Weather was brewing. Heat was still rising from the pavement when the wind started up, carrying with it the tang of coming rain. Gray clouds rumbled overhead, and I broke into a jog through Shady Creek’s century-old downtown.
That’s when an old man ran straight into me—or maybe I ran into him. His silver pocket watch left his grip and went flying, and he grabbed me to steady himself with a feeble dark-skinned hand. We both stared as the watch dropped to the sidewalk and cracked open, spilling its guts.
I shook my head. He didn’t have a phone—he had a pocket watch. This guy was from a different century, a really different century. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I was going too fast. Didn’t see you.” I knelt, face to the wind to get the curls out of my eyes, and took a baker’s minute to pick up a handful of tiny parts.
He seemed frail, hunched over a wooden cane. He looked at the watch pieces in my hand and murmured, “It was my grandad’s.” Then his eyes roved over to my face.
“Richie.” He said my name as if he knew me.
Now that was pretty freaky. He couldn’t know my name because we’d never met.
“Richie,” he whispered.
Tingles spidered up my back. I could count the African-Americans I knew by name on one hand, and none of them carried pocket watches.
“I’m really sorry, sir,” I babbled. “I hope you can get the watch fixed. I just spent my money—” I thrust the pieces into his hand.
I heard rapid footsteps and looked up. Three black teens came from the general direction of a nearby store. Two of them wore black hoodies. I sucked in my breath. This was precisely the type of situation my dad had warned me about. “Don’t go where there’s a crowd of black people.”
“Pops!” said one. “You all right?”
“Sure I am,” said the old man.
The tallest guy stared daggers at me.
I didn’t know what he wanted, but I ran anyway as the rain began to pelt me. Ran like my life depended on it, and maybe it did.
Danger, right here in Shady Creek, Missouri, my mostly white, boring suburb. Who would have thought?
I won’t josh you. The last couple years of my life were tough. I’d gone from a normal kid with two loving parents to a kid raised by his mean aunt—somebody who I guess never wanted children, especially not now.
I missed Dad, that was for sure. Mom too. Same town, same friends, different house. But it felt like different everything. Like there was a big gaping hole inside of me. I did my best to carry on, cooperate most of the time, keep Dad’s advice in my head.
I’d have left Aunt Trudy’s if I could. But I was only fourteen. How can a fourteen-year-old leave? I had to figure it out. Not that my dad would approve. “You can’t run away from trouble,” he used to say, tapping his finger on his bearded chin. “It’ll always find you.”
I didn’t believe what Dad said. Getting out of Shady Creek was my number one goal.
After two years living with Aunt Trudy, I even believed her sometimes when she said I did everything wrong. But not today. Despite the puzzling encounter with the old man, today I was Smiling Sam, Tall Teddy, Rich Richie. This afternoon I’d be out of town, all the way out to the woods where I was good at things. Even if it wasn’t for very long, it would still be something. Just a little orienteering session while Aunt Trudy was at work, now that school had let out for the summer.
Praise for The Long Shadow
“Part survival story, part exploration of racial justice in America, part journey of self-discovery, and wholly engaging and memorable. A well done and powerful story. It is certainly stuck in my head.”
—Joe Corbett, school librarian, St. Louis
“Heartwarming and heartbreaking, Richie’s story is a shining example of how taking a chance on unlikely friendships is the best way to break down the barriers we build.”
—Jill Williamson, award-winning author of the Blood of Kings trilogy
“A powerful message wrapped in a page-turner.”
—Cherie Postill, author, speaker, and mentor for teens at the St. Louis Writers Guild
“Sometimes we need to escape our own time and place to walk a few miles in someone else’s shoes. Phyllis Wheeler’s The Long Shadow will open your eyes, rend your heart, and take you on an invaluable journey.”
—Wayne Thomas Batson, bestselling author of The Door Within Trilogy
“I loved this book. I could not stop reading it once I had begun. It is a delightful story, as well as a very painful one, told very well without a wasted word. I gladly recommend it to anyone.”
–Jerram Barrs, professor at Covenant Theological Seminary and author of Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts
“Full of interesting characters … [The Long Shadow has] heart, humor, and a great overall theme. … Complex subject matter, woven into enjoyable fantasy …”
—John Hendrix, NYT bestselling illustrator and author
“I’ve read this book and enjoyed the characters in the story. I like the friendship that blossomed in the story and how the story came full circle in the end. It was a good history lesson without being offensive to anyone.”
—LaShaunda Hoffman, sensitivity reader and author
“In The Long Shadow, Richie finds himself traveling through time and learning to explore his own biases and prejudices towards people of color. Richie’s trajectory of self discovery is one that kids of all backgrounds and cultures can enjoy.”
—Rebecca Groves, middle school literature teacher
About the Author
Phyllis Wheeler tells stories that encourage us to step outside our comfort zones. She’s done it—she and her husband spent twenty years raising their family in a black neighborhood in segregated St. Louis. She’s been a journalist, an engineer, and a homeschooling mom. Now she’s thrilled to be following her dream of becoming an author for young people.