Excerpt from Lingering Echoes (First four chapters)

LINGERING ECHOES: First four chapters

CHAPTER 1

             Standing on the weathered dock, I stared into the shadowy lake. The water seemed darker today, sloshing against the pontoons beneath the platform. With each rise and fall, anxiety tore at the lining of my stomach like acid. I pulled my eyes away from the water, wondering if it would ever cease to be my enemy.

“There you are, Allie!”

I turned around to see Brooke Cannon adjusting the straps of her bikini as she approached. Though I’d only met her two days ago, I was not surprised to see her sky-blue eyes decked out in makeup, each careful stroke of mascara sweeping through her long, doll-like lashes.

“Today is going to be so chill,” she said, joining me on the dock. “I haven’t been on a boat in years. That was nice of your family to invite me.”

“It’s no big deal,” I said with a shrug. I wished Dad had given me the luxury of an “invite” because I would have said no. But when you’re seventeen and visiting your dad, some choices just aren’t up to you.

“I can’t figure out why you gave Mr. Collins such a hard time about coming,” Brooke continued. “Who wouldn’t want to begin the summer cruising on a boat?” Her cheeks flushed with enthusiasm, a natural blush to accompany her fair skin.

I didn’t elaborate on why the situation was more complicated than not wanting to wakeboard. Glowering, I watched Dad maneuver the rental boat into position with help from his wife, Clara. I let out a deep sigh. “It’s overrated in my opinion.”

Aaron’s voice interrupted my gloom.

“Hey, how’s it going?”

Brooke’s attention gravitated to Aaron’s approaching form. Whispering, she said, “You are so lucky. I can’t believe you sleep under the same roof as he does! I guess I’ll have to settle for staying three cabins down from you.”

Luck had nothing to do with it. He was the best friend of my stepbrother, Nick, who invited Aaron to tag along for the summer. I tried not to roll my eyes at Brooke’s infatuation with Aaron. She’d been ogling him since we ran into him playing basketball the other day, gushing about how she and six-foot-one blonds were meant to be together. Personally, from the way she scoped out every boy that crossed her path, I was pretty sure Brooke had an obsession with all boys. But maybe college freshmen were at the top of her list.

“And just what are you ladies gossiping about?” Aaron asked, throwing an arm around Brooke’s shoulders. She gave him a look of playful disgust, craning her neck to match her eyes with his.

“Just because we’re girls, we have to be ‘gossiping’? That’s a stereotype if I ever heard one.”

“Hey, stereotypes have to come from somewhere. I grew up with four younger sisters. Trust me. I know what juicy gossip looks like when I see it.” He flashed a charming smile, while Brooke failed to hide her giddiness.

“Ok, the boat’s ready! Let’s go!” Dad called from the dock.

I sighed. Let the battle begin.

We walked over to the open-bowed ski boat, Brooke and Aaron chatting at my side. I stared at the swaying boat, resistance anchoring me in place.

“Come on, Allie,” Dad said.

I gritted my teeth. My voice was low. “You know exactly why I don’t want to go.”

Dad was relentless, proof that stubbornness is, in part, genetic. “You don’t have to get in the water.  Just come spend the afternoon with us on the boat.”

“What’s the hold up?” Nick hollered from the backseat. Stretched out with his arms folded across his chest, he didn’t hide his annoyance.

Shuffling my feet, I glanced behind me, desperate for an excuse.

Without warning, two strong arms wrapped around my waist and hauled me over his shoulder.

“What are you—Aaron Jackson! Put me down!” I kicked my legs in fury as he pulled me with him into the boat.

He chuckled as he seated me between Nick and Brooke on the back bench. Surrounded by laughter, I glared up at Aaron’s lean form. The top of his unzipped wet suit hung from his waist, his bare, golden torso gleaming at me.

“If you ever pick me up like that again—”

“Whoa! Calm down fireball! I was just trying to help speed up the inevitable.” Aaron zipped up his suit over his defined abs and then threw a life jacket my way. Catching it before it hit my face, I frowned at him. He winked back and then broke into a wide smile.

“You better listen to her, Aaron,” Nick chimed in. “I wouldn’t try that stunt again if I were you. She might throw your back out next time.” He laughed at his own joke.

“Nick, be nice,” Clara said to her son. She smiled at me apologetically.

Indignant, I removed my own shirt and fastened the life vest over my swimsuit. I thrust the shirt into the bag at Brooke’s feet.

“Ah, quit your sulking. You’re ruining the day.”

I didn’t have to turn my head to know the rude comment belonged to Nick, but I faced him anyway.

“Sulking? That’s what you think this is about? You don’t know anything about me, Nick!” The high volume of my voice attracted every head in the boat.

Dad intervened, pushing his sunglasses on top of his head so I could catch his brown eyes reprimanding me. “It’s going to be a long two months if you keep this up,” he warned. He put a hand around Clara’s shoulders. “All we’re asking is that you at least try to get along. Allie, I know it will be difficult for you to be up here after . . . after what happened. But it’s for the best.”

What do you know? I wanted to say, but instead, I held my tongue.

Breaking up the awkward silence, Aaron snickered, “Nick, why haven’t you invited me on more trips with your family?”

She’s not part of my—”

“Nicholas!” Clara cut in, cautioning her son with a stern expression. But we all knew what he was going to say, and I couldn’t agree more. I was not part of his family, and he wasn’t part of mine. It was going to take a lot more than our parents’ legal union to bond the two of us.

“Well, guess we’re all ready now, right?” Dad called from behind the wheel. He made brief eye contact with me, looking away when he saw the resentment in my hazel eyes.

 

Strapped into the wakeboard, Aaron ripped across the water as he jumped from wake to wake. Flying through the air and pulling tricks, he even landed his 360 without fail.  We watched him in awe as he maneuvered a tantrum, catching the wake and flipping in the air.

“He’s amazing,” Brooke admired, not taking her eyes off him. Nick murmured something about Aaron being a showoff and turned his back. Nick was, no doubt, still upset about the face-plant that occurred during his earlier attempt.

“You and Aaron just completed a year in college, right?” Brooke asked him.

Nick sighed, not hiding his blatant disinterest. “Yep. UC Davis.”

Brooke rested her cheek on one hand and looked up at the sky. “College sounds so cool. I can’t wait until I can go next year.”

Whipping his head around, Nick raised an eyebrow. “Oh you’re planning on going? Huh. Wouldn’t have thought you were the college type.”

I caught sight of his mocking grin just before he turned away again. Brooke’s mouth fell open, though no words formed.

“Just what is that supposed to mean?” I ignored Brooke’s hand on my shoulder.

“Allie, forget it,” she murmured.

A wave of superiority washed over Nick’s face. “All I’m saying is that college isn’t for everyone. It takes more than just a pretty face to get in. And, well, some people got it—” He flicked his eyes back at Brooke. “—and some people don’t.”

Glancing with caution at Dad’s back, I lowered my seething voice. “You’re a real jerk, you know that? What’s your problem anyway?”

“I don’t have a problem. Truth of the matter is, I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at, to pay my own way.” Leaning towards me, he pointed his index finger. He lowered his voice in return, though both Dad and Clara seemed oblivious to the building feud behind their backs. “Unlike some people, I didn’t sit around and let Daddy pay for everything. I know what hard work is like. And let’s face it—neither of you spoiled princesses knows anything about the real work it takes to get to college, or to do anything worthwhile for that matter.”

“Oh, really? Well, it sure hasn’t stopped you from milking my dad’s money this past year, and I don’t care how hard you’ve had to work. Just because your dad left you and your mom when you were little, it doesn’t give you the excuse to grow up into a despicable, self-absorbed pig!”

Looking at the floor, Nick gave a cool shake of his head. His eyes flashed back into mine. His words were quick and hateful. “Are you anything like your mother? If so, I completely understand why your dad walked out on her. Kudos to him.”

My hand lashed out and slapped him across his face.

Brooke gasped. Her fingers flew to her gaping mouth.

My eyes cast downward, while heat seeped from my cheeks. From my peripheral, I could see Nick watching me, not moving to touch the sting on his left cheek.

I expelled warm air from my lungs with an agitated sigh. Unbuckling my life vest, I wrestled out of it. Standing up, I reached across Brooke for the bag beside her. “I think my shoulders are burning. Can you hand me my T-shirt?”

Bending over without hesitation, she rifled through the bag as though relieved for the disruption.

“Let’s see how Aaron handles a double-up,” Dad called over his shoulder, unaware of my movement behind him. He turned the boat without warning, looping back across our previous path. I stumbled against the back of the boat, falling against Nick as the boat maneuvered across the bumpy wake.

“Hey, get off!” He shoved me backwards with unnecessary force.

My momentum threw me off the rear of the boat. I yelped, somersaulting into the bubbly lake. The shock of the cold water jolted my body, swallowing me whole. As I surfaced the choppy waves, I cried out, inhaling water.

I thrashed my limbs, spluttering and disoriented. Hacking against the fluid in my airway, panic tightened my chest with an invisible weight, sheathing me in fear.

“Allie! Allie, you ok?” Aaron threw a long arm across my ribs. “Hey! Relax. You need to calm down!”

I struggled against him. The water was still the enemy and Aaron was trying to drag me down with him.

“Stop, Allie. I’ve got you!” Aaron leaned back, hugging my back against his chest, while he towed me with his free arm. Catching some air, I finally quit thrashing and allowed Aaron’s solid strokes to haul me towards the boat.

“Are you all right?” Dad reached down and offered his hand to help me up the ladder.

I ignored it. Refusing to look at him, I stepped inside and pushed past him to the front of the boat. Drenched and dripping, I sat down, hugging myself with the towel Brooke offered me. Smoothing back the dark brown waves of my hair, I cleared my burning throat.

“What happened?” Clara asked, throwing a second towel around my shoulders. “I didn’t even see you fall.”

“I think it was my fault,” Dad admitted. “I was trying to give Aaron a challenging run and I turned too fast.” He spoke to Aaron. “You’ve sure got some talent out there.”

Aaron brushed off the compliment, looking back and forth between Nick and me with an uncertain expression. His eyes stopping on Nick, he said, “It looked like she had some help falling overboard. What’s going on, man?”

All eyes followed Aaron’s, resting on Nick’s unconcerned expression. Leaning back into his seat, he put his hands up.

“Hey—I didn’t do anything. It’s not my fault if the girl’s a little clumsy.” He covered a sly smile behind one hand.

I turned away, loathing his very being. The twinge of guilt I felt for losing my temper was mingled with the satisfaction of seeing the red stain on his cheek.

And yet, I didn’t want to deal with it anymore. Already, I was tired. I hated conflict and the draining emotions it evoked. I could sense it would get worse, festering like an infection the longer I remained at our summer cabin.

I turned to Dad, the man responsible for bringing me here, and for pressuring an implausible merger. I looked at him in earnest.

“Why did you bring me here, Dad? I told you I didn’t want to come—not to the cabin and not on this boat. Why can’t you ever just listen to me?” My eyes moistened.

“Well, Allie, I just thought it might help you to—”

“No, Dad! I don’t need your help. And besides, there’s nothing to help. She’s dead!”

 

 

CHAPTER 2

My hand brushed against the coarseness of the tree trunks, tracing the lines and curves of the bark with my fingers. Haunting laughter filled my mind, bidding me towards the river I knew too well. With an aching heart, I followed. I kneeled by the river’s side, collecting the fallen pine needles and cones. I tossed them in, watching the ruthless current drag them along. The leaves glanced off protruding boulders before they were sucked underneath the surface.

I let out a long sigh and glanced upwards, allowing drizzling rain to kiss my face. A silent flash of light lit up the darkened sky, followed by a mumble of thunder. As the sky shed its heavy tears, I remained huddled on the muddy soil, staring up into the grayness.

The abrupt rumble of a motor caught my attention, clashing against the sounds of nature. I stood up, straining my eyes through the curtain of rain to find its source. Across the river I could make out a figure on a motorcycle. He was dressed in dark clothing, his head sheltered with a helmet.

He seemed to be staring at me.

Curious, I stared back. Neither of us moved.

What was he doing out in the rain? He was probably wondering the same thing about me, wondering what I was doing outside all alone. Wiping water from my eyes, I took a step backwards, not taking my eyes off him. Why was he was still staring? I stepped backwards once more, assessing this stranger.

He revved the motor, once, twice, three times. Then he seemed to come to a decision. His bike roared towards me, closing the gap between us. The bridge was off to my right. I didn’t wait to see if he was going to cross it.

Unsure of his intentions, instinct told me to run. I spun around, sprinting towards the cabins. Adrenaline fueled my blood, warming my cold limbs, as I dodged trees and bushes. I didn’t look behind me, even when I was sure the motor was becoming louder, closer. I kept running.

The cabins were in sight. Only then did I dare to glance over my shoulder, my heartbeat thumping in my ears too loudly to hear the motor for sure.

He was gone.

Just as a shiver of relief coursed through me, I slammed into a body, shrieking as I beat at his chest. His strong arms grabbed me, holding me captive.

“What the—Allie! Stop!”

With wide eyes and a quick intake of breath, I stared up at Aaron. His arms were wrapped around me, pinning my forearms against his chest, ending my struggle.

“Let go!” I shoved against him, uneasy with his restraint, and he released me. Still panting, I glanced over my shoulder once more, swiping rain from my vision.

“What happened? Are you ok?” Aaron put a hand on my shoulder, turning me around to face him. This time I didn’t shake him off, now welcoming the familiar face.

“There was someone—someone out there,” I said, but except for the rain playing its unique melody against the pine leaves, the forest was quiet. Aaron raised an eyebrow. Drenched and hysterical, in combination with my outburst yesterday on the boat, I knew he thought I was insane.

“Come on,” Aaron said, taking my elbow. I checked once more to be sure the motorcyclist had disappeared, and then I followed his lead. Aaron walked with me to the front porch of our cabin, and we sat on the covered steps.

“What were you doing out in the rain?” he asked.

I hesitated. “I was out by the river.”

Aaron paused a moment before he said, “You were thinking about your cousin.” It wasn’t a question. Just a simple statement of fact.

He knew then.

Aaron caught me watching him carefully. He opened his palms and explained, “Your dad told us your little cousin drowned last summer.”

I clenched my teeth, giving a simple nod of my head.

“I don’t know what I can say to make you feel better, but I’m sorry that happened. Do you want to talk about it?”

“No!” I didn’t mean to snap at him. Frustrated at the little control I seemed to have over my emotions these days, I tried again. “Look, I’m sorry. It’s just . . . that’s all there is to say. Maddie drowned. No amount of talking can change that.”

Quiet for a moment, Aaron then rose to his feet. “Well, in that case, I was going to grab some breakfast, but do you want to shoot hoops instead?” He put out his hand with understanding resting in his expression.

I almost laughed at his abrupt change in conversation, but I was more relieved—and grateful. I looked down at my dripping clothing. I probably should have changed, but I didn’t really want to be alone. “Sure.”

With one final glance towards the river, I put my hand in his, and he pulled me to my feet.

***

            “Allie! Over here!”

A hushed, but loud, whisper caught my attention from where I stood behind the crowd. Brooke gestured with her hand, patting the empty space next to her on the log bench. I eased my way through the audience, slipping in next to her, and apologizing to the woman on my right when I kicked her back. She glared at me before returning her attention to the storyteller.

Aaron, sitting on the other side of Brooke, waved at me. “What took you so long?” he asked. “Still soaking your muscles after your brutal loss this morning?”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. I was just off my game.”

Aaron shook his head and returned my smile. “You can prove it to me next time.”

“Thank you, thank you,” the storyteller’s deep voice bellowed from the stage as he bowed in appreciation. We turned our attention towards him. Clasping his hands against his black vest, he offered a gentle smile from behind his white goatee.

Brooke leaned over. “He just finished telling some of his favorite Aesop’s fables,” she whispered with excessive volume. “He was really good!”

“Shh!” The woman next to me threw another pointed look, scooting away. Brooke stuck out her tongue and scowled back. I suppressed a giggle, despite the immaturity of it all.

“And now,” the man continued, quieting the crowd, “It is my great pleasure to introduce the lovely and distinguished Alina Ivanova.” The audience gave a welcoming clap.

A middle-aged woman crossed the stage in a billowing skirt, dyed with purple, red, and touches of green ink flowing into each other. Her thin, long-sleeved yellow blouse swirled, belling out at her wrists as she curtsied. An olive-green scarf wrapped around her head, her hair tucked inside. Silver tassels decorated the fringe along her forehead, jingling together behind the gleam of the fire.

“Good evening,” she began, and the crowd softened. Her husky voice hinted of an accent.  “Russia, where my family originates, has many tales. As a young girl, I sat around the dinner table while my babushka told us story after story, filling our minds with morals and lessons she wished us to remember. And now, in her honor, I pass these tales on to you.”

She paused, allowing the slight rustling of the trees to set the mood, the soft breeze twisting the dancing, orange flames. Her eyes scanned the crowd, now captivated into silence. I flinched when her eyes met mine, holding my gaze for an uncomfortable moment; a moment that tugged at my darkest secrets, my deepest fears, invading my privacy. I struggled to pull away, to resist her searching eyes. The woman released me, and then she began her tales, weaving in and out with descriptions that painted vivid pictures in our minds of the lessons and morals she wished us to know.

As the evening grew late, I stifled a yawn. The glowing embers flickered, a soft blush amongst the coals. Families shuffled out with sleeping toddlers gathered in their arms. As the numbers began to dwindle, the final storyteller played a gentle, concluding tale, rhyming and strumming on his guitar. Many from the audience stood up to leave, dusting off their pants as the final strum echoed a closing chord.

“Wait!” a dark-haired teenager called out, sitting with a few of his rugged pals. “No one told a ghost story.  You can’t sit around a fire without a ghost story.”

His protest caused murmuring of agreement from other kids, their shadowed faces illuminated by the dying light.

“You want a ghost story?” a familiar Russian voice observed. Alina Ivanova stepped back onto the empty stage. Her pale eyes pierced through the smaller crowd. She smiled, heightening her sharp cheekbones and pinching the crow’s feet around her eyes. Those standing to leave hesitated, their interests peaked once more.

“I know a true one. It happened not far from here,” Alina began, pointing a long finger towards the lake hidden behind the row of cabins. “Just north of the river and east of this great lake, there lived a family: a mother, father, and their two children. The boy was the age of many of you,” she said, pointing at some of the teenagers present. A knowing look passed across her face.

“There was something evil in that boy, something dark festering inside of him. He was always in trouble.  Always,” she emphasized.

The boy who requested a ghost story squirmed in his seat as she gazed at him before continuing.

“He trusted no one, and no one trusted him, especially not his father. His parents were protective of their little girl, whose age barely touched ten. She was a sweet girl, who adored her brother and saw the small spark of good inside of him. But she was the only one who could see it, and even that did not protect her from his malice.”

My body mimicked those around me, sitting with my back straight and tense. We waited with eager ears.

“For one day, the boy, furious with his father for threatening to send him away, burned the house to the ground. Trapped, with no hope of escape, the blackened walls collapsed upon themselves, burying the family in a fiery prison. Heavy, hazy smoke circled the remains like vultures.” There were small gasps from the crowd.

“Yes. Mother, father, and sister. All three suffered a vicious, painful death, unable to escape from the sudden bursts of flames that engulfed the house in the quiet night—a night that broke the silence with screams of terror and agony as their skin was seared from their bones.”

I shuddered, my face grimacing in distaste for the story.

Truly, it could only be a story.

Brooke gripped Aaron’s arm with her left, holding my hand with her right. She stared straight ahead with a look of horror on her face.

“At night,” Alina continued, “if you listen, you can hear their wailing through the trees, the mourning of a family lost, murdered by the callous hands of their only boy. But sometimes,” she concluded, voice just above an audible whisper, “it might only be the angry wind whistling a haunting tune.  That is for you to decide.”

 

CHAPTER 3

In answer to the insistent knocking, I flung my cabin door open. A bright light flashed into my hazel eyes.

“Hey!” I protested, blinking away the glare. There was a quiet click and the light disappeared. When I could see again, Brooke awaited me with two teenage guys flanking her sides.

“So, are you ready?” she asked.

“Err, ready for what, exactly?”

Brooke’s eyes brightened as she held up a large flashlight. “For an exciting adventure, that’s what! Come on!” She grabbed my arm, tugging me after her. I dragged my feet and released myself from her hold.

“Hang on a second, Brooke. What do you mean?”

“Will you please just be spontaneous and—”

A voice behind me interrupted Brooke’s pleading.

“Did I hear someone say ‘adventure’?” Aaron stepped out the door, stretching his arms behind his head. The veins in his biceps bulged, attracting Brooke’s attention.

“Uh—Brooke? You want to explain?” I said, nudging her from her smitten stupor.

“Huh? Oh—right.” She beamed at us with a mischievous glint in her eyes, looking around before she spoke with a low voice.

“So I was just sitting on my porch when these two happened to stop by and say hi.” She gestured towards the guys beside her. “Adam and his brother . . . Brad, was it?”

“Brett,” the shorter of the two corrected, appearing disappointed in her memory lapse.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant. Anyway, they were at the storytelling last night, and Adam says the ghost story is true!”

Adam nodded emphatically.

“Ghost story—ha!” Nick scoffed. I turned around in surprise, not realizing my stepbrother had joined our small circle. “If that’s the best she’s got, I could be a storyteller. That was the lamest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, it really did happen,” Adam affirmed.

Nick looked at him with mockery on the edge of his lips.

Adam stepped forward. “I’ve heard the rumors before about the fire.  Last year, I checked it out with my friends. We drove up to the location of the fire close to midnight. The remains of the house were still there. Just when we started walking around, a windstorm picked up out of nowhere. I swear we could hear a little girl’s voice in the wind, like crying.”

Everyone became silent. I wrapped my arms around myself, looking at the ground with uneasiness.

Slow, rhythmic clapping disrupted the mood. All eyes followed Nick’s clapping hands. “Bravo,” he said, looking down at Adam. “I suppose I should congratulate you on your efforts to pick up on girls with made-up stories, but if that’s the best line you have, maybe I should be offering my condolences.”

Adam glared at him. “It’s true,” he defended again. He puffed up his chest and crossed his arms.

“Why don’t you come with us if you don’t believe us?” Brett interjected. “We’re going right now.”

Nick prepared to object.

“Not a bad idea,” Aaron said. “We’ve got nothing better to do tonight, anyway.” He put a hand on Nick’s shoulder. “What do you say, man? Are you up for some teenage drama?”

Brett and Adam scowled at them while Brooke, equally insulted, put her hands on her hips.

“You’re not that much older than us,” she stated, upset by Aaron’s demeaning slight.

Aaron put his hands up. “Hey, I didn’t mean anything by it. Come on, we’re ready. Lead the way.”

 

After parking outside a large circle of trees, we walked passed a “NO TRESPASSING” sign that had obviously been ignored on numerous occasions. Spray-painted profanity stared back at us in bold, fiery letters across the warning. Following the trail of empty beer cans and cigarette butts, we noticed how the lush grass abruptly turned into dirt. Cracked, blackened branches littered the ground and, in the center of it all, were the remains of what was once a large home with exquisite design.

Of course, imagination was required. It helped that the southern portion of the house was mostly intact with its lavish, log exterior. The fire must have been stopped before it had destroyed the house in its entirety.

As my eyes roved along what should have been the rest of the home, my heart fell heavy. Burnt rubble was piled high on top of one another. It looked like a forgotten tomb.

“So it does exist,” Aaron spoke, disturbing our awed silence.

“Told you,” said Adam.

“Why hasn’t it all been torn down and removed?” I swallowed, envisioning the burning flames that had destroyed the home and left it like a grave. It seemed to be a vivid and gruesome reminder of what occurred here. “They at least removed the bodies . . . right?”

Brooke and I glanced with uneasiness at the debris. I looked away, almost fearing I might see a charred hand emerge from within. I chided myself. That was what too many cheap horror films will do to one’s mind.

Adam smiled at our reaction. “Yeah, don’t worry. No way would they leave the bodies. Rumor has it, the kid who burned it down refused to let anyone clean it up. It was his home and his property—after he had killed his old man that is. He could do whatever he wanted with it. And for some reason, he chose to leave it as is.”

“He probably wanted to leave it as a souvenir,” Brett suggested. “The kid was sick. He killed his entire family. It wouldn’t surprise me if he wanted some kind of trophy or memento of what he had done.”

I grimaced. “Do you know what happened to him?”

Adam shrugged. “Nah. I didn’t look that much into it. I’m betting he’s just your local psychopath now.” Adam laughed at his own joke.

Unsettled, I turned away, observing the trees surrounding us. It was close to dark. I didn’t like how the old tree branches all seemed to hunch over, like they were ready to enclose around us at any minute. A shudder slid down my back and I spun in a quick circle, looking around me. A hand touched my shoulder blade, and I jumped.

“You all right there, Allie?”

I shook away from Aaron’s touch with a sharp inhale. “Don’t do that!” My comment came out brusquer than I intended. Everyone looked at me in surprise.

“The ghost story is really getting to you, isn’t it, little sister?” Nick laughed at me.

“And don’t you ever call me that,” I snapped at him. With my arms still crossed, I stalked a few feet away, turning my back on all of them.

“What’s her deal?” I heard Adam whisper.

“I don’t know . . . .”

I listened to the silence behind me, embarrassed by my reaction. But I couldn’t help it. Talking about death only reminded me of how Maddie had drowned. They wouldn’t understand. Nobody could.

“Well, we’re here. Now what?” Nick said. He walked up to one of the standing walls, his flip-flops crunching against the glass particles beneath him. He peered into one of the cracked windows.  “Well, I can tell you what other people have been using it for. I’m going in.”

We followed Nick around the corner of the building and stepped inside a short hallway that led us to a bedroom. Nick gave a low whistle, while Brooke crinkled her nose in distaste.

There was a battered, queen-sized mattress lying inside a weathered bed frame. Next to it was a dresser, positioned on its side like a bench. Formulating the rest of the circle were tree stumps, a large boulder, and other miscellaneous items that seemed to have been brought in and used as chairs. In the middle of the configuration were gray ashes and fragments of wood.

“This is apparently the place to party,” Brett said, kicking aside a beer can and seating himself onto one of the tree stumps. “Not bad for a makeshift campsite. Anybody have a match? I say we make a fire of our own.”

I shook my head in disgust. I looked around at the graffiti-covered walls and the ransacked furniture. This room was one of the few remaining from the disastrous fire. A fire that had taken the lives of an unsuspecting family: a mother, father, and an innocent little girl . . .

A surge of emotion flooded my chest, taking me by surprise. “This isn’t right. We shouldn’t be here!”

Everyone seemed to be judging the expression on my face. I tried to hide my moistening eyes.

“Allie, this happened a long time ago. We’re not doing anything wrong,” Brooke said. She seemed embarrassed by my objections, smiling in apology to Adam and Brett.

“Yeah, we’re not doing anything worse than what’s already been done here,” Adam said. “We’re just trying to have some fun.”

I shook my head again. “Fine. Do whatever you want. I’ll wait by the car.” Stepping over a block of wood, I marched out of the room and hurried down the destroyed hallway. Escaping the awkwardness I had created, I breathed a heavy sigh.

Outside, night had fallen and the temperature in the air continued to drop. Now I wished I’d brought a sweater to impede the growing wind. I rubbed my bare arms to make my goose bumps disappear, but something else kept causing my hair to stand on end.

I thought about the boy who had killed his family and shuddered in revulsion. Yet my heart also felt an odd sense of remorse for him, for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out. What happened to the boy that made him so hateful, to drive him to do something so cruel? And what happened to him after his family died?

He was probably locked up in some juvenile detention center or circling through state custody from one foster home to the next. How long ago was this anyway? Maybe he was a grown man, locked in prison for theft and other murders, just waiting to get out so he could strike again.

I fought against a wave of apprehension, observing the gloomy silhouettes of the trees, searching for watching eyes or whatever it was that urged me to leave. Closing my eyes, I pressed my forehead against the cool window of the jeep, struggling to contain the overwhelming sadness and panic.

Minutes later, reluctant footsteps and quiet voices approached from behind me, leaving the burned ruins standing alone.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

Brooke and I weaved through the crowds, trying to stay close to each other’s sides, despite the young children who shoved past us in their haste. The mass of people inhabiting Hidden Pines never diminished before the conclusion of the three-day festival, making the crowds busier and pushier by the hour.

One such incidence ended with a double-scooped, strawberry ice-cream cone smearing onto Brooke’s shoulder and absorbing into the ends of her hair.

“Ugh!” Brooke cried out in disgust. “Rotten, spoiled children,” she grumbled over her shoulder, as she used her fingers to pinch off the sticky cream.

“Speaking of children, how’s work going?” I asked, pulling off pink clouds of cotton candy and letting them melt in my mouth.

She made a face. “Well, I’m glad I have the day off. I so need a break. I wanted to ring those kids’ necks yesterday!”

“Why, what happened?” I didn’t know why I asked. As I had learned over the past week, the story was already on the tip of her tongue anyway.

“I was just doing my job and making sure all the kids had life jackets on. Then this eight-year-old started running along the dock. He wouldn’t listen to a word I said! And then—you’ll never believe this—as soon as I turned my back, he pushed me into the lake! My makeup and hair were ruined!”

Brooke ran her fingers through her pale hair in memory of the awful incident. “This is the last time I ever work at a youth camp, that’s for sure. I could not believe someone would do something like that.”

“Brooke, you did say he’s eight, right? And a boy?”

“Well, yeah, but—that is just so rude!”

I laughed to myself, while Brooke continued to frown at the absurdity of it all. Glancing over her shoulder again, her expression changed.

“What is it?” I asked, waiting for her to expel more of her frustrations over the wild children of today’s world. Her steps came to a halt.

“I thought I saw someone,” she murmured, still looking behind her.

I followed her gaze.

“Hm. Maybe not,” Brooke said, more to herself than to me. She shrugged.

We walked passed a book sale a few minutes later. Brooke looked with disinterest at the used books lined up before us, while I ran my covetous hands along the covers of classic novels. I ignored the slew of fictional romance, evident by the scantily clad figures decorating their cover. I had decided long ago that it was a worthless genre. Passionate summer romances never played out like that in real life.

“Allie!”  Brooke’s hushed, but urgent, voice caught my attention. She was facing me, arms rigid at her side.

“What—” I began, confused at the brusque change in her demeanor.

“Shh. Just listen to me,” she ordered. “Do you see that green tent behind me with the polka dots on it?”

I flicked my eyes over her shoulder with discretion. My eyes searched around the booths and multi-colored tents. Through a haze of sweet smoke billowing from a grill, I found the tent and nodded.

“There’s a guy standing there. He’s tall, has dark hair, he’s wearing jeans… See him?”

My eyes flew across the throng of people passing by me in every direction. Young families, teenagers, a few elderly . . . I focused on the tent, inspecting its surroundings. Squinting my eyes, I shook my head.

Brooke made a sound of exasperation and turned around. She surveyed the scene, eyebrows crumpled together.  “Where’d he go?” she demanded, hands on her narrow hips.

“Brooke, what’s going on?” I was growing impatient with her game.

Still scanning, she said, “This guy has been watching me all day. I keep seeing glimpses of him, but whenever I try to get a good look at him, he disappears.”

I had not told Brooke about the motorcyclist who chased me in the rain. I tried to hide the slight edge in my voice. “You think we’re being followed?” I folded my arms across my body and rotated a full circle, watching the whirlwind of people pass me by. Despite the hum of the harmonica and the strumming guitars from the folk band, their jovial tune did little to ease my apprehension.

She nodded. “I know it was the same guy. He looked a few years older than us. He had this creepy stare in his eyes when I caught him looking at me.” She paused in thought. Then she turned to me, her own eyes wide and a hand at her open mouth.

“Allie, what if he’s some homicidal maniac? Some stalker who targets his prey during festivals, when people are unaware of danger—and then BAM! He snatches them right up into his cold, murderous hands. I can hear it on the news right now: Teen girls go missing at Hidden Pines. Their bodies have yet to be found.”

She exaggerated a shiver. “Or worse: Their severed remains resurfaced weeks later from the depths of the lake.”

I stared at her for a long, silent moment.

“Ok, now you’re just being ridiculous.”  I whirled away from her, my quick steps distancing myself from Brooke and her theatrical headlines. I stopped and looked back at her in disbelief. “You truly are a drama queen, you know that?”

She threw her arms in the air with a raise of her shoulders. Her final response was a simple statement. “You just never know.”

***

I removed my shoes and tread east along the shore, stepping away until the music was a low buzz behind me. Despite Brooke’s efforts to drag me to the center of the dance floor, it had only been minutes before I tired of the jostling crowds and the over-friendly hands grabbing me from behind. I didn’t feel bad ditching Brooke, or the bright lights that lit up the late evening. Last I saw, Brooke had her head on Aaron’s shoulder, and her arms comfortably latched around his neck during a slow song. That’s when I made my escape.

My brisk walk carried me towards the grove of evergreens growing a short distance from the lake. With Hidden Pines located in the heart of the Sierra Nevadas, the mountain was full of pines, cedar, and Douglas fir—but with purposeful steps, there was only one specific pine tree that I was looking for. Dropping my flip-flops, I rubbed my hands along the thick tree trunk before me, feeling small pieces of bark peel away in my fingertips. Wrapping my arms around the trunk, I leaned back and hung my head, staring up at the intricate details above me. I loved how the branches grew out in circular patterns higher and higher, making perfect layers for climbing.

A cracking noise caught my attention from an indistinguishable area behind me. I whipped my head around and stood up straight. I listened for a minute, my eyes struggling to make sense of the shadows that leered behind the trees. Despite straining my vision, I could not see anything through the quiet darkness. Yet I felt certain that something was watching me.

If Nick is trying to scare me, he is going to regret it! I turned my back on the trees, remembering the cute brunette last seen in Nick’s arms as I fled the dance.  He wouldn’t leave her for something so dumb.

But someone else might have followed me.

I felt a sudden urge to get off the ground. Bracing myself on the branches above my head, I pulled myself up. More cracking noises from behind me caught my attention, this time closer—like twigs snapping under pressure. I threw a wary glance over my shoulder, biting my lower lip, but the sounds were buried again in quiet eeriness. I blew out a breath of air, unaware that I had been holding it.

I tried to reassure myself that it was probably just an animal. But then I thought of the crazy motorcyclist from that rainy morning, and Brooke’s fear of the strange guy watching her today at the festival.

What if it’s him, out there right now?

Images of a dark-haired maniac raced in my mind. My speeding heart urged me upwards through the spiral of branches. I ignored the pull on my hair, where it snagged on twigs and flaking bark.

I climbed higher. Perspiration dampened my palms.

I felt a presence boring into the back of my head. There was no doubt now. Heavy, shallow breaths caught in my chest. I scrambled through the thicket of limbs. An instinctive fear fueled me upwards.

In my haste, my foot slipped off the next branch as I reached for the one above my head with clammy hands. I lost all footing, swiping in vain for anything to grab onto. Gravity pulled me down, my back colliding with the branch below me. The propelling movement slammed the back of my head onto something solid as I continued my speedy descent.

In seconds, I hit the ground on my side, my thigh landing on top of a thick root jutting out of the ground.  I tried to cry out, but my breath caught in my throat. My chest felt weighed down with pressure. Quick, shallow breaths were all I could manage, pinching pain racing along my back. Squeezing my eyes shut, I laid my head on the dry dirt beneath me. My right thigh throbbed right down to the bone. I laid a hand on it, gripping the muscle.

Someone approached me in hasty, heavy steps.

This is it. Please let it be quick, I pleaded in my mind. I kept my eyes closed, yet sensed a nearby presence.

A rough hand slid under the side of my face and an arm swept my legs around, moving me into a sitting position. My aching back rested against the tree trunk. I grunted in protest, sucking in more quick breaths, unable to convey how much I opposed moving any part of my body. I chanced opening my watering eyes.

A dark-haired young man stared back at me with striking gray eyes. His disheveled black hair hung just over his ears, matching the day or two of shadowed scruff framing his face.  His mouth was closed tight, lips pressed against each other. Heavy eyebrows curved above his eyes, though at the moment, they were pinched together. I watched him scan my body from head toe, kneeling a mere foot from me. My face grimaced in discomfort.

“Try not to move,” he said in a deep voice.

It took another minute for me to regain some control of my breathing. I forced slow, even breaths.  Groaning once more, I adjusted my position. “You’re the one—agh—that moved me,” I accused, grumpiness settling in to replace my fear. Placing a hand on the back of my throbbing head, I winced at the sharp pain that coincided with my touch. “Who do you think you are, sneaking around in the dark? What are you, some kind of pervert?”

The young man continued to stare at me for a few moments with an amused look on his face.

Curious, I took the chance to examine him. He looked like he could be nineteen or twenty, wearing a fitted, solid blue T-shirt against his broad chest and thick arms. A hint of a tattoo was visible, black lettering not quite hidden under his left sleeve.  Small tears spread along his faded blue jeans. Returning my eyes to his, I noticed the gray was tinted with a light blue, like those belonging to huskies. It was hard to tell with the stray strands of hair falling over his eyes and, with him staring back, my nerves got the better of me.

He spoke with a soft, low voice. “I think I liked it better when you were having a hard time breathing.”

I glared back at him, daring him to say more. A hint of a smile deepened a small dimple in his right cheek.

“I’m sorry I scared you. That wasn’t my intent,” he said.

I tried moving again, feeling less resistance from my throbbing limbs. With hesitancy, I kicked out, testing the dead-leg in my right thigh. Frustrated at the embedded knot in my muscle, I scowled at him again. “Just what was your intent?” I inquired, blowing a strand of hair out of my own eyes. This time, he was the first to drop his gaze. In an instant, he stood to his feet.

“Come on,” he said, approaching my side and throwing a strong arm under my shoulders. He paused, turning his head towards me so that our faces were inches apart. “Do you think you can stand up?”

His breath was warm as it touched my face. With his face so close to mine, a sudden shyness erupted with a flush of red throughout my cheeks.

“Uh—I’m fine. Just fine.” I winced as I leaned forward, trying to get up on my own. The sudden sharpness returned and I sank back down, letting out a disgruntled huff. Succumbing to his aid, I leaned back against his steady arm, feeling his bicep tighten while he supported me to my feet.

“How do you feel?” he asked, keeping his arm under my own, though I didn’t think it necessary.

“Like I just fell twelve feet out of a tree and was stomped on by an elephant in the process,” I grumbled. I gave him a sideways glance and caught another small smile at his lips.  “Oh, so this is funny now?” I snapped.

He paused, calculating the irritation on my face. “No, I would not dare think one bit of this was funny. Now let’s get you home.” With a gentle push, he encouraged me to take a step.

“I can walk without your help.”  I released myself from his grip and stooped in quiet pain to retrieve my flip-flops from the ground. Taking a tentative step, I silenced a groan, feeling my body resist. Fortunate for me, stubbornness runs in my family and I leaned on it to carry me forward, my right leg limping in protest. I managed a few quick, short steps, trying my best to walk with dignity, when I heard a low chuckle behind me.

Apparently, I was failing in my efforts.

No sooner had I turned my head around, ready to battle him on his sense of humor, when I was swept up into the air by two strong arms.

“Hey! Put me down!”

With a full smile, he exposed his white teeth lined up next to each other, as his dimples teased me again. “With the pace you were making, you’ll never make it back before sunrise.”

Resisting the idea of being carried, I tried another tactic.

“You’re not supposed to move someone who’s fallen, you know. Everybody knows that. I could have a broken back or a broken neck—”

He cut me off. “Well, there’s obviously nothing wrong with your mouth.”

I fumed in resigned humiliation, though not before cursing at him under my breath.  Breaking the awkward silence, I asked, “Who are you, anyway?” It was a few moments before he responded.

“Damien.”

Neither of us said anything more on our trek back to the cabins. My thoughts remained focused on the strange circumstance I found myself in. Had this Damien been the one watching me, or had he seen me fall and decided to play the “good Samaritan”?

Tall lampposts ahead of us signified our approach to the cabins. Looking to the shore, I noticed the stage was still surrounded with quite a few people, hip-hop carrying through the air. I wondered if Brooke was still out there. Recalling Aaron’s arms around her, I figured as much. We reached my doorstep.

“Ok, ok. Now put me down—please,” I added. My efforts to hurry back onto my feet were less than graceful, and I stepped on his foot in the process. He grunted but made no comment. I had my hand on the doorknob, ready to flee inside. But I managed to pause and turn around.

“So, thanks, I guess, for helping me back to the cabin. I mean, it was sort of your fault I fell in the first place, with you spying on me and all. If that’s indeed what you were doing.  Because to be honest, I’m great at climbing trees, so there was no reason for me to—”

“Allie,” Damien interrupted, taking a step towards me and closing the gap between us.  I stopped my rambling, somewhat grateful for the disruption in my nervous speech, yet uneasy at the closeness of his body with mine. He looked down at me from the five or six inches that he towered over me, blue-gray eyes staring back.

Moments of silence passed. I swallowed.

He leaned his face close to mine.

“Good night.” He paused, a breath away. Then he straightened and turned his back, heading east along the cabins.

It was only after the shadows of the evening masked his silhouetted form that I realized two things: I had not told him which cabin was mine, and I hadn’t mentioned my name.

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