It was generally acknowledged around the tiny town of Faith, Colorado, that Phoebe Traylor had never seemed like the lying type. Her friend Rob Gates, certainly, but not Phoebe. That was before all this happened. By the time the whole thing wasover there weren't many in town who believed a word either one of them said. Even most of those who had actually seen "the creature" before he disappeared weren't buying it. Seeing isn't necessarily believing.
Faith is a mining town that gave up mining long ago. Today it's a little straggly thing, half circled by a ring of toothy cliffs. Winter up there in the mountains, nearly nine thousand feet above sea level, gets pretty intense. Snow can start bucketing down as early as October.
By the beginning of March, thirteen-year-old Phoebe was about cross-eyed with boredom. "What if spring never comes and it's just winter forever for the rest of time until the end of the universe?" she moaned.
Phoebe and Rob were sitting in the school cafeteria, a cheesy pizza smell hanging in the air. Rob tore open the wrapper of an ice cream sandwich and said through a mouthful, "What if Faith never existed in the first place and all this is just somebody else's boring dream?"
Phoebe was fair and freckled and a bit tall for her age. She had profoundly blue eyes. Her hair was the color of sand, and she wore it in a thick braid down her back, making her look--Scandinavian or medieval or, depending on how you felt about Phoebe--hopelessly old-fashioned. Her passion was animals,horses in particular. She thought she might want to become a veterinarian and spent a lot of time hanging out with the town's deaf vet, Janet Bright, who worked up at the Mitchelsons' stables with her deaf husband, Nick.
Twelve-year-old Rob was short and skinny, with spiky dark brown hair and dark keen eyes. He wore jeans and T-shirts exclusively, and his hands and nails were almost always dirty. Rob would have denied having a passion, but he was always sketching--portraits, landscapes and sometimes rather unkind caricatures. He was fiercely left-handed.
Their friendship was a fact of life in the tiny town of Faith. Rob-and-Phoebe had almost become one word. Their closeness hadn't been an issue when they were younger; now it could cause problems.
At that moment, Chad Scudder, an eighth grader whom Rob called "Faith's own Ken doll," swaggered by their table, making kissing noises in their direction. Rob threw the uneaten portion of his ice cream sandwich at Chad and nailed him just under his chin. Mr. Brinkley, the boys' gym teacher, busted Rob instantly, and he got detention for the third time that month, which meant that his mom would have to come in for a conference. It wasn't a good winter for anyone.
Now, though, the heavy snows were almost over. Phoebe and Rob couldn't have known it then, but as the temperature rose in the first weeks of March and the big melt began, a door on the mountain opened for the impossible to waddle through.
Rob's mother, Lucy, had been on her own since Rob's father went missing six years earlier. Faith has a population of less than five hundred, but maybe two or three times a year somebody turns up gone, nobody knows where or why. The people who disappear usually just take off in the night, no forwarding address provided.
Rob had been not quite seven years old when it happened, and in his mind it had to have been an accident--his father had climbed the mountain above town and fallen into one of the narrow cracks between the rocks. Or a mountain lion got him. Or he was rescuing a wounded mountain lion, maybe, carrying her in his arms down the mountain, when the two of them slipped into a crevasse.
There are places in the peaks around Faith where if you take one wrong step, nobody'd ever hear you hit bottom. And there are mountain lions up there, although it's rare for anyone to see one. Anyway, if you ask Rob Gates what became of his dad, he'll tell you one story; if you ask him again next week, he'll tell you something altogether different.
Lucy Gates waited tables at the diner on Main and on weekends took a shift behind the counter at the Conoco. She was in no mood for another school conference about Rob's attitude.
"What's wrong with you?" she shrieked in front of everybody when Rob and Phoebe came into the diner that afternoon. "The phone rings, most likely it's gonna be the principal or the guidance counselor or the vice principal calling about some prank of yours or other. I'm sick of it, Robert, I am not kidding!"
Pete the sheriff sat at the counter with a cup of coffee and a slice of lemon meringue; Adelaide and Wynola Parsons, the eighty-one-year-old twins who owned the oldest house in town, were having tea; and an alien was reading the local paper. (Aliens are what the kids called anybody who didn't live in Faith.) Everybody looked up to watch Rob get chewed out by his mom.
"Well?" said Lucy. She was in her late thirties and had dark brown hair and eyes, just like Rob's. She was always broke and often angry. Not a lot of people in town knew that she played classical piano pretty well, but she did.
Rob looked at his sneakers while Phoebe tried giving Lucy an apologetic smile.
"You've got influence over him, Phoebe," said Rob's mom. "Use it, for goodness' sake!"
"Yes, Mrs. Gates," said Phoebe.
"Throwing food around the cafeteria!"
"Sorry, Mrs. Gates," said Phoebe.
Lucy slammed a tray of dishes onto a shelf behind the counter. "Robert?"
Excerpted from The Last Synapsid by Timothy Mason. Copyright © 2011 by Timothy Mason. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.