
“I’m deathly allergic,” said Mr. Hesner. “They keep buckets of different kinds of shellfish parts in water by all the doors and windows. Even the smell is enough to make me sick. If they were to ever throw one of those buckets on me, as they’ve threatened many a time, I would swell up and die. Those girls have no shame. They siphon gas for that diesel generator right out the bus while I’m sleeping. Those girls don’t care. They talk bad about Matchy Humanois all the time. Spreading slander. Spitting on the name of a true legend from right around these parts.”
Betsy looked back over her shoulder at the house and said, “Your daughter told me to tell you they’ve been eating ravioli off of your special plate.”
Mr. Hesner studied her through his drunken haze for a few moments and then said, “I’ll go get that key.” He rolled onto his stomach, pushed up to his hands and knees, paused to steady himself, and crawled into the tent. A minute later, he crawled back out and, teetering on his knees, held out a long, silver key to Betsy. “Don’t let ‘em have the key ‘til you got the commemorative plate in hand. And then hurry back as soon as you make the exchange. Don’t wait around for nothing.”
The sunset was unremarkable. Just the rotation of the Earth causing the sun to sink below the horizon without a lot of extra flash or style. Betsy heard no music coming from inside the house this time. The same girl again opened the door before Betsy was all the way up the porch steps. “You got the key?”
Betsy held up the key pinched between her thumb and middle finger.
“OK, come inside,” said the girl, stepping out of the doorway and onto the porch, gesturing for Betsy to enter.
The front hallway of the farmhouse was dark and dusty. Just inside the door was a metal pail which seemed to be the source of the fishy stench. Betsy didn’t look inside. The thought of seeing shellfish guts floating in filthy water made her queasy.
“Follow me,” said the girl, and she walked down the hall and turned right into the first doorway. Betsy followed and found herself in a dimly lit, grimy kitchen. A bare fluorescent light bulb hung over the sink between two sagging cabinets at the far end of the room. There was a window above the sink, but the shade was closed. Another stinking pail sat in the sink below the window. Betsy and the girl stood next to a round table covered with dirty dishes and unopened mail.
“Give me the key,” said the girl, holding out her hand. “I’ll give it to Dora. She’ll test it to make sure it’s the right key. If it is, then we’ll let you make your phone calls.”
Betsy handed the key to the girl who then left the room. Besty could hear the girl’s footsteps receding through the house, then either going up or down a flight of stairs, then silence. Betsy scanned the kitchen for a phone. There wasn’t one, but there was a phone jack along the baseboard just inside the doorway with a white cord plugged into it. The cord ran out into the hallway. If Betsy could find the other end of the cord, she would find the phone. She was about to follow the cord out into the hallway when she heard footsteps returning, this time belonging to at least two people. She returned to her spot by the table and watched as the girl and a heavy-set woman walked past. Then she heard the front door open and close and the house was quiet again.
The white cord led Betsy down the hall and through another doorway into a dark living room with mismatched couches lining all four walls and a large stereo system in one corner, its display blinking “track 18 2:02.” Betsy suspected that if she unpaused the stereo, booming electronic dance music would again fill the house. In the middle of the room was a low coffee table. The phone sat in its cradle on top of the coffee table next to another stinking metal pail of shellfish. Betsy picked up the receiver, put it to her ear, and heard nothing. The line was dead. The girl had lied to her. There was no way to call Abel or anyone for help. Her only way home was to find the plate for Mr. Hesner and try to keep him sober enough to drive. Betsy put the phone back in its cradle and hurried back to the kitchen. If the girls in the house were really eating ravioli off of the commemorative plate, there was a possibility that it was among the dirty dishes on the table. If it wasn’t there, Betsy didn’t know what she’d do. It was her only lead.
Betsy found the Matchy Humanois commemorative plate under a stack of bowls on the kitchen table. It appeared as if the girl had not been lying about it being used for ravioli dinners. It had two pieces of junk mail stuck to the dried red sauce residue clinging to its surface. Betsy pulled the junk mail loose and saw the plate just as Mr. Hesner had described it, except with red sauce smeared across the back half of Matchy’s car and the gaping onlookers below him, which made Betsy think of blood since the onlookers were about to die. Betsy examined the artist’s rendering of Matchy’s face, turning the plate upside down so she could see Matchy right side up. Did he know something had gone wrong, that this was the end? Or was he oblivious? How culpable was he? Betsy placed the plate back among the other dishes and the mail when she heard the front door open and close again. The girl in the bathing suit and shorts returned to the kitchen and the woman, who must have been Dora, walked past without so much as a glance at Betsy.
“It’s the wrong key,” said the girl, flipping it at Betsy, who tried to catch it but failed. The key fell under the table. “I don’t know if he tricked you too or if you’re both in on it, but either way, you’re not making any phone calls from here.”
“I know the phone doesn’t work,” said Betsy. “I checked while you were outside.”
The girl gave Betsy a long, appraising look. “OK, then. We both lied. Get out of our house.”
“I will,” said Betsy. “But I’m taking this with me.” She turned to the table and picked up the Matchy Humanois commemorative plate.
“No you’re not,” said the girl. “I will knock it out of your hand and shatter it before I let you take it to my dad. I will tackle you to the floor. My dad is not getting that plate back until we find out what he’s got in that cellar that’s such a big secret and so much more interesting than us. That’s the deal. He knows that.”
Betsy sighed and put the plate back on the crowded table. “I do not get why everyone cares so much about this stupid plate.”
“Exactly,” said the girl. “What kind of man would choose his obsession with a dead stunt man over his own female relatives and a few of their friends? What kind of man would rather drink himself into a stupor in the dirt outside a tent than live in his own house with his own female relatives and a few of their friends? What kind of man would rather protect the sanctity of a tacky plate commemorating a gruesome example of gross disregard for human life than foster healthy relationships with his own female relatives and a few of their friends?”
“How many girls live in this house, anyway?” asked Betsy.
“Don’t come back,” said the girl. “You’re no use to us.”
As soon as Betsy stepped out onto the front porch, the farmhouse door slammed behind her. As she descended the steps, she saw a dark figure duck behind an unsightly heap of rolled-up chicken wire in the front yard.
“Who’s there?” called Betsy.
There was no response from behind the chicken wire.
Betsy was annoyed beyond the point of feeling nervous about cowardly figures hiding in the shadows. She walked right over to the chicken wire and around the back side to find the figure, with its face turned away from Betsy, crouching next to a duffel bag. The figure peeked over its shoulder and said, “Betsy?”
“Who are you?” asked Betsy. “How do you know me?”
The figure stood up and smiled. “It’s me,” he said. “From the bus.”
After a moment, Betsy recognized him as the acne-riddled, pen-marked, bad-toothed weirdo from the back seat who’d killed the conversation as soon as he’d spoken.
“I’m here to get Hesner,” said the kid. “Like you said. I thought you said you wouldn’t be here, though. What were you doing inside the house?”
“Trying to find a way home,” said Betsy. “What are you going to do to Hesner?”
“Smoke him out,” said the kid. “I’ve got smoke bombs in this duffel bag. I attached my homemade smoke canisters to rocks so after I light ‘em, I can throw ‘em at the windows and they’ll break through the glass and fill the house with smoke.”
“Good idea,” said Betsy, even though she thought it sounded like a bad, borderline crazy idea. “So you drove here, right? Parked your car down the road a ways? Smart. Could you give me a ride back into town?”
The kid knelt next to the duffel bag again and unzipped it. He reached inside and began to extract his smoke bombs. Each bomb was made from a rock slightly smaller than a tennis ball with a thumb-sized cylinder affixed to it with black electrical tape. There were ten bombs in all. “So I’d be happy to give you a ride,” said the kid. “But you’re going to have to throw half of the bombs so I know you won’t rat me out since you’ll be just as guilty as me.”
Betsy wanted to slug him. “I am so sick of people refusing to help me unless I do something for them first. Throw your own bombs. I’d rather stay here all night than earn your help.”
As Betsy walked back toward Mr. Hesner’s tent, she went around the only side of the house she hadn’t seen yet and passed a pair of huge metal doors set flush with the ground about thirty yards from the house. Betsy assumed this was the cellar everyone was talking about. She’d thought a cellar had to be beneath a building, but maybe not. Or maybe Mr. Hesner and his family were all wrong and what they called the cellar was actually something else. There had to be a word for it.
She was halfway between the house and Mr. Hesner’s tent when the sound of shattering glass caused Betsy to turn around. She saw thick, black smoke billowing out of one of the farmhouse’s second story windows, curling out across the blandly darkening sky. A girl was screaming. No, several girls were screaming. Betsy saw the kid from the bus dart around the corner of the house and out of sight. Then there was another crash and a few seconds later, another plume of smoke followed the first.
“Out!” screamed a woman from inside the house. “Everyone out!”
Someone else was screaming, “Fire! Fire!”
Betsy couldn’t decide if she should go help. Maybe tell someone there wasn’t actually a fire or something. She doubted anyone would listen to her in all that chaos, though. Now there were six, no, seven columns of smoke rising into the sky. The girls, however many of them there were, must have evacuated through the front door and gathered in the front yard. Betsy, from where she stood in the back yard, could hear their voices mingling into a shrill, faint chatter from which she couldn’t extract any meaning beyond the fact that they were upset. Betsy wondered where the kid from the bus was hiding. Maybe he’d already escaped back to his car and was on his way merrily home, driving with all the windows down to try to dispel the clinging odor of homemade smoke.
Betsy heard a huffing noise behind her and turned just in time to spring out of Mr. Hesner’s way as he came stumbling past. “Fire,” he gasped. “Rescue. Gotta rescue.”
“It’s not a fire!” Betsy called after him. “It’s just smoke.”
Mr. Hesner fell down, skidding over the grass, adding another stain to his shirt. Then he clambered back to his feet and ran off again. He fell twice more before he disappeared around the front corner of the house. Betsy heard the shouts. “There he is! He’s going in! Stop him!”
Betsy was so over this feud. She walked the rest of the way to Mr. Hesner’s tent and set the toppled bucket upside down again. She sat down on the bucket and tuned out the crashing and shouting and all the other pointless conflict happening at the house. Maybe she should just head to the road and start walking. She’d find another house eventually. Someone would be home. Or she could hitchhike. Mr. Hesner thought she pitied him now that she’d seen his life, that she’d begun to understand him, but that wasn’t true. His life was pathetic, but not in a way that Betsy found pitiable. She just found it infuriating. Betsy often felt victimized by her parents, her teachers, and recently, Abel, but she didn’t see any similarities between her victimhood and Mr. Hesner’s victimhood. His problems were all too bizarre and ridiculous to deserve any sympathy. Hers, on the other hand, were demonstrably unjust and any reasonable person who would let her lay out her side of the story would have to agree.
Betsy looked back at the house and saw a figure crawling across the yard in her direction. The figure was slow-moving and fat. It had to be Mr. Hesner, returning from his ill-advised hero-charge. Betsy watched him the whole way, the crawl visibly worsening. When he got within ten yards of Betsy, she saw that something was not right. He was not merely old and drunk and exhausted. His face was swollen and red. His watery eyes bulged and he sweated profusely. His hands, clawing at the grass as he pulled himself along, were swollen too.
“What happened?” asked Betsy. She stood up and took two steps back towards the tent.
“Shellfish,” said Mr. Hesner, his voice an ugly croak. “They saw me going for the plate and hit me with a full bucket.”
“You were going for the plate?” Betsy took another step backwards. “I thought you were going to help get the girls out.”
“They broke it,” said Mr. Hesner, his voice cracking. “They broke the plate. Now I’ll never get it autographed. All for nothing. All the planning, the risk, the years, all for nothing.”
“You look really bad,” said Betsy. “You need to go to the hospital.”
“I might die,” said Mr. Hesner. He lowered himself to the ground and rolled onto his back. His breathing sounded awful. “I really might die. They got me with a direct hit in the face. Shellfish water all in my eyes, nose, mouth.”
“Can you drive?”
“I could try,” said Betsy. “I don’t have my license, but I know how to drive. I might be able to drive a bus. I could probably drive well enough to get you to a phone at least.”
“No keys,” said Mr. Hesner. “I put the bus keys in a timer safe in my tent every afternoon as soon as I get home from the route so I won’t be able to get at them while I’m drunk. The safe won’t open until five tomorrow morning no matter what.”
“Great,” said Betsy. “I can’t believe you. Even if I got you that plate, you wouldn’t have been able to give me a ride. Not even a drunk, dangerous ride. And now you’re going to die from shellfish because you and your whole family are so, so stupid.”
“There’s a way,” said Mr. Hesner, his voice reduced to a choked whisper. “A way to go. To the hospital. The cellar. The key to the cellar is buried. I know where. I can tell you. Two keys.”
“And I’ll be able to go home too?”
“Are you lying again?”
Betsy had no confidence in anything Mr. Hesner was saying, but she couldn’t just let him die if he claimed he knew of a way to prevent that. “All right,” she said. “Tell me where to look.”
The two keys were together in a plastic bag hidden inside the rotting woodpile at the back of Mr. Hesner’s property, just where he’d said they’d be. Most of the girls were back inside, opening the unbroken windows and fanning smoke out of the house with sheets. Those who weren’t inside were talking on the front porch, from the sound of it. Betsy gathered that they believed Mr. Hesner had thrown the smoke bombs to create a diversion to grab the plate.
Betsy slid the first key into the lock on the huge, metal cellar door on the right and turned it. After a short struggle, she heard a click, grabbed the door by the handle and lifted it open, lowering it silently to the ground so it wouldn’t attract any of the girls. She could see the right half of a flight of ten wooden stairs leading down into blackness. She opened the door on the left and saw a flashlight sitting on the left edge of the bottom stair. Betsy went down three steps and stopped. She heard movement in the cellar, a scraping, clanking sound. Then a hushed, gravelly voice said, “Who’s there? Do you have it?”
“I’m not Mr. Hesner,” said Betsy. “I’m coming down. I need your help.” She went down the remaining steps and picked up the flashlight, clicking it on. The beam was feeble.
“Do you have it?” asked the voice again. “I’ll sign it. Then you’ll let me go, you promised.”
Betsy played the beam of the flashlight along the back wall of the cellar until she came to the far right corner. There, chained to the wall, was a man in the burned remnants of a black jumpsuit and a scorched, scarred crash helmet. His skin, where it was visible, was either dark red or unnaturally white, twisted over the man’s skinny frame. He cringed away from the light, holding up his left hand to shield his eyes. His ring finger was unnaturally tiny.
“Can you hotwire a school bus?” asked Betsy, pointing the light down at the man’s feet, illuminating the massive padlock that kept the chain wrapped tight around his ankle.
“I can drive anything that moves,” said the man. “And I can hotwire anything I can drive.” He coughed. It sounded painful.
“I have the key to your chain,” said Betsy. “But I’m only supposed to free you if you promise to take someone to the hospital. And then take me to my house. Or I guess I could just call from the hospital.”
“I knew his girls would find me someday,” said the man. “The fire wrecked my voice so I couldn’t shout for help, but I knew you’d find me.”
“I’m not one of his girls,” said Betsy. “And you’re lucky I’m not, trust me. They hate you.”
“Who am I taking to the hospital?” asked the man.
Betsy paused long enough that the man figured it out. He chuckled. “Shellfish?”
“I know,” said Betsy. “And now that I’m seeing you chained up down here, I sort of feel like maybe we should just leave him.”
“I can’t turn my back on my number one fan,” said the man, his smile almost too brief to qualify as such. He paused. “Crazy as he is, he saved my life. Helped me disappear. Hid me from some angry people out for vengeance. Looking to bring me to justice is how they put it. It got strange once he got kicked out of his house. It took a while for the chain to come into the picture. And the whole thing with the plate. I told him I’d be happy to sign it at some point in the future if he ever got it back, but he was terrified he’d never see me again if he let me loose. Maybe he was right. I don’t know who owes who anymore. Everyone’s guilty and we all need help but no one’s giving it away for free.”
Betsy knelt next to the man’s feet, pushed the key into the heavy lock hanging from his ankle, and popped it loose. The chain fell away. Betsy stood up and took a step back. “There,” she said. “Do whatever you want.”
The man limped past Betsy and clumped up the cellar stairs into the evening outside. On the top step, he stopped, extended his left arm, cocked his wrist, and almost certainly would have hollered if he hadn’t instead fallen to his knees and wept.
Betsy didn’t ask him why. She could think of several reasons why he might weep just off the top of her head and she hadn’t even heard of him before tonight. If he wanted to tell her, he would. But he did not owe her an explanation.