Authors: Liz Coley
For J, who survived.
Table of Contents
OU HAD FORGOTTEN HOW EARLY THE SUN RISES ON SUMMER
campouts—and how loud the birds sing in the morning. You scrunched down in your warm sleeping bag to block out the green light that seeped through the nylon tent, but there was no way you were going back to sleep until you took care of something. As you shrugged off the sleeping bag, you sighed.
“’Sup, Angie?” Livvie’s whisper emerged from the folds of her sleeping bag.
Katie rustled lower into her plaid cocoon and pulled it closed over her head.
“I just have to go to the tree,” you answered, Girl Scout code for taking care of business.
“Anyone else up yet?” Liv cracked one eye and squinted at you.
“I don’t think so.” You sniffed. “No one’s started the breakfast fire.”
Liv’s one eye widened. “It’s not our turn, is it?”
“Nope. Go back to sleep.”
You unzipped the tent and slipped out into the fresh, pink morning. Rosy clouds lofted high above the trees. Pine needles underfoot muffled the sound of your flip-flops as you snuck away from the collection of tents. No one else was stirring. The sun hadn’t warmed the air yet, and the T-shirt you wore left your arms bare and goosebumpy.
A few thousand pine trees surrounded the clearing where the troop had pitched camp yesterday afternoon—lodge-pole, ponderosa, Jeffrey, sugar pines. Mrs. Wells had made you memorize their bark and needles to earn your tree-ID badge. You found the trail you’d tromped along yesterday to walk into the campsite and headed down it a little way, looking for a thicker stand of trees. That was about as much privacy as you could get in the great outdoors. Tiny ripe August thimbleberries lined the path, and you munched a few as an early breakfast, the tart red juice staining your lips and fingers. A fallen tree with a saucer-shaped fungus lay across the path, and you filed it away in your brain as a landmark. Then you left the path and headed twenty feet or more into the woods to a good squatting place.
You spun in a slow circle to shake off the feeling you always had out here that someone was watching, before you hitched down your sweatpants and crouched. It was an art, peeing in the woods without splashing your feet or clothes, at least for girls.
A twig snapped sudden as a rifle shot. Your heart bumped in shock. Your eyes swiveled toward the direction of the sound, expecting a squirrel. A rabbit. A deer. Anything but a man, who blended invisibly into the undergrowth except for his narrow, dark eyes—eyes that stared at you with an almost familiar hunger.
“Shhh.” He put a finger to his lips, walking toward you.
You struggled with your sweats, humiliation and shock making your hands clumsy. You couldn’t break your gaze from his eyes, couldn’t see his face for the intensity of the unblinking stare that held you. You opened your mouth to talk, to scream, to plead, but nothing came out—your throat tight, as if a noose looped it and he held the knot. A moment later, he reached for you. His right hand covered your mouth and his left held your arm behind your back in an unbreakable grip. You still hadn’t breathed.
“Don’t fight me, pretty girl,” he whispered, pressed against your body, his moist lips touching your ear.
Fight him? Your limbs were soft, weak. Your knees on the edge of collapse. You couldn’t even take a step, to run, to flee. How could you fight him? Your stomach clenched, and the sound of wind rushed through your ears, a hurricane in your head.
Above the roar, you heard a little girl’s high-pitched voice call,
I opened the rusted gate for you to slip inside.
Stabbing pain pierced between your temples. Still you stayed, frozen in his grip. We tugged, pulled at you until something broke loose. For just a moment, you contracted to a tiny, hard point of light, felt yourself cut away from your body.
You hid. We kept you hidden till it was safe.
It was a long, long time.
O BACK NOW
A VOICE SAID
NGIE FELT A POKE
between her shoulder blades. She tripped forward a step, arms out to catch her balance.
“Don’t,” she protested, whirling to look behind, but no one else was there.
She shivered and shook her head to clear it. When the wave of dizziness passed, she opened her eyes again. She blinked hard at her street. Her cul-de-sac. Her neighborhood. The sun was halfway up the cloudless azure sky. Hot Santa Ana winds tousled the sweet gum trees. A hint of red tinged the edges of the falling leaves. Sharp-pointy seed-pods scattered across the sidewalk. In August?
An unexpected weight tugged at her left hand—just a plastic grocery bag. Where was her camping gear? She hefted the bag to look inside, and that was when the strangeness hit her. She dropped it in surprise and studied her left hand. Something was really wrong here. This wasn’t her hand. Those weren’t her fingers. These fingers were longer, thinner than they were supposed to be. And a strange silver ring circled the middle finger. The skin was dry and rough. Dark scars circled the wrists like bracelets. She turned over her right hand, studying unfamiliar cracks and calluses on her palm. She clenched it experimentally. It felt … wrong.
Angie frowned and spun to look again behind her. How had she gotten here? She didn’t remember walking this way. She was just … in the woods?
Her stomach growled, and her right hand flew to her waist—taut, thin. And where had this hideous shirt come from? Flowers and ruffles? Not her style at all. And no way would Liv or Katie have bought it. She wouldn’t have borrowed it even if they had.