Seventeen-year-old Jess’s dream is to graduate High School and get away from her dull military-brat existence. But racing for her life across New Jersey with a boy she hardly knows is not quite what she had in mind.
David is alone, injured, and lost in the woods. When a young girl stumbles across him, he places his trust, and his life, in her hands. Will she lead him to safety, or right into the hands of the men he is hiding from?
Young adult contemporary science fiction (Because you can’t get enough contemporary or science in your fiction)
Check out the first five chapters below!
Available wherever books are sold
Fire in the Woods Preview
The walls shook and my favorite sunset photograph crashed to the floor. Again.
Why the Air Force felt the need to fly so low over the houses was beyond me. Whole sky up there, guys. Geeze.
I picked up the frame and checked the glass. No cracks, thank goodness. I hung the photo back on the wall with the rest of my collection: landscapes, animals, daily living, the greatest of the great. Someday my photos would be featured in galleries across the country. But first I had to graduate high school and get my butt off Maguire Air Force Base.
One more year—that’s all that separated me from the real world. The clock wasn’t ticking fast enough. Not for me, at least.
Settling back down at my desk, I flipped through the pages of August’s National Geographic. Dang, those pictures were good. NG photographers had it down. Emotion, lighting, energy …
I contemplated the best of my own shots hanging around my room. Would they ever compare?
Another jet screamed overhead.
Stinking pilots! I lunged off the chair to save another photo from falling. The entire house vibrated. This was getting ridiculous.
Dad came in and leaned his bulky frame against my door. “Redecorating?”
“Not by choice.” I blew a stray hair out of my eyes. “Are they ever going to respect the no-fly zone?”
“Then next time you have my permission to shoot them down.”
“You want me to shoot down a multi-million-dollar jet because a picture fell off the wall?”
“Why not? Isn’t that what the Army does? Protect the peace and all?” I tried to hold back my grin. Didn’t work.
He grimaced while rubbing the peach fuzz he called a haircut.
So much for sarcasm. “It was a joke, Dad.”
A smile almost crossed his lips.
Come on, Dad. You can do it. Inch those lips up just a smidge.
His nose flared.
Nope. No smile today. Must be Monday—or any other day of the week ending in y.
The walls shuddered as the engines of another aircraft throttled overhead, followed by an echoing rattle.
Dad’s gaze shot to the ceiling. His jaw tightened. So did mine. Those planes were flying way too low.
My stomach turned. “What—”
“Shhh.” His hand shot out, silencing me. “That sounds like …” His eyes widened. “Jessica, get down!”
A deafening boom rolled through the neighborhood. The rest of my pictures tumbled off the walls.
Dad pulled me to the floor. His body became a human shield as a wave of heat blasted through the open window. A soda can shimmied off my desk and crashed to the floor. Cola fizzled across the carpet.
My heart pummeled my ribcage as Dad’s eyes turned to ice. The man protecting me was no longer my father, but someone darker: trained and dangerous.
I placed my hand on his chest. “Dad, what…”
He rolled off me and stood. “Stay down.”
Like I was going anywhere.
As he moved toward the window, he picked up a picture of Mom from the floor and set it back on my dresser. His gaze never left the curtains. How did he stay so calm? Was this what it was like when he was overseas? Was this just another day at the office for him?
The light on my desk dimmed, pulsed, and flickered out. The numbers on the digital alarm clock faded to black. That couldn’t be good.
Were we being attacked? Why had we lost power?
The National Geographic slid off my desk, landing opened to a beautiful photograph of a lake. The caption read: Repairing the Ozone Layer. I would have held the photo to the light, inspected the angle to see how the photographer achieved the shine across the lake—if the world hadn’t been coming to an end outside my window.
I shoved the magazine away from the soda spill. My heartbeat thumped in cadence with my father’s heavy breathing. “Dad?”
Without turning toward me, he shot out his hand again. My lips bolted shut as he drew aside the drapes. From my vantage point, all I could see were fluffy white clouds over a blue sky. Nothing scary. Just regular old daytime. Nothing to worry about, right?
“Sweet Mother of Jesus,” Dad muttered, backing from the window. His gaze shot toward me. “Stay here, and stay on the floor. Keep the bed between you and the window.” His hands formed tight fists before he dashed from the room.
Another plane soared over the roof, way too close to the ground. My ceiling fan swayed from the tremor, squeaking in its hanger.
I trembled. Just sitting there—waiting—it was too much. I clutched the gold pendant Mom gave me for my birthday. If she was still with us, she’d be beside me, holding my hand while Dad did his thing—whatever that was.
But she was gone, and if all I could do was cower in my room while Dad ran off to save the world again, I might as well forget about photojournalism right now.
Wasn’t. Gonna. Happen.
Taking a deep breath, I crawled across the floor and inched up toward the windowsill. Sweat spotted my brow as my mind came to terms with what I saw.
Flames spouted over the trees deep within the adjacent forest, lighting up the afternoon sky. The fire raged, engulfing the larger trees in the center of the woods. I reached for my dresser to grab my camera and realized I’d left it downstairs. Figures.
I gasped as the flames erupted into another explosion.
The photojournalist hiding inside me sucker-punched the frightened teenager who wanted to dash under the bed. This was news. Not snapping pictures was out of the question. I flew down the stairs. The ring of the emergency land-line filled the living room as I landed on the hardwood floor.
Dad grabbed the phone off the wall. “Major Tomás Martinez speaking.”
The phone cord trailed behind him as he paced. His fingers tapped the receiver rhythmically—a typical scenario on the days he received bad news from the Army. I stood rapt watching him, hoping he’d slip up and mention a military secret. Hey, there’s a first time for everything. I’d have to get lucky sooner or later.
“Yes, we lost power here, too … Yes, sir … I understand, sir … Right away, sir.” He hung the receiver back on its stand and glanced in my direction. “I told you to stay upstairs.”
“What’d they say? What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you after I find out.” He snatched his wallet from the counter and slipped the worn leather into the back pocket of his jeans.
“You’re leaving? Now? Did you hear that last explosion?”
“I know. That’s why I’m being called in.” He picked up his keys.
“For what? You’re not a fireman.”
His gaze centered on me. I shivered. Dad in military mode was just. Plain. Scary.
“It’s a plane. A plane went down.”
The memory of the low-flying jets and the rattling of what must have been gunfire seared my nerves.
“Went down or was shot down?” The journalist in me started salivating.
“That’s what I’m going to find out.”
The door creaked as he pushed down the handle. The blare of passing sirens reverberated through the room.
“Why would they shoot down a plane?” I glanced at my camera bag perched on the end table. My shutter finger itched, anticipating juicy photos to add to my portfolio.
“Everything will be fine. For now, just stay in the house.”
“Stay in the house? But this is like, huge. I want to take some pictures.”
His jaw set. That gross vein in his neck twitched. “You can play games later. Right now, I need to know you’re safe.”
“No photojournalist ever made it big by staying safe.”
“Maybe not, but many seventeen-year-olds made it to eighteen that way. Stay here. That’s an order.”
The whooting of a helicopter’s blades cut through the late afternoon sunshine. Butterflies fluttered in my gut as Dad disappeared through the screen door without so much as a backward glance.
Seriously? He expected me to just sit there—with the biggest photo opportunity of my life going on outside?
I ran to the window and brushed the curtain aside. The Air Force pilot who lived across the street ran to his jeep, a duffle bag swinging from his arm. Lieutenant Miller from next door left his house and exchanged nods with Dad as they both slipped into their cars.
The sound of another explosion smacked my ears. The ceiling rattled, and I steadied myself against the wall. How many times could one plane explode? I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax. I lived on a military base for goodness sake. The Army and the freaking Air Force were stationed next door. You couldn’t get much safer than that.
Flopping onto the couch, I clicked the power button on the remote control three times. The blank television screen mocked me. No electricity, idiot.
Another siren howled past the house. My gaze flittered back to my camera case. When in my lifetime would I get another chance to shoot pictures of something like this?
“This is crazy.” I slid my cell phone off the coffee table and dialed my best friend. No service. Ugh!
I grabbed the corded phone. Her voicemail answered: “Hey, this is Maggs. You know what to do.”
“Maggie, it’s Jess. Where are you? The whole world is coming to an end outside. Call me.”
Another helicopter zoomed over the roof. How many was that now? Three? Four?
My gaze trailed to the name above Maggie’s on the contact list.
The part of me that feared the chaos outside yearned to call him. Bobby would come. Leave his post if he had to. Protect me. But did I really want Bobby back in my life?
Not after he and his MP buddies beat up poor Matt Samuels. All the kid did was take me to a movie. It wasn’t even a date, but Bobby didn’t care. If he couldn’t have me, then no one could.
I gritted my teeth as I slipped my phone back into my pocket. Suddenly, I wasn’t as scared as I thought.
Tucking back the living room curtains, I snooped on the neighbors gathering outside their houses. Mrs. Sanderson and the lady across the street both herded their kids inside, their faces turned toward the sky. The fear in their eyes struck me. What an amazing photograph that would have been.
A few guys began walking toward the thruway. One of them held a cheap, pocket camera in his hand. He had to be kidding. What kind of shot did he expect to get with that?
I let the curtain fall. Staying in the house was just too much to ask. This was the story of a lifetime. I couldn’t let it slip by without getting something on film.
Grabbing a black elastic band off the end-table, I twisted my hair into a pony tail. One brown lock fell beside my cheek, as it always did. I clipped that sucker back with a barrette and slung my camera case over my shoulder.
I hesitated at the front door. A picture of my parents hung askew beside the window. I straightened the frame. Mom’s smile warmed me, but Dad’s eyes bored through me, daring me to face his wrath if I touched the doorknob. I stood taller, strengthening my resolve. He’d understand after I got into National Geographic.
The odor of smoke and something pungent barraged my nose as I opened the door. A fire truck wailed in the distance, warning me to keep away. But I couldn’t. I pulled my collar up over my nose to blot out the smell and headed toward the main road.
A parade of emergency vehicles whipped by at the end of the street. Lights flashed and sirens blasted through the neighborhood.
The cacophony froze me for a moment. Nothing like this had ever happened before. We lived in New Jersey for goodness sake, not Saudi Arabia. I glanced back at the house. Keeping it in view made me feel safe, but I knew I needed to get closer to get a good shot.
This was it. The big league. I could do this.
Turning left toward the airstrip, I watched the last fire truck become smaller before its whirling lights passed through the gates onto the tarmac. The fire blazed well within the tree line, maybe even farther than I originally thought. The smoke reached into the sky, blotting out the sun. I raised my lens and waited for the clouds to shift and give me the perfect lighting—until a smack on my arm ruined my setup.
A smirk spread across her face. “Hey, Lois Lane. I figured you’d be out here.”
I sighed, watching a flock of fleeing birds that would have maximized the emotion of the shot—if I’d taken it.
“Lois Lane was a reporter. Jimmy Olsen was the photographer.”
“Whatever.” Her golden curls bounced about her face. “This is like, crazy. My dad took off like World War Three or something.”
“Yeah, mine, too.”
I shielded my eyes. The smoke rose in gray billows. Almost pretty. I raised my lens.
“You want to know the scoop?” Maggie’s perky form fidgeted like a toddler who couldn’t hold in a secret. She loved eavesdropping on her father, the general. Unfortunately, that kind of gossip could get you carted off by the MPs. Never stopped her though, and I adored her for it.
“You know I do. Spill it.” I brought the clouds into focus and snapped the shutter three times.
Her grin widened as she feigned a whisper. “It’s not one of ours.”
“What do you mean?” The stench in the air thickened. I covered my nose.
“The plane. They don’t know whose it is. Isn’t that exciting?”
“Heck yeah.” I raised my camera and clicked off ten successive shots. If a terrorist got shot down over American soil, Jess Martinez was going to have pictures to sell. This was the kind of break every photographer dreamed of.
I adjusted my camera-case beside my waist. “I’m going in closer.”
The air around us grew hazy. Maggie coughed. “Are you nuts? This is close enough for me.”
“Stop being such a wuss.” I tugged her wrist. It never took much more to convince her.
Maggie prattled on while I shot off round after round of gripping photographs. My heart fluttered as each preview image appeared on my screen. For once I was actually doing it. I was being the journalist I was meant to be, not the caged-up little girl Dad wanted. And boy, did it feel good.
The closer we came to the chained-link fence surrounding the runways, the more people gathered around us. A man, ignoring the whimpering Labrador on the end of his leash, gawked at the clouds. Click. Two women caught excited children and dragged them away. Click. The MP from down the street shouted, “Yes sir, right away sir,” into his cell phone and jogged from the scene. Click—all amazing images to add to my portfolio.
Pushing to the front, I slipped my fingers through the metal fencing. The paved tarmac sprawled before me, backing up to the trees. Soldiers on the far side of the airstrip formed barricades against the tree line. I centered my lens between the silver links and chronicled their maneuvers.
A breeze whipped up. The heat slapped my face like sitting too close to a campfire. I covered my lens to protect the glass as the people around us flinched and backed away. One woman ran, crying into a hankie.
“Should we be able to feel the heat from this far away?” Maggie asked, shielding her face with her arm.
I shrugged, unease settling on me as the smoky cloud arched toward us. The breeze stretched the formation, driving it north over our heads and toward the houses.
My stomach did a little fliperoo. The spunky, fearless photojournalist slipped away, leaving a scrawny, slightly-unsure-of-herself teenager behind. “I gotta go.”
“My Dad told me to stay inside. He’ll be calling on the house phone any minute to check on me.”
“The major’s getting more neurotic every day. You’re almost eighteen for goodness sake.”
“I know, but I still get the While You Live Under My Roof lecture every day.”
The ground rattled. Another billow of fire wafted into the sky. I steadied myself, transfixed by the sheer magnitude of the ever-growing bank of smoke.
Wow, did I want to just stand there and use up my memory card—but I wanted to not get grounded more. I began walking backward, snapping off shots with every step.
Maggie strode beside me. “Do you ever stop taking pictures?”
“Not if I can help it.”
I shimmied open the front door. On the far side of the living room, the corded phone rattled on the receiver, mid-ring. My keys clanged to the wood floor as I sprang toward the table to grab the handset. “Hello?”
“Where’ve you been?”
“Nowhere. I was—in the bathroom.” I clenched my teeth, holding my breath. Would he buy it?
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Why?”
I could imagine his Major Martinez no-nonsense expression on the other side of the phone. “Listen, it’s really important that you stay inside tonight. I’m sorry I can’t be there, but I need you to lock the doors, and stay away from the windows.”
I crinkled my forehead. Sweat settled across my brow. “Why? What’s wrong? There’s nothing, like, nuclear or anything, right?”
There was a pause on the line. “No—nothing nuclear.”
I drew the curtain back from the rear kitchen window. The smoke cloud over the woods had darkened. The smell of burning pine tickled my nose as a humming tone on the other end of the call agitated my ear.
Dad spoke muffled words to someone else. “Jesus H. Christ,” he whispered, returning to the phone.
“Dad, is everything okay?”
“Please just promise me you’ll stay inside tonight.”
Yikes. His Major Tomás Martinez voice had drifted away. That was his ‘daddy’s scared’ voice. I hadn’t heard that tone since the night Mom died. I shuddered. “Dad, if things are that bad, shouldn’t I be with you?” Silence lingered, and a scratching noise reverberated in the background. “Dad, is someone else on the line with us?”
“Jess. I am asking you to stay inside and lock the doors. Can you do that for me … Buttercup?”
My breath hitched. Crud. That meant something. Buttercup was a word he and Mom used when something was wrong. Something was definitely up. “I got you, Dad. I’ll stay inside. I promise.”
“Thank you.” He paused. “I’ll be home as soon as I can.”
“Yeah, okay.” My hand trembled as the phone clicked back into the cradle.
I checked the front and back door and ran to the stairs. The fire cast a magnificent glow behind the trees outside my bedroom window. I slid down the screen and clicked off a few rounds of shots, hoping to catch the eerie blues and pinks behind the shaded leaves. Whoa. New favorite sunset shot for sure.
Settling down on my bed, I started scrolling through today’s pictures. Something was weird about the fire, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on it. Flipping through June’s National Geographic, I glanced through the photographs of the explosion in Nanjing China. The colors in my shots were so much more vivid, more dynamic, more, well, colorful. Not that I knew anything about explosions, but something itched that little button inside that told me I had something special.
The lights suddenly flicked on. I gasped and laughed at myself. Perfect timing. I settled at my computer, hooked up my camera, and started the upload. I couldn’t wait to enlarge those babies.
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.
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.
I yanked my jeans free of a thorny bush. I swear I had to be crazy. Just that morning something screeched in the woods so loud it almost burst my eardrums. But here I was, wandering around in those same woods, probably lost, bent on finding and helping a boy I didn’t even know. My chest ached with pressure from my short, choppy breaths. Why did the forest seem so much more sinister than it normally did?
“Auoi calinart, est.”
The gruff, masculine voice echoed through the trees. The language was odd, musical. Kind of like singing, or maybe Norwegian—or maybe a Norwegian guy singing. I couldn’t decide.
An elderly man wearing a long, dirty winter jacket slapped a tree branch as he sped-walked around a bush. He nearly plowed into me.
“Sorry,” I said, backing off the path.
The man gazed up at me. His nose crinkled as if a foul odor suddenly hit him. He blinked and continued on his way, but his icy cold countenance hung with me for a minute. And his eyes … No one had eyes so blue. Except maybe David.
I shivered. Not sure why, but the old dude creeped me out. His head bobbed as he moved through the bushes. He had to be delirious, wearing that warm coat in the middle of August.
“Pardon me.” A woman with gorgeous long blond curls ran up the same path. Her jacket brushed against me as she passed. When she caught up to the old guy, she grabbed him by the arm. They muttered, heads close, before he shoved her away and continued down the trail. The woman turned her face toward the sky, fisted her hands, and continued on after him.
The dude had to be her father or something. Why else would she take that kind of crap from him? I sniffed out a laugh. I hoped that wouldn’t be me and my Dad in twenty years.
I pushed through the brush and plodded on. The trees were probably laughing at me, because I was pretty sure I’d seen the one with the big black knot in the bark at least three times, now. Stinking, stupid, big, black, knotty tree.
A rustling of leaves deep within the trees startled me. I froze, and stared down another gorgeous, enormous buck. Or was it the same one as that morning?
“Hey, beautiful,” I whispered.
Swirling antlers blended with the landscape. He barely seemed to notice me.
“Good boy.” I clawed for my camera, slipping it out of my pack. “Just stay right there.” I pressed the picture button and zoomed in. Click. Gotcha. But a closer shot would be even better.
I inched forward. Majestic black eyes emitted a sense of serenity, calming me from within their gaze. Crack. The twigs broke beneath my feet. Dernit. The deer’s ears twitched.
“It’s okay buddy. It’s me, remember?”
Two little baby steps brought me closer. I held my breath, trying to keep quiet, but my phone vibrated, the ringtone reverberating through the trees. The buck bolted.
“You’re not going to chase him again,” I told myself. A grin broke across my lips. “Oh, yes you are.”
Jumping over fallen trees and stomping in muddy patches, I followed him deeper into the woods. My phone finally stopped ringing, but the buck was long gone … again. I laughed and leaned over, resting my hands on my knees. I was starting to make a habit out of this.
I screamed and whirled toward the voice.
David raised his hands. “Sorry. I thought you saw me.”
“Saw you? I was looking at the stinking deer.” I held my hand to my heart, willing it to stay within my chest. “You scared the crap out of me.”
His lips contorted into the cutest pout as he settled onto the ground. “Sorry.”
“Well, wear a bell or something next time. Geeze!”
Okay, heart. You can slow down now.
I caught my breath. “Are you feeling any better?”
“Maybe.” He rotated his shoulder. “Either that or I’m numb.”
Dirt and pine needles scattered in a puff as I dropped my backpack beside him. “Okay, let’s get to it, then.” I grabbed the Ziploc bag.
“Ice. What did you think?” The cubes scraped together inside the plastic.
“Umm …” His eyes widened.
“If your shoulder is swollen, and you won’t go to the hospital. You need a cold compress.”
He swallowed hard. “Okay.”
David bent forward. I brushed traces of bark and dirt clinging to his back as I knelt beside him. The muscles in his neck and arms tensed.
“Loosen up. It’s just ice.” I carefully placed the bag on his injury.
David trembled. He steadied himself against a sapling, gripping the slim trunk in a shaky fist. “It burns! Owe, it burns!”
I pulled the bag away from his skin. “How can it burn? It’s cold.” I set the Ziploc on my leg and let the ice chill my skin. “Look. No burn. You can’t be such a big baby. This is supposed to help. Can we try again?”
David nodded, but flinched as I lifted the bag.
“Okay, tell you what …” I picked up his tee-shirt from the ground. “Let’s get this back on you.”
His head popped through the opening, and a gentle tug brought his right hand through the armhole. I elevated his left arm as slowly as I could, but he still stifled a groan as the rest of the shirt slid on.
“This is like torture,” he whispered.
“Sorry.” I gently replaced the bag. “Your shirt should protect a little against the ice but still leave it cold enough to stop the swelling.” I smiled, proud of myself for remembering something from first aid.
David grimaced. “It’s still pretty cold.”
“It’s supposed to be. That’s the point.”
David’s eyes closed. He took in a deep breath through his nose, and his lips parted slightly to release it. I watched the tight, white cotton expand and retract across his back with each breath. Holy shmoley. Okay, Florence Nightingale, get a grip.
David’s body quaked, and he grunted through clenched teeth. He grabbed the sapling, snapping it in two.
“Hey, what’d that tree ever do to you?”
His hands formed into trembling fists. He shook like a rocket trying to take off until he bolted upright. The ice fell to the ground.
“I c-can’t,” he stammered. “It’s just too cold.”
“All right.” I picked up the bag. “But I don’t think it was on there long enough to help you.”
“Then I’ll have to deal with the pain. I’ll get over it.” He grimaced, settling back down on the ground. “Eventually.”
He rubbed his shoulders. His gaze seemed distant.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“I can’t seem to get warm.”
“Warm? It’s like eighty degrees. It’s gorgeous out here.”
“I know, but I keep getting a chill.” He scuffed the dirt, making an imprint with the front of his sneaker. A spider shimmied from the divot and crawled up a tree to his right.
The sun funneled through the canopy, flickering splotches of light into his hair. What was it about this boy? I just wanted to sit there and stare at him. Well okay, he was gorgeous, but it was something more than that. I felt compelled, like a gentle tug inside, drawing me to him. I bit back a grin. It’s called hormones, Jess. Let’s just keep it together and don’t make a fool out of yourself.
The wind blew lightly through the treetops, rustling the branches over our heads as I slid down beside my bag. “Are you hungry?”
“Yes, famished.” His eyes lit up, the color actually brightening. It must have been the sun.
“Great. I made a few PB&J’s. I hope that’s okay.”
I handed him a sandwich. He flipped it over, squinting at the jelly running down the crust. Okay, so, I wasn’t Betty Crocker. Get over it. I removed mine out of the plastic wrap, and David followed suit. He watched me take a bite before tearing into his own.
What did he think, it was poisoned or something?
“This is good.” He swallowed and nodded. “Really good.”
A snicker escaped my lips. “I guess anything would taste good if you hadn’t eaten since yesterday.”
“Mm-huh. Thank you.” He finished the last bite and ran his tongue slowly along his pointer finger, licking off a glob of jelly.
I shifted my weight, watching his tongue glide across his skin.
I bit my lip and cleared my throat.
Get. A. Grip. Jess.
Looking away—definitely a good option. “Listen, you can’t stay out here. There is some kind of dangerous fugitive or something on the loose.”
The spider beside him dangled from a branch before swinging back up, a stream of silk glistening behind it.
“That’s about all I know. I just thought you should know. You know?”
Ugh. How much dumber could I sound? Why did I act so goofy around this guy? Pfft. It had nothing to do with the perfect tan, the washboard abs, those unbelievable arms …
“So, what does this fugitive look like? It’s not a young girl with long brown hair and blue eyes, is it? Because that would kind of suck.”
I laughed. “If I were a fugitive I wouldn’t be making PB&J for some sappy guy in the woods.”
“Well, I guess today’s my lucky day, then.”
He licked another finger. I forced my eyes back up to the spider web. The sunlight caught the square outline of the miniature piece of art before it disappeared, fading in and out like a mirage.
My stomach churned anxiously. “So, do you want to tell me why you’re out here?” Please, please, please don’t tell me you’re a dangerous fugitive.
He looked down. “I told you …”
“I know. You don’t want to be found. I get that, but the Army is out there looking for someone suspicious. If they find you …”
David’s eyes sprang open. He leapt to one knee, just missing the spider web. “Where are they looking?”
“I don’t know. Around, I guess.”
A refreshing breeze blew through the woods, invigorating me, but a shiver rattled David’s shoulders. “It’s getting colder.”
Dark clouds wafted over the treetops, shrouding the forest in a dim gray before the sun broke through once more.
“It might rain, but it’s still, like, eighty degrees.”
He wrapped his arms around himself and sat hunched over. A pang deep within my gut warned something wasn’t right, that I should run, but the sensation quickly ebbed away. As if erased.
I knelt beside him. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’m just cold.”
“Maybe you have a fever? You should really see a doctor.”
“No. No way.” He raised his hands in a defensive position.
“All right—if you tell me what’s going on, maybe I can get help, but we’re not really getting anywhere here with me doing all the talking.”
“Okay, let’s talk.” He looked to the right and moved closer to the web. He seemed to focus on each strand the spider spun.
The sunlight sparkled in his dark hair and gleamed within the web. I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my camera and adjusted the focus so both David and the web popped crisply from the outlining scenery.
Whoa. The preview looked like a magazine ad. The lines in his face, his nearly pore-less skin—just perfect.
David smiled as I raised the lens again. I set off the shutter on high speed repetition, hoping to get some of the sparkle from the spider’s web.
“You like to take pictures, huh?”
“Yeah. It’s an obsession of mine. You don’t mind, do you?”
He shook his head, and I snapped some more. The last one had a beam of sunlight in the background. Damn if I couldn’t sell those as pictures of Jared Linden and gotten away with it.
I closed the lens. “I’m still waiting for your story. I love photography, but I’m not that easily distracted.” Well, not right now, at least.
“I’m not sure where to begin. Do you get along with your dad?”
I leaned back, surprised. “I guess. I mean, most of the time. He’s a little judgmental, though.”
“Mine too. In a big way.”
“Is he the reason why you’re out here?” A fly buzzed my ear. I swatted it away.
David shrugged. “Indirectly. If he’d just listen, just try to understand …”
“I know what you mean. My dad’s got this crazy idea I can’t make good decisions.”
“Yeah, mine too. He said I was worthless, and I’ve never done a selfless thing in my life. What does that mean, anyway?”
“My dad thinks I don’t listen.”
David propped his elbow on his knee and rested his chin on his fist. “Well, you’re listening now.”
I smiled. A little girly tingle jittered through my chest. He was cute, and said the right things. Score another notch in that lottery ticket.
My cheeks burned up in a flush under his sparkling gaze. Those eyes—so darn blue. I broke our stare, clearing my throat. “So, you had a fight with your dad, huh?”
“Something like that. I tried to prove I was worth something.”
“Did it work?”
He took a deep breath and let it out in a puff. “If it did I wouldn’t be here.”
The fly buzzed around David’s head and darted toward his right, snagging itself in the spider web. The more it thrashed, the more the webbing ripped and covered its wings … until the struggle abruptly ended. The web seemed to wink in and out of existence as the spider inched toward its prey.
Despair settled into my gut. The thought of being totally overpowered—and to die like that—it just didn’t seem fair. The clouds drifted, and the web faded once more. So beautiful, but nothing more than an elaborate trap.
David’s gaze moved from the spider back to me. He seemed to search through me, and his brow furrowed. Did I surprise him somehow, or was that confusion in his eyes?
His expression faded into a smile. “Jess, you …”
Another cooling breeze encircled us. David clamped his arms around his shoulders. His hands shook as they rubbed his skin.
The hair on my arms stood on end as the sky darkened ominously overhead. “David, are you all right?”
He wheezed, his body trembling as he bent over into a ball.
“Okay, that’s it,” I said. “I’m getting you out of here.” I lifted him to his feet. He barely struggled, but drew away once we were standing.
“I can’t leave the woods,” he said.
“Oh, yes you can.”
I nestled my camera into my backpack and flung the bag over my shoulder. David’s body seemed rigid as I pulled him to his feet.
“Jess, please don’t …” His words were lost between chattering teeth.
“Don’t nothing. You need help.”
I yanked on his arm. Luckily for me, he was too busy trembling to fight me. We slunk through the trees, stopping each time David’s chill shook him too hard to walk.
This is insane, Jess. You don’t know anything about this guy. Lord knows what’s wrong with him, and … A moist tap hit my head, then another. I glanced up. The clouds thickened. Another raindrop grazed my nose as a few birds flew for cover.
Great. A rainstorm was all I needed at the moment.
David studied a drip run down his arm, and turned his eyes up to the trees. “What …”
“Come on,” I said, giving him a tug. “The trail is this way.” At least I hoped it was.
Ferns scraped against my jeans as I pushed branches away from my face. I stopped once to untangle David’s shirt from a sticker bush before the woods opened up to the dirt path beside the road. It wasn’t where I’d come in, but it was close enough to get home.
David tensed as we stepped away from the trees. Small circles appeared on the ground, darkening the sand from tan to brown as scattered droplets fell from the sky.
David retreated toward the woods. “I can’t … I can’t.”
“You don’t have much of a choice now, do you?” I led him forward.
His muscles relaxed, but his eyes told me it was in defeat rather than agreement. David hunched his shoulders, ducked his head, and stumbled as I nudged him forward. I slowed my pace, hoping it would help him keep up.
This is crazy, Jess. Just bring him to the … I stopped, alarmed by the movement at the gates to the base housing. Two men in uniform tossed their packs beside the door to the guard house. One fumbled with keys.
In the entire four years we’d lived on that base, I’d never seen guards stationed at the entrance. A wave of adrenalin swept through my body. Sweat formed at my temples.
David gripped my arm. Turquoise eyes, wide with fear, met mine.
A twinge in my gut forced my whole body to tremble. I was right all along. It was him. He was the guy they were looking for. We were in deep shi … well, we were in a lot of trouble. Or was it just me? Was I in trouble? Was David dangerous?
I forced a smile. Every part of me screamed to run, to flee to the guards and tell them, but when I looked into David’s eyes, the mistrust melted away, disappeared.
Wait. Why did it disappear? I was scared to death a minute ago, wasn’t I?
His eyes softened me. I was safe with him. I always had been.
“I’m not going to turn you in. I promise.”
His shoulders relaxed. “Can we please go back to the woods?”
“There’s no way to warm you up out there. Now come on, and act natural.”
I kept watch on the guard house as we walked toward the gate. One of the guys talked on a cell phone while the other unpacked his bag. Just keep walking. A large raindrop pelted my shirt, then another.
David brushed away a rain droplet dribbling down his cheek and looked toward the sky. He gaped, his eyes questioning. Why did rain freak him out? Everybody’s seen rain, right?
His nose and lips distorted before he ducked his head down again. Not really as inconspicuous as I’d hoped for, but at least he was keeping up.
Relief washed over me as we passed through the gate. I couldn’t believe it. We’d actually …
Every muscle in my body tensed. I could feel David’s bicep contract as I turned toward the MP. “Yes?”
“Can I see some ID please?”
“Oh, umm, yeah.”
I reached into my pocket and grabbed my wallet. He made note of my driver’s license on a clipboard.
The MP motioned to David. “And yours?”
“He doesn’t have his license yet,” I stammered. “He’s only sixteen.”
My tense muscles got even tenser. There was no way David would pass for sixteen. He looked eighteen, nineteen. My brow furrowed. Just how old was he?
A crack of thunder boomed overhead. David nearly jumped into my arms. The wind whipped up. I glanced to the MP. Please let us go, dude.
David turned from my shoulder and stared at the MP. The officer moaned and blinked his eyes. He looked up at the sky and handed my license back.
“Okay. You’re cleared. Thank you.” He walked back to the booth, massaging his forehead.
I shoved my license back in my pocket. “I don’t believe it.”
David didn’t comment beyond a tremor as I maneuvered him across the street.
We’d been incredibly lucky. The guy hadn’t even made a note of David. Maybe MP training wasn’t as hard-core as I’d heard.
We moved past a bush near the edge of the sidewalk, and a sparrow hopped out. The bird fluttered its spotty brown wings as it snatched a squiggling worm on the concrete.
David reared back, nearly knocking me over. “What the …”
I tightened my grip on his arms. “Dude, it’s only a bird. Chill out!”
“I’m sorry. It frightened me.”
His eyes remained on the little brown-spotted minion-of-doom as it hopped onto the road. What kind of idiot got spooked by a bird? I didn’t push it. David obviously had serious issues. Hopefully they weren’t the homicidal kind.
No. He was just a guy who needed help. No homicidal anything.
David’s gaze shifted from left to right. “Where are we going, anyway?”
“Don’t be so scared. It’s not like the whole world is looking for you. What are the chances of your father just happening to be on Maguire, and driving down this road at this very minute?” I tried to gauge his reaction, but his expression didn’t change. He was worried about more than his father, I could tell. Was it really the MPs? The regular police? Worse? Maybe eventually he’d open up to me.
As we turned onto my street, an open-top jeep sped toward us. David cried out and jumped away from the road. One of the soldiers inside waved as they drove by.
“I really think I need to go back to the woods,” David said.
The jeep turned the corner, not even hesitating at the stop sign. “It’s nothing. They’re only going to work. You need to lighten up.”
You should bring him back to the gate. Turn him in. This is bigger than you, and you know it. If the Army is looking for him something is seriously up.
I scoffed at my own idiocy. Paranoia was so un-cool. He’d be fine. He was just out of sorts with a fever or something. Besides, if he was a fugitive, and I helped him, I may just be setting myself up for the story of a lifetime.
Or a lifetime behind bars.
I decided to go with the first scenario. Much better karma.
Head tucked down low, David allowed me to guide him while I kept a careful watch on the neighbors’ windows and front porches. The last thing I needed was a nosy housewife calling my dad.
David dug in his heels as we turned up my walkway. He wrenched against my grip. “What’s that?”
“Yeah, this is where I live. David, are you delirious or something? Where did you think I was taking you?”
I placed my hand on his arm. Perspiration beaded on his brow and his tee-shirt seemed far damper than it should have been in the light rain.
David scrunched his eyes closed and stumbled foot over foot. A torrent of unintelligible words streamed from his lips as his body went limp.
My knee slammed on the pavement as I reached down to catch him—but he was nowhere near as heavy as I expected. Weird.
His eyes opened and rolled back into this head. He coughed once before his gaze re-focused on me.
“You’re done. I’m calling an ambulance.”
He grabbed my arm. “No! I just need to get warmed up.”
I shook my head and helped him back to a standing position. “I think it’s more than that, and something really strange is—”
“I promise you, I’m just cold. Please just …” His words lost themselves inside a moan, and another shaking chill brought us both to our knees. David’s shoulders stiffened between my hands, becoming board-rigid before shaking fitfully.
“Shoot,” I whispered, rubbing his arms in a fruitless effort to warm him.
The sky opened up. Rain pummeled us. The sound roared through the compound.
David’s pupils fixed on a point behind me. His jaw vibrated in time with the tremor. Dark wet tresses matted to his forehead. Water trailed from his bangs and down his cheeks.
I gripped his face and pointed it toward mine. “David. David, listen to me. I need to get you into the house.”
His eyes didn’t focus. His teeth chattered.
“Okay. Let’s hope you heard me.” He grimaced as I hauled him to his feet. His shiver tightened his joints. The stiffness in his body fought against me as we made our way to the door.
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.
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