Welcome to day three of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!
I sprinted down my street and stopped at the edge of the sidewalk. Busted. Dad’s car sat in his favorite parking space, still creaking as the engine cooled. How in God’s name was I supposed to sneak a bag of ice out of the house with Dad home? The back door!
The handle of the rear screen door clicked as I tiptoed into the kitchen.
Dad’s voice came from the living room. “I did tell her to stay home. Mom, I just don’t know what to do with her anymore. She doesn’t follow orders at all.”
Why was he talking to Grandma about me? Didn’t matter. I had to get that ice. I inched toward the freezer.
“I know she’s not one of my soldiers. Believe me. If she was, she’d think about the big picture and not focus on herself all the time. And she wouldn’t do such stupid things. I swear she does this to piss me off.”
I gritted my teeth and slid the ice tray out of the freezer. What dad considered stupid things were all the things that were important to me that he didn’t understand. If he’d look up and beyond that stupid uniform he wore all the time, he’d realize there was more to life than—
“And this dumb photography thing—dammit Mom, I wish you never bought her that camera.”
I froze. My heart wiggled its way into my throat.
“Give her space? Let her make her mistakes? What kind of advice is that?”
Photography wasn’t a mistake. It was my life, my passion, my—
“Mom, I need help with her. I thought I could manage it alone, but I can’t. All I’m asking is for you to come for a week or so, just until school starts. There’s too much going on and I just can’t trust her anymore.”
Can’t trust me?
My stomach did a somersault and missed the landing. The ice container slipped out of my hands and crashed on the floor.
“Mom, she’s back. I gotta go.”
I dropped to my knees, taking deep breaths as I scooped the slippery cubes off the linoleum. My hands shook. Why couldn’t he understand how much that camera meant to me? Why couldn’t he understand that his dreams weren’t the same as mine? I shoved the container back into the freezer and sat down at the kitchen table. I doodled the deer’s antlers on the edge of a pad, trying to calm myself down as I prepared for the impending fight.
Dad barreled around the corner. “Jess, where have you been?”
“I told you, I went to the store.”
“You were supposed to stay home.”
“You said last night. I went out this morning.”
His face reddened. “When I tell you to stay home, I need you to stay home.”
“I left a note and everything, didn’t I? And I called, like a good little soldier, but as usual, you didn’t pick up the phone. You never pick up the phone.”
“Don’t you try to turn this around on me.”
“Don’t worry. I didn’t do any more stupid things.” I pushed past him and stormed up the stairs.
I slammed my bedroom door. The covers poofed up around me as I flopped onto my bed. Only think about myself? Dumb photography? What did he know? I rolled over and hugged my pillow. It was the same argument, different day. Nothing would change. Ever.
By now, Dad was probably half way to counting to a hundred to calm down. He’d need to get to two-hundred before he’d come up here and give his stylized lame apology. God, I hated that part.
I rubbed my face, remembering why I’d come home in the first place. I needed to find a way to smuggle some ice past Dad. But how? There was no chance of getting out of the house again until he stopped focusing on me.
A prisoner until the game played out, I decided to kill time with Maggie. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and dialed her up. “Hey girl.”
“Hey, you. What’s up?”
“My dad as usual, but guess what just happened in the woods? I was chasing after a deer—”
“Yeah. Anyway, there was this noise, and it felt like my head would explode, and then there was this guy, and he heard it too.”
“A guy?” She giggled. “Okay, now I’m interested. I thought you were going to tell me another stupid Jess chases an animal story. So, fess up. Was he cute?”
A sigh slipped from my lips. “Didn’t you hear about the noise? I mean, it was really loud. Did you hear anything?”
“Nope, no noise. Now spill it about the guy.”
I rolled over onto my stomach. “His name is David.”
“Isn’t David the name you made up for your dream prince?”
I giggled. “Omigosh, how’d you remember that? We were, like, thirteen.”
“I remember those juicy stories you made up about him—all tall, dark and Greek-God delicious.”
The more I thought about it, David actually did look a lot like—
“So was he running through the woods taking pictures of animals, too?”
“No. Can you keep a secret?” I rolled onto my back. “He’s hiding out there from someone.”
“Hiding? Girl, you’re not hooking up with a serial killer or anything, right?”
“He’s not a serial killer. He’s like, seventeen, eighteen tops.”
“Didn’t you see that movie Scream? Those two were—”
“Can we come back to reality please?”
“Okay. Okay. Okay. So, what’s he running from?”
“Dunno.” I rubbed my fingertips, remembering the heat radiating from his skin. “He said it wasn’t the cops. I’m hoping he talks to me when I go back.”
Maggie snickered. “You’re going to meet him again in the woods? Miss Goody-Two-Shoes, are you finally going to do something naughty? And without me?”
I sat up, knocking the pillow off my bed. “No. I just want to help him. He’s hurt.”
“I bet you want to help him.” She giggled.
“Stop. You are so bad.”
“But seriously, Jess. You don’t know anything about this guy.”
I chewed the top of my lip, thinking about Dad’s conversation with Grandma. Was I being stupid? I needed to make a good decision here. “You know what? You’re right. Can you come out there with me?”
“You know I’d love to meet your prince charming but I need to go school shopping while my mom’s credit card is still squeaking, and tonight is family movie night. No getting out of that in the Baker household.”
“Oh yeah, I forgot.” Oh well. So much for reinforcements.
“You know what? Just don’t go. Tip off the MP’s that someone’s out there, and they’ll find him.”
“You want me to turn him in?”
“No, not turn him in, but if he’s in trouble … You know … They have shelters for kids like that. Confidential and all. They won’t call his parents.”
I fingered the chain on my neck. “No. It doesn’t feel right. He needs my help.”
Someone knocked on my door three times.
“Maggs, I gotta go. My Dad’s revving up for another pep talk.”
“Okay, but be careful if you go out there, okay?”
“Yeah, whatever.” I clicked off the phone and opened my door.
Dad’s hand was poised at eye level, about to knock again. His chest expanded for the obligatory breath before an apology speech. “Jess, I don’t want to fight with you. I just wish you’d listen once in a while.”
I folded my arms. “I only went to the store.” With a little side-trip into the woods.
“It’s not just that and you know it.” He ran his palm across the top of his cropped hair. “You know it’s been hard without your mom here, but I’m trying.”
“I know.” Dang he was good with the guilt trips. An uncomfortable silence lingered, stifling me like an invisible curtain.
“Listen. I’ve never been able to keep you cooped up, and I realize you’re into all that photography stuff, but until things die down and I can confirm everything is secure, I need you to stay in the house.”
You see dad, I can’t stay in the house. There’s this drop-dead gorgeous guy in the woods, and I promised to bring him ice. Nah. That wouldn’t go over well. Certain things a girl should just keep to herself.
“Dad, what’s going on? And what was all that buttercup stuff about last night?”
He rubbed his face with his palms. “You weren’t really old enough when your mom and I came up with the word buttercup. I was hoping you’d understand what I was trying to say.”
“Mom told me once to listen if you ever said buttercup during an emergency. That’s all I remember.”
“Well, we were in an emergency. You did good.”
“There was someone on the phone, wasn’t there? They were making sure you didn’t tell me anything.”
Dad leaned against my doorframe. “You know I’m not allowed to talk about work.”
“Work smirk. I don’t care about security clearance.”
“There was a possibility of danger. I just needed to know you were safe” He kissed my forehead. “I gotta get back.”
“You’re leaving again?”
“Yes. I’m sorry, but the whole base is on alert status.”
“For how long?”
“It depends on how long it takes us to find …”
I waited for a word that didn’t come. “Find what?”
His head tilted to the side. “Nice try.”
“Can’t blame a girl for trying.”
So, the army was looking for something. Interesting.
“I’ll be back in the morning for a bit. We’ll have breakfast, okay?”
Dad headed down the stairs, and I counted to a hundred before following.
So, the army was all jacked up in another one of Dad’s top-secret operations. I still had no idea what Dad did in the army, but what I could gather from Maggie’s eavesdropping habit, Dad’s division dealt with dangers of the “who” kind, not the “what” kind. They called my dad to track people down. If Dad was involved, whoever they were looking for had to be pretty big potatoes.
David was hiding from someone, and he was hurt. Could he be running from the military? A vision of David’s bright eyes and the perfect cut to his jaw flashed through my mind. I shook my head. Why would Dad be hunting a kid? He certainly had better things to do. Terrorists and the like were out there. Real criminals. There was no way Dad could be looking for David. My gaze settled on my camera case. I grabbed it … just in case.
Shooting over to the kitchen, I opened up the cupboard, pulled out a gallon-sized Ziploc and filled it with ice. The bag fit neatly into the bottom of my backpack. I threw together a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tossed them in with a couple bottles of water and my camera. The ice chilled my back as I threw the pack over my shoulder.
I hesitated, my hand on the front door. Dad wanted me to stay home. Until everything was secure. That meant that there was a safety risk, and if Dad was involved, it had to be a pretty big one. He expected me to be a good little soldier and stay inside. But how could I?
David was out there, alone. Hurt. I couldn’t just leave him there, especially if there was some kind of dangerous fugitive on the loose. I’d made him a promise, and I had to keep it.
[end of chapter one preview]
So there we are! The third chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. How do you feel about Dad’s attitude toward Jess? Did Dad push Jess to go back out there by insinuating she thinks of no one but herself? What would you do if you were in Jess’s shoes?