Hideout by Watt Key is a riveting middle-grade adventure featuring the son of a Mississippi policeman who finds a boy living on his own in the wilderness (Available January 10, 2017).
Twelve-year-old Sam has been given a fishing boat by his father, but he hates fishing. Instead he uses the boat to disappear for hours at a time, exploring the forbidden swampy surroundings of his bayou home. Then he discovers a strange kid named Davey, mysteriously alone, repairing an abandoned cabin deep in the woods. Not fooled by the boy’s evasive explanation as to why he’s on his own, Sam becomes entangled in his own efforts to help Davey. But this leads him to telling small lies that only get bigger as the danger increases for both boys and hidden truths become harder to conceal.
I slowed my skiff at the mouth of Bluff Creek and stared over the Pascagoula River. The far shore was a looming wall of cypress trees and densely tangled underbrush casting a long morning shadow over the black water. I set aside my new fishing rod and pulled a map of Jackson County, Mississippi, from my pocket. I spread it on the seat and studied it. The Pascagoula River Delta was a broad, uninhabited marsh, indicated by a swath of green and hashed as wetlands. There were no other markings on the map for miles except a few red dots that I assumed were the old fishing camps. There were no roads and no way into the place except by small boat. And somewhere, in that enormous swamp, was a dead body.
Dad had mentioned the swamp to me a few times, sort of like you’d talk about the moon. It was a place looked at from a distance. A mysterious place one never imagines going to.
“I fished in the Delta once or twice with your granddad when I was a kid,” he said. “Back then you’d see people out there. That was before the conservation groups bought up the land and condemned the camps. It’s easy to get lost. Cell phones don’t work. You get in a fix, and it’s a long way to help.”
I studied the river again. I had my flotation vest on in case I fell overboard or sank. I had a flare kit and a whistle in case I broke down. Dad is chief of police for Pascagoula, and he’d made sure I had every possible safety item. The only thing I didn’t have was his permission to leave Bluff Creek.
He never actually said how far I could go. Considering I’d only gotten the boat a week before, on my thirteenth birthday, and I wasn’t the type of kid you’d expect to do foolish things, I doubt it crossed his mind that I would venture far from home. But I wasn’t the kid I used to be. Even though school had been out for a while, the fight stayed over me like a blanket of sickness that seemed impossible to get out from under.
The school counselor told me I’d feel better over time, but I didn’t believe him. When I talked to his calm face and tried to tell him what I was feeling, all I could think was that he couldn’t possibly understand. Forget the physical pain—it was the humiliation that hurt the most. So I just started telling him and my parents what they wanted to hear.
That I was fine.
That I no longer thought about it.
Then the sessions stopped and I was left to figure it all out for myself.
There’s not much to figure out. Trying to make friends in a new town is already hard. Add getting beat senseless in front of the entire school, and things look hopeless.
* * *
For a couple of miles the river was nothing but a winding, featureless ditch of rich tannin-soaked water between cypress trees and savannas of tall buggy whips and marsh grass. Eventually I passed a creek that entered from my right; I remembered it from the map and kept going. From what I’d seen on the news, search and rescue, or S&R as Dad called it, had been mostly in the Ward Bayou Wildlife Management Area, still a few miles north of me. They’d found the abandoned jon boat sunk to the gunnels, streaked with blood, drifting slowly down the river.
As my outboard engine raced on, and home fell farther behind, fear swelled inside me. I came to a fork in the river, stopped, swallowed against the fear, and calmed myself. I pulled out the map again and located where I was. Just outside the management area. The right fork would take me directly into it.
There’s no way you can get lost, I told myself. It’s just one fork in the river.
I put away the map and sped up, forcing myself to press on. Now there wasn’t even a distant cell tower or power line visible over the trees, making the river feel even more remote and empty. Maybe if I’d seen another boat along the way, I would have felt safer. Then I thought it was better that no one saw me. But mostly I thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever done.
I soon came to another creek entering from the east. That was as far as I could make myself go. On the map it was called Ware Bayou.
I’ll explore just this one. I won’t even go deep into it. There’s no way I can get lost after just two turns.
I motored into the mouth, and the cypress trees closed on both sides of me. They were seemingly taller, as if the swamp grew stronger the deeper into the heart of it a person went. Spanish moss hung from branches like the beards of old men. Beneath was a tangled thicket of palmettos and cane, swollen to an impenetrable wall of green with the wet June heat. The smell of the air was heavy and thick, like steamed vegetables. The foliage looked like a jungle, but I heard no bird or animal sounds. It was quiet and still. I heard nothing but my heart beating heavily in my chest and up into my ears.
As I motored slowly into the mouth the water cleared to a dark tea color. With the creek curving out of sight before me, I visualized the map, remembering the countless creeks and sloughs that in turn split off into more creeks and sloughs. A feeling of defeat settled over me as I contemplated what I was truly up against. This was just one of maybe a hundred waterways I’d have to explore. Unlike S&R, I didn’t have a helicopter and night-vision scopes and real search vessels. It was going to be impossible to find a dead body in this place. Especially after everyone had already searched for five days and given up.
I looked down beside the boat, examining the dark-colored depths. I thought about the corpse rising up from the bottom, bloated and yellowish-looking like I’d seen in a horror movie.
What would I do if I found it?
Seeing it would be enough.
Then I’d report it. Then I’d be on the news and everyone would know about it. Dad would be so impressed with me that he wouldn’t care that I’d taken my boat so far from home.
Suddenly the foot of my outboard motor slammed into something and shut off. Fear raced up my spine again as I spun and looked at the water behind me. I saw the tip of an old piling just inches beneath the surface. Dad called them deadheads, and the description had never sounded so fitting.
As I slowly drifted past the deadhead my mind flashed with visions of being stranded in such a place. Then something splashed to my left and startled me. I looked just in time to see an eight-foot-long alligator disappear into the depths. It seemed the place wasn’t so empty and still after all. I imagined creatures of all sizes crouched within that green wall of tangle, watching me.
I stood up, grabbed the pull rope, and yanked. The engine started, but I knew there was a chance I’d broken something. I put it into gear and let out a deep breath when my skiff started forward again.
It’s okay, I thought to myself. Just a little farther.
I began seeing remains of the old fishing camps. A few were collapsed and partially sunken into the mud and hidden behind a screen of cane and vines and palmettos. Others had been burned and there was nothing left but the charred nubs of creosote pilings. It was like a strange ghost town. I passed eight of these eerie ruins before I came to one that was still standing. The roof was partially gone, and the deck looked too unstable to climb onto. On the outside wall was the number 34, sloppily spray-painted with blaze-orange paint.
I kept on, passing a few more of the abandoned camps, most of them barely visible, a few more with painted numbers, all of them looking too far gone to stay in or even fix up. More alligators slid into the depths. Occasionally a fish boiled the surface or a turtle scrambled off a log. A blue heron screeched like a banshee and glided away.
It wasn’t long before I decided I’d gone far enough. Once I made this decision, I felt much more at ease and willing to pause and study my surroundings. I shut off the motor and drifted and listened. I felt safe in the middle of the creek, the sides of my boat protection from whatever lurked in my perimeter. There were more sounds I hadn’t heard over the engine noise. An osprey cheeped from high in the branches of a bald cypress. Something croaked to my left. On my right the cane rustled and a tree branch shook and trembled. My eyes darted about, trying to catch a glimpse of the hidden creatures. I saw small birds flitting about in the underbrush. Then I heard another strange sound—hammering.
I turned my ear to the knocking. I determined it wasn’t a woodpecker. It was someone hammering nails not far ahead of me. But I couldn’t imagine what a person would be building this far in the middle of nowhere.
I started the engine again and eased forward, keeping my eyes on the creek bank ahead. As I came around the bend I saw another camp. It hadn’t been burned, but it was leaning and rotten, and the door was missing. On the outside wall was the number 64. I studied the two front windows. Most of the panes were broken out, and the inside of the cabin was dark behind them. Then I felt the back of my neck tingle when I saw a ghostly image staring back at me, just above the window ledge.
Copyright © 2017 Watt Key.
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Watt Key lives in southern Alabama with his family. His debut novel, Alabama Moon, was named to Time Magazine’s list of the Best One Hundred YA Books of All Time. Hideout is his fifth book for young readers.