Seconds Away Page 1

Chapter 1

There are moments in your life that change everything.

I don’t mean little things like, say, what cereal turns out to be your favorite or whether you get into any AP classes or what girl you fall in love with or where you wind up living for the next twenty years. I mean total change. One second your world is one thing, the next—snap!—it is completely altered. All the rules, all the things you accepted about reality, are turned around.

Like, up becomes down. Left becomes right.

Death becomes life.

I stared at the photograph, realizing that we are always just seconds away from life-snapping change. What I was seeing with my own two eyes made no sense, so I blinked a few times and looked again—as if I expected the image to change. It didn’t.

The picture was an old black-and-white. Doing a little quick math in my head, I realized that it had to have been taken nearly seventy years ago.

“This can’t be,” I said.

I wasn’t talking to myself, just in case you think I’m nuts. (Which you will think soon enough.) I was talking to the Bat Lady. She stood a few feet away from me in her white gown and said nothing. Her long gray hair looked as though it were moving even when it was standing still. Her skin was wrinkled and crinkly, like old paper someone had folded and unfolded too many times.

Even if you don’t know this Bat Lady, you know a Bat Lady. She’s the creepy old lady who lives in the creepy old house down the block. Every town has one. You hear tales in the school yard about all the horrible things she’ll do to you if she ever catches you. As a little kid, you stay far away. As a bigger kid—in my case, a sophomore in high school—well, you still stay far away because, even though you know it’s nonsense and you’re too old for that kind of thing, the house still scares you just enough.

Yet here I was, in her inner lair, staring at a photograph that I knew couldn’t be what I thought it was.

“Who is this guy?” I asked her.

Her voice creaked like the old floorboards beneath our feet. “The Butcher of Lodz,” she whispered.

The man in the picture wore a Waffen-SS uniform from World War II. He was, in short, a sadistic Nazi who, according to the Bat Lady, murdered many, including her own father.

“And this picture was taken when?” I asked.

The Bat Lady seemed puzzled by the question. “I’m not sure. Probably around 1942 or 1943.”

I looked at the man in the photograph again. My head spun. Nothing made sense. I tried to ground myself in what I knew for certain: My name, I knew, was Mickey Bolitar. Good start. I’m the son of Brad (deceased) and Kitty (in rehab) Bolitar, and now I’m the ward of my uncle Myron Bolitar (whom I tolerate). I go to Kasselton High School, the new kid trying to fit in, and based on this photograph, I am either delusional or completely insane.

“What’s wrong, Mickey?” Bat Lady asked me.

“What’s wrong?” I repeated. “You’re kidding, right?”

“I don’t understand.”

“This”—I pointed to the photograph—“is the Butcher of Lodz?”


“And you think he died at the end of World War Two?”

“That’s what I was told,” she said. “Mickey? Do you know something?”

I flashed back to the first time I had seen the Bat Lady. I had been walking to my new school when she suddenly appeared in the doorway of this decrepit house. I almost screamed out loud. She raised a ghostly hand toward me and said five words that struck me in the chest like a body blow:

Mickey—I had no idea how she knew my name—your father isn’t dead.

That was what had started me down this crazy road that now led to . . . to this picture.

I looked up from the photograph. “Why did you tell me that?”

“Tell you what?”

“That my father isn’t dead. Why did you say that to me?”

She was silent.

“Because I was there,” I said, my voice trembling. “I saw him die with my own two eyes. Why would you say something like that?”

“Tell me,” she said in that creaky old voice. “Tell me what you remember.”

“Are you for real?”

The old woman silently rolled up her sleeve and showed me the tattoo that marked her as a survivor of the Auschwitz death camp.

“I told you how my father died,” she said. “Now it’s your turn. Tell me what happened.”

A chill ran down my spine. I looked around the dark room. A vinyl record spun on an old turntable, scratching out a song called “Time Stands Still” by HorsePower. My mom had been a HorsePower fan. She had even partied with the group back in her celebrity days, before I came along and washed all her dreams away. On the Bat Lady’s mantel was that cursed picture, the one of the five hippies from the sixties wearing tie-dyed T-shirts with that butterfly on the chest.

“Tell me,” Bat Lady said again.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. It was so hard to go back there—and yet it seemed as though I did it every night.

“We were driving to San Diego, just my dad and me. The radio was on. We were laughing.” That’s what I remember best from, well, before. The way he laughed.

“Okay,” she said. “Then what happened?”

“An SUV crossed the divider and crashed head on into us. Boom, like that.” I stopped for a moment. I could almost feel it, the horrible jarring, the strain against the seat belt, the whiplash into sudden darkness. “The car flipped over. When I woke up, I was trapped. Some firefighters were trying to free me.”

“And your father?”

I looked at her. “You knew my father, didn’t you? My uncle told me that my father visited this house when he was a kid.”

She ignored the question. “Your father,” she repeated. “What happened to him in the accident?”

“You know what happened.”

“Tell me.”

I could see him in my mind’s eye. “Dad was lying on his back. His eyes were closed. Blood was pooling around his head.”

My heart began to tumble.

Bat Lady reached a bony hand toward me. “It’s okay.”

“No,” I snapped, anger entering my voice now, “it’s not okay. It isn’t even close to okay. Because, see, there was a paramedic working on my dad. He had sandy hair and green eyes, and eventually this paramedic looked up at me, and when our eyes met, he shook his head. Just once. And I knew. His expression said it all. It was over. My dad was dead. The last thing I saw was my father on a gurney, and that paramedic with the sandy-blond hair and green eyes wheeling him away.”