Welcome to day five of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS.
In case you’re coming in late, here’s the link to page one, and each page will link to the next chapter.
Enjoy the last preview chapter!
Beneath the overhang, I fussed with my keys and pushed the door open. With some finagling I dragged his trembling form inside and into the family room, where he collapsed on the couch.
“Stay here.” Like he was getting up anytime soon. “I’ll get some blankets.”
I sprinted up the stairs, leaving muddy footprints on the carpet. Yeah, that wasn’t going to get me in trouble or anything. I threw open the linen closet.
“Okay Dad, it’s like this,” I whispered to myself. “I know I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but he was really cute so I figured it was okay … then he got sick. I couldn’t just leave him out there.”
Yeah, that’ll work. You are in deep dog-poop, Jess.
I threw two towels over my shoulders and grabbed a stack of spare blankets before padding down the stairs. Drying David’s clothing proved fruitless, but at least his hair wasn’t dripping anymore. Dad had left his gray sweatshirt hanging on the back of a chair. I peeled David’s wet tee-shirt from his back, trying to be careful of his injured shoulder, and pulled the warm fleece over his head.
Still stricken with the chill, David rolled himself into a ball. I unfolded the blankets with a flourish and swaddled him in pink and yellow fuzz.
“Okay. If that doesn’t warm you up, nothing will.”
I admired my domestic-ness until the covers began to quake again. He had to have a fever. I cranked the thermostat up from seventy degrees to seventy-five.
“David, I’m going to get a thermometer.”
Chattering teeth answered me.
Just call an ambulance, Jess.
No. No ambulance. He’d been clear on that. No hospitals. Until I found out what was going on, I needed to keep that promise.
I walked right by the telephone to the bathroom and grabbed the thermometer from underneath the toothpaste in the medicine cabinet.
Closing the door, I cringed at my reflection. Yesterday’s eyeliner oozed down to my cheek. My bangs hung wet, lifeless, and clinging to my forehead. Lovely. I ran a fingertip under each eye, alleviating most of the raccoon syndrome. Who was I kidding? I’d never win a beauty pageant anyway.
I uncapped the thermometer as I returned to David. He groaned. His chill rattled the coils in the couch.
“David, I’m going to stick a thermometer under your tongue.” I had no idea if he could hear me over his shivering.
After pressing the button to clear the digital readout, I pried his mouth open to slide the prong between his lips. His hand clutched the edge of the blanket. His fist shook against his chest.
“Come on David. Snap out of it.”
His eyes squeezed shut. His mouth formed a pained, straight line.
“It’ll be okay.” A puff of air blew out of my lips. Saying the words didn’t help me to believe them. What if I was wrong? What if he really needed a doctor? What if he died?
I touched the chain on my neck, twirling the links around my fingers. The phone sat on the end table. One call to 911 would bring an ambulance, which was what he really needed. I reached for the phone and sighed. He seemed petrified of the hospital. But was it right to let him die just because he was afraid?
The clock on the wall ticked, filling the room with its cadence. David’s teeth rattled against the plastic tube in his mouth. What was taking that thermometer so darn long to beep?
I grasped my pendant, willing myself to do the right thing—if I could just figure out what the right thing was.
My mother’s words seeped into my mind. “I had this necklace blessed. You’ll never have to worry about anything while you wear it.” Her image soothed me like a hug. I closed my eyes and fed on her strength.
“All right, Mom,” I whispered, “here goes nothing.”
Another tremor rocked David’s body as I unhooked the chain and refastened the clasp behind his neck. I touched my fingers to the golden oval.
“Please God,” I whispered. “Please help him.” The shiver subsided, but his breathing seemed labored.
Darnit. What was I supposed to do?
I frantically searched the room for something to help. Pillows, magazines, remote controls, everything a good Jersey home should have other than something to stop a person from freezing to death.
Three logs lay unburned beside the fireplace, leftover from the spring thaw. Perfect. I placed one of the logs on the steel grate and shoved some newspaper beneath it. Luckily, the dry wood caught quickly. I checked David’s blankets and glanced at the thermometer’s digital readout. 112. 113. 114. “What the …”
David convulsed and bit down, snapping the thermometer in two.
“Holy crap!” I picked up the half that fell on the blanket and tossed it on the table. My finger shot between his lips, and I pried his mouth open, praying he didn’t bite me by accident. I dug the rest of the thermometer from under his tongue and threw it over my shoulder.
His head fell to the side, his body as limp as a rag doll. I did my best to hoist him to a sitting position as his eyes rolled back, exposing ghostly white orbs.
“Omigosh, this is not happening. David! David!” No answer. I slapped his face.
His eyes sprang open, centered on me, and froze. His lips clamped together. His body shook as if it were preparing to explode. His muscles hardened like bricks beneath my fingertips. The skin around his eyes crinkled. The set of his eyes screamed for help.
“Come on, David. Snap out of it. Come on!”
His eyes remained fixed on me until the convulsion subsided. A blink told me he was still in there. I eased him back until he rested on the couch without my support. His gaze locked with mine. Color returned to his face.
I reached out and touched his arm. My fingers trembled. “Please tell me it’s over.”
David closed his eyes and rubbed his chest, taking in several long, full breaths. He blinked and squinted as if the light hurt his eyes, before scanning the room.
His movement seemed hesitant and sleepy, as if he’d just woken up. The licking flames in the fireplace caught his attention. His lips turned up in a grin.
“Warm. Thanks,” he whispered.
I ran the back of my hand across my forehead, dabbing away the sweat. “Thanks, nothing. You have, like, a hundred and fifteen-degree fever. We need to get you to a hospital.”
His eyes darkened. “No. I told you—”
“David, this is serious.”
He reached out and touched his fingers to my chest, just below the collarbone. “I am serious.” His irises seemed to brighten beneath his dark lashes.
A soothing sensation rolled over me, relaxing my muscles one at a time. My apprehension slipped away, while something deep in the recesses of my mind begged me to run. I blinked and allowed the calm to overcome. “All right, but I’m not a doctor, you know. I have no idea what I’m doing.”
“I don’t need a doctor.”
Yeah, so he’d told me. I kneaded my hands together, doing my best to remember what they taught in my first aid class. “So, okay, fever. A tub of ice, right? Ice water will break a fever?”
He raised his palms and leaned away. “No! No more ice. Please …”
“But David you’re really sick.”
“No, I’m not.” He rubbed his temples. “I, I … have a disorder.”
“A what?” The fire crackled behind me as the room continued to heat.
“It’s … thermo-nucleic disorder. Have you heard of it?”
“No.” I crossed my arms.
He straightened. The pink blanket fell to his waist. “I have an extremely high body temperature. I don’t do too well in the cold.”
“You’re trying to tell me you’re always that hot?”
He placed his hands on his lap. “Pretty much. I’m feeling better, though. Thanks for the fire.”
I kept my arms folded. Seriously? He must have thought I was a …
His smile warmed me more than the fire, and I relaxed.
A disorder, of course. It made total sense—unless he was pulling my leg.
His smile faded as he tugged the chain of my mother’s pendant out of the sweatshirt. He fingered the golden oval. “What’s this?”
I scooted aside the blankets and sat beside him. “It was my Mom’s. She gave it to me when I was twelve. She told me that whenever I wear it, I could hold it tightly and know that she was with me … that everything would be all right.”
David ran his thumb over the etching and turned the charm over. The starburst cross on the front glistened in the firelight. “That’s beautiful. Why did you give it to me?”
I shrugged. “At the moment you kind of needed it more than I did.”
“The fire warmed me, not the necklace.” He reached for the clasp behind his neck.
“No. Keep it for now … until I’m sure you’re okay.”
The fire cast a light glow on the right side of his face. “If you can help me stay warm, I’ll be giving this back to you pretty quickly.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Wow, I can’t believe this. You really can’t take the cold? At all? What do you do in the winter?”
He laughed. “I try to dress more warmly.”
I fiddled with my thumbs, recapping and sorting through everything that’d happened. Despite being completely relaxed, I knew something was very wrong. I fought back the feeling of ease as it tried to overtake me again. Why was I being so complacent when something was obviously up? What was wrong with me? Focus. I needed to focus.
“David, why are they looking for you?”
“You mean my father?”
I stood. “No. I mean the Army. Is it because you have some kind of funky disease? Am I in any danger? Did you break the law? What—”
“I’m going to have to take notes if you keep asking questions without letting me answer.”
I folded my arms. “Then start answering.”
He pursed his lips. “I’m not contagious, and I would never hurt you.”
“So you do have some sort of freaky disease. Is that why they’re looking for you?”
He chewed his upper lip, his face pensive. “I promise I’ll tell you everything, but right now I don’t think it would do either of us any good. Can you please just trust me for now?”
“I don’t know you. I’m not even sure why I brought you here.”
David stood and curled his fingers around my hands. “Trust me. We’re alone. If I wanted to hurt you, I’d have done it already.”
“But David …”
He stepped away from me and grabbed his temple.
“Please don’t tell me you’re getting another chill.”
“No.” He sat on the couch, jostling the pink blanket. “Just dizzy.”
He closed his eyes and stretched his neck as I sat beside him. “David, I don’t know what to do.”
“I think I’m just tired.” He cuddled into the corner of the couch.
Shifting the blankets out from under me, I stood and threw one over him. David blinked and smiled, sending a rush of tickling energy through me, heating my cheeks. What was it about that smile? Why did I turn into a heaping sack of melted jelly when he barely even looked at me?
My hands shook. Distraction. I needed a distraction.
“Tell you what. You get some rest. I’ll see if I can scurry up something to eat for dinner.” Yep. Food. That would work. Nothing helps a girl keep her calm and focus like a good old-fashioned dose of carbs and calories. I walked toward the kitchen. “I can always make peanut butter and jelly again if I need to.”
David drew the blanket up under his chin. “I’d rather have more PB&J if you have it. That was great.”
I turned, leaning on the doorframe. “That’s what I said.”
His lashes flickered closed, and his face softened. A placid rhythm developed in his breathing.
Maybe he was more tired than I thought. I walked back and sat beside him on the couch. Trailing my fingers across his forehead, I brushed back his long, dark bangs.
Who was he? Why was he here, and what the heck was going on? I rubbed my chin. He asked me to be patient, but all these questions were killing me. Was I sitting on the story of my life, or was I setting myself up for disappointment, and perpetual, eternal grounding?
The firelight cast a stunning shadow behind him. Eerie, ethereal. I pulled out my camera and rattled off shots from several angles, but the photos in the preview screen did little to convey what my eyes saw in real life. Maybe they’d look better when I downloaded them later.
Making my way into the kitchen, I opened the cabinet and reached for the peanut butter and a loaf of bread. I slathered as much jelly as I could without it sloshing out the sides of the sandwich. Admiring my finished masterpieces, I licked the jelly that still clung to the knife. Waste not, want not, Mom always said.
I smashed a quarter wedge into my mouth and placed the rest on a napkin, leaving it on the coffee table beside David. His lips rose in a half-smile as he slept.
Boiling hot skin met my fingertips as I touched my hand to his forehead. I winced, fright overtaking me for a moment, before I settled myself.
Duh. Of course he was going to feel warm. Temperature disorder, remember?
The sun broke through the clouds outside. Cheerful sparkles glimmered on the water droplets still clinging to the window screens. At least the rain was over.
I eased into the armchair and watched David sleep. So many questions muddled inside my mind. What was he running from? What’s really wrong with him?
Although the storm outside had abated, the storm inside still slumbered on my couch. I should have been terrified of him, but I wasn’t … and it drove me crazy.
And what about Dad? He could burst through the door at any moment. What would I say? How would I deal with the unavoidable life-long punishment? I covered my face. Crap. I was in way over my head.
The rhythm of David’s breathing transfixed me, lulling me to sleepiness. I blinked twice, and grabbed my phone. I Googled ‘rare temperature diseases’ and scrolled through listings of pointless topics. Raynaud’s syndrome. Nope didn’t make your temperature high. Lyme’s disease … nah, didn’t seem likely. Cold urticaria … allergic to cold temperatures, causes hives in the cold. I glanced in his direction. No, there was never a mark on him, and they didn’t say anything about constant high temperatures.
I clicked off my phone and rubbed my eyes. The sun had gone down, and the last embers in the fire had died out. I spied a carton of synthetic logs under the kindling newspapers. I added one to the grate to keep the fire burning.
David rolled over in his sleep, his bangs falling toward his right eye. I brushed them aside and sat on the floor staring at him. Was he telling the truth? Could he really have some sort of freaky temperature problem?
The clock on the wall clicked to nine-thirty. I tousled my hair and found it damp from the heat. Sweat beaded on my chest and dripped down into my bra. Gross.
David’s cheek was warm, but not sweaty. His breathing remained deep and regular.
He may have felt fine, but I felt like I was going to yack. I headed up the stairs to my bedroom and hoisted the window open, letting in the cooler outside air. A light breeze blew the curtains beside my shoulders, refreshing me from the heat in the house. I rested against the sill and turned my face to the sky. A thousand lights in the heavens glinted and sparkled, settling my uneasiness. I breathed deeply, enjoying the sweet scents of Mrs. Miller’s garden until a star overhead winked out. Then another.
I grasped the windowsill and pushed against the screen—holding my breath as the stars wiped away before my eyes. A deep, dark blanket stretched out over the house, consuming the sky quickly and more completely than any cloud cover.
I reached for my necklace. Startled by its absence, I froze until I remembered it lay safely around David’s neck. My gaze drew back to the sky. A black mass hovered over the houses, continuing to blank out the stars. One by one the little pinpricks of light returned as the form passed overhead and moved toward the airstrips.
No lights. No landing gear. Just black—And really, really slow. A blimp? In the middle of the night? And no noise at all?
I shivered and backed away from the window. Keeping an eye on the mass, I fumbled for my phone and dialed Maggie. I recounted my entire day, right up to the apparition that’d just flown over my house.
“Did you see it?” I asked.
“So they flew a plane over your house. It’s not the first time.”
“Have you been listening to a thing I’ve said?”
“Come on, girl. I don’t care about the plane,” Maggie said. “I want to hear about the hottie. He’s actually there in your house? Right now? And your Dad’s not home?” Her giggle always sounded maniacal. “Are you going to do it?”
“No! Maggie, come on.”
“But seriously. What are you going to tell your Dad?”
I shook my head. “I was thinking of the truth. I can’t send David back into the cold, and I can’t really hide him either. Right now he’s passed out on the sofa.”
“Holy cow. The major’s going to have a brain aneurysm.”
“Believe me, I know.” I tucked back the curtain and peeked up at the stars. Everything seemed perfectly normal—now. “Maggs, that plane, or whatever—it was weird. I mean, really weird. I couldn’t even hear it, but it must have been huge.”
“Hon, maybe you were dreaming.”
She held a long pause on the line. “Are you going to deal with the real problem, here? What do you think is wrong with Prince Charming?”
I checked the window again and slumped onto the bed. “I have no stinking clue. He says he has this funny disorder.”
“Okay, so what is it?”
I rolled onto my back. “He said it was something like thermo-dynamic disorder. Or maybe it was thermo-nuclear disorder. I don’t know … something that makes him really hot and he freezes when it gets cold out. I tried to Google it but I couldn’t find anything.”
“You already knew he was really hot.”
I ignored her. “It was so bizarre. I couldn’t get him warmed up, no matter what I tried.”
“You know, if it happens again, you can always smother his body with yours.”
“Seriously. I see it in the movies all the time, and they told us that in first aid class too, remember? Sharing body heat and all.” She snickered. “And I hear friction …”
“Maggie!” I sat up and tossed my pillow back to the head of my bed. Not that the idea of snuggling up with David was all that gross, but I didn’t need her to know that.
“Okay, okay, but I’m going to research it to make sure he doesn’t have the plague or something.”
“Whatever. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
I smushed my forehead against the window screen again and counted stars. Not that I knew how many were supposed to be up there, but tallying them made me feel better. Scattered light clouds left from the earlier storm dotted the sky, but otherwise the stars shone as brightly as any other night. I closed the window, pulled the blind down, and leaned against the edge of my dresser. I knew there was no way I was going to be able to sleep.
I grabbed my comforter and pillow and padded down the stairs. Throwing the bedding on the chair beside David, I placed my fingers on his forehead. Still hot. Duh – Temperature disorder, Jess.
First things first: I needed to make sure Dad didn’t have a conniption when he walked through the front door so he didn’t shoot David or something. I grabbed the note pad from the counter and scribbled: Don’t be mad. I’ll explain in the morning on the yellow-lined sheet. I taped the note on the couch behind David.
Lame, but it was all I could come up with. Tomorrow was not going to be fun.
I eased back into the chair beside David and yanked the lever to raise my feet. Using the blanket to prop up my side, I cuddled into my soft down pillow and watched David sleep. So many questions … but tomorrow I’d get some answers.
Hopefully David would comply. If not, Dad might beat the answers out of him.
[End of chapter five preview]
Gads! He’s in her house! And Major Dad is coming home!
This is the last preview chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. I really hope you enjoy it. I’d love to hear any questions/comments about the chapter, or the preview overall.
Do you think Jess did the right thing? Do you think she had a choice? Do you think she’s safe? And what about David? Is there any warm and fizzy there, or are you screaming for her to run for her life? I’d really love to know your thoughts.
If you’d like to continue, here are the links to pick up your own copy of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!