“Hey, Sleeping Beauty!”
My head jerked, and I nearly fell over sideways. I grabbed the post I’d been leaning against. Impossibly, I’d drifted off while waiting. Or maybe not so impossibly. Had I slept at all in the last twenty-four hours?
Thomas “Tack” Russo was marching toward me, a slight kid with unruly black hair and penetrating blue eyes. He wore a Kickpuncher sweatshirt and beige cargo pants, his camouflage backpack hooked over both shoulders.
“Out cold by the gate is not a good look.” Tack shook his head. “You should’ve grabbed a spot by the Wilson fire. Looks like those guys had a killer campout.”
“We’re going to be late,” I grumbled, stifling a yawn.
“No one’ll care.” His smirk slipped a fraction as he rubbed his arms, chasing away the morning chill. I spotted bags under his eyes as well. “Honestly, I wonder how many kids will even show up.”
Pushing off the post. “Nobody actually knows anything. Not yet. And I doubt Principal Myers will suddenly learn to relax.”
“Wait wait wait!” Tack swung his backpack around and unzipped it, pulling out a lumpy parcel wrapped in Sunday comics. Dropping to a knee, he held the ugly bundle aloft, head bowed like a knight swearing service. “Please accept this token as a symbol of my undying pleasure at your continuing to be alive for another year.”
I blanched, my stomach abruptly churning.
Alive another year. Am I really?
Tack glanced up. Registered my discomfort, if not the cause. He rose quickly, cheeks reddening as he thrust the package into my hands. “Sorry. I tried to find you yesterday, but . . .” He trailed off with a wince.
Tack knew I hated birthdays. That I spent them alone when I could.
He just didn’t know why.
Tack was my best friend, and utterly irreplaceable. One of the few things I liked about Fire Lake, other than the scenery. I couldn’t risk our friendship by telling him the truth. Couldn’t stand for him to think I was crazy, too.
“You shouldn’t have bought me anything,” I scolded. Every year I told him not to. And every year he did anyway.
Tack’s grin returned. “If it makes you feel better, I didn’t. I stole it.”
My eyes rolled as I tore into the newsprint. After I’d ripped through a near-seamless ball of tape, a small cardboard box fell into my hands. Inside was a pair of vintage Ray-Ban sunglasses. Silver frame. Reflective lenses.
I slipped them on. They fit perfectly.
I shoved that aside. Wouldn’t let the evil bastard’s shadow darken every moment of my life. Who cared if they were similar? I liked these damn glasses.
“See there!” Tack crowed triumphantly, slapping his hands together. “Perfect! Who’s the dopest Bella now? Melinda Juilliard Wilder, that’s who!”
“Shut it, dork. And don’t triple name me today, or my mom’ll get jealous.”
Plus, I hated my middle name. It was the sole legacy of my father—being named after a prestigious performing arts conservatory on the other side of the country. Yet I couldn’t dance. Or act. Or sing. I didn’t even play an instrument. Another letdown courtesy of a man I never knew.
“What’s Virginia worked up about this time?” Tack snatched the sunglasses from my nose and slipped them on. “Something from yesterday? Did you offend Jeebus at your private birthday shindig?”
“It was nothing.” I began walking up the drive. I hated lying to Tack, but the conversation had strayed into dangerous territory. I wished I still had the shades to cover my eyes.
Tack fell in beside me. “You’re right, we need to get moving.” He handed back the glasses and hitched his pants. “Our classmates wouldn’t know what to do if the prom king and queen were late on Announcement Day. They’d probably crap themselves.”
I snorted. We hiked up to Quarry Road, then started into town. A light breeze was rippling the lake, which gleamed like a sapphire in the heart of the valley. We crossed a handful of quiet blocks before hanging a left onto Library Avenue. Street names in Fire Lake are pretty straightforward. The place never got big enough to require creativity.
“NASA really torpedoed business this month,” Tack said, pointing to a cluster of vacant condos near the marina. “My dad’s had zero work. No tourists clogging their toilets.”
“People are staying home, I guess. Waiting. A trip to Fire Lake just isn’t in the cards.”
Tack raised both palms, rounding his eyes dramatically. “But Outdoor Weekly named us the best weekend getaway in the Rockies! What better place to spend your last days on Earth?”
“People can be so dumb, right?”
The hike to school usually takes twenty minutes, unless the weather is crappy. But that morning it was all sunshine and blue skies, with the temperature hovering around fifty-five degrees. A gorgeous day in the northern Idaho mountains. It felt like a prank.
As we moved deeper into town, unusual signs of neglect cropped up. A busted streetlight. Trash in the gutter. An Explorer was parked with its front two wheels on the curb, soaped letters on its windshield saying, “You can have it, Sheriff.”
I was born in Fire Lake, knew it heart and soul. I’d never seen anything like it before. The disarray felt fundamentally wrong.
A tricked-out Wrangler rounded the corner, music thumping, a chrome gun rack welded to its rear. The top was down, and three shirtless boys were hanging over its sides.
“Oh, shucks.” Tack sighed dejectedly as they tore up the block. “We missed our ride! I really wanted to flash the guns today, too.”
“I’d rather crawl on my stomach than hitch a ride with Ethan. New car or not.”
Tack shook his head. “Lay off my dudes. We’re going camping next week, gonna really bro-down. Probably get wasted. Kill something and eat it. It’s gonna be lit.”
“Lovely. I’ll be at the spa with Jessica and the squad.”
Ethan Fletcher is the one who gave Tack his nickname, though it didn’t work out like he’d planned. During sixth grade, as a prank, Ethan and the Nolan twins fastened Thomas Russo to a bulletin board by his clothes using thumbtacks. They left him hanging there, miserable and humiliated, until he was found by Mr. Hardy. In the halls the next morning, the other boys began calling him Thumbtack.
When Thomas heard, he immediately adopted the name as his own, refusing to respond to anything but Tack. Adults. Teachers. Classmates. Not even when called on in class. He was Tack, and that was final. After a while Ethan even tried to get him to stop, and Tack took a beating for refusing. A boulder could take lessons in stubbornness from that kid.
“Man, talk about depressing.” Tack paused beneath the awning of Valley Grounds, our favorite coffee shop. A hand-scrawled sign was taped to its front door.
CLOSED UNTIL . . . GOD BLESS
His shoulders hunched. “This end-of-the-world stuff is cramping my style. We might all be about to die, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need caffeine. They better reopen eventually, or it’s gonna be a long wait until the big boom.”
Forget next month. God, what will tomorrow be like if the news is bad?
“You’re probably rooting for a direct strike,” I said, trying to play it off. “No exams.”
“But what of us, then?” Tack’s eyes twinkled as he snatched my hand in his. “If the Anvil is destined to flatten Idaho, I want to spend my last moments with you, rolling down hills like we did as carefree children. Such precious memories! Like happy raindrops, double rainbows of—”
“Oh, shut up.” I shouldered him lightly, pulling my fingers free. The bump triggered a dull ache in my shoulder. I rubbed the half-moon scar under my sleeve. It always stung after one of my “special” birthdays.
My thoughts darkened, snapshots of the attack I’d suffered strobing inside my head.
The world might be about to end, but what did I care?
My world ended all the time.
I stayed silent as we passed the library, reaching the school zone at the end of the street. Fire Lake has one large campus for all three divisions. The two lower schools flank the road, which dead-ends into the high school parking lot.
The spaces were mostly empty.
“Told you.” Tack absently stroked a bruise on his chin. I knew where he got them from, and we didn’t talk about that, either. “Half this stupid town is probably hiding under their beds right now.” His expression darkened as he scuffed a ratty sneaker on the blacktop. “Maybe they’re not so dumb. Why go to school if you’re about to be sentenced to death?”
“Why don’t we meet up after school?” His searching glance was thwarted by my new sunglasses. “We can watch the Announcement at Bedfellow’s. If the news is thumbs-up, we can probably score some free drinks.”
I shook my head. “I promised Mom I’d be home. She’s been carrying around her mother’s old Bible all week. You know how she gets. Virginia is dead certain the Anvil will smash directly through our roof.”
“This is prime asteroid country,” Tack said lightly as we cut through the parking lot. “Space rocks probably feel right at home in the Gem State. Our incinerated remains will provide a warm welcome.”
I couldn’t help but shudder. “There’s a giant headline on CNN calling it a planet killer. They even made a freaking GIF of the world getting crushed. Who the hell wants to see that? If it strikes anywhere on Earth—”
“THE AGE OF HUMANS SHALL BE NO MORE!” Tack spread his arms wide, a thin smile curling his lips. But I noticed that his hands shook slightly. Even Tack Russo struggled to mock the legitimate prospect of annihilation. He was as scared as everyone else.
Everyone except me.
I’d tried to make the asteroid feel real. I knew the Anvil came from outside our solar system, a deadly ball of carbon, nickel, and iron twelve miles in diameter and traveling at an insane speed of 300 kilometers per second, and that an impact from such an object would deliver the kinetic force of more than a billion hydrogen bombs. First spotted three weeks ago, it was just now passing the outer planets. It would strike or slide by in just over a month.
Initial odds had been given as one-in-seven. A week later, that was revised negatively to two-out-of-five. In the last few days, some independent scientists online had moved to fifty-fifty, ratcheting global tension to a boiling point. Thus, the Announcement that evening—an official answer to the are-we-all-going-to-die question. Less than twelve hours, and counting.
Yet our little town had decided everything would go on like normal. School. Business. Public services. The leaders of Fire Lake had planted their heads firmly in the sand, and were inviting all citizens down there with them. Surprisingly, most were going along with it, even me. I guess pretending everything’s okay is more comfortable than admitting things really, truly might not be.
Personally, I felt almost nothing. The concept of a worlddestroying super-boulder was simply too abstract for me. Twenty-fours hours ago, a man had broken into my mobile home at dawn. He shot me through the shoulder and chest, then twice more in the head.
That was real. That was something to fear.
Wayward space rocks? I couldn’t get there. Maybe I was in denial.
“How about we get together afterward?” Tack was refusing to take no for an answer. We’d reached the walkway to the courtyard, and would hit a crowd in moments. “Rain or shine. Come on! If it’s bad news, we can hike out to the old miner’s hut and discuss what to wear for ‘death by interstellar debris.’ Work on our hoarding strategies.”
“It’s a date!” Tack shouted, then charged up the walkway, arms thrust skyward as he continued yelling, “A date! A date! An end-of-the-world date!”
“Not a date, you moron!” But I laughed.
At least one resident of Fire Lake had something to cheer about.
I hurried to my locker before the bell rang.
Head down, I strode quickly down the hall with my arms crossed tightly over my chest. I’d never be described as outgoing, but that morning I was aiming for invisible.
One thing about me: I don’t make friends easily. Ability to Trust seems to be a prerequisite for lasting relationships, and I’m usually short on that count. I rarely share things about myself, and that self-imposed isolation has consequences.
Being honest, it’s probably more than just the murders. I know I see the world differently than others. I can be aloof. And at Fire Lake High School—where acceptance of quirks is always in short supply—that lands you on the outside looking in.
I’d become comfortable as an outcast. Relished it, almost.
So, of course, that morning I got cornered by the people I least wanted to see.
“Hey, Melinda!” Ethan called out, strolling down the hall in his letterman’s jacket. He had close-cut blond hair and a sharp-nosed face that was gorgeous until you realized what a prick he was. His small mouth was bent in a smile. He loved using my full name, because I hated it. A handful of kids followed on his heels.
My gaze flicked from face to face. Ethan. Sarah Harden, and her cheerleading BFF Jessica Cale. The Nolan twins, with their flaming red hair. Noah Livingston. Charlie Bell, acne scars and all. Toby Albertsson.
A group I would charitably describe as Worst-Case Scenario.
I’d known Ethan since third grade, and we’d never gotten along. The others were okay individually—like it or not, we’d grown up in a giant puppy pile our whole lives—but they could be ugly when forming a mob. Which they were doing right now.
Ethan leaned against the locker next to mine. The others fanned out with varying degrees of interest. Sarah and Jessica barely spared me a glance, chattering nervously about the latest Announcement predictions. A school-wide beauty contest would rank them one and two, though they’d knife each other over who got top billing.
Noah hung back, scrolling his phone. A handsome boy with light brown hair and green eyes, he rarely spoke around me, or much at all. His father owned the ski resort on the northern slopes and was the richest man in town. The other four boys, however—Chris and Mike Nolan, Charlie, and Toby—gave me their undivided attention.
“Can I help you, Ethan?” In as neutral a tone as I could manage.
“I was just wondering about your disaster preparedness.” His ice-blue eyes attempted an earnest look. “Is the trailer park ready for an Anvil strike?”
At mention of the asteroid, a wave of apprehension swept through the group—a subtle, dancing poltergeist of fear. I noticed little signs, things that most people might not pick up on but to me were practically shouts. Chris Nolan’s eyelids tightened, while his brother shuffled his feet. Charlie’s knuckles whitened on the textbook he was carrying. Sarah faltered in her gossiping, a hand shooting up to rake her strawberry-blond hair.
“Ready as anywhere,” I replied dully, closing my locker. “Since it doesn’t matter where the thing hits.”
Toby snorted. Chris nodded, as if I’d scored a point.
“Mobile homes aren’t really built for sturdiness,” Ethan said matter-of-factly, toying with a nearby lock. “One good thing is, you won’t lose much if it gets compacted.”
Heat rose to my face. I glanced at Noah, who was frowning at his Apple Watch. Not joining in, but not lifting a finger to help me, either.
My gaze dropped. Why look to him? Noah was good-looking— tall and wiry, with the build of a swimmer, and sporting the best car, clothes, and lifestyle of anyone in Fire Lake—but he never took a side on anything. Or even much interest, as far as I could tell.
Yet something about him always stuck in my brain. Maybe it was sharing a birthday. All those times we were forced to stand side by side in elementary school, listening to the other kids mumble that lame song. Celebrating a day I’d come to dread.
Fire Lake High was the only upper school in town, with just 220 students. The fault lines were mostly about money and sports. Pretty girls could cheerlead a path to popularity, of course. A quarter of the school’s parents employed the rest, a fact no one ever forgot. The fissures began appearing in middle school and never healed.
“Thanks for your concern,” I said calmly, pushing through the circle. “It never occurred to me that trailers aren’t built to survive asteroid impacts.”
Ethan smiled as I retreated. “On the other hand, you could tow your place inside a cave or something. For safekeeping.”
His joke drew a few chuckles, but I wasn’t worth the trouble. Ethan allowed me to escape down the hall and turned away.
Then a voice rang out. “Of course, your place is probably much safer.”
Tack was standing beside the door to first period. Ethan shot him an annoyed look. “Obviously, Thumbtack.” Ethan’s father owned the town’s only grocery store, and they lived in swanky Hillside Gardens.
“Tack!” I tugged him toward the safety of class. “Don’t sta—”
“No, no! That’s not it.” Tack pulled free of my grasp, his voice carrying so that others stopped to listen. “You see, God always favors the drunk and stupid. And your dad is blessed on both counts. So the Fletcher home is practically a safe haven.”
Ethan blinked, his neck and cheeks flushing red. Then his face went still.
Sarah rolled her eyes. Jessica giggled, covering her mouth.
The bell rang, startling everyone.
“Catch ya later, E-Dawg.” Tack slipped through the door. Ethan stared at the empty space, then looked at me, as if I were guilty by association. His smirk returned. “Tell your friend he made a mistake.”
Inside the room, I scurried to where Tack was calmly arranging his things on the table we shared. The Nolan twins entered a beat later—Chris with a shoulder-length ponytail, Mike’s red hair cut short and spiked with gel. Chris was a chatterbox who loved stirring the pot, although he wasn’t a disaster by himself. Mike rarely spoke.
Chris chuckled, shaking his head as he sat. “You’re ballsy, kid. I’ll give you that much. But if I were you, I’d find a new route home after school.”
“Thanks, Mike,” Tack replied, knowing full well he was speaking to the other twin.
Chris snorted, unzipping his backpack. “Freaking death wish,” I heard him mutter.
I wheeled on Tack. “Why’d you do that? Ethan’s not gonna let it go.”
Tack was digging through his bag, seemingly unperturbed. “Because I felt like it. And screw Ethan, he’s a jackass. Maybe next time he’ll think before he yaps.”
“What he’s going to do is beat the crap out of you.”
Tack shrugged. “Wouldn’t be the first time. I’ve taken worse.” Unconsciously, his hand rose to the bruise on his face. We both fell silent. Maybe Tack did have a death wish.
Then I couldn’t help but laugh. “You called his dad a stupid drunk.”
“I sure did.” Tack shot me an exhilarated glance. “He looked really mad, didn’t he? Chris is right, I’d better dig a tunnel out of here this afternoon.”
English passed uneventfully. At the bell, Tack fired out the door at warp speed. Our next class was directly across the hall, but no sense taking chances. I was following on his heels when my name boomed down the corridor.
“Wonderful.” Under my breath, as our school’s fearless leader made his way toward me, his right knee locked and unbending, the result of a shrapnel wound he’d suffered in the first Iraq War. I would’ve hurried down to shorten the distance, but every student in Fire Lake knew you didn’t acknowledge the principal’s disability. Not unless you wanted a twenty-minute lecture on how little the injury affected him.
“Yes, Mr. Myers?”
“You have an appointment with Dr. Lowell today,” he said sternly, a burly, broad-shouldered man in his mid-sixties, with thinning gray hair framing a round face. He wore pleated gray pants and a plaid button-down every single day. Leaning on his cane, Myers scrutinized me over the rims of bronze-framed bifocals.
“Yes, I know, sir.”
He gave me a severe look. “Your special session is not canceled, despite all this Announcement hubbub and . . . and . . . whatnot. I was told to inform you of this specifically.”
A sigh escaped before I could stifle it. “Yes, Mr. Myers.”
“You had a birthday over the weekend, did you not?”
I stiffened in surprise. “I did.” Cautious. Why are you keeping track?
Myers eyed me closely, as if expecting me to say more. I had zero intention of doing so. “Well,” he said finally, his non-cane hand rising to scratch a wrinkled ear. “Okay, then. See to it you’re on time.”
“I will.” Dismissed, I beat a hasty retreat into second period.
Tack was sitting at his desk, twirling a pen in his fingers. “That looked fun. What’d the Big Man want?”
“Just a friendly reminder to visit my psychiatrist.” I collapsed into the seat beside him. We stuck together in our classes whenever possible.
“From our freaking principal. I hate this inbred town.”
I nodded, more disturbed than I was letting on. Myers often seemed interested in my therapy sessions, and this wasn’t the first time he’d delivered a message from Dr. Lowell. The connection didn’t feel right. And why did he ask about my birthday?
“You think he’ll try to go to college with us?” Tack asked.
An old joke, but I snorted anyway. Andrew E. Myers had been our principal-for-life, moving up through the system in lockstep with my class. The uncanny timing of his promotions meant I’d never had another administrator, despite attending three different schools.
Biology. Spanish. Then lunch. Tack wisely avoided the cafeteria, leaving me to eat by myself. Students bunched together in knots, whispering about the Announcement, each striving to outdo the last with how little they pretended to care.
But their laughter rang hollow, betrayed by tapping feet and dry-washed hands.
The afternoon proved more painful than the morning.
In Algebra II, Mr. Fumo assigned a worksheet we’d completed the week before, then spent the whole period refreshing his phone and glancing at the clock. In seventh period, Mrs. Cameron kept losing her place and repeating herself. After her third attempt to explain the siege of Acre, she gave up, blessed us all, and dismissed class.
I packed up quickly, hoping for a stealth sprint through the parking lot. I hadn’t seen Tack since math—our schedules had Gym and Health flip-flopped, and Tack couldn’t care less about European History, electing to take Home Economics instead.
But my hopes for a clean getaway were dashed. Exiting the main building, I heard laughter reverberate across the courtyard. A crowd was forming in the corner near the parking lot. Crap.
I sprinted over and wormed through the ring of onlookers. Ethan had levered one of Tack’s arms behind his back and was forcing his face down toward the concrete. Flailing, my friend fought to free himself, but he was giving up at least fifty pounds. Toby and Chris were grinning, egging Ethan on, while Jessica and other members of the cheerleading squad pretended to protest. Sarah watched impassively, seemed bored. Beyond the circle, Noah was leaning against a walkway post, eyes drifting. The more Tack struggled, the more the mob swelled.
“Ethan, let him go!”
He glanced at me and smiled. “Oh, hey, Melinda. Glad you’re here. Tack’s about to sing ‘Bad Blood’ for us, and you shouldn’t miss it.”
Seeing me watching, Tack thrashed twice as hard, his eyes narrowing to slits in a way I’d seen many times before. “Let me go, you douchebag! I’m warning you!”
“Or what?” Ethan asked with a lilt. “You said some nasty things about my family, so now we’re in a feud. I want you to sing about it. We all do, right?” Laughter erupted all around. Faces bore hungry expressions, as if seeking a violent release to the day’s unbearable tension. This was getting ugly fast.
Ethan yanked Tack’s arm higher, eliciting a painful yelp. “Have any more funny jokes, Thomas? I’d love to hear them. Or maybe you’re all tapped out for now.”
“That’s not what your mother said!” Tack kicked out a foot. Missed.
A low ooh rose from the spectators. Chris Nolan giggled. Toby danced and hooted.
Ethan’s eyes went flat.
Damn it, Tack.
I seized Ethan’s arm. Felt his muscles ripple. He looked down at my hand, then back up, blinking rapidly. For a split second, I wasn’t sure he recognized me.
“Take it easy! Tack’s just running his mouth, like always.”
Ethan shook his head, shrugging off my hand. He spun Tack around and grabbed him by the shirt, pulling him close. “You can’t talk to me like that, Thomas. Not ever.”
“Kiss my ass!” Tack’s head rocketed forward, catching Ethan across the nose.
Ethan’s hold loosened and Tack wriggled free.
But he didn’t run, the idiot. To everyone’s astonishment, Tack leapt at Ethan and swung.
Damn it, Tack.
Ethan blocked instinctively, then slugged Tack full in the face.
A second, louder ooh rose from the crowd.
Tack dropped to the ground like a boneless chicken breast.
“Stop!” I jumped to stand between Ethan and my friend. “That’s enough!”
Voices yelled for me to move. Chris and Toby were laughing, encouraging Ethan with cries of “Finish him!” and “There can only be one!”
Tack had pulled himself up against a post, hacking and spitting. “That all you got?” he wheezed, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, then calmly regarding a red smear on his wrist. “You hit like a bitch.”
“Don’t!” I shouted at Ethan, arms shooting wide. “He’s down! You won, okay?”
Ethan looked me in the eye. Blinked. Then he stepped around me and stomped on Tack’s hand. My friend howled as Ethan squatted down to eye level. “Ready to channel Taylor Swift, Thomas? Warm up that pretty voice.”
Hands balling into fists, I was about to do something stupid when a voice carried from beyond the circle. “Yo, Ethan!”
Ethan looked up, annoyed. He spotted Noah, who tapped his watch and pointed toward the parking lot. “Let’s get out of here, man. I’m starving.”
“But Tack hasn’t sung yet.”
Across the courtyard, a door swung open.
Principal Myers stepped outside. “What’s going on out here?”
The crowd dissolved like smoke, Ethan and his friends hustling away with the others. In moments, the only people left were me, Tack, and our principal.
Myers trudged over and stared down at Tack, frown lines creasing his forehead. “Bit off more than you could chew again, didn’t you, son?”
“Inner ear infection.” Tack rose unsteadily to his feet. “I fall down a lot.”
“Who did this?” Myers asked sharply.
Tack remained silent, eyes on his sneakers.
Myers grunted, then turned to me. “Ms. Wilder? Care to share who just pummeled Mr. Russo? Although I bet I can guess.”
I opened my mouth, then closed it. This was Tack’s call.
“I see.” Myers removed his glasses, began cleaning them with a handkerchief. “Well, normally we’d all go to my office until I had this sorted out, but today is not a normal day. If things go well tonight . . . assuming we get good news . . .” He shook his head testily, as if unsure how to continue. “We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”
Myers pierced me with the glare of a disappointed father. “Can you see that Mr. Russo’s injuries are properly attended to? Without missing your appointment?”
“Of course.” I scooped up our packs. Tack straightened his clothes with exaggerated dignity and began limping toward the parking lot. Myers watched us for a long moment before heading back inside.
I caught up with Tack by the curb. “Hey!”
He halted with his back to me. I put a hand on his shoulder. Felt him tense. Ignoring the reaction, I gently but firmly spun him around. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“That I was going to get my ass kicked anyway, so I might as well take the first shot.”
“Well, mission accomplished. How’s the hand?”
He flexed his fingers painfully. “I don’t think anything broke. Hurts like hell, though. Got any Advil?”
I dug some from my bag, along with a package of tissues. As Tack downed three pills, I began dabbing his right eye, which was already swollen. His hand was a puffy mess.
Ethan had met my eye before delivering the stomp. That one was for me.
Ethan’s smirk. His casual violence.
Or maybe yesterday had been one murder too many.
Releasing Tack, I spotted Ethan’s Wrangler at the back of the parking lot, a dozen spots from the next closest vehicle. Everyone had fled on foot, probably down to the cafés on Main Street, intending to return for their cars after the smoke cleared.
We were all alone.
“Come on.” I hurried toward the Wrangler.
Tack followed, confusion plain on his face. “What? Why?”
After checking to make sure the coast was clear, I reached inside and pulled the gas tank release. Circling to the passenger side, I spotted an oily rag and a can of WD-40 on the floor of the backseat.
“What are you doing?” Tack whispered. “Ethan loves this Jeep, maybe physically.”
“He shouldn’t have stomped your hand.” I ripped the rag in two and doused the larger piece with oil. Then I unscrewed the gas cap and shoved it inside.
Tack’s eyes nearly popped from his skull. He ducked behind the hood, eyes darting with new intensity. “Holy crap, Min! This may be a little out of proportion.”
“So was crushing your fingers.” I tapped my lips, stymied, ignoring the voice of reason screaming inside my head. Then I spotted a book of matches in Ethan’s ashtray. It’s almost like he wants me to do it.
Beads of sweat rolled down my back. I lit a match, used it to ignite the smaller rag. The oil-soaked cloth caught easily, orange tendrils curling and twisting like greedy fingers. Pivoting carefully, I held the flames under the larger rag hanging from the gas tank.
Tack was bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Come on! We gotta bail!”
“Not too fast, though.” I rose, walked casually down the aisle. “Don’t attract attention.”
“Attention. Right.” He could barely keep from sprinting. “Wouldn’t want that.”
Thirty paces to the sidewalk. Ten more out of the parking lot. Roughly thirty seconds had passed, with no effect. As we crossed the street, I worried that my plan had failed and we’d have to go back and ditch the evidence.
A jarring boom. The ground shook. Glancing over my shoulder, I spotted a black plume billowing above the trees, angry shadows dancing just beneath.
Tack swallowed audibly. “Oh, man. We really did it this time. If Ethan ever finds out—”
“I almost hope he does.” Then I turned my back on the mounting inferno.
Here’s another thing about me.
I’m not afraid of much. Not after what I’ve been through.
And I forgive as little as I forget.
Hitching both our packs, I led Tack away down the street, my blood pumping mile-a-minute. Somewhere far off, a siren began to wail.
I hug the brand-new Fancy Farms Pony to my chest.
Rock it back and forth.
I love her. I love her piebald coat, like a checkerboard come to life. I love her flowing black mane, as soft as real hair. I love the slight bend to her right foreleg, as if she’s ready to prance right across my lap and off the couch.
I name her Spirit. She’s two feet tall, an exact replica of a real horse. I will cherish her forever.
It’s my tenth birthday. Just Mom and me, tucked inside our trailer as a thunderstorm rages outside. The disturbing memory of two years ago has faded. It was just a bad dream, like they all said.
My presents aren’t expensive, but I love them dearly. I know we don’t have much money. Jessica told me so, one day after school. But I really, really wanted a horse to play with. Nothing as babyish as another My Little Pony—although, to be honest, I still play with the four I have. I wanted something lifelike. Something that felt as real as possible without a barn and hay and a jillion dollars.
And Mom found the perfect one.
I hop Spirit around the room while Mom readies my birthday cake. I’m overwhelmed with happiness. Everything I need is right here in our cozy mobile home. Why would I want all that other stuff Sarah and Jessica are constantly talking about? Tiaras and nail-styling kits and two-piece bathing suits. Seems so silly.
I wish Thomas was here, but I know not to bring it up again. A shadow crossed Mom’s face when I asked why he wasn’t coming. Something to do with his father. It’s okay, though. I’ll see him tomorrow.
There’s a lull in the storm.
“Want to see the neighborhood, Spirit?” I carry her outside with both arms. Mom cautions me not to go far. I won’t, I promise.
Some people like to make fun of our trailer park, but I know Spirit isn’t like that. The packed-earth lanes and boxcar rows are perfect for a frisky pony.
The rain has let up, but the wind still howls, shaking the floodlight mounted on a post beside our unit. The sun has set, and it’s very dark. The usual night sounds are missing, probably because of the storm. No crickets. No squawking birds. Not a single call of a hunting coyote. Suddenly, I don’t want to be outside, not even in my own front yard.
As if in response, there’s a crack of thunder. The sky opens up once more.
Before I can scurry back to the door, a wraithlike form steps into the light, throwing a long shadow that covers me head to toe. For a moment, I’m blind.
Then my eyes adjust and I see him.
The black-suited man.
He’s here, standing across from me in the pelting rain.
The nightmare of two years ago explodes in my brain. Cotton candy. The chasm. A push in the back and a long, long fall. The man looks exactly the same as on that day.
I scream, but the sound is swallowed by the storm. Dropping Spirit in the mud, I dart for my front door, but the monster is quicker. So I whirl and bolt down the rain-soaked lane, then up a narrow alley between neighboring units.
Heavy boots slosh through puddles behind me. Fighting panic, I double back along the rear fence, hoping to swing behind our trailer and pound on the window. Mom has to be wondering why I’m not back inside by now.
Lightning knifes across the inky-black sky.
I freeze. The man is ahead of me, blocking my path. I dive into the scraggly bushes lining the fence. There’s a hole in the chain-link nearby. Thomas and I use it all the time.
Branches snap a yard from where I’m crawling through the mud. I can sense the man straining to reach me, hindered by the grasping thorns. Slithering on my belly, I find the gap and scramble through it, a thousand tiny needles ripping at my skin.
I stand, run, pitch headfirst into a flooded gully. Without a plan, I struggle down the swollen creek bed, thinking only of escape.
A splash behind me. Pebbles rocket past, as if kicked.
He’s close, and closing.
I claw up a muddy bank, then dash blindly into the forest, smashing through spiderwebs and sodden shrubs. Seconds later the ground disappears and I fly forward, tumbling down a scree-covered slope toward a raging creek. My hand shoots out and snags a tree root, arresting my fall so that I’m hanging over the drop. Looking down, I see the grinding teeth of rapids gone berserk.
I hear leaves thrashing. Look up. The black-suited man is watching me from the edge of the bluff, thick raindrops running down his cheeks. He’s still wearing his sunglasses despite the near total darkness. Then, slowly, deliberately, he climbs down, stopping just a few feet above where I cling to the cliff side.
A terrified whimper escapes my lips. I’m trapped. How could this be happening again?
The man stares at me. Rainwater seeps from his soaked business suit. His face is as blank as Death himself.
A shiny black boot smashes down on my fingers. I gasp in pain as my left hand loses its grip. I swing wildly, on the verge of plummeting to the white water below.
“Please!” I beg. “Don’t!”
The foot stomps on my right hand.
Snapping bones. A rush of air. Then I’m underwater, tumbling and spinning. Liquid fills my nose. My mouth. My ears. Something slams into my side, and ropes of agony shoot down my left arm. That hand refuses to respond. I kick back to the surface, organs throbbing in distress.
I struggle against the current as I’m swept downstream. My lungs burn. My vision blurs. I see fiery lines and twinkling stars. A chaotic, tinny pounding fills my ears. I can’t hear my own shrieks.
I feel it before I see it. Vibrations down to my bones. Then a rumbling, grinding noise, like a dragon’s growl. I fight to stay afloat as the current accelerates.
Thirty yards downstream, the water is disappearing.
I don’t have time to scream. I slip over the falls, dropping twenty feet to a rocky pool below. Something dark and huge appears in front of me. My heart flutters as I streak directly toward it.
Pain explodes at my temple.
I see and feel nothing more.
• • •
I’m lying on my back.
I’m in a clearing in the woods. The same one as before, I’m sure of it.
I lift my left arm. Examine it closely.
No scrapes, cuts, or broken bones. My clothes are dry and undamaged.
I run all the way home, stopping for nothing.
Flashing lights surround my trailer. I shout for Mom. Adults come running.
My mother crushes me in a hug, then thrusts me out to arm’s length, running her hands over my body, making sure I’m okay. It’s the same night. I see Spirit lying in the mud, and for some reason this is what makes me cry.
The questions begin. I tell the truth. To Mom. Officer Somebody. Sheriff Watson, having arrived late and out of uniform in his off-duty Ford pickup.
When I’m done, glances are exchanged. The atmosphere isn’t the same as last time. Sheriff Watson makes a call on his cell phone, then goes to sit in his truck. Twenty minutes later a short man in a tweed jacket arrives.
He smiles at me. Introduces himself as Dr. Lowell. Says he’d like to talk to me about my experience. Would that be okay?
I shrug, wrapped in my mother’s protective embrace, as I wipe dirt from Spirit’s mane and fuzzy coat. I look to Mom. She nods slowly, her eyes never leaving the stranger.
Dr. Lowell asks my mother if he and I can speak privately. Mom tenses, but then rises and smooths her skirt. Once alone, he pulls the rocker over and sits across from me. Smiles. Asks me to tell him everything, starting with what happened tonight.
I do. Cautiously at first, but soon the words pour out like a confession. Dr. Lowell smiles and nods, never interrupting. I like talking to him. He listens better than anyone. Before I know it, I’m telling him about the last time, too.
When I finish, he thanks me for being so brave. He’s totally calm, which strikes me as weird, given my horrible stories. Dr. Lowell has lots of answers, but they seem almost rehearsed. I can tell he’s watching me intently.
Suddenly, I like him a lot less than before.
Dr. Lowell explains what really happened to me, and why.
The things I experienced aren’t real. I have something called a dissociative disorder, which makes me believe scary things happened when they really didn’t.
When he’s finished talking, I nod, not knowing what else to do. Mom clearly wants me to speak with this person, so I have to play along. Then Dr. Lowell reaches into his pocket and pulls out an unmarked bottle.
He shakes a single blue pill into his palm. Holds it up so I can see.
This is medicine, he explains. Made for people like me. If I swallow one pill every day, the chemicals inside will help keep bad thoughts away. Will I take it?
I stare at the pill for a long moment. Even at ten, I understand what it means. Know now what the adults had been whispering. No one believes me. They think I’m a freak.
Dr. Lowell leans forward. Softly repeats his request.
Will I take the medicine?
Yes, I will.
But I’ll never share what happens to me.
Not ever again.