JALEN PEERED THROUGH THE WINDOWS of the Silver Liner Diner to make sure his father was still busy. A man in a black knit cap sat at the counter with a newspaper, a cup of coffee, and a piece of pie. In one booth a young, awkward-looking couple in fancy clothes scowled at each other, arguing in silence behind the glass. Jalen watched his father deliver two plates of his special stuffed calamari to the couple. While the Silver Liner was a diner, it was also much more: a place for authentic Italian food. While the two didn’t seem to go together, Jalen’s father somehow seemed to scratch out a living.
When a car drove up with new customers, Jalen knew he had time to sneak off into the spring night. He snugged
the empty backpack on his shoulders as he crossed the railroad tracks. Wind picked at his curly hair, and he paused at the wailing sound of a distant train.
Beside the station stood a fast-food place, the lights on its big yellow-and-blue-and-purple sign extinguished for the night, since it closed after the last train arrived from New York. Jalen’s dad usually let his help go after dinnertime but squeezed a few extra dollars from the Silver Liner by staying open late, even after midnight, if he had any customers.
Main Street was empty, but Jalen decided to take a detour and avoid the streetlamps. He jogged fifteen minutes to the other side of town, all uphill, to Rockton’s oldest and biggest estate. It had been built in 1782 by the great-great-grandfather (step-great-great-grandfather, she’d always point out) of one of his best friends, Cat Hewlett. Its heavy iron gates stood open, but he stopped to catch his breath. Fastened to one of the great stone columns by a thick chain was a bronze plaque letting visitors know they were about to enter Mount Tipton. Jalen wondered what name his home would go by if anyone cared to call it anything. Probably Broken Box or maybe Shabby Shack.
He darted through the gates and into the shadows, avoiding the long, sweeping driveway and the lights
buried in the grass alongside it. His friends were waiting for him at the corner of the stables. The rich smell of horse manure swirled deep in Jalen’s nose. Daniel Bellone didn’t even smell it anymore. He and his family lived above the horses, along with two other families who helped maintain Mount Tipton in all its original glory, trimming the gardens and grass, painting the buildings, scrubbing floors, and polishing the brass and silver when needed.
Cat lived in the big house—as Daniel called it—but with her messy brown hair, scrubby jeans, and the sweatshirt she wore, she looked like she was the one who lived above the stables.
“Ready?” she asked, snapping her gum and cutting the barn smell with a whiff of peppermint. She bumped fists with Jalen. Even Cat’s raspy voice and the smudge on her face couldn’t hide how pretty she was.
“As I’ll ever be.” Jalen bumped Daniel’s fist, then turned to look down the hill, over the treetops, at the big brick house a quarter mile beyond Mount Tipton’s stone wall. The huge mansion sat on a hilltop of its own, bathed in soft yellow light.
Jalen and Cat trudged off down the grassy slope, following Daniel, who knew the way through the tangle of riding trails better than anyone. They skirted the trout pond
on a wide, grassy trail before plunging into the woods. The trees above swished in the wind. The beam of the flashlight on Cat’s phone flicked this way and that so that shadows of the thick tree trunks danced and jumped. When they reached the high stone wall marking Tipton’s boundary, Daniel pulled up.
“You sure about this?” Cat asked Jalen, directing the light at their feet so that its glow lit the three friends’ faces.
Jalen was surprised. “Why are you saying this now? We all agreed. It’s not like I’ve got a barrelful of choices.”
“I could . . .” Cat’s voice drifted off on the wind. She looked toward the estate, but they all knew that her stepfather gave her nothing.
“Maybe . . .” Daniel looked slightly embarrassed. His fee for the travel baseball team had been paid. His spot on the Rockets was secured.
Without words, Jalen tried to tell Daniel that it was okay. Daniel’s parents were two of the hardest-working people Jalen had ever seen. It wasn’t his fault that Jalen couldn’t afford the travel team fees, and Daniel could.
“Just . . . be careful of the dogs.” Daniel peered out from beneath a shock of hair as dark as the night and shook his head before uttering his version of a curse. “Hot sauce.”
“I know.” Jalen patted his pants pocket and the pork chop bones wrapped in plastic tucked inside. He bit his lip and started to climb the rock wall, inserting the toes of his sneakers into the cracks. When he reached the top of the ten-foot wall, he straddled the flat fieldstones and looked down at his friends below.
“Maybe we should go with you?” Daniel’s face was hidden in the gloom, and his whisper barely rose above the trees.
“Thanks,” Jalen said. “But no. If it goes bad, I could be . . . I don’t know. Arrested?”
“I don’t think—” Cat began, before a long pause during which her face grew grim. “Maybe.”
“So, no sense in taking you guys down too,” Jalen said. “Thanks for coming this far.”
“We’ll wait right here,” Daniel said. “We won’t leave.”
Cat began to climb the wall.
“No, Cat,” Jalen said. “I told you.”
She reached the top and sat with her legs hanging down on the Tipton side as she held up her phone. “I’ll keep it here, in case you get lost. It’ll be a beacon.”
Jalen gave her leg a pat. “If it’s not me for any reason, jump and run.”
“It’ll be you.” Cat’s blue eyes glittered, even in the dim light. “You can do this. It’ll work, and you’ll be on that
travel team going up and down the East Coast, knocking in runs and turning twos.”
“Thanks.” Jalen let himself down a few feet before simply springing away from the wall and dropping to the ground. He didn’t look back because he didn’t want to chicken out. He plunged into the darkness of the trees, waiting for his eyes to adjust, stumbling through the open woods, his eyes fixed on the lights of the huge brick mansion owned by a New York Yankees star.
Jalen’s stomach felt empty and cold and fragile, like a fist in wintertime without a glove. It wasn’t just the darkness. It wasn’t just being completely alone. It wasn’t just the danger.
It was that—despite all the rules Jalen had bent in his life—he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him.
Never stolen so much as a candy bar.
That was about to change.