Lost in Wildwood
by Jason Ryan Dale
Author Jason Ryan Dale stops by today to share an excerpt from Lost in Wildwood. Get your FREE copy to 7 January.
Joshua just robbed your home. The locked front door slowed him down about as long as it will take you to read this paragraph. Your jewelry, silverware, small antiques, and the loose cash you were sure would be safe in the last page of the cookbook on the floor of the pantry all fit snugly in his backpack. Right now, Joshua is trudging along the street two blocks from your house, appearing for all the world like a twenty-something suburbanite out for a jog.
Now you are like everyone else in Joshua’s life. He’s passed you by, taking what he needs, without revealing any more than he needs to. His family, his business partners, even his precious few friends don’t really know him. Joshua thought he was smart enough and tough enough to live this way forever, but then he met Julia. This kind, pretty but unassuming girl is bringing up feelings that Joshua thought were just for other people. Unfortunately, Julia’s love for her long-time boyfriend is a far stronger obstacle than your front door was.
If it’s any consolation to your violated home, Joshua’s troubles have only just begun. Nick, his childhood friend, has a different kind of job all lined up, an armed robbery that promises a richer reward than anything Joshua has ever done. When things go wrong, Joshua is left fighting for his life just when he may have finally found something worth living for.
Joshua woke up tired and miserable. The unshaped visions of his dreams gave way to the putrid morning light of his cramped little bedroom. A single, perfectly square window lit the four walls, searing Joshua’s swollen eyes through their lids no matter which way he turned. The burning pain was just enough motivation to carry him off the mattress and onto the shaggy carpet and dirty clothes below. Today was not going to be a good day.
In fairness to the morning, Joshua rarely had a good day anymore. If there was ever a time he looked forward to leaving his home and jamming himself into the world, he could not remember it.
Dragging the soap over his shoulders, arms, and stomach, he fought off the last holdouts of fatigue. He loved this time of day. The steamy water over his face, like the warmth of his bed, was a precious thing, cheaply bought and sweetly enjoyed. It seemed to Joshua that this was his time to rest, more even than sleep. As soon as he was out of the shower, everything only got worse.
Dressed and clean, Joshua was nearly ready. He made one last check of his backpack, then bounded down the stairs, brushing aside with his toes some toys that had been left on the bottom step. Taking an apple from the refrigerator, he slung the bag on his shoulder and headed for the door. Often, he would have no memory of this hour between his bed and his car. Some days, it was as if he had been born on the road, his first breath taken from the warm, stuffy air inside a six-year-old automobile, with memories and impressions chewed recklessly into his brain by some alien tooth.
Joshua’s life had become a spinning wheel of sleep, food, and work.
On the front stoop, he pressed his hand over the outer pocket of his backpack. Feeling with his thumb, he sought out the item he occasionally forgot to put there. The outline of a six-inch blade shifted with his touch. Let loose from its sheath, the edge could cut through bone as easily as his teeth had pierced the apple flesh.
Work, Joshua thought. Always work.
* * * * *
The homes in Joshua’s neighborhood were built into one another, so nobody needed to pay for an unnecessary wall. Red brick made up every house on Joshua’s side of the street, while across the way there were speckles of gray stone, whitewashed wood, and aluminum masquerading as whitewashed wood. On Halloween, Joshua had been able to fill two pillowcases full of candy without ever losing sight of his front door. He had lived here all his life. Most of his neighbors knew him, though some called him “Keogh” or “Ke-boy” because they could not remember his first name.
As he drove, Joshua was riddled by pangs of claustrophobia. Devereux County was outside of the City, but it was not most people’s idea of a suburb. There was not a front lawn for miles that was as big as the house to which it was attached. Joshua was aware that his work was making him spend more and more time in strange neighborhoods. It was disconcerting to think the experience was changing his idea of home.
The faces of Philadelphia’s tallest buildings sparkled in the rear view mirrors. His work took him far away from those towers, and far away from the row houses that he was speeding past. In forty minutes, without using a highway, he would arrive in a different world.
* * * * *
The landscape became greener on all sides as Joshua approached the area where he plied his trade. An irrational fear kept pace with his travels, trudging behind him and above his shoulder, screaming that he did not belong here, that he should turn around, go back into his house, and crawl into bed. It was an old fear, one that Joshua had come to see as a strange ally rather than as an enemy. Like a spur on a horse’s flank, it kept him moving.
Pulling down a side street, he found the parking lot he had marked on a previous trip. Actually, it was something less than a lot, nestled as it was behind a pizza parlor and a specimen of a large drugstore chain. Little more than an alleyway, complete with dumpsters, chipped pavement, and broken glass, the space was used by only a few locals. Most importantly, it was shielded from view on almost every side.
These neighborhoods did not have sidewalks, so he jogged along the side of the road. No one greeted him as he made his way. If anyone did take notice, they would find nothing unusual. In sweat shorts and a light, blank tee shirt, Joshua appeared to be another twenty-something casually working to improve his cardiovascular health. Only the deflated brown backpack on his shoulders spoke of his intent, and it did not speak loudly.
It was a brutal, humid summer day. Even though Joshua was soon sweating uncomfortably, his mood remained steady and cool. Every movement he made, every thought in his head, was measured and deliberate. The progress of this trip was the product of painstaking preparation. His heart beat a regular cadence, and his breath deepened as he passed the landmarks he had memorized. No jungle creature ever made its way through the brush with more caution or cunning than Joshua as he jogged between the looming faces of the tall houses.
The lawns he passed, wet with dew when he started, were nearly dry now. No other travelers could be seen, except for one fellow runner too engrossed in his own lungs to pay much attention to the rest of the world. Once he passed a woman walking a furry little dog, probably some housekeeper or nanny doing a chore. Neither made any acknowledgement of Joshua, so he reciprocated the indifference.
Everything about the houses on either side of the road, the bushes and trees that framed them, the wooden fences that separated one yard from another, even the birds that lived here, appeared soft and still.
The bright red mailbox that was his final marker came into sight at last. The house at the end of the street was a monster made of gray stone. Some bored architect had realized one day he would never get to build a castle for a medieval count freshly returned from the Crusades, so he designed this abomination as the next best thing. Round towers rose from the front corners, and a jagged parapet watched gloomily as Joshua jogged onto the enormous front yard. If a yeoman sentry had emerged from the roof and called a hue and cry, Joshua would have been only slightly surprised.
Crossing over the driveway, he darted behind the cover of a thick hedge. Now the real danger began. Slipping on a pair of white surgical gloves, Joshua tried to picture the rear door in his head. Though he labored hard to appear innocent, the steady, rhythmic step that carried him from his car faltered. His stride quickened and lengthened slightly, and though it was probably imperceptible, it felt like a mistake.
Upon reaching the door, Joshua turned the knob, half expecting it to resist. He had chosen this house because he was once lucky enough to notice the owners returning home without using a key, but that was no guarantee. There were tools in his front pocket that would serve him if the door was bolted. Picking the lock would have cost him precious seconds, however, and Joshua desperately craved relief from stray eyes when he did a job at midday. The knob gave way and with a crisp, easy motion, he was inside.
* * * * *
A spacious kitchen welcomed him, as well as a little alcove with a two-person table that Joshua imagined was what people referred to as a “breakfast room.” He knew the comings and goings of the house, and he was confident that the darkened hallways signaled that the owners, a bland couple in their fifties, were not at home.
The kitchen was old and plain. Nothing caught his eye as valuable, so he moved directly to the silverware drawer. He always chuckled for a moment as he stole silverware, remembering the day when someone finally explained to him why it was valuable. Up until then, he thought that “silver” was only a figure of speech, and that spoons and knives like the ones he was loading into his bag were made from a shiny kind of stainless steel.
Before moving on, he checked the paintings on the wall of the breakfast room. Joshua rarely encountered artwork worth noticing, but it paid to be thorough. The paintings were cheaply framed pictures of men in rowboats and snoozing dogs. “Bourgeois,” Joshua said to no one. It was a word that sounded awkward in his mouth, though he couldn’t help thinking it sometimes. Satisfied, he checked the two first floor living rooms, wondering briefly how the residents referred to them, and how they used them. Nothing here would justify the space it would take in Joshua’s bag, which had to remain light enough to keep inconspicuous during the return trip.
At the top of the stairs, three closed doors lined a long white hallway. The first two that he tried opened only into empty bedrooms. Guest rooms, Joshua guessed, though each one had peculiar features that spoke of some personality. Pink stripes on the wallpaper, a writing desk by the window, and ancient stains on the beige carpet all suggested that these rooms had, until recently, been someone’s living space. Possibly they had once belonged to the children of the owners. In these very rooms, they had raised their family and seen them grow and leave them.
They’ve lived here many years, Joshua thought. Certainly long before electronic burglar alarms and private security became common.
The last bedroom clearly was still in use. A stale odor of perfume or cologne greeted him inside, so much that he was forced to breathe through his mouth. The closet was open, the bed unmade, and the dresser was covered in toiletries and loose change. As was his habit in fertile ground like this, Joshua placed his bag in the middle of the room and began tearing through the hidden nooks where valuables were likely to be hidden. He pulled out each drawer and emptied it onto the floor, slowly enough that he could sift through the insides with his eyes. He ran his fingers along every shelf top or obscure crease where small items could be concealed. He picked each locked jewelry box and deposited the goods in the backpack, and he did it all with swift, efficient movements.
Beneath the bed he found a rectangular mahogany box that screamed as it slid across the floor. Inside Joshua found a brightly-plated pistol lying on an egg crate lining like some pampered pet on its bed. With a groan, he picked it up by the barrel and walked toward the bathroom. Different laws applied if a burglar carried a gun, to say nothing of what could happen if some jumpy cop or security guard knew he had it. Joshua had been taught certain rules to apply to his trade. The most important one was to eliminate complications. The gun landed in the upper toilet well with a plop.
In fewer than five minutes, he had harvested as much as he had expected. Though it was a good day’s work, Joshua reflected briefly that, if the owners were insured, they would make more out of the job than he would.
* * * * *
No one saw him exit the back door and trace the same path he used to enter. As before, he trotted along the far side of the street, staring straight ahead and looking slightly annoyed at the world, the way runners do. The only difference was the motion of the backpack, bouncing less because it was heavier.
Joshua wasn’t sure why he looked back at the house. It was not his habit, for sure. Maybe the strange architecture intrigued him, or maybe he was simply bored. Whatever the reason, he pivoted his waist as he ran and glimpsed the gray towers one more time before turning the corner that would take him back to the alley and his car.
The gray stone looked sullen against the blue sky. It was an impressive sight, a house more suited to withstanding a siege than raising a family. The fortress only needed a moat to make the picture complete.
Better luck next time, Joshua thought. I escaped you again.
[Want more? Click below to read a longer excerpt.]
Praise for the Book
"Wonderful story line drifting throughout the entire book. Keeps you interested in Joshua and identifying with him at different intervals. Makes you keep reading even though it is time for bed, time for work or whatever, you do not want to stop! You find yourself lost within the pages of this incredible story. I would love to see what happens to Joshua." ~ William C. Trainor, Jr.
"Good read." ~ P. B. Owen
" ... the adventure was suspenseful and meticulous. There were plenty of lessons to be learned in the story ... " ~ Dragonpoetikfly Poetry
About the Author
Jason Ryan Dale is an aspiring non-writer living on the East Coast of the United States. He has tried not to write for many years, since neither his personality nor his skill set is suited to a career as an author. A nice position in an insurance office or a steady job in a coal mine should be enough for him, but again and again he has found himself writing simply for his own peace of mind. Recently Dale has given up his ambition for a normal life and begun to labor, against all reason, on his literary works.
Dale is the author of several character-driven crime novels and short stories. In other words, he writes about emotionally and morally conflicted individuals who happen to shoot at each other.