Woo-hoo! Here we are at day two of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!
My eyes popped open as round after round of incessant choruses of Reveille echoed over the base PA system, shocking the world and demanding everyone get up and take notice that the ungodly time of O-six-hundred-hours had arrived.
A groan escaped my lips as I pushed up off my desk. Every muscle in my neck and back screamed at the same time. I must have fallen asleep waiting for my pictures to upload. Rubbing the back of my neck, I stood as the last trumpet bellowed its obnoxious call.
God, I hated that stinking song.
The screen-saver flicked off when I jiggled my mouse. The website from last night was still waiting for me to confirm my order. I smiled and clicked the button. I’d be a few hours before the store opened and I could pick up the pictures that would change my life. Once I added the best of yesterday’s shots to my portfolio, no one would dream of refusing my college application.
The sun sparkled through my windowpanes. In the distance, three dark birds circled over the forest in a beautiful, blue sky. A thin tendril of smoke trailed from the trees, a small reminder of yesterday’s chaos. The coolness of the glass enlivened my skin as I pressed my forehead against the window. Despite the unbelievable shots I’d taken, I was glad it was finally over.
I stumbled through the hallway and peeked in dad’s room. His bed hadn’t been slept in. So much for his day off. Ignoring the grumbling of my impatient stomach, I treated my sore muscles to a shower and got dressed.
The digital clock on my dresser blinked four-seventeen. So much for the fool-proof back-up battery. I made a mental note to fix the time later.
While liberating a few knots from my hair, I made a beeline to the refrigerator. Fruit, eggs, milk … Boring. I shoved aside a few food savers and smiled.
I slid out a plate of German chocolate layer cake. Smacking my lips in anticipation, I plopped back in front of my computer and scanned the photos I’d sent to the drugstore print shop. I could hear Dad now, “Why don’t you just send the pictures to the PX. It’s cheaper.”
Yeah, they’re cheaper all right—and pixely.
Not to mention the fact that they might confiscate a few of the shots I’d taken of the soldiers. My brow furrowed as I scanned the photos of the platoon gathered near the edge of the forest. In every shot, the soldiers were facing the woods. If they were there to keep the people safe, wouldn’t they be facing out?
Swallowing down the last bite of cake, I walked downstairs and peeked out the front window. No sign of Dad yet, but I wasn’t about to sit there and wait for him. I dialed up his cell, but his voicemail answered.
“Hey Dad, it’s Jess. Everything’s fine. No problems last night. I’m going to walk down to the drugstore to pick up some pictures, okay? Don’t worry, I’m going in completely the opposite direction from where the fire was, so I won’t be anywhere near the cleanup. See you later.”
I hung up and grabbed a notepad and pen. Standard Major Martinez protocol dictated a note as well as a message. I flipped to an empty page and let him know where I was going, sealing it with a smiley-face.
Outside, a summer breeze caressed my face. I inhaled the crisp morning air and crinkled my nose at the slight hint of smoke lingering from the fire. Yuck.
Quiet greeted me throughout the compound, as if yesterday’s calamity never happened. Funny, how quickly everything adjusts back to normal. I guess the fire really wasn’t as big a deal as I thought.
The heaviness still hung in the air, though. Not that I thought a plane crash would take it away. Everything about Maguire, and the other three military bases I’d lived on, stifled me like a prison without walls, and the pressure seemed to tighten every day.
Day trips with Mom used to help, but now that she was gone, and with Dad sinking further and further into his shell … Well, things just weren’t the same without Mom.
Relief swept over me as I passed the guard shack and walked into the real world. I laughed at myself. I was only a few feet away from military ground, and most of those houses were probably still Army or Air Force families all squashed together since they merged Fort Dix with Maguire. It was civilian land, though, and it smelled like freedom. Well, smoky freedom at the moment, but still freedom.
I headed toward the woods and allowed my thoughts to drift up and away, clearing my mind and letting it wander. Senior year began in a few weeks, and I’d have to start looking for colleges.
Looking … funny. There was only one choice. Columbia. Their arts department was the tops. My application was already filled out, and these photographs were going to cinch it for me.
Dad dreamed of me going to West Point. We’d already sent in the paperwork, but I didn’t care that every Martinez since my great-grandfather went there. I had to live my life, not his.
A larger than life advertisement on the side of a passing NJ Transit bus made me smile. Fire in the Woods, starring Jared Linden and Chris Stevens. In theaters September tenth. Jared leaned forward in the photo, ready to pounce off the side of the bus. Chris Stevens stood beside him, shirtless with hands in pockets and beautiful blond tresses falling seductively toward one eye. I loved Chris’s new haircut, and Jared—Yum. Five foot ten inches of pure tall-dark-and-handsome. They were both just to die for.
A sudden movement drew my attention from the bus. I skidded to a stop. To my right, maybe a hundred feet from the forest, stood the most beautiful buck I’d ever seen. I held my breath trying not to move as he stared me down. A majestic twelve-point rack of antlers scrolled from his head, and his white and brown tail flickered incessantly. After a long, breathless wait, his mouth swirled in a chewing motion. Nature in its most beautiful form.
An eerie shadow cast across the grass as the sun shone through his rack. The silhouette formed little fingers that seemed to reach for me. Wow. If I took that picture at just the right angle …
Shoot. My camera sat safely at home, not attached to my hip where it should have been. Diversity in the portfolio was a must. I needed a picture of that guy. I inched forward and the buck raised his head, shifting the shadow from sight.
“It’s okay,” I whispered. “I won’t hurt you.”
I reached into my pocket and fumbled for my phone. The aperture on the camera feature opened, and I lifted the screen toward him. Without warning, the deer sprang into the air. It flipped its tail toward me and bolted into the woods.
Clutching my camera-phone, I ran to the trees and squinted into the brambles. The buck’s dark, shiny eyes blinked within the brush. He chewed twice before he trotted deeper into the foliage.
“Come on, dude, I just want a picture.”
I ramrodded my way into the forest, the branches whipping back as I set them free. The morning warmth gave way to cool, damp air beneath the trees as I hopped over a group of fallen logs and ducked under a giant poison ivy vine climbing up a tree. I paused, listening to the woods. Silence greeted me, followed by the chirps of two birds chasing each other from tree to tree in the upper canopy. I slowed and fought to catch my breath. He was gone.
My chest throbbed as I leaned my hands on my knees. Sheesh, he was fast. I chuckled to myself. What was I thinking?
A puff of smoke rose over some brush on my right. I pulled the bushes aside and found the remains of a small smoldering campfire. Some people were so irresponsible. I tossed dirt on the embers until they winked out. Good deed for the day: done.
Turning to head back out of the woods, I froze. A noise blasted through the forest, screeching like a smoke alarm gone haywire. A stabbing pain tore into my brain. I slammed my hands over my ears, but I couldn’t fight the drills boring inside me. Head pounding, I howled, but my own voice fell victim to the vibrations within my mind.
I dropped to my knees. “Please stop! Make it stop!”
The squalling encompassed everything. Tears pooled in my eyes, blurring my vision before trailing down my cheeks. I wailed in misery.
Until it stopped.
I shook, reeling from the unexpected silence. A faint hum lingered, a frightening reminder of the sound’s intensity. Hands still covering my ears, I sucked in a short breath and dared another. Holding as still as possible, I scanned the trees.
What the heck was going on?
Sobbing, I blinked back fresh tears and wiped my cheek clean. A leaf fell to the ground at my feet, but the rest of the forest remained motionless. The chirping birds had vanished. Nothing stirred to disrupt the eerie quiet—not even a gentle rustle of the wind.
I cringed, frightened by a thrash behind a large fallen tree. Ignoring the instinct to flee like the buck, I inched forward and peeked over the log.
A guy, maybe seventeen or eighteen, lay curled in a ball on the ground. His hands pressed against his ears as he whimpered through twisted lips. A tight-fitting white tee-shirt clung to his back, slightly untucked from his faded blue jeans. His soulful whimper clawed my heart as he rocked steadily on the woodland floor.
Biting my lip, I mustered up the courage to speak. “Are you okay?”
He grunted. “Please stop! Make it stop!”
“The noise? But it’s gone now.”
He twitched and moaned. The brush beneath him crunched with every movement.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Just breathe. It’s over. Everything will be all right.”
Panic centered in my chest, as if something reached inside me and tugged. A haze seeped into my thoughts, and I shook my head to clear it. What was wrong with me?
The boy hadn’t reacted to my questions, almost as if he couldn’t hear me. A helpless, panicked swirl within my ribs gave me pause. I had to do something, but what?
My hands balled into fists. “What’s wrong?”
I shoved aside a stray branch and jumped over the log. The boy stopped rocking as I approached, but his body quaked with long, labored breaths.
“It’s okay. It’s over.”
He didn’t respond. I looked through the tree trunks and over the bramble and ferns … only leaves and vines and trees blending into more trees for as far as I could see. There was no one else to help him. I ran my fingers through the hair at my temples, massaging the sensitive skin where my brain still pulsed with a dull ache.
Pull yourself together, Jess.
The guy pushed up on one arm. His long, dark bangs fell over his face. Cautiously, I placed my hand on his back.
“Hey, are you all right?”
His entire body flinched. He popped out of his crouch, shifting away with a cry of alarm. He kicked his feet against the leaves and dirt, backing himself away. A murmur escaped his lips as he smashed against a tree trunk. His turquoise-blue eyes widened. His gaze darted in every direction.
Were his eyes actually turquoise? I tilted my head to the side. Yeah, they really were. Must be contacts or something.
I raised my palms, keeping my distance. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
He focused on me, mouth open, taking in huge gulps of air. His right hand reached up and held his left shoulder as he bit his bottom lip. Beautiful white teeth grazed his slightly tanned skin before he closed his eyes and swallowed hard.
I stepped closer. “Are you hurt?”
The guy scrambled away, sliding beside the tree.
I raised my hands. “Okay, okay. I was only trying to help.” I eased down on a patch of moss. “What do you think that was anyway?”
His eyes centered on me—freaking me out with their odd color. I wanted to look away, but I couldn’t. My eyes burned and grew heavy—until he blinked.
A waft of air entered my lungs, and I let it out slowly. Why was I holding my breath? I rubbed my eyes. What was wrong with me? I felt, I don’t know, different—like a cloud covered me. No, like a blanket. A nice, safe blanket.
A wince contorted the boy’s face as he stretched his neck. He crinkled his nose, his breathing settling to a more normal pace.
His gaze seemed to search through me, and the foggy feeling deepened. I relaxed, taking in his strong round cheeks and delicate jawline. I must have won the lottery or something … stuck in the middle of the woods with a guy who—come to think of it—looked a lot like Jared Linden.
“So,” I began, trying not to focus on those muscular arms nearly busting out of his tight tee-shirt. “What’s your name?”
“Your name?” His hair fell in loose waves along the bangs, flipped back over short-cropped sides … exactly like Chris Stevens’s hair, but much darker—almost black.
“Yeah, you know—your name.” I pointed to my chest. “I’m Jess.”
I waited for an introduction that didn’t come. He just looked at me, blinking hard like something was stuck in his eyes.
“And you are?”
He squinted. “David?” His eyebrows arched, almost as if he were making sure his name was okay.
“Are you asking me, or telling me?”
A maddening grin shot across his face. Jared Linden eat your heart out. Damn, this guy looked like he should be on a magazine cover, not out traipsing around in the woods—or whatever he was doing out here.
“David,” he said. “My name is David.”
“Okay, now that we got that out of the way, are you all right? Is your shoulder hurt?”
He shifted to the left. A grimace twisted his lips. “My shoulder? Umm, yeah. It hurts in the back.”
“I took first-aid last year. Do you want me to take a look at it?”
“Take a look at it?” He blinked twice.
“Yeah. You’ll need to take your shirt off, okay?”
“Shirt off?” He placed his hand down, crushing the jagged leaves of a fern.
“Okay, did you hit your head or something, because you’re, like, repeating everything I say.”
He blinked his eyes hard again. His breathing came in shallow wheezes, as if every lungful hurt. I half expected to find a gunshot wound, but I’d probably have seen the blood by now. At least I hoped so. It’d be embarrassing if I passed out and he ended up taking care of me instead.
“Here. Let me help you.” I reached for the bottom of his tee-shirt and helped him lift it over his head.
“Ouch.” David grabbed his shoulder before I could get the shirt over the other arm. The white fabric hung in the crook of his elbow, dragging the ground and picking up a few pine needles.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you.” I shifted to kneel behind him. His gaze tracked me like I had a knife or something. “Okay, let’s take a look.”
I chewed the inside of my cheek and took the longest look of my life. He was flawless. Absolutely flawless. Slightly bronzed, unblemished skin covered strong shoulders. He almost seemed air-brushed. I reached out to touch him, and his muscles rippled and tensed.
A gasp escaped my lips. Dang. I mean seriously: Da-ha-hang. If I didn’t distract myself, I was gonna drool all over him. “So, what do you think that loud noise was?”
“There you go again, repeating me.” My jaw fell open. “Holy cow. You weren’t in the plane crash were you?”
He shook his head. “No. No plane.”
A light wind blew overhead, bringing life back to the forest. The birds resumed chirping as I slipped beside him. “Did you see it, the crash?”
He nodded. “Yes.”
“You didn’t get hit by shrapnel or anything, did you?”
His lips formed a word, but stopped. “I, I don’t know.”
“Crap, talk about picking the wrong time to be in the woods.” I moved behind him again, and ran my hand along his back. I couldn’t find any trace of injury, but his skin seemed hotter than Hel…well, really hot.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
His shoulders twitched. “You asking if I was okay.”
“Don’t you remember holding your head and screaming in agony?”
He rubbed his forehead. “Oh, umm, yeah. It was … strange.”
“Strange is kind of an understatement, don’t you think?” I removed my hand. “I can’t see any swelling. Where does it hurt?”
“In the shoulder middle.”
I ran my hand across his back lightly once, and applied gentle pressure in the center of the blade.
He cried out.
“Oh, Sorry.” It hit me that I’d barely passed first-aid class. I had no idea what I was doing.
He grumbled, flinching. “Can you first aid it?”
I laughed. “First aid it?”
“Can you help me?”
I sat back, just missing a daddy long-legs scurrying across the ground. “David, I think you need to go to a hospital.”
He raised his hand. “No. No hospital.”
“But you’re hurt. You probably need an x-ray.”
“No. I definitely don’t need one of those.” He stood and cried out, clutching his arm.
“Listen, are you in trouble or something? Are you running from the police?”
“No … not the police.”
I propped myself against a small tree. “So you are running. From who? You’re not, like, a criminal or anything, right?”
“No. I just don’t want to be found.” His gaze drifted downward.
Way in the back of my mind, a little trickle of doubt and fear struggled against an overwhelming need to help him. I should have done the smart thing and run, but I couldn’t just leave the poor guy there.
“Listen. You don’t have to tell me what’s up, but you’re hurt. You at least need some ice.”
He looked up. “Ice?”
“You know—to keep it from swelling.”
A deep furrow crossed his brow. “Can you get me ice?”
“I guess. Do you want to walk back to my place with me?” I shuddered. Did I just invite a guy I didn’t even know back to my house?
“No. Bring it here.”
Relief washed over me, but not because I was afraid of David. I was more afraid of Dad finding me alone with a boy. Bring ice? No problem. I glanced around the trees, no longer sure which way I’d come from.
“The only problem is I’m not sure I’ll be able to find you again. I’m not even sure if I can find my way out.”
He motioned behind me. “You are six-hundred and twenty-seven point five meters north east of where you entered the woods.”
I stared at him as my geek-meter went haywire. “You’re kidding, right?”
He paled slightly and shrugged, glancing away. “Yes, of course. You did come from that direction, though.”
He was probably some kind of a math nerd or something. Damn cute math nerd, though. “Okay. I’ll be right back.” I started walking.
My hair grazed my check as I turned back toward him. “Yeah?”
David eased himself against the log. “Thank you.”
“No problem.” As long as my dad isn’t home, that is.
I imagined all the possible Major Martinez interrogation questions. None of them ended up good. I turned to the woods and quickened my pace. I had to get in and out of the house before Dad got home.
[end of chapter two preview]
So there’s the second chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. What did you think of Jess and David? What would you do if you found a hurt boy in the woods? Does anything odd seem to be going on?