Past the grove, the brush became thicker. Sounds from beyond the tree line made me jumpy. When I moved, something else just out of sight moved with me. An occasional grunt and snuffling sounded above the wind. The hairs on the back of my neck rose, but I kept pushing forward, trying to ignore the feeling of being stalked.
A roar came through the trees and my heart leaped into my throat. I turned to face my assailant, but nothing emerged. Pitiful cries came from the trees, but I couldn’t see what had happened. Had it been wounded? Part of me wanted to run before the creature attacked, but I couldn’t leave without knowing.
I crept toward the crying sounds and peered through the trees. A bear about the size of Mark’s German Shepherd, Günter, was caught in a snare. Poor thing. Every time it moved to get free, the snare tightened. I couldn’t leave him there.
Slowly, I approached. “Don’t worry, fella. I’m gonna get you free.” A flame ignited in my belly. How dare some hunter leave a trap. The black bear was nothing more than a big baby and didn’t know anything about snares. He’d die if I didn’t help him.
I held out my hand. “Take a big sniff. I’m not gonna hurt you.” I scratched his nose to help calm him. He was still young enough that his eyes hadn’t turned from blue to black. “Let’s see how we can get you untangled from this.”
A streak of lightning shot through the sky and brightened the area like a spotlight. And I saw it. A dark break in the stone formation. Praying it was big enough, I hurried forward.
A thunderclap shook the ground, and I stumbled but managed not to fall. Before I reached the crack, the skies opened, and rain poured down. I ran toward the entrance.
The opening wasn’t big enough. With gritted teeth, I beat a fist against the rock wall, then turned to look for somewhere else. What am I gonna do now? Slumping against the formation, I slid down, holding back tears.
From this angle, the crack appeared wider. Maybe I could get through it sideways. The wind whipped up and sent a shiver through me. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Please let this work. Wishing I had a flashlight, I wriggled through the entrance.
Phew. Nothing inside but a small cave. No wild animals ready to attack. I sagged against the wall. It took my eyes a few moments to adjust to the dim light coming through the crack. I couldn’t see how far the cave went, and without light, exploring was out.
The rain pelted the ground outside my shelter and the wind gusts grew stronger. Through the crack, I watched as drops were blown nearly sideways. Puddles quickly formed, but fortunately my hideout had enough of an uphill slope that the water flowed away from it.
The wind changed direction and blew in through the entrance. I moved away, chilled to the bone. A violent shudder wracked my body. My fingers were frozen, and my toes felt like little ice cubes stuffed inside my sneakers. My teeth chattered.
I folded my arms and tucked my balled fists into my armpits, hoping they’d thaw. Peering through the dim light, I looked for anything that might help me keep warm. Leaves and pine needles were strewn against the walls. They might be good tinder for a fire, but without matches, a flint kit, or sunlight, getting one started might be difficult. But I had to try.
I scooped dead leaves and pine needles into a big pile. Anything outside would be too wet. Besides, I wasn’t going to poke my nose outside until the storm stopped.
I shuffled a little farther inside, kicking a rock. It skittered across the stone floor and ricocheted against the wall. I picked it up, tossed it in the air, and caught it as an idea formed. If the rock was hard enough, I might get it to spark. Now to find another stone to bang it against.
While searching for something bigger than the pebbles lining the walls, I found a few sticks that might have promise if the rocks failed. Intent on finding a good-sized stone, I moved farther into the cave.
An eerie wail caused my heart to jump into my throat. Darkness shrouded me and the hairs on my arms rose. I turned back toward the entrance and my shoulders sagged. The light coming through the cave’s mouth was nothing but a dark gray ghost wavering in the distance.
The blindfold tightened into place.
“Hey. What’s going on?” I’d been concentrating on getting the bike lock open and hadn’t heard anyone come up behind me. Was it someone playing a joke or was this some sort of freshman initiation? Either way, I didn’t have time for it.
I tried to stand, but a pair of hands pushed down on my shoulders. “Knock it off.”
Someone shoved a cloth wad into my mouth and tied it down to keep it in place. I stood with a lot more force. If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. Now two pairs of hands shoved me.
Losing my balance, I sprawled on the pavement. My heart raced and I gasped for breath. As I rolled to my knees, another thrust sent me to the ground again. My arms were yanked behind my back and my hands held together. Someone wrapped rope around my wrists and knotted it. The twine cut into my flesh, and pain shot from my shoulders to my fingertips.
“Are you done yet?” The voice was a half-whisper and sounded like a girl.
If only I could see, I’d have a fighting chance. Another knot was tied around my wrists.
“I want to make sure she can’t get out of this.” The whisper was huskier, more like a boy’s.
Hands grabbed me under the pits on both sides and pulled. I pushed up with my legs. Standing might give me more opportunities to get away. Where was everyone? Somebody had to be coming soon. Classes would be out any minute.
An object prodded me in the small of my back, and I took a step forward. My temples throbbed and I felt like I’d fall with each step. I tried to remember the direction we took, so I could find my way back.
Ten steps later the wind stopped whipping through my hair. We must be behind a building. My heart sank. Who’d find me now?
Denton and Emma had to be my captors. Behind me, they pushed when I didn’t move fast enough for them, whispering about me, but the words got lost in the wind.
I tripped as we stepped on to rougher terrain and I fell flat. A warm trickle on my leg told me I’d skinned my knee. I rolled onto my back and kicked when someone got close. I landed one.
“Stop it. I don’t want your dirty footprints on me.”
The next kick landed in a soft stomach. Denton. But he wasn’t stupid enough to say anything out loud. A thud followed his grunt. He’d landed on the ground.
I snickered, but my laughter was short-lived.
He ran to my head before I swiveled to land another kick. He pulled me up by the arms.
Ouch. I wanted to yell. But I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of knowing I’d been hurt.
My nose twitched. I smelled a horse. A soft nicker confirmed it.
None of the houses right around the school kept livestock, and we hadn’t gone far enough to be off school grounds. Horses were common in the area, but if someone else was there, they sure weren’t helping me out.
An extra hard push from behind ran me smack into the animal. Horsehair got up my nose.
A growl sounded in my ear. “Get on the horse.”
Even though he tried to disguise it, the voice was unmistakably Denton’s.
How in the world was I supposed to get on the horse without using my arms? They each grabbed a leg and started pushing me up the side of the horse. I leaned against the side, hoping I wouldn’t fall and break something. Would they have enough sense to stop pushing when I got to the top? I didn’t want to fall off headfirst on the other side.
When they stopped pushing, I was slung across the horse like a big sack of potatoes. Someone mounted the horse behind me. The reins draped across my back, and the horse started moving. I couldn’t believe they were making me ride this thing on my stomach. What would they try next? This was taking payback too far.
Sprinkles pelted my cheeks like tiny darts hitting their mark. The wind ripped through my hair, and the temperature dropped, colder by the minute. When the person urged the horse forward, wheezing rumbles of breath vibrated against my back. Denton. He leaned against me, and I shuddered.
Only one person had mounted the horse, so what was Emma up to? Despite the cold, beads of sweat popped up on my forehead. Before I’d been angry, but I didn’t know how far Denton would take his revenge.
I drummed my heels against the bale of hay beneath me. “You know, I’ll swear it was all my idea.”
“But, Katie, it was.” Tom reached behind his back and pulled out a flask. “Except for this.”
“Are you getting sly on me, Tommy Wolff?” He never tried anything without checking with me first. “What’s in it?” Other than something to get us both into trouble.
He shrugged and leaned back against the side of the shed. “Nothing much. Just a little rum to go with the sodas I brought.” He cracked open a can and handed it to me. “Drink some out, so I can spice it up for you.”
Tipping the can back, I swallowed as much as I could in a mouthful—no dainty sips for this girl—and gagged. The bubbles flew up my nose, triggering a coughing spasm.
Tommy slapped my back until I caught my breath again. “Are you okay, Katie?”
The urge to sneeze gripped me and I held up an index finger. When it came, the sneeze nearly blew me off the hay.
“Next time, give me more of a warning.” Tommy stuck a finger in his ear and jiggled it. “I might be deaf.”
I wrinkled my nose. “Sorry.”
“You’re so ladylike.” He snickered. “NASA should hire you for testing sonic boom levels.”
I smacked his shoulder, then passed the soda back to him. “If Daddy finds out, he’s gonna blow a gasket.”
Tom’s grin faded. “You gotta admit, you make things tough for your dad. I can hear the news at eleven now.” He rolled into his impression of a TV announcer. “Tonight’s feature is on Sheriff Ron McCabe. Honest and upright, Sheriff McCabe stands for truth, justice, and the American way, keeping our county safe.”
I groaned. Trust Tommy to work in a comic book reference.
“But all superheroes have their kryptonite, so let’s explore the secret he’s hiding.” He pulled the corners of his mouth as far down as he could. “While Ron McCabe upholds the law, his only daughter, Katie, is the biggest troublemaker this town has ever seen.” Tom burst into laughter.
“Stop, already.” I leaned back on the hay and studied the whorls in the ramshackle beam and board ceiling. If I had to hear one more time how I’d compromised Daddy’s position as sheriff … I turned my head toward Tommy and winked. “But you have more fun with me than anyone else.”
He snatched up the rum and made his eyebrows dance. “Ready for some fun?”
Laughing, I sat up. “What made you think of this?”
He concentrated on pouring the rum into the can. “If we’re going to start smoking, we should mark the occasion with a drink.” He doctored his soda and set the flask on the pallet flooring. “Anyway, you’re always saying I never come up with my own ideas. So, I did.”
“I’ll say. And what an idea.” I gave him a high five.
A faint flush of pride colored Tom’s cheeks. Although the afternoon sun shone bright, the inside of the shed remained dark. The only light filtered through the cracks in the walls. We kept the light off so we didn’t attract any attention—not that we would, because a clump of trees screened the shed from the house. Even with the lights on and the door open, no one would see us. Besides, Mr. Pickford rarely ventured far from the house these days. And since I took care of his animals for him, he didn’t have any reason to come out to his shed.
Tom held up his can. “Cheers.”
I jumped off the hay bale to click cans and knocked the flask over. “Oh, Tommy, I’m sorry.” I grabbed it and stood it upright. “I only spilled a little.” I bit my lip. If his dad found out, Tommy would catch fire … more for letting it spill than for taking it in the first place.
“Forget it. I should’ve put the cap back on.” He raised his can. “To our adventure in smoking.”
This time we clinked without mishap, and I took a big swig. My first alcohol at thirteen—I felt so worldly. Shivers scurried up and down my spine and heat warmed my cheeks.
Having watched other smokers do it, I smacked the pack of cigarettes on my palm and took two out. I stuck one in the corner of my mouth and handed the other to Tommy. “Light me.”
Tom tore out a match. “I’ll warn you, my dad smokes strong ones.” He struck it and watched it flare. “Here you go.” He dropped the matchbook and held the burning flame toward me.
Not wanting to gag, I didn’t inhale all the way on my first puff. I had an image to preserve. Tommy struck another match and held it to the end of his cigarette. Though he tried not to, he coughed. I took another drag, a little deeper this time. I’d ease into smoking, one puff at a time. I snatched the packet Tom dropped.
“It’s interesting how people get engrossed in watching a flame.” I lit a match and stared at it while it flickered. Right before it could burn my fingers, I shook it out and dropped it. Lighting another, I held it in front of Tom’s eyes. “What do you think about?”
He gazed at it without answering.
Over the summer, a new Tommy had emerged, and I didn’t know exactly how to handle the changes. For instance, he wanted everyone to call him Tom instead of Tommy. Try as I might, the old, familiar name slipped off my tongue before I could stop it. He’d been my best friend since Daddy and I had moved here when I was two, but after he’d turned fourteen, he wanted more, and I wasn’t sure I did. Neither of us understood what we were going through. Why couldn’t things stay the same?
“Ouch.” The flame burned me, so I shook it, and flung the match over my shoulder. I blew on my fingers then looked into Tommy’s hazel eyes. “So? What do you think about when you stare at a flame?”
Tom stroked his jaw and gave a little half shrug. “I don’t know, I kinda stop thinking. It mesmerizes me.” He perched next to me on the hay bale. “Katie, are we still going to be friends once I start high school?”
“Are you kidding? Of course.” I hated the thought of being left behind in middle school just because I was a year younger but couldn’t fathom life without him. “You’re my best friend, and nothing, not even you going to a different school, will change our friendship.” I bumped my shoulder against his. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
Tommy slouched and stared at his sneakers. “But you might make all sorts of new friends and won’t need me to hang out with anymore.”
Was he nuts? “Hey, look at me.”
He gave me a sideways glance.
“New friends? We already know everyone in this podunk place. Any new friends I have will want to be friends with you. You’re a great guy, so don’t let anyone tell you anything different.”
Tom straightened, but then his eyes got big. A crackling noise came from behind us. Smoke overpowered the smell of the cigarettes.
I spun around. The dry hay had caught fire and the flames raged.