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Lone Star

Chapter 1
Insanity’s Horse

Chloe sat alone on the bus ride home across the train tracks, dreaming of the beaches of Barcelona and perhaps of being ogled by a lusting stranger. She was trying to drown out Blake, Mason, and Hannah verbally tripping over one another as if in a game of drunken Twister as they argued the pros and cons of writing a story for money. Hannah’s Blake, with sawdust permanently on the soles of his boots, was planning to write a story that would win ten thousand dollars! Threads of songs played their crowded lyric notes in the static inside Chloe’s head. Under the boardwalk like no other lover he took my hand and said I love you forever— all suddenly overpowered by Queen’s matchless yawp, Barcelonaaaaaaaaa . . . !

She placed her palm against the glass. The bus was almost at their road. Maybe then this psychodrama would end. What made him think he could write a story? What could he possibly write about? Outside the dusty windows, made muddy by the flood of recent rain, past the railroad, near a clearing of poplars, Chloe spied a fading billboard of a giant rainbow, which two white-suited workmen on ladders were papering over with an ad for the renovated Mount Washington Resort in the White Mountains.

She had just enough time to glimpse the phrase on the soon-to-be-obscured poster before the bus lunged past it. Johnny Get Your Gun. This left her to contemplate, alas not in perfect silence, the philosophical meaning behind a rainbow being papered over.

Just before the bus stopped, she remembered where the sign was from. It was an ad for the Lone Star Pawn and Gun Shop in Fryeburg. Remembering it didn’t answer Chloe’s larger question, but it answered the immediate one.

“What idiot thought a rainbow was a good symbol for a gun store?” Hannah’s mother had said. Soured on men and life, she had pawned her engagement ring there. Got seventy bucks for it. Took Chloe and Hannah for lobster in North Conway with the money.

They all got food poisoning afterward. So much for rainbows.

Is that what they called karma?

Or was it simply what happened next?

“Character is everything,” Chloe said doggedly, to everyone and no one. “Character is story.”

The small blue bus pulled up to the pine trees at the top of Wake Drive, a dirt road marked with a rock painted with a black whale. Four kids jumped off into the dust. Chloe and Mason and Hannah and Blake. Because it was the merry month of May and almost warm, they wore the clothes of the young out in the boonies— denim and plaid. Though to be fair, that’s all they ever wore, blizzard or heat wave.

The mile of unpaved road at the end of which they lived was all downhill between dense pines. It meandered through the thick forest, getting narrower, crossing the train tracks, hugging the small lake, ending in pine needles and disarray, not a road anymore, just dust, and that’s where they lived. Where the road ended.

The bus had been dropping them off at the same rural stop for thirteen years. Soon there would be no more blue buses, no more lurching afternoon rides. In a month they would all be graduating.

And then?

Well, and then . . .

But before then, there was this.

“Don’t be hating on my story already, Chloe,” Blake said. “It barely began. Give it a chance. It’s a good story, you’ll see.”

In what universe could a five-minute speech by Mrs. Mencken about the Acadia Award for Short Fiction right before lunch, when no one was listening, result in Blake and Mason suddenly deciding they were writers and not junk collectors?

“Yeah, Chloe.” Mason took her hand with a cheerful wink.

He was ten months younger than his brother and ten inches shorter. He had no choice but to look up to him.

Chloe and Mason and Hannah and Blake. Two couples, two brothers, two best friends. A short girl, a tall girl, and two brawny dudes. Well, Blake was brawny. The neat, scrappy Mason was all about sports the last few years, ever since their dad had his back broken. Blake was the one who got the large lumbering body of a man who lived in a rural town and could do anything: lift anything, build anything, drive anything. Was write anything going to be added to that list too?

And next to the loping, uncontained Blake walked opalescent, contained, scrubbed-clean Hannah. With tall, detached elegance, Hannah conducted herself as if she didn’t belong in tiny Fryeburg, Maine. She wore ballet flats! Even now, as she schlepped a mile through the dried mud and pine needles. No butch Timberlands for her. Hannah walked with her shoulder blades flung back, as though wearing a Chanel blazer. She carried herself as if she was too good for the place that by an unlucky accident of birth she had found herself living in, and couldn’t wait until the moment she was sipping wine on the Left Bank with other tall, artistic, beautiful people.

Chloe, in stark contrast, was not lean and long of limb. She didn’t care much about not being tall when she wasn’t with Hannah. But next to her reedlike, put-together friend, she often felt like an armadillo.

That Mason didn’t agree—or said he didn’t—Chloe thought only spoke to his poor judgment. Nonetheless, the armadillo and the star ballplayer strolled hand in hand, past old Mr. Leary out on the lawn, surrounded by every bit of garbage scrap he owned, trying to make it look less garbagey so he could sell it.

“Blake, dear boy,” Mr. Leary called out, “you said you’d come by after school and help me with my block saw. I still can’t get the dang thing to turn on.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Leary. But later, okay?”

“Why not now?” the craggy man said. “I have some snacks for you and your friends. Doughnuts.”

“Thank you, sir, but not now.”

Because now Blake was busy. He had to clear the brush from the dusty path of his own winding life.

Chloe felt that all the trouble began when Blake turned eighteen last July and was allowed to enter the Woodsmen Day competition at the Fryeburg Fair. He entered five contests. Tree
felling, crosscut sawing, axe throwing, log rolling, and block chop. He lost the crosscut and the log roll and the block chop, and you’d think he’d remember that and be humbled—that he lost three out of five—but no. He beat the best time that year on tree felling by six seconds, coming in at twenty-three seconds flat, and he set a fair record on the axe throw with six bullseyes in a row.

You’d think his head was the bullseye: it swelled to four feet in diameter. He strutted down dirt roads and through Academy halls like an Olympic gold medalist. Chloe would remind him that Fryeburg Academy—which all the local kids attended for “free” through a tax deal between the school and the state of Maine—was one of the most prestigious preparatory high schools in the United States. “No one here gives a toss about your axe toss, I promise you,” Chloe would say to him, but you’d think he were deaf. Mason was used to winning, with his dozen sports trophies lining the dresser, but Blake became impossible. He acted as if he could do anything. Like, for example, write.

With their dad’s ancient truck, they had been going to houses around the lakes in Brownfi eld and Fryeburg and asking if, for a small fee, the residents would let them take their trash away. Now, most people aimed their shotguns to point the brothers in the direction of the exit, but there were some—widows, the feebleminded—who agreed to pay them a few nickels to cart away their old refrigerators, nonworking snowblowers, rusty rakes, newspapers, chain saws. The boys were strong and worked hard. They flattered Hannah into designing their business logo: The HAUL BROTHERS Hauling Services. “We Haul so you don’t have to.”

They got a decal made for the truck, painted the vehicle a hideous lime green, and figured that if they worked full- time, hired two more guys, and bought another truck with a lift, they could make six figures at the end of three years. Six figures!

They had an advertising plan: Yellow Pages, the North Conway Observer, local ads on TV, three radio spots— and then their dad’s Chevy died.

It was over twenty years old. Burt Haul loved that pickup so much that even after the accident that nearly ended his life, he refused to let it go and spent his own scarce money rebuilding it. “I drove your mother home from our wedding in that truck,” Burt told his sons. “The only reason I’m alive today is because of that truck. I ain’t parting with that thing.”

But now the truck engine was like Mr. Leary’s gas-powered block saw. Defunct.

No one had money for a new truck, even a used one. Burt and his boys were being shamefully carted around in Janice Haul’s Subaru. Were they even men? The senior year passed, truck still broke, and Janice had to not only drive to work and shop for the family, but also share her inadequate station wagon with two restless boys with divergent friends, interests, and schedules.

To make money, the boys shoveled snow, cut grass, and did shopping for the infirm, and reluctantly put their plans for a business on hold. Fast-forward to today, when they are hopping off buses and yammering on about how a prize-winning story about junk dealers will help them with their unrealized dreams of becoming actual junk dealers. You had to hand it to them. The two were single-minded in their pursuits. All their pursuits.

“Chloe, speak up.” Blake always got irked by her disapproval.

“What don’t you like about it?”

“I’m staying silent.”

“Not silent enough. What? You don’t think it’ll make a good story?”

“So far I’m not sold,” she said.

“Why? I haven’t stopped selling you on it.”

Chloe opened her hands in a my point precisely. “Who are the main characters?”

“Who cares? Can I finish telling you before you judge?”

“You mean you haven’t finished? And I’m not judging.”

“Yes, you are. That’s your biggest problem.”

“I’m not— ”

Blake stuck his finger out, nearly to her mouth. “The premise of my story is—are you listening? Two dudes run a junkyard.”

“That part I got.”

“They do say write about what you know.”

“I. Got. That. Part.”

“Two dudes run a junkyard and one day they find something awful.”

“Like what? All you find is Wise potato chips and Oreo wrappers.”

“And condom wrappers.” Blake grinned, slowed down, and threw his big arm around Chloe’s shoulder.

“Hannah, control your boyfriend.” Chloe pushed him away.

“But okay, even still. Where’s the story?”

“Can there be anything more full of possibilities than a ninety-year-old woman throwing out a Hefty bag full of used condoms?” Blake laughed.

“Not used condoms,” Mason corrected him. “Condom wrappers.”

Chloe glanced at the lost-in-thought Hannah for support.

“What else have you got?”

“Not much past that,” Mason said. “Hannah, you think it’s good so far, don’t you?”

“So far there’s nothing!” That was Chloe.

“He wasn’t asking you!” That was Blake.

They had ten minutes before they reached home to hammer it out. It wasn’t enough time. Blake pulled them off-road, away from home and onto the train tracks that ran through the woods and divided their small lake down the middle. Arms out, backpacks on, they balanced on the rusty tracks and skipped on the ties as they attempted to brainstorm a plot. Writing a story for money! What a thing. Acadia’s first prize was ten thousand dollars for a novella. Blake didn’t even know what a novella was until Chloe told him. To the Haul brothers, a sum that large was like winning the lottery. It was a new truck and the start of their own business. It was the rest of their lives. They acted as if they had already found the money lying under a tree in a suitcase. All that was left to do was count it.

And little naysay-y Chloe was not allowed to even mention that:

1. They had no story.

2. They were not writers.

3. There would be at least fi ve hundred other applicants, who (a) might have a story and (b) were writers.

4. A new truck was more than ten thousand dollars.

Chloe couldn’t help herself. If only she could learn to keep quiet, like Hannah or Mason. “Who are these junkyard boys?”

“We are. Blake. Mason. We’re ambling along, asking for no trouble, and suddenly— trouble comes.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“The awful kind.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. Like dead rats.”

“Rats are good,” Chloe said. “But then what? Someone not wanting dead rats in their house is hardly a story. It’s more like a truism.”

“We found some jewelry too once.”

“Jewelry and rats?”

“Okay, maybe not jewelry, then.”

Chloe glanced at Hannah, walking on the side of the tracks, not listening to Blake jackhammer away at Chloe’s concrete skepticism. She wondered where Hannah was at. Certainly wasn’t here.

“They discover something that changes everything. Mason, what can they find so monumental and terrible that it changes everything?”

“True love?” Chloe smiled.

“It’s not that kind of story, Haiku,” Blake said with twinkling amusement. “This is a man’s story. No room in it for lurv, no matter how terrible and true. Right, cupcake?” Jumping off the rail, he jostled Hannah along the pebbles.

“Right,” she said.

Mason had other suggestions. “We found an old suitcase once. It was full of snakes. And once we found a live rabbit.”

“Yes,” Blake said. “He was delicious. But Chloe is right. We need a real story, bro.” He smacked his forehead. “How about a human head in the trash?”

Chloe didn’t even blink. “Nice. Then what?”

Blake shrugged. “Why are you always so preoccupied with what happens next?”

She could tell he wasn’t taking it seriously. What the boys did for a living— that was work. Here, all they had to do was come up with a few words and place them in the sweet order that ensured victory. Blake was convinced it was child’s play. “Yes, yes,” he went on. “The writer drones on about what happens next and as soon as the reader guesses what’s coming, she either falls asleep or wants to kill him.”

“So the trick is what? Never give the reader what she wants?”

Blake shook his head. “Nope. Give her what she didn’t even know she wanted.” He acted as if he knew what that was. As if.

Eventually and without much success, they turned for home.

“They find a human head,” Blake continued to muse, ambling down the narrowing pine path next to Chloe, Hannah and Mason behind them. “But not a skull.” He glanced back and widened his eyes at Hannah. “A head. That’s been recently separated from the body. It still has flesh on it. And they don’t know what to do. Do they investigate? Do they call the cops?”

“I think they should investigate,” Mason said, catching up to them. “Investigations are always fun.”

“Yes, there’ll be danger in it.”

“Danger is good,” Hannah said from behind. “Danger is story.”

No, Chloe wanted to correct her friend. Danger is danger. It’s not story.

Blake went on ruminating. “What if asking too many questions of the wrong people puts them in mortal danger?”

Is there any other kind, Chloe wanted to ask but didn’t.

“Someone must shut them up. But who?”

“Obviously the one who separated the head from the body. I really think we got us something here, Haiku, right?”

“I say keep working on it.” Chloe used her most discouraging tone.

“Wait! I got it!” Blake got (more) excited. In so many ways he was much like the German Shepherd he’d once owned.

Insuppressible. “Instead of a head, what if they fi nd a suitcase? Yes, a mysterious suitcase! It’s blue. Oh my God, I got it. That’s my story.” Blake stopped and turned to the girls, his whole face flushed and thrilled. “The Blue Suitcase. What do you think? It’s flipping awesome is what you think!”

Hannah smiled approvingly. Chloe caught herself shrugging.

“It’s a good title for a mystery,” she said. “Is that what you’re writing? A title is important, but it’s not everything. What’s in the suitcase? Once you figure that out, then you’ll have yourself a story.”

Blake laughed with his characteristic lack of concern for details. He was a big- picture guy. “James Bond always goes to a foreign country to solve mysteries and catch the bad guys,” he said. “Some fantastic exotic locale full of drink and women.”

Chloe made a real effort not to rub her forehead. “James Bond is a government spy. He kills for money. He doesn’t rummage through the trash for severed heads.”

“Foreign country!” Mason said. “Blake, you’re a genius.”

Blake’s entire peacock tail opened up in kaleidoscope green.

“But wait,” Mason said. “How can we write about it? We’ve never been to another country.”

Blake blocked the girls’ way, beaming at them. “Well, not yet,” he said.

The girls remained impassive. Only Chloe twitched slightly.

Oh no! He doesn’t mean . . .

“We’ll go to Europe with you,” he blurted. “Mason’s right, I am a genius. The answer to our mysterious suitcase is in Europe with you. Oh man, this is fantastic. And we’ve only been at it for five minutes. Imagine how good it’ll be when we spend a few days on it.” Blake thumped his flannel chest. “We could win the book prize.”

“What book prize would that be, Blake?” Chloe said.

“I don’t know, Chloe.” He mimicked her. “The prize they give the best book of the year. The Oscar for books. The Grammy, the Emmy.”

“Um, the Pulitzer?”

“Whatever. That’s not the important part. To write something people will love, that’s the important part.”

Chloe leaned into Hannah. “Did your crazy boyfriend just say he wants to go to Europe with us?”

“I’m sure that can’t be right,” Hannah, suddenly frazzledlooking, whispered back.

Blake pulled Hannah away from Chloe. “When are you two flying to Barcelona?”

“I don’t know,” Hannah mumbled. “Chloe, when are we flying?”

“I don’t know,” Chloe mumbled.

“Mason, that’s where we go, bro. Barcelona! Our story will climax there.” Blake laughed. The brothers high fived and bumped shoulders.

“I thought you said it wasn’t that kind of story,” Chloe said. “If it ends in Barcelona, Haiku, it’ll have to be a story for all seasons, won’t it? Isn’t that where they have the running of the bulls?”

“Oh dear God. No. That’s Pamplona.”

“Blake,” Hannah said, “you’re not seriously thinking of coming with us?”

“We’re done thinking. We’re coming, baby!”

Mason looked shocked. “We’re going to Europe? You’re bullshitting me.”

“Mason, do I come up with the best ideas or what?”

Mason was at a loss for words. “We got no money, bro.” He mumbled that too. Everyone was mumbling except for Blake.

Finally Hannah became actively engaged in the conversation. “Blakie, come on, what do you know about writing a story? The contest is open to all Maine residents. That’s a lot of competition. Just from our school, there’ll probably be at least a hundred entries. Everyone on our literary magazine is submitting something.”

“Hannah, have you read the literary magazine?” said Blake, swinging his arms, bouncing down the road. “It’s called Insanity’s Horse, for heaven’s sake. Just for that title alone, those fools should be disqualified from participating. Do you remember the magazine’s April thought of the month? The pastiche of the pyramids implementing primal passion is a prolix

representation of all phallic prose. I got your phallic prose right here.” He laughed. “Yeah,” he added, merry and intense. “I’m not worried.”

How did this happen? One minute ticked by, and before it was up, Blake and Mason had climbed aboard the girls’ slow-chugging teenage dream.

Hannah pulled on Chloe to slow down. “Now I really have to talk to you,” she said. “Come by before dinner?”

“Is it about Barcelona?” Chloe looked up into Hannah’s anxious expression.

Hannah blinked. “No and yes. Do you have your passport yet?”

Chloe didn’t reply.

“Chloe! I told you— it takes two months to get a passport. Come on. What are you waiting for?”

“Easy for you to say— you’re eighteen. I have to ask my parents to sign for my passport.”


“Well, first I’ll have to tell them we’re going, won’t I?”

“You haven’t told them yet? Chloe!”

Blake was in front of them, panting, his body heaving. “So how do we get a passport?”

“Don’t ask her,” Hannah said. “She doesn’t know how to get one either. Go to the post office.” She batted her lashes, her eyes moistening. “Are you guys really going to come with us? Don’t tease us. Don’t get our hopes up and then not come. That’d be mean.”

“I never disappoint you, pumpkin, do I?” Grabbing Hannah around her slender waist, Blake pretended to dance with her and stepped on her feet. She yelped.

“Blake, you do know where Barcelona is, right?” Hannah threaded her arms around his neck. “In Spain. And you know where Spain is, right? In Europe. As in—on another continent. As in, you need not just a passport, which costs upward of a hundred bucks, but also a plane ticket, and train tickets, and maybe, oh, I don’t know—some lodging and food money.”

With gleeful indifference, Blake shrugged off a vigorously nodding Mason. “You know what they say, babycakes.” He squeezed her. “You gotta spend money to make money. It’s like the ten grand I’m going to get for my story. We can’t start our own business till we write and then win this thing. And we can’t write and win this thing till we do this other thing.”

“This other thing,” said Chloe, “meaning horn in on my lifelong dream?”

“Exactly. Mase, let’s jet. To horn in on Chloe’s dream, we gotta go get us some passports. No time to lose.” As they sped up, their boots kicked up dust in a bee cloud. “Where’s this post office anyway?”

“Are you joking? You’ve never been to the Fryeburg Post Office?”

Hannah poked Chloe. “Listen to you. You’ve never been there either.”

Chloe poked Hannah back. “Yes, I have, stop it.”

Blake pulled on his brother. “Let’s hoof, bro. Should we pick you up, Chloe?” The Hauls lived three houses up, around the pond through the scraggly pines and birches.

The girls gazed after their young men, and then resumed walking. Hannah shook her head—in distress? In wonderment? Chloe couldn’t tell. “I guess I’ll be going to Spain with my boyfriend and your boyfriend, but not with you,” Hannah said.


“I’m not joking, Chloe.”

“Oh, I know.”

“You can’t start your adult life being such a chicken. What are you afraid of? Be more like me. I’m not afraid of anything.”

Her lip twisted.

They were almost at the clearing in front of Chloe’s green bungalow. Hannah slowed down, as if she wanted to linger, but Chloe sped up as if that was the last thing she wanted. “I have to be diplomatic,” she said. “If I want them to say yes, I can’t just do an I’m-going-to-Europe vaudeville routine.”

“If you don’t start acting like an adult, why should they treat you like one?”

How much did Chloe not want to talk about it. It wasn’t that Hannah was wrong. It was that Hannah always said obvious things in such a way that made Chloe not only think her friend was wrong, but also want her friend to be wrong.

“I’ll talk to them tonight,” she said, hurrying across her pineneedle clearing.

“I wouldn’t tell them about Mason and Blake just yet.”

“Ya think?”

“Start slow,” Hannah said. “Don’t make your mother go all Chinese on you. You always make her nuts. First dangle our trip, then wait. The boys might be pie in the sky anyway. Where are they going to get the money from? They won’t come, you’ll see.”

Chloe said nothing. Clearly Hannah had no idea who her boyfriend was. There was no talking Blake out of anything. And as if to prove Chloe’s point, Janice Haul’s Subaru came charging toward them from around the trees, Blake rolling down the window, slowing down, honking, waving.

“Off to get our passports!” he yelled. “See ya!”

Chloe turned to Hannah. “You were saying?”

Hannah brushed a strand of hair from Chloe’s face and fixed the collar on her plaid shirt. “She’s not going to let you go, is she?”

Hannah said. “That’s why you haven’t asked. You know she’ll say no.” Something wistful was in Hannah’s tone, indefinable, perplexing.

“Clearly I’m going to use all my powers to get her to say yes,” Chloe said. “Don’t worry.” They both looked worried.

Hannah sighed. “Still, I wouldn’t tell her about the boys just yet. You know how she gets.”

Chloe sighed in return. She knew how her mother got. “What did you want to talk to me about?” Only a flimsy screen door separated Chloe’s mother’s ears from Hannah’s troubles.

Hannah waved her off. “Just you wait,” she said, all doom and gloom.

Lone Star
by by Paullina Simons

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062098152
  • ISBN-13: 9780062098153