Even though I risked turning on my phone to use Open Street Map, it was hard to find Concord Street in the dark, and we accidentally crossed the Mississippi twice on two different bridges before we figured out how to get there. Everyone was in a bad mood by the time we finally found the street and were headed in the right direction through the gloom. It was a potholed two-lane road that had things on it like water treatment plants and junked car lots, along with a few decrepit houses. We kept going, searching for the bait store that Wheeze had mentioned in his letter, until the road suddenly dead-ended, dwindling away into nothing but dead weeds and bare bushes.
“Shit,” Nikko said. He had to back up to find a spot where he could turn around.
“We must have missed it in the dark,” I said.
“Go slow this time,” Bree said.
“I know,” Nikko muttered, inching along. “Is this slow enough for you?”
“We must have gone right past it before. I’m just saying you shouldn’t go so fast.”
They didn’t sound so adorable anymore. They sounded tired and tense. We all peered along the side of the dark road. “Is that . . .”
He started to turn onto a gravel lane, but swerved back onto the road. “Crap. It’s a house. Didn’t he say it was near the bridge?”
“Yeah, but none of the buildings near the bridge were bait shops,” Bree said, making it sound like they were having a fight.
“That bend in the road, up ahead?” I said. “That’s the spot where the road is closest to the rail line. Might be where Wheeze would look for a place to hide.”
“If anyone sees me driving this slow, it’ll look really suspicious,” Nikko grumbled.
“Wait. What’s that?” Bree pointed to a spot where the gravel shoulder widened. “A driveway?”
Nikko pulled onto the gravel, turning the car so that the headlights illuminated a shack. “Could that be it? It looks kind of . . .”
“Like a bait shop closed for the winter.” Bree burrowed into her bag and handed out flashlights. “Borrowed from my roommates. They won’t notice.”
Nikko drove in a little further so a few scraggly bushes screened the car from the road. He killed the lights and shut off the engine, leaving us in darkness except for some stars that peeked through the tree branches overhead and a faint glow from city lights to the north. We climbed out and, by unspoken arrangement, kept our flashlight beams pointed low and away from the road. We followed our pools of light toward the shack, the only sound the scuffling of our boots on gravel and a muted rumble of traffic from the highway bridge. The shack was tilting to one side and had windows boarded up with plywood. Its siding had once been painted white, but was now silver weathered wood with bits of curled paint clinging to it like lichen on a rock. A folded sandwich board was leaning against the shack. I took hold of the hinged end and turned it around to see wobbly letters: LIVE BAIT WORMS MINNOWS COLD BEER. “Wheeze’s shed must be near here,” I said, keeping my voice down.
I looked for a path through the brambles and dead undergrowth surrounding the run-down building. My toes snagged on vines that were climbing up tree trunks and drooping from branches. “Wheeze?” I called out, not very loudly. “I got your note.”
Nothing. Were we too late? I scanned around with my flashlight beam. Lots of skinny trees and dead weeds. The traffic on the highway bridge made a constant low hum. Somewhere, out there beyond the dark woods the river slipped past.
I heard Bree make a stifled squeak when something scuttled away through the dead weeds.
“Wheeze?” I called out again, louder this time. The air began to vibrate with the rumbling chug of a freight train passing by on the other side of the road. It grew louder, then died away. He must have been lying somewhere near here since Friday, cold and hungry, wondering if anyone would find him. I felt a sob well up, but I forced it back. I wasn’t about to start crying, not in front of Bree. Her sugary sympathy would probably put me into diabetic shock.
“Look,” she said suddenly. I stumbled toward her voice. She held her beam of light steady. It took me a minute to realize it was pointing at a vertical plank of wood so weathered it blended in with the tree trunks growing around it.
“I’ll go first,” I said. “He’ll be scared.” Scared or passed out. Or something worse. The planks that the shed was made of were rotted and tilting, looking as if the only thing that held them up in a stiff wind was some rusted wire and the surrounding overgrowth. I worked my way around the shack until I saw an opening. “Wheeze? Are you in there?”
“I have a knife,” a voice came from the gloom. It was hoarse and ragged.
“Easy. I’m just looking for a guy named Wheeze. You know him?”
I listened, fighting an urge to run away, fast, trying not to think about stories Wheeze had told me about creepy guys he’d run into when riding the rails. Small things rustled through the dead leaves. A towboat made a low, mournful hoot out over the water. A sound like an animal panting came from inside the shack. Bracing for someone to come at me with a knife, I screwed up my courage and leaned in to shine my flashlight into the darkness. A shape huddled in a corner.
“Zen?” The hoarse voice, that one that had told me he had a knife, sounded doubtful. It also sounded familiar this time.
We’d found him.
~ ~ ~
He was shaking with cold but his skin felt hot to the touch and his eyes looked strange, like he wasn’t quite able to focus. “You got my note?”
“Yup. You gave us good directions.” I was glad nobody could see in the dark that my cheeks were wet.
He had surrounded himself with cardboard and dead leaves, trying to keep warm. He couldn’t get up without help, but with Nikko and me on either side, he managed, between hopping and being dragged, to get out of the shed, and between the tangled trees to the car. “Let’s get a look at that ankle,” Bree said as he lowered himself onto the backseat.
“It’s pretty messed up,” he said in a wheezy, gasping moan followed by a wracking cough.
“I need to get this boot off, okay?”
That was easier said than done. It was noisy, too. I was moaning along with Wheeze by the time she worked it off. It looked like he had one of those exotic tropical diseases that makes your leg look like it belongs to an elephant.
“Take these.” She dropped some pills in his palm and opened a bottle of a neon-colored sports drink so he could get them down. “Vicodin left over from when I got my wisdom teeth taken out.”
He swallowed the pills and drank, his teeth clacking against the plastic neck of the bottle. He paused as she took a pair of scissors to his grotty sock and peeled it off, then wrapped the ankle with a length of stretchy cloth. “My roommate plays Lacrosse, even though she’s a total klutz. We have a ton of these elastic bandages.”
Wheeze had his teeth clamped on his lower lip as his face went white and sweaty. When the wrapping was secured with metal clips he took a deep breath, than swigged down the rest of drink. “Glad you found me,” he whispered.
We settled ourselves in the car for the next leg of the trip. I picked up the dirty sock and the boot and put them inside, and helped Wheeze scoot back so that he could rest against the door on the other side. Nikko rolled his coat into a pillow for his back, and Bree got a blanket she kept in the trunk for winter emergencies. Then I sat across from Wheeze with his feet in my lap because Bree said his bad ankle should be elevated.
As Bree and Nikko stood beside the car, debating who was going to take the driver’s seat, Wheeze mumbled, “Who are these guys?”
“Friends. They’re cool.”
“You’re not going to take me to the ER, are you? Because—”
“The police would find out. I lined up a place in Wisconsin for you. There’s a person there who can take care of your ankle. It’s a friend of a friend. It should be safe. Hey, at least your buddy came through. He wanted me to be sure to tell you you’re even now.”
Wheeze laughed weakly. “No shit? He did good.”
It looked as if Bree won the argument and took the wheel. Nikko climbed in to ride shotgun. “Ready to roll?” She asked.
“You know where you going?”
“I’m pretty sure I know how to get back to the highway, and then I’ll follow signs to Dubuque. I’ll need directions once we get there, but you all can get some rest for now.”
She switched the engine on and then I said “Wait!”
“What?” Everyone tensed.
“We didn’t get his stuff from the shed.”
Wheeze groaned. “Oh, yeah. I had a backpack and a bedroll. Some trash, too. I wasn’t being as careful as I should have been. Wasn’t sure there would be any point.”
Nikko looked at Bree and they both got out and took flashlights back into the woods.
“What’s going on, anyway?” Wheeze asked me.
“I’m working with some friends to turn the tables on the feds. Something a little more subversive than the protest, though that turned out to be actually bigger than I expected.”
“I liked it on Facebook. Just kidding.” He gave me a lopsided grin. “Though I looked at the Solidarity site before I had to bail and wrecked my phone, which is how I knew where to send Danny. Nothing like having a loaded grain hopper roll over a phone to make it easy to disassemble it into small parts.”
“I’m just glad it wasn’t you getting disassembled.”
“No kidding. One kid I used to travel with, he lost a leg. I wasn’t there when it happened, but I heard about it.”
“Maybe you should give up this hobby of yours.”
“Soon as the FBI gives up looking for me.” He grinned, then looked wiped out suddenly. His breathing was rough and loud, like when he had bronchitis and everyone started calling him Wheeze. “I was getting really scared.”
“Me, too.” I reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. He squeezed back.
“Not looking forward to prison, though. How’s your brother doing?”
“I don’t know. They haven’t let me talk to him yet.”
“That bites. He’s not cut out for the joint, you know?”
“Sorry I made you come all the way down here when you have so much on your mind.”
“That’s okay. You know that extreme privacy we practiced? It’s coming in handy We’ve been a pretty good team, actually, figuring out how to get here without leaving a trail or getting caught.”
“Yet,” he said, then gave me a twisted smile to take the sting out.
“It was a lot of fun, hanging out with you. I didn’t know how much I’d miss that. I mean, it’s not like I have friends to spare, you know?”
“Well, there’s that guy who gave me your note.”
He laughed. “That was a long shot. I mean, he stopped and helped, and that was awesome. The bulls would have found me, and I’d be locked up by now. But I began to think . . . why would he go to all that trouble? He didn’t even know me, really.”
“He said he owed you a favor.”
“Yeah, but so what? People let you down.”
I thought about the few things he’d told me about growing up. Getting dropped off with relatives when he was in the way. Taking care of himself when his parents were too spaced out to remember he was even there.
“Glad you didn’t let me down,” he murmured drowsily, his voice slurring a little. “I think those pills are starting to work.”
I felt a little glowing ember warming my chest from his words as I tucked the blanket around him. Even though his forehead was sweaty he was shivering. Nikko and Bree returned and put Wheeze’s stuff into the trunk. He flinched when the trunk slammed shut. If that little bit of movement hurt, it was going to be a tough trip. But by the time Bree had backed out of the thicket and got onto the potholed road, he’d fallen asleep.
~ ~ ~
When we reached Dubuque, the sun was coming up. Bree followed my directions across the river and into Wisconsin. A few miles up the road, she pulled over to switch with Nikko, who had napped most of the way. Wheeze woke up and took more pills, then ate six granola bars. The pills made him pretty dopey, so he ate mechanically with his eyes half open. We drove through a town called Dickeyville, which made us all giggle stupidly, then up through snowy cornfields. We turned off on a smaller highway, and then a gravel road, and then onto an even smaller gravel road.
“Are you sure this is the right way?” Nikko asked when I told him to turn onto something that was just a couple of wheel tracks through the snow.
“Maybe? I don’t want to enable my GPS, so I can’t be sure.”
It petered out in the middle of a field, so Nikko backed up through the corn stubble until we were back on the gravel road. Even with the pills, Wheeze winced with every bump. We tried two more dead ends before finally coming to a mailbox that said SHANDY on it. A sign nailed to the mailbox post said NO HUNTING in drippy red paint, like a poster for a horror movie. Another one nailed below it said ABSOLUTELY NO TRESPASSING. There was a cattle guard and a rusty gate secured with a loop of bent wire. Bree got out to open it and secure it behind us before climbing back in.
The rutted dirt track wound through a pasture, then down into a wooded valley and up again, coming to an old farmhouse. A weather-beaten man wearing a faded John Deere cap with gray hair sticking out from under it stood on the porch holding a shotgun. Nikko pulled in under an oak tree. Its dry coppery leaves chattered in a breeze as I carefully scooted out from under Wheeze’s swollen ankle and got out to face the person who I hoped was Zeke’s contact. If it wasn’t, things would get awkward.
“I’m Zen,” I said, adding after a tense moment of being stared at by a guy with a gun, “Some people call me Shad.”
He nodded slowly, once, leaned the gun against the porch railing and came down the steps to inspect me more closely. That’s when I realized it was a woman.
She put out a hand, finally. “Jane Shandy. I was expecting you.” She cocked an eyebrow at the car, like a question mark. “Why are they here?”
“I can’t drive. They’re completely trustworthy. This is Wheeze.”
She ducked down to peer into the backseat. “Let’s get you inside.”