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Chapter One

…continued

I fought furiously with the mop for a couple seconds before bolting at top speed for the stairwell at the end of the empty, eerie hall, long shadows clutching at me in the darkness. My sneakers slapped and squeaked wildly on the newly-polished floor as I ran past rows of lockers that lined the halls like soldiers at attention. I made it to the end of the hall, grabbed the fat metal handrail and vaulted down the stairs two and three at a time.

At the bottom of the stairwell, I hurled myself against the metal rail on the door, all attempts at stealth abandoned, bursting out of the building into the night. Thick air – Indian summer air – choked me as I ran wildly across the empty bus lanes and fading grass. I dove into the bushes surrounding the concrete Wakapaw High School sign and gasped for air, trying to calm my heart as it banged like a furious prisoner against my ribs.

I leaned against the cold slab sign, waiting for my heart to calm and trying not to imagine there were spiders in the bushes with me.

Don Douglas was Wakapaw High’s most celebrated student in the eyes of teachers, coaches, and administration. Most of the student body, though, knew him otherwise. That’s because most of us, at some point, had been the victim of his pranks where the only people laughing were him and his buddies. I ran my fingers over the little scar on my forearm and pressed my lips together.

That scar was my personal forever reminder of Don Douglas, of the time back in sophomore year he’d thought it would be hilarious to trip me as I was carrying a tray of freshly-washed beakers in biology. Mr. Patterson, our bio teacher, said Don had shown great remorse and sympathy by assisting me down to the nurse’s office. This, as I was dripping blood from the gash where broken glass sliced my arm. But Mr. Patterson thought Don was the hero. That was the kind of power Don had over people.

But this time, he had messed with the wrong person. And, on behalf of every kid who’d ever gotten a Don Douglas atomic wedgie or had to scramble to pick up their books and papers that had been knocked out of their arms and scattered all over the hall, I was going to expose him for who he really was.

Finally, I steadied my breath and gathered the courage to peek around the sign. No one was there. The giant, glowing sliver of a moon hung against a cloudless blanket of stars, offering very little light. But I could see no one had followed me out of the building. Or had he? Maybe he was lurking somewhere, somewhere close by, ready to leap out like a scene from Halloween.

Or maybe, I thought, as my hair softly moved away from the back of my neck with gentle fingers, maybe he was right behind me.

I shrieked and spun around. But it had only been a sluggish summer breeze playing with my hair and with my mind. No one was there.

So I wasn’t the bravest human in history. “Okay,” I whispered to myself, rubbing the back of my neck. “Keep it together, Natalie. Almost done.”

Eyes darting around, I shuffled backward until I was absolutely sure no one else was near me in the darkness. Then I wheeled and raced home, yanking the envelope from my pocket and sealing it as I ran, skidding to a stop at the corner mailbox and writing my return address in shaky handwriting that looked more like a first grader’s than a high school senior’s. Natalie Raider, 47 Crestview Drive, Bradton, New York. I fed my treasure into the dark mouth of the mailbox and ran on.

After that, I couldn’t stop grinning as I ran home, and I may have actually rubbed my hands together with glee, like they do in cartoons. I’d never thought of myself as an avenger, a ninja of justice, but the second I’d snapped that picture, I kinda felt like one, like I had an invisible super cape. My family was going to be amazed at what I’d done.

When I reached my house, I jogged up the driveway and vaulted easily over the three-foot fence. Then, with a boost from the head of the cement garden frog that grinned at me, promising not to tell, I expertly shimmied onto the porch railing, balanced carefully, then hoisted myself up to the porch roof, stealthily creeping in my window.

I landed softly in my room, slid the window screen back down, and looked around.

The posters curling on the walls, the unmade bed, the purple pillows askew, shaggy sunflower rug beside my bed – everything was as I’d left it. No one had noticed my absence.

“Where have you been?”

Correct that: My parents had noticed.

They were both standing, red-faced and fuming, in my doorway.

I held up my hands. “Wait. I can explain—”

My father led the charge into my room, a sturdy bull of a man, his shaggy eyebrows knit into a straight, angry line. “Explain? You’re going to explain how you disappear for hours, way past curfew, the night before we all take a major trip out of the country?”

“Well, I had to—”

“It’s almost midnight!” My mother had followed close on my father’s heels, her dark brown curls bouncing around her head like petulant serpents as she stood quivering. Now my parents were side-by-side, a united front, their anger making them seem to tower over me even though we were all about the same height.

“Just listen! I was trying—”

“Unacceptable!” my father said, a bit of spittle flying from his lips. “This is completely unacceptable! When we get back from the trip, you’re grounded. No social activities. No car. Nothing. Do you understand?”

“But I—”

“No buts! Now get to bed! We’re still leaving at seven sharp tomorrow.”

They abruptly filed from my room as a furious duo, and my mother delivered the parting shot over her shoulder. The one arrow in her quiver that always hit its mark. “How could you do this to Laura?”

As the barb hit its target, familiar whispering in the back of my mind started. My constant companion, the little monster of guilt that lurked in the dark shadows: How could you do this to Laura? Why are you only thinking about yourself? You’ve got to live a full life for two. It’s your obligation.

“But I was doing it for Laura,” I said softly.

My mother turned back briefly. “I wish I could believe that. I wonder about your loyalty, Natalie. You disappear off into your own world and never think of us. Of Laura. Sometimes I feel like you’ll disappear after graduation and never look back at your family again.”

“No, listen—”

But she’d retreated back down the hall, and I sighed. Fat chance anyone would listen. I threw myself into the rickety chair at my little desk and worked furiously, one eye on the clock. My work would have to speak for itself.

After about an hour – time flying again – there was a tap at my door. It was soft, a weak whisper of a sound.

The door opened, and bright, gray-blue eyes—the same color as my own—peered at me from a wrinkled old face.

“I can’t sleep,” Laura said, her creaky voice irritable. “You woke me up.”

I bit back a frustrated sigh. “I’ll come talk,” I said, and she withdrew and slowly padded down the hall to her room.

Silently cursing the lack of time, I folded up my work, carefully tucking it between my mattress and the box springs. Then I made a quick stop in the kitchen – on super-stealth mode, to avoid engaging my parents again – where I put ice water and Laura’s bendy straw into her cup, snagged two Oreos for me, then jogged upstairs. Laura was already in bed, a shriveled, frail little senior wrapped in layers of blankets even though it was only September. Oxygen tanks stood sentry beside her bed—the companions of the aging—and she pulled a bright blue, knitted cap over the thin strands of her reddish blond hair.

She scowled at me as I put the cup on her bedside table. “You woke me up,” she repeated. “I need my sleep before the trip tomorrow.”

I nodded. “I’m sorry.” I picked a pillow up from where it had tumbled to the floor and gently tucked it behind the small of her back, the way she liked it. “But wait until you hear what I was doing.”

I dropped onto the end of her bed, tossing my own hair – the same color as hers, only much thicker – and leaning toward her eagerly. “So. Get this. You know how—”

“Oh, great,” she said, rolling her eyes. She pursed her lips, making her tiny chin seem even more sharp. “I get to hear all about your fun running all over town with your friends.”

“What? No, listen, Laura. You’re going to like this. I went—”

“You were supposed to help me pack tonight.”

“Crap. I’m sorry. But, really, listen. I went…wait. Is that how Mom and Dad knew I was gone? You told them?”

“Well,” she said, busying herself by rearranging her blankets around her, “you were supposed to help me.”

I sighed. “But the whole reason I was out is because I was…hey, look what you’re doing!” Laura had taken a sip of her water, but with her frail little hand, had only put the cup back on the very edge of the table. Before I could catch it, the cup toppled, spilling all over the carpet.

I tiptoed to the bathroom, snagged a towel, and started mopping up the carpet, flicking the ice cubes back into the cup patiently. Then I sat back on my heels and looked at her eagerly. “Laura. I’ve gotta tell you what I did tonight. I was—”

“Oh, my gosh!” she said suddenly, pointing. “Is that my watch?”

I glanced at my wrist. The glass face was shattered, the hands slightly bent and stuck in position. The second hand stuttered as if it were trying to force its way around, soldier on, but was thwarted every second by the bent hour hand.

“Oh, no,” I said softly. I must have smashed it when I hit the metal door bar at the school.

She leaned closer. “It is my watch! You broke my watch! How did you do that?”

“I’m so sorry.”

“This always happens!” she said, getting worked up now. “You always break stuff, even when it’s not yours!”

I stood up quickly, my knees popping loudly. “I’ll get it fixed,” I said, but we both knew it was too far mangled for saving.

“I can’t believe this!”

“You need to get some sleep,” I said hastily, moving to the door. “Big day for you tomorrow.” I knew Laura better than I knew myself. If she got worked up, she’d start wheezing, and if she started wheezing, she’d need oxygen, and then my father or my mother would come running, and I really just didn’t feel like the drama.

I looked again at the crushed watch. It was her favorite, and I covered it with my other hand, wishing it would be magically repaired when I uncovered it again. She was going to hold a mighty grudge – as only Laura could – for a long time over this, but surely, after she found out what my mission had been, she’d forgive me.

In time.

I stood in the hall, looking back at Laura, lit from the glow of the unicorn nightlight beside her bed. She scowled at me, the wrinkles in her tiny face deepening. She started to yell again about the watch.

“Good night,” I told my twin sister softly, and I turned off the light.

 

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