In the summer of 1976 ten-year-old Kyle Edwards was one of millions of Americans who celebrated a landmark birthday for our nation. Looking back, however, Kyle realizes that summer also held a landmark death for him, that of his innocence.
A typical boy in rural Georgia, Kyle’s daily activities include helping harvest peanuts and sweet potatoes, playing in the corn fields, and riding his bike with abandon up and down the dirt road in front of his house. While out riding his bike one afternoon Kyle causes an accident when he speeds around a blind curve right into the path of an oncoming car. Veering sharply to avoid hitting him, the car flips repeatedly, coming to rest on its side. Kyle watches in horror as a bloody young woman emerges from the vehicle, stumbling toward him.
Terrified of the potential consequences of having caused the accident, Kyle flees to his house, hoping in that foolish way young kids do that if he doesn’t say anything it will all go away. And it seems to, because the woman he expects to stumble up to the door any minute never arrives. Stranger still, when he gets the courage to ride out to the accident scene the following morning there is no trace of the woman or the car. Little could Kyle possibly know that his trouble wasn’t over, it had only just begun.
When he and his Wonder Woman obsessed younger sister, Grace, accidentally start a fire which consumes over 100 acres Kyle makes his second bad decision of the summer, convincing Grace they should lie about having been anywhere near the fire, let alone being responsible for starting it. Unbeknownst to him there was a witness, one who has more in mind than simply turning the kids in to the police. Now Kyle must not only face his guilt and fear, but engage in an increasingly dangerous battle of wills with a monster masquerading as “the Paralyzed Man” in order to save himself and his sister.
Author Grant Jerkins’ debut, A Very Simple Crime, was an intense, dark, psychological thriller involving murder, deceit, and courtroom drama in bustling Atlanta. While on its surface At the End of the Road initially appears to be a more sedate offering given its lazy rural setting and young lead character, as the story unfolds it slowly becomes clear that the events which take place are all the more sinister precisely because of the pastoral setting and Kyle’s innocence.
A simple walk across a field becomes an exercise in survival when charged by a massive Holstein bull which has already crippled one local boy. The joy of playing in the woods turns unspeakably ugly when Kyle inadvertently stumbles upon the town bullies engaged in criminal activity. Even the games Kyle plays with his siblings have a slightly sinister edge to them, as Kyle later reflects about his episodes of hide-and-seek with Grace in the corn mazes:
He would time it so that he would reveal himself only at the last possible moment, only when he was certain her little mind couldn’t take another second of the fear, that she would crumple and her brain would just split, irrevocably scarring her. And then he would reach out from right behind her, touching the back of her neck, fingers slithering like a snake. Or poking like needles. And he’d revel in the scream. Years later, when Kyle thought back on these times, he would think, Jesus, I was a bastard.
Grant Jerkins has not only followed up his tremendous debut with a fitting successor, but surpassed it with a tale that is more than deserving of a place on shelves alongside the all-time classic coming of age stories ever written.
At the End of the Road is available from Berkley Trade (ISBN: 978-0425243343).