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Authors: Kim Savage

After the Woods

BOOK: After the Woods
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For Jackson, whose quiet bravery never makes headlines

 

Keep her down, boiling water.

Keep her down, what a lovely daughter.

—“Seether”
by Veruca Salt

Truth has rough flavors if we bite it through.

—
George Eliot

 

PROLOGUE

November 22, 2013
In the Woods

How can something so bright be so cold?

There's no use sharing my ironic observances about the sun. Liv's been barely responsive today, all aimless energy and distraction. I didn't want to run in the woods, but she insisted. Leaves crunch under my sneakers. A tingle in my earlobes warns of pain to come. We'll run like jackrabbits, like banshees, like Diana through the trees, with only an hour left of light.

Liv will. I'll do my best to keep up.

I finish my last quad stretch and find her staring at the trailhead. “We're losing light. Maybe we should bag it,” I suggest.

Liv throws back her shoulders. “I need you with me.”

“Of course. I'd never let you go alone.” I bend at the waist and yank my laces tight, clumsy in gloves. “Aren't you going to warm up? Oh right: you don't need to.” I say it softly, tucking the envy behind a gentle chide.

“Have you ever felt like your heart is swollen inside your chest?” she asks.

I rise fast. “You
are
into him! You said it was just a party hook-up!” I exclaim.

“I'm not talking about Kellan MacDougall.” The low curves of her cheeks flush. “What I mean is, did you ever feel like you were on the brink of something?”

I follow her eyes past the poker-burned entrance sign, past the kiosk with maps under glass. Despite the desolation—no one runs at four p.m. in November after weeks of rain—the woods pulse. The canopy shatters fast-dropping light into glittering shards. A chipmunk skitters close to my foot and ducks into a hole. I know what Liv means. All day, I've felt a fullness, as though there's something waiting for me, today, tomorrow, soon. I start to say this but my words are lost to geese barking overhead.

Liv shakes off her trance. “We should go,” she says, as she leaps up the railroad-tie steps like a deer, flashing pale calves. Speed is easy for her. We come to a puddle buzzing with damselflies and thick with icy rot. Liv jumps over and keeps going. The cold slows me, and I call for her to wait. Liv tosses a grin over her shoulder, the smile that forms her cheek into a shiny rubber ball. She's about to leave me. While I fight to match my breathing with my pace, Liv goes from zero to ten with no effort. We meet another pocket of water. Leap over, dig deep, keep going. She sprints ahead of me as I track her powder-blue jacket, leaves crackling in her wake. We're supposed to stay together. It's the only way my mother allows me to run in the woods, with its overgrowth and lonely trails winding across town lines and Indian ruins. But we run on, longer and farther than we should. I fight to catch up, and I get faster. Liv makes me faster.

Before the flat Sheepfold lies the Hill, a lump of stone and shrub covered by gravel. Today, the gravel will be frozen in the earth, making an ankle-turning hobnailed path. I'm about to call out, tell her to stop, but she breaks into a full-on sprint. I dig in, watch my footing, hop, and weave. My phone falls from my jacket pocket and lands with an ominous clap.

“Wait!” I call to Liv.

I squat. My quadriceps tingle and itch. “Got it!” I raise the phone to my nose; the earbuds dangle. A spiderweb of cracks spreads across the screen. I'm screwed. We need to go home. I wrap the cord around the phone and stash it away in my jacket. No way of avoiding the Hill. I throw my weight forward, and drive myself up, up, up, mounting the crest.

“Liv!”

Sunlight flashes between trees and blinds me. I blink through the pain until I see the man on top of Liv. She writhes, kicking up gravel and leaves. The man shifts his weight rhythmically to keep her pinned.

Liv is screaming.

I am screaming.

“Let her go!” My voice is strangled.

His eyes are red-streaked aggies.

“Who are you?” he bellows. He braces Liv with his forearm and reaches up his pant leg. Metal glints near his hand.

I scream, an animal sound.

He holds a knife at Liv's throat, eyes darting between us, but lingering on Liv. When she squirms, he pulls the knife away from her neck.

“Walk away and forget what you saw! Now, or her blood's on your hands!” His pitch wavers.

I shake my head slowly.

“I'll end her life, right here!”

I don't believe him.

He has a baby face and his head is small for his body. A slice of forehead, pink and smooth, peeks from under a black knit cap, and the buckles on his camouflage jacket clang as he fights to keep Liv from escaping.

Liv sobs. “Julia, please don't leave me!”

I feel my front pocket for my phone, the phone we take turns carrying in case someone gets hurt and we need help. Then I remember: my phone is cracked.

She's been my best friend since she gave me her cherry cola ChapStick in the sixth grade.

If I grab the scruff of his jacket and yank, I might move him, a little, maybe. Just enough so Liv can roll and run. We can run.

I step closer. A light flickers in his eyes. Greedy. He wants us both, but he can't hold two of us. He imagines we'll fight.

Liv's eyes flit over my face. Pleading.

ChapStick.

I rush him.

My fingertips graze his jacket as a glove clamps down on my ankle. I fall. My ankle snaps. The pain fills every space in my body. I hear someone howling. Me.

I turn my head. The view is different from the forest floor.

Liv rolls and scrambles to her feet. Liv is a powder-blue smudge, running and falling and running, until the crashing fades.

The man stands over me, smiling. He has small teeth like a child.

“You'll do.”

 

ONE

353 Days After the Woods

Statistically speaking, girls like me don't come back when guys like Donald Jessup take us.

According to my research, in 88.5% of all abductions, the kid is killed within the first four hours. In 76% of those cases, it's within the first two hours. So when they found me alive after nearly two days, the reporters called it a miracle.

They liked it even better when they found out Donald Jessup didn't want me at first. He wanted Liv. But I took her place. Not only did they have a miracle, they had a martyr. In the eleven months since the abduction, more than half of the
Shiverton Star
's stories (so, thirty-two of them) have been about us. And Paula Papademetriou, who lives right here in Shiverton and anchors the evening WFYT News, still won't leave us alone.

Liv says we must move on.

It had rained a lot that November, and everyone's basement got water, and the high school gym flooded. The track warped in places where the water underneath forced it up, so the track team had to run in a pack all over town. Off hours and against coaches' rules, we trained in the woods.

I think Liv reminded Donald Jessup of a deer, all knees and angles and big brown eyes. In his sick mind he thought he was the Greek hunter-god Zagreus, his avatar in Prey, which he played 24/7 in his mother's house.
Zagreus
is the ancient Greek word for a hunter. My theory is Donald Jessup couldn't get enough of virtual Prey and decided to bring the action to life.

Liv doesn't let on that she used to be a bit of a gamer. Liv would never cop to knowing more about Prey than I do. It doesn't fit the perfect-girl image, the maintenance of which is her mother Deborah's full-time job. What little I know about Prey comes from my research—research that Liv wants me to stop. If Liv had her way, I'd have spent the last eleven months forgetting the woods ever happened.

Dr. Ricker, on the other hand, wants me to remember. Ricker is my new therapist, for better or for worse. The jury's still out on that one. Mom secured my first appointment the day we got home from the Berkshires. The trip started out as “a little time off” and lasted through the second half of sophomore year and the whole summer. I felt like one of those nervous Victorian ladies hustled by my mother to the English countryside for a rest cure. Less than a week after the woods, and as soon as the cops gave us permission, Professor Mom announced a sabbatical, pulled me out of school, and closed up the house. We hightailed it out of Shiverton in time for Thanksgiving for two at the vacation home I hadn't seen since I was nine due to Mom's workaholic tendencies. Mom said holing up 135 miles away from Shiverton would allow the media frenzy to die down. Also, it would give me time to get myself together: stop melting down at the sight of trees and such (for the record, Western Mass was the last place I should have been. So. Many. Trees.). But clearly it was a reflexive act. She was verging on a breakdown of her own, and needed to feel I was safe. After a while, between the homeschooling and our mutual lack of any friends, I actually looked forward to my visits with Patty Petty, RN, MS, CSW. Dr. Petty (Call me Patty!) was supposed to cleanse me of the trauma that I don't totally remember. Her expertise is expressive arts therapy, which involved staging interpretative dances of my feelings about Donald Jessup (I refused). We mostly ended up making masks out of paper and chicken wire, and drawing in what she called my art journal. I went along with it, mainly because Mom, in a weak moment during one of my crying jags, gave me her word this would be the extent of my therapy. But her word is weak. Because here I sit, as I have for all of September and October, on Elaine Ricker's cliché of a couch, deciding how to screw with today's template for Fixing Julia.

At least Patty Petty didn't make me play with dolls. “Seriously?” I groan as Ricker reaches for the basket under her desk.

Ricker is convinced Donald Jessup did something to me that I can't talk about, so I'm supposed to show her. That's where the anatomically correct dolls come in.

BOOK: After the Woods
2.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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