THE STARLIGHT CLAIM
Four months after his best friend, Dodge, disappeared near their families’ camp in a boat accident, Nate is still haunted by nightmares. He’d been planning to make the treacherous trek to the remote campsite with a friend — his first time in winter without his survival-savvy father. But when his friend gets grounded, Nate secretly decides to brave the trip solo in a journey that’s half pilgrimage, half desperate hope he will find his missing friend when no one else could. What he doesn’t expect to find is the door to the cabin flung open and the camp occupied by strangers: three men he’s horrified to realize have escaped from a maximum-security prison.
Four months after his best friend, Dodge, disappeared near their families’ camp in a boat accident, Nate is still haunted by nightmares. He’d been planning to make the treacherous trek to the remote campsite with a friend — his first time in winter without his survival-savvy father. But when his friend gets grounded, Nate secretly decides to brave the trip solo in a journey that’s half pilgrimage, half desperate hope he will find his missing friend when no one else could. What he doesn’t expect to find is the door to the cabin flung open and the camp occupied by strangers: three men he’s horrified to realize have escaped from a maximum-security prison. Snowed in by a blizzard and with no cell signal, Nate is confronted with troubling memories of Dodge and a stunning family secret, and realizes that his survival now depends on his wits as much as his wilderness skills. As things spiral out of control, Nate finds himself dealing with questions even bigger than who gets to leave the camp alive.
Fast-paced, evocative, and intensely suspenseful, Tim Wynne-Jones’s latest psychological thriller finds a teenager setting his wits against the frigid wilderness and a menacing crew of escapees.
- Candlewick Press
- September 2019
- 240 Pages
“Rich in plot, the story is also notable for its complex, multidimensional characters, even that of Dodge whom readers meet in flashbacks. Wynne-Jones doesn’t strike a single false note in this beautifully written, compulsively readable adventure.” —Booklist (starred review)
“An action-packed adventure featuring snowmobile chases, violent encounters, and Nate’s courageous attempt to provide aid, the book is also a poignant coming-of-age story. …The book’s fast pace and frequent dramatic moments will hold the attention of even reluctant readers.” —Publishers Weekly
Chapter 1: The Dream
The dream was waiting for him. Dodge Hoebeek under a thick sheet of crystal- clear ice, his eyes wide open, his fingers scraping at the glassy ceiling above him, his mouth screaming, bubbles pouring out, and his long blond hair trailing behind him in the black water.
Then somehow the streaming bubbles formed themselves into words. “You gotta come, man! You owe me!” And Nate, kneeling on the ice above his friend, his bare hands fat on the surface — frozen to the surface — tried to speak but couldn’t, as though he were the one who was drowning.
“You owe me, Nate! It’s your fault!”
“I’m sorry!” Nate shouted. “I’m so sorry!”
It was like he was looking into a warped carnival mirror, unable to say anything, unable to do anything except throw his head back and howl.
He woke up, his heart beating like a two- stroke engine. Had he really howled? He listened to the ticking stillness. No one was coming, so maybe not. Last fall he’d howled, good and loud. He’d woken, time and time again, with his head pressed to his mother’s chest, her arms around him, his father standing just behind her, his hand on her shoulder, strong and calm.
“I’ve got to find him,” Nate would say. And his mother would shush him. And he’d yell at her. “No! You don’t understand. He needs me. He’s waiting for me up there!” Eventually he would wear himself out. “It’s all my fault,” he’d say. “It’s all my fault.” His voice would grow hoarse and the tears would come and finally he’d lay his head back down on his pillow. His mother would fuss with the covers as if he were a five- year- old, touch her fingers to her lips and place them on his forehead, a benediction. Then she’d leave the room. But his father would stand there in the dark. Stand guard until he fell asleep. Stand there as long as it took.
Chapter 2: Escape
It was a daring escape. “ Brazen escape,” the TV anchorman called it. Nate watched as two jailbirds attempted to climb a knotted rope hanging from a helicopter.
“Is this for real?” said Nate. His father nodded, his eyes glued to the television. “So how come if they’re filming it, nobody’s trying to stop them?”
“CCTV,” said his father.
Nate leaned against the doorjamb at the entrance to the den. It was late. He was in his pajama bottoms and a ratty Lockerby Vikings T- shirt. The men weren’t getting very far on their climb toward the chopper. They were about as athletic as a couple of filing cabinets.
“Not exactly James Bond,” said Nate.
His father chuckled.
The helicopter began to rise with the two guys hanging on for dear life. Up, up they rose toward the roofline of the jail that surrounded the yard on all four sides. The closed- circuit camera was in a fixed position, and soon enough the dangling criminals were whisked out of view. And then there was a new camera in play, the TV station camera, presumably, outside the jail. But there were no criminals or helicopter in sight, obviously. This was later. The camera was following the path the helicopter might have taken across a city covered in snow.
“Whoa!” said Nate as the scenery beyond the enclosed compound came into view. “Is that here?”
His father nodded. “The Sudbury Jail.”
There were other shots of police roadblocks on various highways out of town, and then the news returned to the talking head with the frozen image of the escape on a screen behind him. Nate’s dad pushed the mute button.
“I don’t blame them one bit,” he said.
“ Uh- huh. That place is disgusting. Overcrowded, understaffed. And the mice? The place is completely infested.”
Nate stared at his father. “Dad, is there something you want to tell me?”
His father held up his hands. “ Busted,” he said. “Yeah, I spent some time in the stony lonesome.”
“Really?” The grin gave him away. “Only as a visitor.”
“Oh,” said Nate, relieved but sort of disappointed. Burl Crow was the most decent, upstanding guy imaginable. It would be kind of cool if he had a shady past. Then again, maybe he did.
His father shook his head slowly, back and forth. He was looking toward the television but he had one of those thousand- yard stares on his face, the kind of blank, unfocused gaze of someone looking into the past. Then he snapped out of it.
“What are you doing up?” he said.
“Uh- uh,” said Nate. “You’re not getting off the hook that easy.”
His father raised his eyebrows, trying to look parentally threatening but missing by a mile. Then he patted the couch next to him. Nate slouched into the room and sat down. “My dad,” said Burl. “Your grandfather.”
“Oh, right.” Nate had never met his grandfather, but he knew a bit about him. The burn on his father’s right arm: that was thanks to Calvin Crow.
“What was he in for?” His father laughed. “You name it. Arson for one thing, drunk and disorderly, aggravated assault, petty larceny — not- so- petty larceny.”
“Taking what isn’t yours. That’s my old man to a T.” He put his hands together thoughtfully. “He was a thug, Nathaniel. Bad news.”
“Did he die?” “Haven’t heard.” Nate frowned. “When was the last time you saw him?”
His father shrugged. “Five or six years ago, I guess. He was in for carjacking that time. He wanted me to bail him out and I had to draw the line. Not anymore. We’re done.”
He turned to Nate and tapped him on the knee. “What’s up, son? I thought you went to bed an hour ago.”
Nate let his head fop back onto the top of the couch. Closed his eyes.
“You want to tell me about it?” said his father.
“Not really,” said Nate. It was old news. A jail he couldn’t quite escape. “The dream,” he said at last, trying to make it sound like no big deal.
“I thought it had stopped.”
Nate shook his head. His father waited. His father had an amazing capacity for waiting. He could wait out a rock. If you asked him about it, he’d say he learned it fishing.
“You think it’s ’cause you’re going up there?”
Nate sat up straight, yawned, pushed the hair out of his eyes. Felt a little dizzy for a moment. “I guess. Probably.”
“You can always change your mind,” said his father.
Nate shook his head. “Uh- uh,” he said. He pursed his lips tight. Nothing would change his mind about going up to the lake. It had been in the cards for too long. Nate and Paul and Dodge. Except, no Dodge. Not now.
“You still planning on heading up Thursday?” Nate nodded. “Then you’d better get some shut- eye, kiddo. It’s going to be hard slogging.” Nate nodded again. “ There’ll probably be two or three feet of snow on the trail.”
“I know, Dad. It’s cool.”
“More like minus twenty.”
Nate scowled at his father. “Are you seriously trying to talk me out of this?”
His father held his gaze for a moment. “Do you think I’d stand a chance?”
Nate could see the hint of a smile. Shook his head. Then his father ruffled his hair. “Git,” he said.
Nate pushed his father’s hand away but then held on to it a moment. His father’s hands were strong, brown even in the dead of winter. He could see the burn on his forearm, poking out under the rolled- up cuff of his shirt. A place where no hair grew, grizzled. Fried.
“How’d he take it?” asked Nate.
There was a pause while his dad figured out what Nate was talking about. “My old man?” Nate nodded. His father looked thoughtful. “Calvin Crow is used to taking only what he wants. He doesn’t like being crossed, and he sure let me know it. All I could do was let him rant and shout and punch a hole in the wall — or try to. Then he clammed up. I left without a goodbye from him. And that was that.”
Nate thought about it, tried to imagine turning down your father’s plea for help. Couldn’t. “What’d you call it? The ‘stony lonesome’?”
His father smiled. “Git,” he said again.
The front door opened and closed: Mom, home from her night class.
Nate looked at the watch on his father’s arm. “She’s late,” he said, climbing to his feet, yawning, stretching.
“Probably out on a pub crawl with her twenty- something classmates.”
They both laughed at that. They were still laughing when Astrid appeared at the den doorway. “What are you two up to?” she said.
“We were talking about your drinking problem,” said Nate. He hugged his mother and got as good as he gave.
“Right about now my drinking problem might stretch to a cup of herbal tea. Anybody else?”
So the three of them made their way to the kitchen. It was March break — spring break for folks in warmer climes. Sudbury was still serving out its sentence for being north of the forty- sixth parallel. The days were longer, but winter was hanging on tight. Burl put the kettle on the stove, Nate got out the cups, and Astrid set out a plate of jam- filled thumbprint cookies on the table while she talked about all the fun stuff she’d learned in Vibrations and Dynamic Systems. His parents had both been high- school teachers; Burl still was, but Astrid quit and was in her last year of studying mechanical engineering.
Astrid Ekholm was as blond as Nate’s father was dark. And Nate was a little bit of all they were: almond- shaped eyes like his father’s but glacial blue like his mom’s; his father’s straight hair but some in- between color. “Hey, Doc Savage,” Dodge had called him not long after they met. Nate had shrugged it off. “At least I’m not named after a car,” he’d said. And Dodge had said, “A truck. I’m named after a truck.” And that was that.
“How was the party?” said his mother, pouring him a cup of Sleepytime.
Nate snapped out of his thoughts. “I didn’t go.”
His mother stopped pouring. “Aren’t you feeling well?”
He shrugged, dolloped honey into the steaming cup. “No, I just . . . I had a bad feeling it was going to get dicey.”
His mother turned to his father, who held up his hands in wonder. “Let me see if I’ve got this right,” said Astrid. “It’s March break and my newly sixteen- year- old son decides not to go to a party because it might get ‘dicey’ — was that what you said?”
Nate sighed, showily, to make his exasperation clear. “ Jason’s parents are out of town. The party was all over the school — it’d gone viral. There were going to be like a million people there — guys crashing from all over and . . .”
He twirled his finger in the air and made a sound like a police siren. “Who needs it?”
His mother nodded slowly.
“Did either of us tell you lately you’re an amazing son?”
Nate appeared to give it some serious thought. Then he nodded. “Yeah. All the time.”