Woohoo we’re 4 days in!
Welcome to day four of five chapters of FIRE IN THE WOODS. Enjoy!
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.
[end of chapter four preview]
Things are getting interesting! There’s the fourth chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS. There is almost too much going on here to come up with questions. How about the imagery? Can you feel Jess’s inner struggle? What are you feeling about David at this point?
To read the fifth and final chapter of this preview chapter of FIRE IN THE WOODS click here. (Available after December 5)