Daria: The Next Generation
Book I: The Summer of the Hot Lake
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (email@example.com)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Synopsis: The younger siblings and relatives of major “Daria” characters find themselves spending the summer at “Uncle” Timothy O’Neill’s Okay-to-Cry Corral, with none other than Wind Lane as their cabin counselor. There, the kids face the horrors of rice cakes and tofu for breakfast, therapy sessions to heal their inner selves, a legendary monster in the cooling pond of a nearby nuclear power plant, and—first love. Sam and Chris Griffin, Rachel Landon, Brian Taylor, Link (from the movie, Is It Fall Yet?), and Jane Lane’s nephew and niece, Adrian and Courtney, appear herein. The action takes place during the summer after the conclusion of the movie, Is It College Yet?
Author’s Notes: The notes are at the end, so as not to spoil anything up front.
Acknowledgements: The beta-readers for this story, in random order, were: Nick Yarish, Greystar, Crusading Saint, Mistress Thea Zara, and Robert Nowall. Thank you so much! You made this story far better than it was. More acknowledgements are at the end—again, to avoid spoiling the story.
I: The Young and the Restless
II: All My Children
III: As the World Turns
IV: The Secret Storm
VI: The Edge of Night
VII: One Life to Live
VIII: Another World
IX: The Guiding Light
X: Search for Tomorrow
XI: General Hospital
XII: The Bold and the Beautiful
By nine o’clock on that July morning, it was already too hot and humid to think of going outside. The counselor for Cabin 13 had not shown up yet, and the four boys who were assigned to that cabin had no urge to attend the basket-weaving class that had just started on the other side of camp. They had no urge to do anything, in fact, except stay in the shade of their cabin, where their parents had dropped them off earlier that morning, and complain about the heat and their idiotic camp T-shirts, each of which featured a teary-eyed smiley face. It was their first day of overnight camp during their weeklong stay at the new-and-improved Okay-to-Cry Corral. They knew it was going to be hell.
Finally, the glasses-wearing kid with the black curly hair, cut-off jeans, and bad attitude brought out a pack of cards, shuffled it with indifferent skill, and looked around.
“Cards, you guys?” Link asked. “Poker, maybe?”
The tallest boy in Cabin 13 looked up from where he leaned against a wire-screened window, waiting for a breeze. He was lanky and athletic, his straight, dark-brown hair plastered to his sweaty forehead. He hadn’t yet put on his camp T-shirt, preferring his red Chicago Bulls shirt. “Sure,” he said. He put out a hand and shook with Link. “Sam,” he said. “That’s my dumb-ass little brother, Chris, over there.”
“You suck,” said Chris, lying on a lower bunk. He was Link’s height and had long, light brown hair. Chris had put on his camp T-shirt backwards, wearing it with his baggy blue swim trunks.
“No, you suck,” corrected Sam. “What kind of poker?” he asked Link.
“Draw poker okay?”
“I like poker,” said Chris. He turned to Sam. “Hey. I’ll whip your ass like I did last time we played, in my room.”
“Nah, I let you win,” said Sam.
“Sure you did,” said Chris. “Suuure you did.”
“I’m Brian,” said the fourth kid, who had thick, pale-blond hair and a twisted, toothy grin. He wore black short pants with his smiling camp shirt. His weeping smiley face now sported a small swastika on its forehead. “Can I get in?”
“Sure,” said Link. “Four’s a good number. Too damn hot to do anything else.”
“This is our first year here,” said Chris. “I heard this camp sucks out loud.”
“You heard right,” said Link, shuffling the deck again. “It does.”
“I need something to drink,” said Sam. He felt in a pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out some bills. “Hey, squirt, go make yourself useful and get me something from the snack shack,” he said, throwing the money on Chris’s bunk. “Get me a one-liter Ultra-Cola and a big bag of Doritos, any kind. And bring back change or I’ll pound you.”
“Can you get me something, too?” Brian tossed a wadded dollar bill at Chris. “Chewing gum, cinnamon if they’ve got it, or wintergreen.”
“A one-liter Ultra-Cola and a big bag of chips, any kind,” said Link, forking over his own cash.
“I didn’t say I’d go!” said Chris, but he collected the money anyway, mentally calculating how much of the change he could keep for himself.
“If we’re gonna play poker,” said Sam, “we need chips. Everybody pitch in fifty cents for pennies. Get the pennies in rolls, if they’ve got ‘em.”
A figure appeared at the cabin doorway. The boys tensed, expecting one of the camp counselors. Instead, it was a hot, bored African-American teenage girl. Her hair was done up with cornrows and beaded braids, and she wore yellow shorts and brand new sneakers below her camp shirt.
“Hey, Rachel,” said Sam with a wave. “’Sup?”
“Nothing,” said the girl. “That basket-weaving class reeks. I was like, I have to go to the latrine, and they said okay, so I snuck out. You playing cards?”
“Yeah. C’mon in.”
Chris left with the money (including a last-second addition from Rachel, for Fritos and a large drink), and the group argued agreeably over house rules for their poker game. It also developed that Sam was fifteen, Rachel fourteen and a half, Link thirteen, and Chris and Brian twelve. When Chris returned and the drinks and snacks were distributed, the group sat on the dusty floor of the camp cabin and got down to business.
They cut the deck to see who would deal. Sam won. The cards snapped as he shuffled them twice with great precision. He let Rachel on his left cut the deck, then he reshuffled and dealt quickly. Everyone picked up a hand and examined it in detail.
“So, you guys know each other?” asked Link. He ran a hand through his curly hair and pushed his glasses up on his nose.
“We’re all from Lawndale Middle School,” said Sam. “Me and Rachel go into ninth grade this fall at Lawndale High. Those two are in seventh.”
“I’m in Cumberland Middle, eighth.” Link took a drink from his Ultra-Cola and sat it behind him. “It sucks big time, but it beats hanging with my mom and stepdad. Do you know if Uncle Timothy figured out who our cabin counselor’s gonna be?”
“Me,” said Brian, rearranging his cards and chewing gum.
“Bull,” said Chris, also arranging the cards in his hand.
“Hell, yeah!” said Brian, grinning broadly at his cards. “I’m the man! We do what I say. Strip poker!” He glanced over his cards at Rachel’s oversized T-shirt.
“Huh,” Rachel deadpanned, never looking up from her cards.
“You need to smoke less crack,” said Link. He pulled two cards from his hand. “Two,” he said, tossing the cards facedown to Sam.
“I can smoke crack if I want to! Let’s all smoke crack!” said Brian with maniacal glee. “I got some in my pocket!”
“Right.” Sam flipped two new cards to Link from the deck. “What happened to the dude they gave us first?”
“You guys still got the same counselor O’Neill put with this cabin,” said Rachel in her deep, pleasant voice. “He hasn’t gotten here yet.”
“O’Neill likes to be called Uncle Timothy at camp,” said Link. “It’s his sensitive thing. He’s such a big a-hole.”
There were sighs and remarks in general agreement on this point.
“If it’s O’Neill, that would make him an o-hole,” corrected Rachel. The boys smiled. “My sister had him for English in high school. She couldn’t stand him.”
“Four cards!” said Brian, laying them down. Sam flipped him four in return.
“So, our cabin counselor got lost?” asked Link, peering at his cards before he laid them face down on the floor to get another drink of his cola.
Rachel shook her head slowly before laying her hand facedown as well. Her beaded braids bumped her cheeks. “I was walking by the main cabin when Mr. O-Hole was talking to somebody on the phone, and I’m pretty sure it was your counselor. He was like having some major problems with his wife or girlfriend, whatever.” She reached into the large bag of Fritos and got a small handful.
“O’Neill’s having girlfriend problems?” asked Chris. “Isn’t he dating that other teacher, the old bitch that Sandi takes for science? Sam, one card.”
“No, the counselor’s the one with the girlfriend problems,” Rachel said around the Fritos in her mouth. “She dumped him or something.”
Sam flipped a card to Chris. “You gotta gimme one in return, creep,” he said.
“You suck!” said Chris, throwing a card at Sam.
“No, you suck.” Sam retrieved the card and looked at Rachel. “Any cards?”
“Nah, I’m good.”
All four boys eyed her and her facedown hand with suspicion.
“How’d he lose his girlfriend?” said Link, peeking at his cards again.
“I dunno.” Rachel leaned against a bunk bed and scratched her knees. “Didn’t wanna ask.”
“Probably a dork,” said Link. “I wish Daria was here.”
Sam gave himself two cards, then put his hand facedown by his side. “Daria? You mean Quinn Morgendorffer’s sister?”
“Yeah, that’s her. I had Daria as my counselor here last year, before—”
“You were here last year, is that how you know her?” Sam grinned. “Whoa.”
“Yeah, I was here with all the other losers.” Link began to sing in a loud, off-key voice: “‘I’m a loser, baby, so why doncha kill me!’”
“Let’s play before your singing kills us,” said Rachel flatly, picking up her cards. Everyone followed suit.
“Daria was okay,” said Link absently. “I heard her sister’s a twit, though.”
Chris looked up in surprise and shock. “What?” he shouted. “Quinn’s not a twit!”
“Hey,” said Link, “I’m just telling ya what Daria said.”
“She’s a twit!” said Chris with vehemence. “Daria’s a twit!” He let his cards tip over into public view. Rachel and Link glanced at his cards but said nothing. Brian saw but leaned too close in too obvious a manner. Chris snatched his cards back into hiding.
“Cut it out, dope,” said Sam. He had gotten over his long infatuation for the unapproachable Quinn, who was regarded as the cutest and most popular student at Lawndale High School. She would be a senior this coming fall when school started. Sam coolly picked up two pennies and tossed them to the hardwood floor of the cabin. They clinked to a stop under the steady gaze of five pairs of eyes. “Open with two.”
“You do too like Quinn, you big double dope!” yelled Chris, his face flushed.
“Oh, get over it, wiener.”
“Christ!” Link snapped at Chris. “Take your medication, okay?”
“Go marry her if you want,” said Sam, tired of hearing this. “You can have her.”
“Okay!” said Chris—then: “You mean it?”
“Yeah,” said Sam. “I don’t want her. Jeez.” What he said was true. He thought about Quinn only once in a while now. Now was not one of those times. Sam was instead thinking—and trying not to think—about Rachel’s bare brown knee, which was so close to his own. He’d watched her a lot in eighth-grade gym, on the occasions when the boys and girls classes mixed. Rachel was pleasant to watch. She had a nice body and a beautiful voice. He wished that she would smile more.
Rachel examined her hand. She was aware that grinning Brian kept staring at her breasts. He was creepy, bad creepy, and it put her off. The swastika drawn on his t-shirt didn’t help. She was glad Sam was around, though she would die before she admitted it. Without thinking, she pressed her cards to her T-shirt—making her breasts stand out a bit—and reached for the stack of pennies by her bare knee. “Two, and raise you one.”
Chris nervously glanced at everyone else, then feigned disinterest and tossed three pennies in. He couldn’t believe Sam was dissing Quinn. Was his brother completely mental, or what? Quinn was a goddess! Every guy in Lawndale wanted to marry her. It was like Sam was saying Quinn wasn’t worth it. What an idiot! Chris suspected he didn’t have a chance to ever catch Quinn’s attention, but if he did, he knew he’d be the best man he could possibly be for her. He gripped his cards and straightened them out again.
Brian grinned at his cards. He didn’t particularly care about Quinn. He had an unguarded Internet connection at home, and he could see hundreds of women with their clothes off, doing anything, anytime he liked. Rachel was vaguely interesting, but other girls here had bigger breasts and better asses. He wished he had his laptop computer at camp; he’d really show these guys something then. He tossed five coins into the middle, one at a time. “Raise you two.”
Link dropped his cards in front of him. “I’m out.” He leaned back on his arms and watched the action. None of the group here sounded like a future Einstein, but he could put up with that. Being here beat the hell out of being home listening to his mother and stepfather scream at each other. He gave the marriage only a couple months at most before his mother went trolling the sports bars for a new husband. Maybe number three would not be too bad a jerk, but he held little hope of it. If a stupid option existed anywhere, his mother would be on it with both hands.
Sam threw in three pennies, though he suspected he should have dropped out, like Link. His hand wasn’t very good, only a pair of sevens, but he’d seen Rachel’s gesture with her cards and T-shirt, and it threw him. He suddenly realized Rachel was really good looking. She was hot. How had he missed this before now? It was becoming hard to concentrate on the game. His face felt warm.
Rachel did a little math in her head, then threw in two pennies, followed by two pennies more. She did this without looking at her cards, which were still facedown on the floor again. “Raise you two.”
Chris stared at his hand, then folded with a heavy sigh. “Forget it.”
Brian threw in two pennies, then two more pennies. “Raise you two more.”
Sam glumly threw in four pennies without comment. He had no idea why he was doing this. It then came to him that he was hoping Rachel would win the pot.
“Raise you four more,” said Rachel, throwing in six pennies in quick, easy succession.
Brian’s grin faded. He looked at his cards a long time, glancing at Rachel’s facedown hand before her. Finally, he dropped his cards on the dealer’s deck and groaned. “Crap. You win.”
Rachel hesitated, surprised that she’d won, then shrugged and coolly leaned forward to rake in her winnings.
The sunlight from the cabin door suddenly dimmed. Everyone turned to look.
“Ah, getting to know each other through the pleasures of simple gaming?” said Mr. O’Neill with a broad smile. He looked as cheerful and naïve as a newborn. “That’s certainly an exciting and creative way to explore each other’s personality in a mildly competitive environment, even if I believe you are all supposed to be in the basket-weaving class right now. And girls aren’t supposed to be in the boys’ cabins. Lawsuits—but no matter. If I may interrupt a moment, I’ve got good news! Cabin thirteen, your counselor’s here!”
Everyone waited, staring at the door. Mr. O’Neill stepped aside. Behind him was a pale, thirty-something man with a nervous expression and shoulder-length flaxen hair. He wore the requisite camp T-shirt, though it was wrinkled and splattered with wet spots. The counselor’s eyes seemed unusually red.
“This is a good friend that I met at the Men With Big Hearts seminar in Leeville just this spring!” cried Mr. O’Neill. “He’ll take you to the Peace Within floating session at the lake at ten o’clock. Wind?”
The new cabin counselor stepped forward. “Hi,” he said in a high voice. “I’m Wind Lane, and I’m sorry I was late, but my wife, Katie, she—she—”
To the campers’ astonishment, Wind Lane burst into tears and hid his face. With a sad, motherly expression, Mr. O’Neill gave Wind a gentle hug. “There, there,” he murmured. “Crying is perfectly therapeutic. Just let it all out in the open like a man.”
The five kids in Cabin 13 looked at each other with amused disgust. The boys then looked at Rachel and at her facedown poker hand. Sam reached for her cards as Rachel finished scooping in her pennies. Sam studied her hand, then threw the cards down, face up.
“You bluffed us!” he said in amazement. “You didn’t have anything!” He looked at Rachel and caught her smirking at him. He grinned back. “You devil!” he said with admiration. Rachel smiled broadly and giggled.
Chris fell over backward on the floor with a groan. Brian threw down his poker hand and said a remarkably bad word. Link burst out in hysterical laughter and pounded the wooden floor. Rachel and Sam looked away from each other, embarrassed but relaxed—and strangely excited and happy.
“They’re not laughing at you,” Mr. O’Neill said, patting Wind on the back. “They’re just self-actualizing, exploring their interpersonal space.”
“This summer is going to suck!” shouted Chris, staring at the cabin ceiling.
“Cabin thirteen campers! Hey, can I have your attention, please? Brian, don’t—Brian! Please! Put that turtle down! Let it go! Leave it alone, Brian! Okay, thank you, Brian. Campers, I’m Uncle Wind, and—okay, you can stop laughing, it’s really my name. Just get past it, okay? Get serious, all right? Okay?
“Hey! Listen! I’m Uncle Wind, and this is Peace Within, a new group therapy session that Uncle Timothy has added to the Okay-to-Cry Corral’s Self-Healing Togetherness Specials, or whatever he’s calling them. We—no, I’m afraid we’re not really going to swim. Yes, Rachel, I know you want to swim, but we’ll have time for that after this session. Later, later this afternoon. Rachel, are you in cabin thirteen, too? Well, you’re a girl. I thought that only—okay, okay, forget it. Sorry! Forget it, all right?
“Okay, everyone, please just listen to me before you ask anything else. What we’re going to do is learn to float and listen to the voice of our inner selves. This is a—Link, that’s not a very nice thing to say about Uncle Timothy. Let’s not use words like that, too, okay? That’s crude. Yes, Peace Within was Uncle Timothy’s idea, and I think it’s a wonderful idea. If Katie and I had only had this technique available to us, I’m sure we’d—we’d—oh, God! Why, Katie, why?
“All right, excuse me. Just a moment—okay, I’m okay now. I’m fine, really. Look, just lie on your backs in the water—no, Brian, you can’t float in the middle of the lake, damn it! Wait, okay, I’m sorry I yelled. Sorry. Kids, just float on your backs and think deeply about the person you’ve had the most trouble with in your life, either currently or in the past, and listen to your inner self interact with this person. Interact means, you know, deal with, talk to, relate to, that stuff. Just think of this person and relate to him or her. Or them. In my case, her, I guess. If only we’d—I’m sorry—wait—no, I’m fine now. I’m okay. Sorry.
“Okay, now, everyone ready? Sam, please, the sooner we do this, the sooner we can swim, okay? Okay. Yes? Ah, yeah, Brian, I’ve heard that joke about my name lots of times. Millions of times. It’s not very funny. Let’s don’t go on about ‘breaking wind,’ okay? Just stick your head in the water—sorry! My bad! Just lie back in the water and relax and deal with this person with whom you’ve had the most trouble. We’ll talk about our experiences afterward. Well, Chris, yes, if you have to go, then go. No! No, not in the lake! Get out of the water and go to the latrine! All right, the rest of you, lie back and float. Yeah, like that. Whew. God, I really need a beer.”
Wind Lane sat down on the sand by the lakeside and shook his head. Now he knew what sort of hell Tim O’Neill had to go through every day at this miserable camp. The things a guy had to do to earn a few bucks! Kids were the worst. Wind hated being around kids. He remembered being a kid once, and it was the pits. Kids were cruel and vicious and smart-mouthed and never let up when they were picking on you because your name was funny. Little bastards. Why Katie had been so insistent on having kids was beyond him. Life was hard enough just dealing with your own problems. Why make more trouble for everyone by making more rotten little kids? All he wanted was someone to care for him and love him and make his life worth living again. Oh, Katie, if only—
Wind broke off that train of thought after a few tears. He thought of an old Fleetwood Mac song that always came to him when he thought about his failures in love. He couldn’t place the title, but it was about crying and having your illusions shattered and going home alone. He wiped his eyes and watched the five kids from Cabin 13 floating on their backs in the shallow water. Well, Wind thought, Uncle Timothy can’t say I haven’t walked a mile in his shoes now! He blinked his eyes, checked his watch, blinked again, yawned, and two minutes later was sound asleep, sitting upright on the sand.
Sam Griffin closed his eyes. It was boring to float and do nothing, though he admitted that it was relaxing. Images of Rachel in her flame-bright tangerine bikini appeared in his head, and he relaxed even further, until he realized the images were powerfully turning him on. Embarrassed, he made himself stop thinking of Rachel. He cast about for a thought that was less appealing—and his sister Sandi immediately came to mind.
His older sister would be a senior with Quinn when school started that fall, and after that she’d be off to college and out of his life. He could hardly wait. It wasn’t that he hated her—no, he admitted that a lot of time, it was that he hated her. She was arrogant, power-mad, bad tempered, stuck up, and thought she owned the world. She had a master-slave relationship with everyone alive. Sam’s happiest moments were often when he’d pulled a good one over his sister, like soaking her mattress with cold water, or putting a whoopee cushion on her chair when she had a date over for dinner.
True, hitting her with the remote-controlled truck that one time hadn’t proved funny, when she tripped and fell down the stairs and broke her leg. That had been pretty bad. Locking Sandi out of the house during a snowstorm in December, when she and her friends had been outside soaking in the hot tub—now, that was a winner. Sam laughed himself silly when his pranks worked.
And he hated it.
He frowned. He hated getting revenge on his sister. Why couldn’t they have a normal relationship and just get along? What the hell was the problem with her? It pissed him off that their mother favored her so much, and that Dad was such an incredible wuss and wouldn’t stand up to Sandi’s ridiculous demands for clothing, money, a new car, everything. Anything she wanted, she got. It drove Sam insane. It had always been this way, and he hated it. It sucked.
He lay in the water and wished he could figure his sister out. It was easier, though, to just find a way to get under Sandi’s skin and drive her nuts in retaliation for her constant insults and demands and just generally being a total . . .
A total . . .
Quinn. A strange thought came to Sam. He’d never especially liked Quinn—well, maybe for a little while, at the start, but not for long. She could be nice enough at times and she was certainly pretty enough, but she just wasn’t Sam’s type. He’d been acting for years as if he’d been madly in love with Quinn because it so totally drove Sandi nuts, not because he did love Quinn. It was just a thing he did to piss Sandi off, to get her back.
But he didn’t love Quinn.
Sam opened his eyes and looked up at the top of the clear blue vault. He’d never loved Quinn at all. Weird. He felt free in an odd way when he thought that. Did Chris love Quinn? That was entirely possible. That would be his problem, then, but not Sam’s.
His thoughts turned back to Sandi. He tried to imagine what it was like for her to grow up as the favored one in the family, to have her every whim catered to, to think she was the center of the world. He tried, but it was almost impossible. It was too alien a viewpoint. In any event, it was hard to imagine any possible way for her to change and be less of an ironclad bitch. It was like she was always scared of falling off her throne, the control freak terrified of losing control at last. Maybe she should fall, he thought. It might wise her up. As things were, it might not ever be possible to have a normal relationship with her.
Sam frowned, but he could not shake this fear. He swallowed. Maybe it would be best to just wait for Sandi to go away to college. Maybe there was no hope. That would really suck.
He sighed, feeling depressed. In any event, he would stop tormenting her with a fake love for Quinn. He’d suspected for a while that chasing Quinn, or pretending to, was a waste of time. They weren’t meant for each other. He was okay with that.
Things with Sandi would have to wait for a future day to improve. Nothing could be done now. He put it aside.
And, just like that, Sam was thinking of Rachel again. When she smiled, she was beautiful. She had it all. He made up his mind to talk to her and see what happened next.
It sure beat hanging around Uncle Wind and the other dim bulbs here, not to mention the little kids and their wacky rumors about a monster prowling near the camp.
The most trouble with, thought Rachel Landon, the person I’ve had the most trouble with would be Evan. I hate babysitting him, carrying him around, looking for his toys, feeding him, anything with him. I hate having a little brother. Okay, there, I’ve thought what I needed to think, so move on to something better. Stupid camp.
Rachel stared at the zenith of the heavens, her mind blank. Shortly, she wondered if she could see a star in the middle of the day, but none appeared. She could barely see any at night, with all the lights on in Lawndale at all hours. She exhaled and tried to think of something else. Stupid camp.
She thought of her older sister, Jodie.
Rachel knew the Morgendorffer sisters fairly well. Daria was the average-looking brain, Quinn was the vapid but gorgeous red-haired model-to-be. Rachel heard a lot from Jodie about the conflicts between Daria and Quinn, how Daria couldn’t stand her cute younger sister, and Quinn couldn’t stand her brilliant sibling. Rachel had almost never spoken with either sister, but it was easy for her to imagine the conflicts that went on between them, the endless struggle for attention and affection.
How lucky the Morgendorffer sisters were, in Rachel’s mind. How very lucky they were, for either of them could have been born into the Landon household in Rachel’s place and competed instead against an older sister who had both looks and brains, everything all in one package, the belle of the ball and the class valedictorian all at once, with the school’s star athlete at her side and every chance in the world for happiness.
And Rachel had nothing.
Well, she did have report-card grades that averaged out to slightly over 2.0, a C average student with a C average face and a C average figure and C average talents at everything from English to sports, with variations from C+ to C- in everything else. She was okay at dancing, but Jodie was better. She played a clarinet reasonably well, but Jodie excelled at piano and flute. Rachel floated in the lake and envied Daria and Quinn, because they each had a gift. They each had a piece of the pie—not one of them ending up with the whole pie, like Jodie—leaving Rachel with nothing.
Rachel thought of her father. Andrew Landon was sweet and funny, a successful businessman and part-time inventor—the rarest occupational combination of them all. He always said he loved his children equally, even if he shouted out his praise of Jodie’s report cards and said little about Rachel’s. Or always showed up for Jodie’s school functions, but only one time in six for Rachel’s, when it didn’t interfere with any other plans. With Jodie heading for college in the fall, would her father even bother to go to Rachel’s activities any longer? Why pretend any long that he cared? He doted over little Evan, but never over his invisible middle child.
And Mom—she was forever harping on about it, driving the screws in tighter and tighter. Be more like your sister, she would snarl. Why can’t you be more like Jodie? You’re going to be a fry cook, damn it, if you don’t bring these grades up! You’re going to clean toilets or run a cash register in a supermarket if you don’t do something with your life! We’re not going to support you forever! Get off your butt and do something with your life! Right now, damn it! Now!
But what was there to do, whispered a voice in Rachel’s head, when Jodie had already done it all?
I hate my sister, Rachel thought. She closed her eyes to hide from the words, but they were still there. I hate my sister. I hate Evan, but I really hate Jodie, and she doesn’t deserve it. I’m wicked and sinful to hate her, but I do. I hate her, and I wish I were dead.
After a long moment, Rachel opened her eyes again. I don’t really wish I was dead, she amended. I just wish my life were different. I wish I had something, anything, that Jodie did not have as well. Anything.
Depression settled over her like a physical weight, almost pulling her limbs down into the water. Once, long ago, Rachel had a crush on her sister’s boyfriend, Mack. He was a terrific catch, a sweet, strong, handsome guy who put up with all of Jodie’s quirks and still brought her flowers, held doors open for her, and played the perfect gentleman. Rachel had dreamed of having Mack for herself, until the day came when he looked right through Rachel for the thousandth time, looking for Jodie, and Rachel knew she would always be invisible to him. She was nothing. Jodie was everything. The crush died then, but the dreadful knowledge lived on.
What is there I could have that Jodie does not?
Nothing. True, it had been mildly pleasant to be the baby of the family, but with Evan’s unexpected arrival even that was gone. It wasn’t his fault. It had just been the last thing Rachel had left to cling to, to be different. Now she was nothing.
After a long moment, her thoughts turned to Sam Griffin. She’d caught him looking at her a number of times earlier in the year, so she had the distinct idea he was interested in her. She could not imagine why, except that he was probably wondering what she was like, her being black while he was white, or maybe just because she was a girl and he was a regular horny guy who would follow anything with legs. Or maybe it was something else.
Sam was okay, she admitted, but better than okay in certain ways. He swam a lot, so he had good muscles. He was rather handsome. He knew some great jokes. He had a wild streak in him that was exciting to be around, and he had a cheery, confident attitude, except maybe when talking about his parents or older sister. Most importantly, he was nice to Rachel and shy around her. Why in the world would he be interested in her, after all the time he’d spent mooning over the ever-cute Quinn Morgendorffer? She wondered if he’d been serious during poker when he said he wasn’t interested in Quinn any longer.
Rachel thought about the poker game earlier that morning. She’d had nothing in her poker hand, not even a pair, but she’d bluffed her way through and won the game. That was her whole life right there—a never-ending bluff to cover the nothing she had.
Rachel closed her eyes. And, just like that, she was thinking of Sam again. He had a great smile. It made her think she had something after all.
She made up her mind to talk to him and see what happened next. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do here at Camp Cry-a-Lot. A monster was supposed to live nearby, but the noisy children had no doubt driven it away long ago. Stupid camp.
Wow, this is easy, Link Jackson thought with his eyes closed. Think of the person I have the most trouble with. I can start with the Big Three: Mom, Dad, and Stepdad Bill, a.k.a. Dingbat, Big Jerk, and Bigger Jerk. Make that the Big Five, adding in Uncle Timothy O’Neill and Uncle Wind whatever-his-last-name-was. Wait—there’s more I could add to the list, and then more, and . . .
In the end, Link stopped thinking of them all. The names of those he had trouble with were legion. It wasn’t worth the trouble to think of them.
Instead, he thought of Uncle Anthony, the only adult with whom Link had no trouble at all.
Anthony DeMartino was one of the other camp counselors, the only one for whom Link had any degree of respect. Mr. DeMartino was a man on the edge, that was for sure. He was a tall, gaunt, popeyed teacher on the teetering brink of a violent burnout, a fifty-something Vietnam vet with a rumored history of mental instability and a widely known tendency to rant and rave. Mr. DeMartino hated the Okay-to-Cry Corral, hated its New Age cuddliness and politically correct hypersensitivity, hated its attempts to bring insight at the expense of fun and activity, and probably at times hated Uncle Timothy as well, with whom DeMartino worked on the teaching staff at Lawndale High School. Yet Mr. DeMartino still came to camp as a counselor, his second summer in a row doing so.
And Link loved him for it. Uncle Anthony was all that made this hideous camp bearable. Too bad he was assigned to oversee other cabins, but at least Link would see him for the nature hikes. Maybe they’d get to explore the back end of the campgrounds, where the Hot Lake Monster lived. DeMartino would do it. He was the best.
Link’s expression grew dark. Why, when his mother was dragging herself through bars in search of a husband or boyfriend, couldn’t she find someone like Mr. DeMartino? Uncle Anthony cared about stuff, he really cared, and he wasn’t a touchy-feely airhead about it like Uncle Breakwind or Uncle Timothy or any of those other morons. Uncle Anthony was a man to be respected. He knew tons of things about history, cool stuff about secret missions and spies and commando raids and all that, but he’d actually been to Vietnam, and he carried the emotional scars to prove it. He could be weird and scary at times, but Link would follow Uncle Anthony into the jaws of Hell and never look back.
Maybe there was a way to get emancipated and have Mr. DeMartino adopt him. Anything was possible. Link made a mental note to e-mail Daria. She said she had a book about divorcing your family, and it might just work, if Mr. DeMartino was cool with that.
Link’s thoughts turned again to the Hot Lake Monster. He knew the Okay-to-Cry Corral was backed up to a private wildlife preserve surrounding the huge “cooling pond” by the Twilight’s Last Gleaming nuclear power plant. He doubted there was actual radiation in the water, which was used for coolant in the plant. Still, you could always hope. The fish mutations alone would be awesome.
Link recalled that Hot Lake never froze over because it was kept permanently warm as it was cycled through the plant’s reactors. A Sunday newspaper supplement article on the power plant noted that the lake wasn’t really hot, but it was lukewarm at worst in the dead of winter, and many birds and animals congregated around the lake all year long. The nuclear plant owned the heavily forested lake property and did not allow anyone to swim or fish there, though of course a few people tried anyway. The power plant’s security staff usually caught them, but efforts to patrol the area were half-hearted.
And then there was the monster. It was pretty well known that you could hear a roaring noise now and then, usually in early mornings or evenings, from the direction of Hot Lake. Link had heard it himself the previous year, which was all that took his mind off his deepening misery at the time. Other campers said the monster was a glowing mutant killer werewolf from another galaxy whose UFO was trapped below the waters of Hot Lake. Daria Morgendorffer had said it was just another camper acting like an idiot, or maybe a train horn. She had never heard the monster’s echoing roar. It sure didn’t sound like another camper or a train.
Would Uncle Anthony want to take a group and explore the campground’s border with Hot Lake? It would be a long hike, but it was worth putting a word in Uncle Anthony’s ear about it. Maybe a few campers could go explore the lake in person, too, though it wouldn’t be without danger. Link had read of a power-plant cooling pond in Wisconsin that turned out to have a giant freshwater piranha in it, tossed into the lake by a disgruntled pet owner or college prankster. Or maybe it had been a fish like a piranha, but not a piranha. Whatever. Maybe someone had been thoughtful enough to put piranha in Hot Lake as well. Again, you could always hope. If the Hot Lake piranha had mutated from residual radiation and now came up on land and ate everything in sight and roared challenges at night—hey, that could be really dangerous!
But, without a little danger, it wouldn’t be any fun, would it?
Link sighed. Floating wasn’t so bad. It let his mind go free, and he hadn’t thought of his mother or stepdad for almost five minutes now. He did miss seeing Daria at the camp, but they exchanged e-mails regularly, and it wasn’t like she’d disappeared. And if he was desperate for her advice, he had secretly brought along the family cell phone. His mother never used it, and Daria’s home was a local call, so it wouldn’t ruin the bill.
Uncle Anthony, though, Link had missed a lot over the last year. Maybe it would be worthwhile for Link to get his mother to move to Lawndale after her next divorce, so he could attend Lawndale High and see Mr. DeMartino on a daily basis. That would be the coolest. Maybe Daria had some ideas on how to pull this off.
A strange thought came to Link as he floated there. Had Mr. DeMartino once been a kid like Link—kinda messed up, angry at the world, fed up with the crap everyone shoveled out for him to eat? This seemed likely. A lot of things were clearly eating at Mr. DeMartino, but he was still on his feet and moving, still giving it back to the world. He took it like a man and dished it out, too.
Maybe there was hope for the future after all. Link almost smiled. That would be the greatest.
In the meantime, there were plans afoot to investigate Hot Lake and the roaring heard in the night. Link really wanted to find out what made the roaring. This lousy camp could use a little excitement.
This floating crap sucked! Chris Griffin had never been so sure of a thing in his life. That stupid butthead Wind wasn’t going to let anyone have fun at this camp. Floating was the most stupidest thing ever. What good was that? And why should they have to think about people you were mad at?
Chris wasn’t mad at a lot of people, just the usual suspects: his father, for never doing anything with him; his mother and big sister, for being such a pair of b-plus-witch-minus-the-w’s; and his brother Sam, for dissing Quinn Morgendorffer. Was he, like, gay or something? Quinn was the most beautiful woman in the entire universe. Chris had never been so sure of a thing in his life. She was older than Chris, but there had to be a way to get her attention and let her know he was a real man—more of a man than Sam, that was for sure. What a dork.
Chris knew what women really wanted in a man. He’d watched all the James Bond movies. Women wanted a guy who was cool, a guy who was always polite and kept control of himself, even when that seemed impossible. They wanted a guy who could be funny but level, too, not getting mad and blowing up about stuff. And they wanted a guy who was exciting, who did lots of cool, exciting stuff. Chris knew he could do that. He had it in him to do all of this. Quinn had to find out what Chris was really made of.
Which is where the Hot Lake Monster came in.
The Hot Lake Monster was real. Chris had never been so sure of a thing in his life. Rumor had it that the monster was a radioactive slime creature from outer space created by leaking radiation from the nuclear power plant near the Okay-to-Cry Corral campsite, and this was so obviously true that Chris could only shake his head when naïve camp counselors said it was just an urban legend. Fat lot they knew. The government was covering up the monster’s existence, of course, to prevent widespread panic. They’d never heard the monster roar. Neither had Chris, but he was sure it roared, because another camper said its roar froze your blood and made some people go insane.
But not Chris. He was going to find out the truth about the Hot Lake Monster. It would be just like on “The X-Files.” He would prove it was real, and he would be famous, and Quinn would go out with him and be his girlfriend, and Chris would own the world. Man, that would be the greatest! Chris had never been so sure of a thing in his life.
This, of course, assumed that Uncle Butt-Wind didn’t get in the way and mess up everything. Uncle Butt-Wind was getting on Chris’s nerves. He was a bigger dumb-ass loser crybaby than anyone had imagined, a bigger baby than even Uncle Timothy O-Hole, and that was saying something. No wonder Uncle Windy couldn’t stay married. No way a loser like that would ever have someone hot like Quinn.
Chris hated crybabies and losers. He hated being pushed around by his sister and his mother. He wanted more than anything to be a man on his own, big and tall, cool to the coolest degree, and have Quinn at his side. He’d be a bigger man than his father, who always looked miserable and had the most annoying whine when Chris’s mother yelled at him about something he was alleged to have done wrong. His mother and Sandi would leave Chris alone once he was big and tall, and he’d never worry about anything again.
A funny thought came to Chris a moment later. Wouldn’t it be a shriek if Wind met Sandi and they fell in love? He might be twice her age, but he’d be perfect for her. She could wipe her feet on him day and night. Of course, there was a major drawback to his plan, which was that Sandi might marry Wind, and Chris would have to put up with him. But so would Sam—and that might be fun to see. And there was the excellent chance that Sandi and Wind would move away. That would be tight.
Chris made up his mind about one thing: He was definitely going to discover the truth about the Hot Lake Monster. And he would be famous for it. And Quinn would go out with him and wouldn’t care how old he was. The idea was foolproof. Chris had never been so sure of a thing in his life.
Now, if only he could find a way to put it all into action. . . .
In the space of five minutes, Brian Taylor considered and discarded six detailed ways of getting back at Wind Lane for making him float instead of letting him swim. Wind would definitely suffer. Brian was confident of this. He’d wait and find a moment to strike, and that would show Uncle Breakwind not to mess with this particular kid.
Uncle Breakwind aside, this camp had potential. There was this stupid rumor going around camp that a mutant creature lived nearby. Brian figured it was probably just a garbage-eating black bear, which his father said might still wander the wilderness in these parts. Brian’s dad knew all kinds of stuff like that. He’d gone hunting for years and had a house full of stuffed animal heads to show for it. Brian really wanted to be like his dad. Maybe if he was like his dad enough, his dad would notice him and stop paying attention to Brian’s big sister Brittany, who was a blonde space case with a squeaky voice and huge boobs, or Brian’s stepmother, Ashley-Amber, who was an even bigger blonde space case with huge boobs. The only sure way to get his dad’s attention away from the Boobsy Twins, as Brian figured it, was to kill things.
Brian had no problem with killing things. He’d done it for years. It had started as a sort of experimenting—what would animal X do if event Y happened to it? Or event Z happened right after? He’d experimented mostly on little things like mice and hamsters and garter snakes and lizards and ants—lots of ants. He’d had a couple of cats, too, but most escaped and ran off before he could finish experimenting on them. Brittany and Ashley-Amber didn’t understand the experimenting thing at all. It freaked them out, and they told his dad about it, but he didn’t seem to mind it. Brian didn’t understand Brittany or Ashley-Amber, and he didn’t like them, either. He didn’t understand anyone, had never walked a mile in anyone’s shoes and never thought to try. Why bother? Other people weren’t worth the trouble. They got in his way, and that ticked him off like nothing else could. He always found ways of getting back at them, like breaking or stealing their treasures, spreading rumors about them, or cursing them out, but lately he’d begun to consider other ways of getting back at people he didn’t like. All of those ways involved pain. And Brian was learning a lot about pain from his experiments. It was fascinating. He liked it.
The Okay-to-Cry Corral might prove to be a great place to get his dad’s attention instead of Ashley-Amber’s, if Brian could find a bear or something else notable that he could kill and take as a trophy. He’d come to camp prepared, but no one would know that with a casual inspection of his gear. If he could bring down a big animal, then he’d be just like his dad, and his dad would notice him and stop acting like Brittany and Ashley-Amber were hot stuff instead of brainless cows.
Tired of all the floating, Brian opened an eye and turned his head toward the shore. No way! Uncle Breakwind was asleep! Perfect!
With infinite care, Brian came upright in the water. His feet touched bottom. One foot came down on a small round rock. Brian carefully picked it up with his toes and brought it to his hand. Timing was of the essence. He glanced around, saw no one looking at him, and brought his hand back. In the same moment he snapped his hand forward and released the rock, he slipped back into the water, eyes closed, limbs out and relaxed, as if nothing had happened at all.
A solid smack was heard a fraction of a second later, followed by Wind Lane’s agonized yell. Wind went over backward with a welt just over his right eye, his hands clamped to his head.
In this manner did the Peace Within Self-Healing Togetherness Special conclude. Good thing it’s okay to cry here, Brian thought as Wind’s howls filled the air.
“Uncle Anthony, I’m still a little bit nervous about the size of that bonfire,” said Mr. O’Neill, eyeing the evening conflagration that covered less than one square foot on the beach. “We don’t want to annihilate forests and endanger the world’s struggling wildlife, do we?”
“Now, TIM—um, Uncle TIMothy, let me assure you that there is not the SLIGHTest chance this ONE-log fire with a THIRTY-foot-radius debris-free clearing around it will endanger even an ANThill. Your paranoia is SUFFICIENT to keep the planet SAFE for another thousand YEARS.”
“Oh, very well.” Mr. O’Neill turned to the forty-two whispering campers sitting in a semicircle around him in the fading light. “Now, Okay-to-Cry Corraleers, we’ve had an exciting, fun-filled day today. We’ve woven baskets to represent our ego systems, in which we carry all the trauma and pain from our past into the present, where it is healed to free us for the future, and each cabin has had its Peace Within session of introspection and private acknowledgment of dysfunction in interpersonal relationships, and we had a emergency healing session with Uncle Wind, who suffered that unusual blow to the head while meditating, and then there was the Okay-to-Cry Corral Dance of Honor and Thanks to the Vegetables Who Gave of Themselves for Our Organically Grown Dinner.”
“Tofu isn’t a vegetable!” Brian shouted.
“It is,” said Mr. O’Neill, unperturbed.
“Tofu sucks!” shouted Chris. Many other campers cheered.
“Let’s make s’mores on the campfire!” shouted Rachel.
“Yeah!” shouted dozens of other kids.
“Um,” began Wind Lane, “graham crackers are made in sweatshops, you know, and chocolate and marshmallows are really bad for your complexion. Plus, we, you know, forgot to go to the store and get the stuff, so let’s put a no-go on that, all right?”
“That sucks!” yelled Chris. Other angry voices echoed his.
Mr. O’Neill appeared to be on the verge of tears. “Now, now, it’s time for our evening story, which will be told by Uncle Anthony, and then we’re off to bed.”
“Hey, it’s only nine-thirty!” shouted Brian. “I don’t have to go to bed until midnight!”
“Campers, remember what I said this morning at the Circle of Greeting and Incipient Friendships! This is the first time the Okay-to-Cry Corral has had overnight campers, and we have to play it safe to make sure no one is overtired in the morning! Remember, if you take care of yourself, your self will . . . will what, Corraleers?”
Silence filled the twilight.
“Your self will . . . take care of you!” finished Mr. O’Neill. “Yes, exactly! Very good!”
“Story!” shouted a number of bored campers. “Tell us a story, Uncle Anthony!”
“Very WELL!” called Mr. DeMartino, taking a seat on a log by the minuscule campfire. “I just happen to recall one particular STORY that all of you future fast-food cashiers might find INTEResting! Heh heh heh! It’s called, ‘The Roller Coaster of DEATH’!”
Excited murmurs of approval arose from every throat—except two.
“Isn’t that kind of, you know, negative?” asked Wind Lane anxiously. He adjusted the huge bandage over his right eye. “Should we really be telling negative stories to little kids at night? They’ll get nightmares or wet their sleeping bags or something, won’t they? And we’ll get sued?”
“What?” screamed dozens of kids in outrage. “We’re not little!”
“Ah, Uncle Anthony,” said Mr. O’Neill, again on the verge of tears, “I think Uncle Wind is right, mostly. Let’s tell the one about the courageous bunny with the big heart instead.”
“The rabbit with the big heart-on?” shouted Link. Wild, raucous laughter broke out from every camper present. Mr. DeMartino chuckled, too, though he appeared tense as well, perhaps because he could not tell his ghost story. He got to his feet, waved goodbye to everyone, and stalked off to the main cabin for the night.
“Uncle Anthony!” screamed the horrified campers. “Come back! Tell your story! Save us!”
“Sorry! I’m ALLERGIC to RABBITS!” he shouted as he left.
Mr. O’Neill sighed, almost in control of himself now. “Uncle Wind, please tell us the story of the courageous bunny, please.”
Wind nodded and began the tale with a whining voice. Every camper present immediately lost interest and began whispering among themselves or poking at the sand. Sam turned to Rachel, who sat beside him among the other denizens of Cabin 13. “Good try for the s’mores,” he whispered.
“Yeah, well, it didn’t work,” said Rachel glumly. “Man, this place just—oh, forget it.”
“Yeah, it really does.” Rachel looked at Sam. “So, are you guys going out for a walk later, after—”
“Shh. Yeah. Wanna come with?”
Rachel’s mouth twitched, ready to curve into a smile. “Where are you going?”
“Oh, just out. Link had this idea about looking for—um, for—”
“That creature everyone’s talking about?”
“Shh. Yeah. We just want to get out. I can’t stand this nutty crying stuff. If we don’t get away from this for a while, I think we’ll go crazy, you know? It’s just—”
“I know.” Rachel almost smiled again. “I wanna ask you a question.” She hesitated, then plunged on. “Those swim trunks you wear, are they for the swim team?”
“The Speedos? Yeah. I hate those big saggy trunks that go down to your knees. Everyone likes them but me, I guess. I mean, if you really want to swim fast, you can’t wear baggy stuff.” He looked at her in feigned innocence. “You like them?”
“What? Your swim trunks?” She looked away. Her face got hot, and she fought down a smile ferociously. “Yeah, uh, I guess they’re okay. Kind of tight, aren’t they.”
“Your swimsuit looked pretty good, too, the orange thing.”
“You mean my bikini?”
“No,” Link interrupted from behind them, “he means your wedding dress. Jeez, why don’t the two of you just go rent a room or something, you know?”
Rachel turned and gave Link a frosty glare. “Who asked you?”
“C’mon, man,” said Sam to Link, “give it a break. You wanna listen to the story about the bunny with the heart-on, go right ahead. Let us talk.”
Link exhaled. “Fine, but when the big hand and the little hand hit twelve, we’re out of here, comprende?”
“You going to look for that mon—”
“Shh!” hissed Link and Sam both at Rachel.
Rachel groaned. She looked at the storytelling Uncle Wind (who was weeping now, having gotten to the part where the courageous bunny was dumped by his third wife), and she shook her head in disgust. “Boys,” she muttered.
Sam looked at her with anxiety. This wasn’t turning out as he’d planned. “Hey, come on with us, okay?”
“What?” Rachel said softly, looking Sam over. “Run off with you in the middle of the night into the woods with a bunch of other guys, looking for bogeymen?”
Sam stared at Rachel for a short moment. “Yeah,” he said casually.
Rachel shook her head again, fighting back the smile’s return. “You’re gonna have to convince me a lot better than that.”
“God, I can’t take any more of this,” muttered Link. “You two are like a sex-crazed soap opera, you know?” He got up and walked off to sit with Chris and Brian, who were trading Magic: The Gathering cards using a flashlight for illumination.
Sam slowly stretched out his legs in front of him, leaning back on his arms. One arm was casually positioned behind Rachel. “It’ll be safe,” he said in a low voice. “I’ll be with you.”
Rachel’s grin broke out in full glory. “You want me to run around with you in the dark, and I’m supposed to believe that I’ll be safe with you?”
“Yeah,” said Sam, doing his best to appear nonchalant.
“I dunno.” She shook her head, still grinning. “Can I trust you?”
“Trust me to do what? We’re just going out for a little while.”
Rachel’s grin broadened. “I’ll think about it,” she said at last, and looked away. “Ask me later.”
Sam found himself looking at Rachel’s beaded braids. “I like your hair,” he said softly.
Rachel didn’t reply. She became interested in crossing and re-crossing her legs.
Sam’s hand lifted and gently brushed against Rachel’s braids. She half-turned toward him but looked down at his legs, not at his face. He silently touched her cornrow hair, and she let him. She stopped re-crossed her legs and sat motionless, as if listening to something far away.
A few moments later, Sam’s hand brushed against Rachel’s bare neck. She shivered. His hand then rested on the sand behind her back. He moved over so his legs were only inches from hers. She did not pull away. By the end of the story, Rachel was leaning lightly against Sam’s chest. Their hearts pounded like bulldozer pistons. Neither could look each other in the face for more than a second.
And neither heard or remembered a single thing Uncle Wind said about the courageous rabbit.
A few hours after the conclusion of the courageous rabbit’s tale of spiritual growth and the healing of his wounded inner bunny, three wristwatch alarms went off in Cabin 13 at varying intervals. About ten minutes passed, then four figures with backpacks, wearing the darkest clothing they could find, could be seen sneaking out of the cabin in the faint moonlight, assuming anyone was watching them. No one was, however, and the four dark figures made their way to Cabin 7 to pick up the last member of their group.
“Boo,” said Rachel, who had been waiting for them in the shadows behind the adjacent Cabin 6. Chris gasped and almost yelled, but Link clamped a hand over his mouth and shushed him into silence.
“Way to go,” grumbled Brian. “Just wake up everyone, whydoncha.”
“She scared me!” hissed Chris.
“Shut up!” snapped Sam. “Let’s get out of here. Jesus, little kids.”
“Shut up or I’ll pound you,” said Sam, getting irritable.
“You and what army?”
“We’ll all pound you,” said Rachel with a significant look. Chris glared at her but subsided.
Once they were safely out of range of the main campsite, four flashlights snapped on. Sam gave his to Rachel. “Listen,” Sam said in a more normal tone of voice, “if you wanna eat something, don’t throw away the wrappers. We don’t want anyone to know we were out here. No evidence.”
“And we’ll keep the woods clean for Woodsy Owl and ‘Mokey Bear,” said Link in a squeaky voice.
Everyone broke out in giggles as they tramped up the dirt path, Sam in the lead. Crickets and cicadas chirped all around. In the distance, a whip-or-will’s cry echoed across the dark, forested hills.
“How do we know where we’re going?” called Chris.
“Don’t yell,” said Sam evenly. “I read the campsite map in the main cabin. This is the route to the back of the campgrounds.”
“How far?” asked Link, after drinking from his bottle of Ultra-Cola.
“Couple miles, I think.”
“Couple miles?” Rachel was right behind Sam on the path.
“You can go back,” said Brian, still steamed about Rachel’s little prank. “We won’t miss you.”
“Bite my ass!” Rachel said without looking back.
“Make it bare!” said Brian.
“Oh, shut up, for chrissake!” said Link. “This isn’t kindergarten!”
“Guys, knock it off,” said Sam. “Talk about something else. Someone tell a story about a rabbit with a big heart . . . on.”
“I know a story,” said Link in a deep voice. “It’s a story about a rabbit named . . . Boner McGroaner.”
The tension melted as everyone laughed. “Go on, tell it!” said Rachel.
“Ah . . . I forgot all the good parts.”
“You liar!” yelled Brian with glee. “Just make it up!”
“What’s a boner?” Chris said.
The laughter turned hysterical, interrupting the march for five minutes. When they could, they set off again, the boys arguing now about who was the strongest character on Dragonball Z. Yellow flashlight beams played over the tall, dark tree trunks around them. The air smelled of damp earth and green leaves, and stars were faintly visible above. The hikers swatted at occasional mosquitoes and moved on at a quick pace for many minutes, talking about anime movies they loved or hated. Brian brought up the rear of the column, with Link, Chris, Rachel, and Sam ahead of him.
“Uncle Breakwind’s gonna freak when he finds out he’s lost all his campers,” said Link. “Makes me wish we could leave a camera behind and film it.”
“And put it on TV!” Chris piped. “Wouldn’t that be awesome to put it on TV? Or the Internet?”
“He’s such a dick,” said Sam. “I dunno how he got this job.”
“He’s a big wuss, and O’Neill’s another big wuss and he runs the camp,” said Link. “I mean, how could he not get the job, you know?”
“Yeah, you got a point.”
“Sam,” said Chris after a pause, “I gotta take a whiz.”
“So, do it,” said Sam. “Catch up when you’re done.”
“Wait for me, okay?”
“No,” said Brian.
Sam groaned and slowed down. “Damn. Okay, make it fast.”
“Don’t look!” Chris said in Rachel’s direction. He took his flashlight with him and walked back down the path about fifty feet. “Don’t go yet!”
“Keep your voice down!” Sam called. “It echoes!”
“You’re not helping, either,” Rachel murmured. She fanned her T-shirt. The walk was generally uphill, and she was already sweating in the warm night air. She checked her watch. It was just after one a.m.
“You doin’ okay?” Sam asked her. He glanced back down the path, then looked ahead. Link and Brian had walked on slowly, talking in low voices.
“I’m good,” said Rachel. She slapped her neck. “Hate these bugs.”
“I got some bug repellant. Lemme get it.” He unshouldered his backpack and dropped it on the ground.
“You’ve had it all this time, and now you give it to me? Gee, thanks.”
“Sorry. I just forgot.” Sam rummaged through his pack while Rachel held a light on it. He pulled out a small white bottle and handed it to her.
“Thanks.” Rachel handed the flashlight back and uncapped the bottle.
“I can put it on you,” Sam said. He sounded more eager than he hoped he would.
Rachel gave him a thin smile. “Nah, I can do it.” She took a few moments to smear some lotion over her arms, neck, and legs.
“You don’t need that much,” said Sam. “Just a little.”
Rachel handed the bottle back. “I’m already eaten up.”
Rachel turned to look Sam in the face. “What?”
“Nothing.” He was grinning.
Rachel turned away. “You’re mean. I’m not talking to you.”
“Nah, I’m not mean.”
“I can’t believe I’m doing this. I must be crazy.”
“Fun, isn’t it?”
“Hell, no. I’m bug-bit all over, and I’m going feel like crap tomorrow from no sleep.”
“Yeah.” Sam sighed. “Great night for a hike, though.”
“If they catch us running around away from camp, they’ll send us home. My mom’ll blow up bigger than the Fourth of July.”
Sam shrugged. “Better than listening to Uncle Wind cry about his old lady.”
“I’m done!” Chris called.
“’Bout time.” Sam picked up his backpack, wishing Chris had taken a little longer. “Let’s go.”
The three of them hiked up the trail until Link and Brian came into view, walking slowly ahead. Chris hurried past Rachel and Sam until he was safely in the middle of the group again. They moved on.
As she went, Rachel played the flashlight over the silent trees around them. “So, where’s your monster?”
“Shh!” Chris hissed. “You’ll wake it up!”
“It’s a bear,” said Brian. “Black bear, probably. They’re not very big.”
“It’ll look a lot bigger when it gets its teeth into your butt,” said Sam.
“Not my butt,” said Brian. “He won’t get that close.”
“Why? You got stinky gas or something?”
Chris began laughing uncontrollably, wobbling all over the path.
“No, butthead,” snapped Brian. “I got something for real. Give that bear a little surprise.”
“What kind of surprise?”
“He won’t tell me,” said Link, walking in the lead. “He’s got something secret in his backpack.”
“Better not be a gun,” said Sam. “You’ll get your ass kicked by the whole freaking camp if it’s a gun.”
“It’s not a gun,” said Brian, his voice taking on an edge, “and no one’s gonna kick my ass. No one.”
“Cool out!” said Rachel in exasperation. “Take a chill pill! I don’t care what you’ve got!”
Brian looked back with a sudden grin. “The bear will care.”
“That will make it a Care Bear,” said Rachel. “You gonna shoot a Care Bear?”
Brian’s grin faded. He turned away and trudged on, just behind Link and forty feet ahead of Sam.
Sam felt Rachel’s fingers on his arm. “Creepy,” whispered Rachel, close behind him. “He creeps me out.”
“Mmm.” Sam watched Brian uneasily. That kid was up to something, for sure. Sam wouldn’t put it past Brian to have a real gun. The possibility ate at him. What would he do if he found out for sure that Brian had one? Would he tell O’Neill? O’Neill was certainly better than a complete loser like Wind, who’d probably run off screaming if he didn’t faint. DeMartino would be best, for sure. Uncle Anthony would set it right.
But then, it wasn’t like Sam had come out into the night totally unprepared, either. You never knew what or who you might meet out in a place like this. He looked back at Rachel. She was walking behind him now with her arms crossed, frowning back at him in the faint light. He dropped back to walk beside her.
“I’ll watch him,” he whispered to her.
“You might have to do more than just watch him,” she whispered back.
He knew this was true. He just had no idea how to handle it. He nodded agreement anyway.
On impulse, his arm came up and settled itself around her waist as they walked.
She reached up in an instant and disentangled his arm from around her. “Don’t,” she said, and she walked a little faster to get ahead of him.
Sam dropped back, letting her stay about ten feet ahead of him. He was ashamed that he’d tried to move in on her. Now she was pissed off, and everything was ruined. Way to go, dope, he raged at himself. Your timing sucks.
Everyone walked in silence for a little while. Sam wondered if anyone had heard what happened between him and Rachel. He was angry with himself and everyone around him. It had been a stupid idea to come out here. Rachel was right about that.
“I see the back fence,” called Brian from far ahead. “It’s up on the ridge.”
A minute later, all five were congregated at the foot of a slope on the trail’s left side. Their flashlights played over a chain-link fence visible through the undergrowth on top of a ridge, about twenty feet up the steep, plant-covered slope. A rusted white sign was visible at the top of the fence. Printed in red and black on the sign was this.
TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING
NUCLEAR POWER STATION
Carter County Electric Company
Lawndale/Oakwood Grid, 1974
“Where The Future Finds You Before You Know It!”
“That stuff’s poison ivy,” said Link, pointing at the plants. “Don’t get in it.”
“Great.” Sam walked on a little farther, shining his light along the base of the fence. He stopped. “Hey, c’mere, everyone.”
When the others came over, he pointed. “Look where the rocks came away from the top of the slope. You can get under the fence there. We can climb up the gully—there’s no poison ivy here.”
“And get caught,” said Rachel under her breath.
“We won’t get caught,” said Link. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Why?” said Rachel, irked at Link’s confidence. “Why won’t they catch us?”
“My stepdad used to work here as a security guard until he got fired last year. He told my mom the plant cut back on security to save money, and maybe they did, but they really fired him ‘cause he came to work drunk and got into a fight. Twilight’s only got ground patrols right around the power plant itself. They just fly a plane over this part of the grounds, ‘cause vehicles scare the wildlife and the company gets money from the state for leaving this area alone as some kind of wildlife refuge. The guards won’t go near the lake ‘cause of that.”
“And the monster,” added Chris.
“No, they’re more scared of the snakes than the monster.”
“Snakes?” Rachel and Chris shouted at the same time.
Way to go! thought Sam in disgust. “They only come out in the daytime,” he said, not knowing if that was exactly true. “Don’t get your undies in a wedgie.”
“Forget it!” yelled Rachel. She stepped back, arms crossed over her chest. “There is no freaking way that I am walking around in the dark with snakes out there all over! Forget it! I’m walking back, and I’ll go alone if no one comes with me!”
“See ya,” said Brian, unperturbed. “Say hi to the bear for us.”
“Screw you!” Rachel shouted at him. “Go to hell!”
“You first,” said Brian, eyes narrowing.
“Hey, now, cut—” began Sam, trying to out-shout them both.
A low roar began, coming from the land beyond the fence at the top of the ridge. It was so deep in tone that Sam felt it vibrate the ribs in his chest. It was unmistakably from a living creature. The roar faded only moments after it started, but everyone fell silent the instant they heard it. The campers stood in place, faces and flashlights turned up to the fence. Long seconds passed. The crickets began chirping again.
The long folding knife in Sam’s back pocket was suddenly and completely inadequate.
“Whoa,” said Link. His eyes were huge behind his glasses.
“Was that the monster?” asked Chris. He looked very uncertain and nervous.
“I’ve heard it before, but never like that,” said Link in awe. “That was really close.” His gaze was fixed on the fence above them. His flashlight scanned the fence from side to side, as did everyone else’s.
“Was that the monster?” Chris repeated.
“Yeah, that’s it,” said Brian faintly. “It’s not a bear.”
“How d’you know?” said Sam, turning to look at him.
“I know what they sound like from TV and movies. My dad collects stuff about bear hunting. I know what a bear sounds like, and that wasn’t . . .”
The roaring began again. It was briefer this time, but just as deep. The sound seemed to fill the night sky, falling all around them. It vibrated rapidly as it faded, like a great beast clearing its throat.
“God damn,” breathed Link, stepping back. “The son of a bitch is real. The dumb son of a bitch is the real thing.”
“Is it coming?” asked Chris, his voice very high.
“No,” said Sam, disbelieving every word he spoke. “I think it’s going away.”
“So am I,” said Rachel, her voice high. She turned and walked a few steps down the trail, back to camp, before turning around again. “Come on, okay? Let’s go back. I don’t want to do this. C’mon!”
Sam looked at the faces of the other boys. Chris and Link were definitely leaning toward Rachel’s point of view.
“We could still take him,” said Brian in a low voice.
Sam considered the options. He had to get Brian out of here at any cost, before the kid did something stupid and fatal. “Tomorrow night,” he said, not even sure if he was telling the truth. “If you want to do this, let’s come back tomorrow night. We need to prepare better for this.”
“I am prepared,” Brian said with a touch of anger.
“The rest of us aren’t, and not everyone might want to go. We need a tight group, and this ain’t it. Let’s do it tomorrow night. Not now.”
Brian’s shoulder slumped. “You people lost your nerve.”
“Oh, get over it,” said Sam gently. “You and me can come back, but later.”
“And me,” said Link, suddenly animated. “We gotta get ready for this one.”
Brian sighed in defeat. Chris said nothing, but he continued to scan the fence for signs of a monster. Rachel stood away from the group, waiting, staring at Sam.
“Let’s go back,” said Sam, and he headed for Rachel. Reluctantly, Brian set off after them, as did Link and Chris. Sam had the smaller boys walk ahead, while he and Rachel brought up the rear, with Rachel walking ahead of him. Little was said. Sam looked back many times that night, but nothing followed them back to the Okay-to-Cry Corral, for which he was very grateful.
Sam awoke in his bunk the following morning with a head full of gray cotton from lack of sleep—with the added insult of having to get out of bed at 6:30 a.m. on a perfectly fine summer day. It was an outrage no teenager could endure. Sam yearned for an Ultra-Cola and its magical, head-clearing caffeine, but the camp counselors were already directing sleepy campers to the Nutrition Cabin and away from the snack stand, which was closed.
As he stood near the head of the breakfast line in the hot, humid air outside the Nutrition Cabin, Sam grappled with a thousand pressing issues, feeling that he’d fumbled every one of them. The Hot Lake Monster was real—of that, there was no longer any doubt. Unless, of course, it was just a recording played over loudspeakers to keep troublesome people away from the nuclear power plant. Sam had considered this possibility after the walk back to camp the night before. However, this policy seemed counterproductive: Monster noises would tend to attract investigators, not repel them. Had anyone tried previously to investigate the monster? Sam didn’t know. Link had said that security guards usually picked up intruders—so, wouldn’t the security guards know about a monster? Link’s stepdad had been a security guard, but he’d not told anyone about it. What was the truth, then?
In any event, logic dictated that the Hot Lake Monster, whatever its identity, existed. Further, it might not be entirely under anyone’s control—otherwise, its noises would be muffled. Given that, many potential troubles lay ahead. Brian would certainly try to track down the Hot Lake Monster that night. The only way to dissuade him would be to squeal on him to O’Neill, which in Sam’s mind was lower than treason. A guy just didn’t do that, unless Brian was planning to machine-gun other campers or sell drugs to them. Then it was okay to squeal on him—but not just because he was going to track down a monster. So, Sam would have to go with him to make sure the little Rambo didn’t get himself killed.
But, what little surprise did Brian have concealed in his backpack? And would it be wise for Sam, if he planned to accompany Brian in search of the monster, to acquire some surprises of his own, in case the monster wasn’t friendly? What about the other kids? Link seemed solid enough, but Chris would have to stay behind. Would he stay, though? Maybe in that case he would squeal on everyone, which would be a relief despite the trouble it would cause. Brian was sure to pay back anyone who crossed him, though. He was that kind of kid. What was there to do?
Worst of all in Sam’s mind, Rachel wasn’t speaking to him. She wouldn’t even look at him. Sam wasn’t entirely sure why she was mad. He felt at one with the damned.
“Okay, the Nutrition Cabin is open for business!” called Uncle Timothy, waving the line on inside. Relieved to have something different to think about, Sam went inside, grabbed a tray, hurried to the breakfast bar where Uncle Wind stood—
—and discovered that he had a choice of rice cakes, sugarless granola, bacon-flavored tofu, bean sprouts, bananas, something called cruelty-free soymilk, and ice water.
“Who’s first?” said Uncle Wind, ready to serve a large helping of rice cakes to anyone who held out a tray.
“What the hell is this?” Sam cried, forgetting himself.
Groans and curses filled the air as other campers stepped around him and sized up the breakfast bar.
“Language!” shouted Uncle Timothy—without anger, of course. “Let’s be polite!”
“No way this is happening!” Link groaned, lowering his tray to his side. “Convicts eat better than this!”
“This can’t get any worse,” grumbled Chris.
“Attention, campers!” called Uncle Timothy, nervously waving a hand from the door. “Someone has asked if the snack shack will be open today. Uncle Wind and I had a talk earlier this morning about the nutritional value of the snack shack’s offerings, and we’ve removed all of the sodas and junk food. We will, however, have rice cakes and bottled water for those who want a little pick-me-up during the day!”
Chris flipped up his empty tray and smacked himself repeatedly on the forehead until Sam made him stop.
Shortly, Cabin 13’s members sat off by themselves in a corner of the Nutrition Cabin with a sparse collection of milk cartons, water glasses, and bananas. Brian nibbled at a small rice cake, but made a face and secretly dropped it on the floor and crushed it with a sneaker. “Tastes like Styrofoam,” he said, spitting out pieces on his tray.
“Flavor-free, fat-free, nutritious Styrofoam,” said Link glumly, peeling a banana.
“We should’ve stockpiled chips and drinks yesterday when we had the chance,” said Sam.
Chris turned to him. “We still have stuff we can take with us tonight when we—”
“Shh!” hissed Sam, Link, and Brian at the same time.
“I wasn’t going to say anything!”
“Just shut up,” said Sam. “One word, and no one goes, and then we pound the crap out of you.”
“You and what army?” sneered Chris.
Sam, Link, and Brian stared at him. Chris subsided and drank his milk.
“We need to talk,” said Link. “We got a lot of crap to work out.”
“Not here,” said Sam. “Let’s go back to the cabin.”
The foursome wolfed down the remains of their breakfast and headed for the door. On the way out, however, Sam spotted Rachel standing with a group of girls from her own cabin. “I’ll be right there,” he told Link. Link glanced at Rachel and shook his head in disgust as he hurried off.
Sam started over toward Rachel, but he slowed quickly. What would he tell her? Would she even let him talk?
Part of his problem was solved when Rachel noticed her cabin mates looking over her shoulders. She turned and saw Sam about thirty feet away, toeing the dirt while apparently waiting to talk to her. Rachel turned back at her friends with a sullen look and continued to listen to them complain about breakfast and their dirty cabin conditions and the perfectly awful latrine they had to use. The group broke up a minute later, and she walked back toward her cabin at a slow pace. Sam caught up to her a moment later.
“Hi,” he said. It was all he could think of to say.
Rachel didn’t look at him. She crossed her arms in front of her as she walked. “You’re going back into the woods tonight, aren’t you?” she said in a low voice.
Sam sighed. “I dunno what we’re going to do.”
“Well, don’t do it. This whole thing is just stupid. Why don’t you just stay back at camp, okay?”
“Look, I dunno what we’re gonna do.”
Rachel’s face hardened. “That means you’re going. I can tell.”
“It doesn’t mean anything, Rachel. Don’t worry about it.”
“I ought to tell O’Neill what you’re doing.”
Sam snorted, getting angry now. “You’ll just get yourself in trouble, too. You went with us last night, remember?”
“I don’t care,” she said with heat. “You’re being stupid, and you’re gonna get yourself hurt if you go back there.”
Something popped in the back of Sam’s head. “Just stay out of it, okay?” he snapped. “You don’t have any business in this. Just stay out of it!”
Rachel looked at Sam, her face alive with anger. “The hell with you!” she snarled, and she stalked off at a rapid pace for Cabin 7. Sam stopped and swallowed, watching her go. He realized that any possibility of something more happening between the two of them had just evaporated. He stared after her for a few moments, then went back toward Cabin 13, feeling as low as a teenage human being could.
His sufferings weren’t over, though. “Hey, Sam! I’m glad I saw you!”
Sam looked up. Uncle Wind was waving him over. “Could you, like, give me a hand? I’m trying to move some stuff around in my cabin.”
“I gotta get back to my cabin!” Sam protested.
“Oh, this’ll only take a second. And I’ll put in a good word with Timothy about it. Come on, dude.”
Sam groaned and followed Wind. It was as if the day was designed to break him down in every way possible.
Wind’s shack was a small, one-room affair like the other counselors’ cabins, but Sam discovered that Wind had attempted to fill it with all the battery-powered comforts of home, from a large floor fan to a CD-playing boom box with stereo speakers. “Hey,” said Wind, “just kinda grab the other side of that airbed, man, and kinda move it over this way toward the wall, you know?”
Sam managed to get around the stacks of boxes in the cabin and find a spot to stand by Wind’s inflatable bed, opposite Wind. “Get a good grip when you lift,” said Wind. “Even though it’s an airbed, it’s kinda heavy on account of the motor that pumps it up, you know? I’m afraid I’ll pop the mattress on a floor splinter if I move it by myself.”
“Whatever,” said Sam. He bent down to pick up the side of the airbed—and his eyes strayed to one of the boxes stacked against the wall near him.
EMERGENCY HIGHWAY FLARES (RED), said the lettering on the box. OKAY-TO-CRY CORRAL. AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
“Just move the bed over this way, okay?” said Wind. Sam blinked and looked away from the box. He did as he was asked, and five minutes later had the cabin’s furniture just the way Wind wanted. “Thanks, dude,” said Wind, patting Sam on the shoulder. “I gotta have everything just so, you know, on account of that feng shui. Helps my aura and all that. Hey, I gotta get over to see Uncle Timothy about this morning’s schedule. See you around. Oh!” He jerked a thumb at an open cardboard box by the door. “Help yourself to some rice cakes, on me. They’re real organic. No pesticides.” With that, Wind was out the door and gone.
Sam glanced back at the box of road flares, then down at the box of rice cakes. The box was roomy now with only two rice cakes left in it, instead of twenty-four.
Sam looked out the door. No one was around.
He left Wind’s cabin with the rice cakes’ box five minutes later. The box was filled to the brim with highway flares, its top closed. Sam left one of the rice cakes for Wind, putting the other in his pocket. Maybe one of the other guys in his cabin wanted to eat it, but he doubted that.
The walk back to Cabin 13 was instructive. There was no sign of Rachel, but when he passed the main cabin, he noticed the small pile of firewood outside. It appeared to have been split with an axe—which suggested that an axe or two might be available. A chainsaw as a weapon would be cool, but noisy as all hell. Sam made a mental note to explore the axe option later. He was going to have to be as creative as possible when looking for firepower for the journey to come.
Sam arrived at Cabin 13 to find a pow-wow already in session. He could hear muffled shouts even before he pushed the door open.
“I wanna go with you guys!” Chris protested as Sam came inside.
“This isn’t for kids!” Link said from his upper bunk. “You gotta stay back!”
“You’re just a year older than me!”
“And you’re five years younger than me in brains!” Link snapped.
“Stop it!” Sam said loudly but evenly. He shoved the box under his lower bunk bed as if it was unimportant. “What’s going on here?”
“Your little brother wants to go with us tonight,” said Brian, with emphasis on the word “little.”
“I’m twelve!” shouted Chris. “And so are you, butthead!”
“Keep it down,” said Sam, not raising his voice. He looked at the three, particularly Chris, who was on the verge of tears. He knew that face. Chris was on the verge of ratting on all of them, as he frequently did at home when he and Sam disagreed on ways of tormenting their older sister Sandi.
Sam made a split-second judgment. “Chris can go,” he said.
“What?” yelled Link and Brian at the same time. Chris stared at Sam in disbelief.
“Shut up, damn it!” Sam pointed at Chris. “Look—you’re walking in the rear, got that? The three of us are going in front, but I want you in back. If anything happens to us, you run back to camp and get help, okay? But you can’t run off on us for just anything. We have to be neck deep in monkey crap for you to run back, got it? And if you breathe a word about what we’re doing, you are so very, very screwed. Got it?”
Chris sniffed and nodded eagerly. “Okay.” And after a moment’s hesitation: “Thanks.”
“Why is he coming?” Brian protested. “He’s just a kid!”
“Well, so are you!” said Sam with a touch of temper. “I don’t care! We’re all going tonight, but we can’t go on fighting like this, okay? We need all four of us to make this work. Chris is going to be our emergency beacon, like on Star Trek, you know? If we get waxed, he runs back and tells everyone what happened to us. And he can carry stuff, too. We need a lot of stuff tonight, a whole lotta stuff we don’t have yet, and he’s gonna carry some of it for us. But—” Sam pointed at Chris again “—no weapons for you. None. Just for Link, Brian, and me, that’s all.”
“What weapons?” said Link with annoyance.
“Well,” said Sam, “that’s the first problem that we gotta solve. We gotta have something in our hands besides flashlights, you know? You heard what that thing sounded like last night. It’s a big bastard, no doubt about it, and we need some serious stuff if we’re gonna go look for it.”
“I got a camera!” said Chris. “It’s a disposable one!”
Sam kept himself from laughing. “Okay, then, you can be the photographer, too, as well as the emergency guy and stuff carrier. No weapons, though.” Sam looked at Brian. “And speaking of weapons, I know you got something stashed away. What is it?”
“I don’t got nothing,” said Brian with a sullen look.
“Oh, get off it, man!” said Link angrily from the upper bunk. “You were talking real big last night about shooting Care Bears! Tell us what you got, or you’re out, too!”
“I am not out!” shouted Brian, his face red. “You can’t throw me out!”
Exasperated, Sam waved his arms over the group’s heads. “Damn it, shut the hell up! Jesus, you want everyone to hear this?” He turned to the scowling Brian. “Look, no one’s throwing you out, got it? But you can’t hold out on us. You can carry whatever you bring with you, but we gotta see it. We need weapons, and if you’ve already got something, tell us so we can go find stuff for ourselves, okay?”
Silence held for a fragile moment.
“Okay,” said Brian, “but you can’t have it, ‘cause it’s mine. My dad got it for me, and only I can use it.”
“Fine, sure, whatever,” said Sam with a weary air. “Just drag the son of a bitch out, all right?”
Brian nodded, tense, then reached up for his backpack on a top bunk and pulled it off. He fiddled with a small combination lock on the zipper. Snapping the lock open, he began to pull things out of the bag with a challenging look at his three companions.
The things he pulled out of the bag were black-painted metal parts that appeared to snap together. Link got down from his upper bunk to see it clearly. Sam mentally assembled the confusing parts but came up with nothing until he saw a trigger assembly.
“It’s a crossbow,” Sam said in wonder. “You got a goddamn crossbow.”
“Hunting crossbow,” Brian corrected with a touch of pride. “You can kill a bear with it. It’s got a range of over a hundred yards. It collapses up like this for when you’re hiking. It’s not a hand bow, either. See the shoulder stock here? This is the big type, the kind that Marines and Rangers use for their invisible sniper assassins, only without the black lotus poison. You cock it with this lever, but you have to put your foot in this metal loop here to hold it down when you do. This’ll put a bolt right through a car.”
“Whoa,” said Chris, his eyes huge.
“It’s cool, but it wouldn’t have done us any good last night, folded up like that in your backpack,” said Link. He was unperturbed by Brian’s sudden glare. “You’re gonna have to unfold it and put it together when we go out tonight, before we get to the fence, in case we run into anything on the way.”
“Oh,” said Brian, sounding annoyed. “Yeah, I was gonna do that.”
“Okay,” said Sam, “it’s yours. But the rest of us have got to find stuff, too, and you’ve got to help us.”
“Okay.” Brian pulled a metal crossbow bolt from a leather pouch in his backpack. It was about a foot long, black in color, with leather fletching and a very wide double-bladed head. “Don’t touch it,” he said. “The edges are sharper than a razor.”
After an appropriate pause for admiration, Sam looked around at the cabin door. “Okay, put it away quick,” he said. “I don’t want Uncle O-hole to take it away when we need it most. Hide it real good.”
“Unless we decide to use it on Uncle Breakwind,” said Link under his breath.
Brian paused in the middle of putting his crossbow parts away. “Hmmm,” he said.
Sam laughed. “Forget it! Let’s get our butts out of here before someone comes looking for us.”
Five minutes later, the four left their cabin, their cache hidden as best they could—and were hailed by an all-too-familiar voice. “Oh, campers!” cried Uncle Timothy, waving at them with an anxious smile from the main cabin. “We’re having a special get-together at the beach! It’s time for some introspection into our family structures! It’ll be a fun and helpful learning experience!”
“Lying bastard,” whispered Sam. He knew this would be bad.
“We should’ve brought that crossbow,” Link whispered back with a bleak grin.
Sam sighed. It was going to be a long day. He couldn’t wait for night to come.
“I don’t wanna talk about my dad!” Link said to Uncle Wind and the gathered campers. The mid-morning session of “Dad: Bad, Sad, Mad, or Glad?” was underway and doing horribly.
Some campers snickered. “My name is Link!” Link shouted. “It’s not Lincoln!”
“Now, um, Link,” interrupted Uncle Timothy, “what Uncle Wind is trying to say is that you’re repressing your familial conflicts, and it’s best if—”
“This is stupid! Why do I have to talk about my dumb jerk dad? It’s none of your business!”
“Link,” said Uncle Timothy patiently, “all of us here have suffered traumatic childhood exchanges with our parents and siblings. Only by opening ourselves to the truth can we find true healing.”
“My dad drank and screwed around on my mom and ran off! You tell me how knowing all that crap is going to help you do anything with me, okay?”
Sitting in the back of the audience of campers, Sam covered his face with a hand and rubbed his eyes. This was torture, pure and simple. No camp should be this cruel. He wished a meteor would fall on the Okay-to-Cry Corral and kill everyone before this vile public humiliation went any further. Maybe Mr. DeMartino would get back from picking up supplies in town soon enough to put a stop to this nonsense.
Uncle Wind shook his head at Link. Oddly, he appeared to be enjoying this spectacle, which put Sam off to an even greater degree. “Okay,” said Wind with a knowing little smile, “how about if someone else talks about his or her father first, okay?” He looked around at a sea of unsmiling faces. “Brian, um, Taylor? Tell us about your father figure.”
Brian looked up. His pale blue eyes radiated danger. “My dad’s all right,” he said flatly. “He’s a hunter. He’s killed all kinds of animals all over the world. He can kick anyone’s ass. He’s a real man.”
Uncles Timothy and Wind gasped in horror. “Wow,” said Wind, “you’ve got a really messed up thing going there. You’re like deifying someone who disrespects nature, you know?”
Brian frowned. His cold eyes narrowed. “What?”
“Forget it,” whispered Sam, sensing trouble. “He’s just being a dope.”
“Your dad is, like, brutalizing the world, you know?” Uncle Wind went on, oblivious. “He’s being, like, this big Republican kind of evil dictator, hurting our little friends, the animals. You should really get him straightened out, ‘cause he’s really on a bad head trip, as my dad would say. You know?”
“My dad’s not messed up!” Brian said. His face was tight as a drum, his eyes boring into Wind.
“Oh, man,” said Wind, and he laughed. “You gotta get with it, kid!”
Brian said nothing. He stared at Wind and did not blink.
“Um, let’s try someone else,” said Uncle Timothy nervously. “Rachel Landon?”
Rachel looked up, startled. She’d been drawing in the sand with a finger. “What?”
“Tell us about your father. I believe I’ve met him at Lawndale because of your sister Jodie. She did such excellent work! I can’t wait to have you in class, too!”
Rachel’s face fell. “My dad’s okay,” she said, her voice barely audible.
“Tell us more about him,” Mr. O’Neill prompted. “Do the two of you ever have any conflicts?”
Rachel thought, then shook her head no.
“None? None at all?”
“No,” she said with finality.
“That’s very unusual,” Mr. O’Neill said. “Teenagers and their parents always have issues on which they disagree. It’s perfectly normal. Every family has at least a few screaming fights that last for days.”
Rachel shook her head again. “Not us,” she said.
Uncle Timothy considered this. “Do you and your father ever talk?” he asked.
Rachel grimaced. After a pause, she shook her head no, looking down.
“Ohhh,” said both Uncle Timothy and Uncle Wind, and they looked at each other in knowing ways. “No communication at all,” Uncle Wind said, picking up. “Wow, that’s pretty bad. So, he’s kind of like cut you completely out—”
“My dad’s sort of messed up,” interrupted Sam in a loud voice. Everyone turned to look at him, even the startled Rachel. “He lets my mom walk all over him,” Sam went on. “It makes me sick. He won’t stand up to my mom or my sister at all.”
“Yeah,” Chris put in darkly. “He won’t do anything.”
“He stays in his study when he gets home,” said Sam, nodding. “He’s messed up.”
“Oh,” said Uncle Timothy, looking from Rachel to Sam. He finally decided to continue with Sam. “So, how do you get along with your father?”
“I don’t,” said Sam. “He doesn’t want to deal with us, with Chris and me. Mom and Sandi run all over him. Chris and I just do our own thing. It’s not so bad. We do what we want.”
“Yeah,” said Chris. “We stay up late a lot. That’s cool.”
“Well,” said Uncle Wind, “is there like any kind of a father-figure sort of person, you know, either male or female, you know, that you can like look up to?”
Sam considered this. He decided not to drag Uncle Anthony into this mess. “I dunno,” he said. “Can’t think of one.”
Mr. O’Neill’s face fell in sympathy. “That’s too bad,” he said. “You might consider Wind over here,” he said, indicating Wind Lane. “He’s extremely sensitive to the needs of others. He’d be a perfect role model.” Wind beamed in response.
Sam thought he would rather cut his own throat than pretend that Wind Lane was his father. Maybe Tom Griffin wasn’t such a total loser after all.
“You know,” Uncle Timothy went on, “perhaps the best ones to ask about father figures would be our fraternal twins from Cabins Eleven and Six. Aryan? Courtney?”
Everyone turned to look at a dark-haired boy and blonde-haired girl who sat together near the front of the gathering. “I’m Adrian,” said the boy. “What did we do wrong now?”
“Oh, sorry, Adrian! You did nothing wrong!” Uncle Timothy looked stricken. “The two of you are Uncle Wind’s real-life nephew and niece, and I thought you might tell us a little about your own experiences with your father and with your Uncle Wind!”
Uncle Wind suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Um, you know,” he began with a nervous look at the twins, “that might not be—”
“Our dad ran off,” said the blonde girl, Courtney, without hesitation. “We don’t know where he is. We live with our mom.”
“Sometimes,” Adrian put in.
“Yeah, sometimes,” said Courtney.
Mr. O’Neill blinked. “Okay, well, were there any issues you had with your father before he—”
“We don’t remember him,” said Adrian.
“Mom says he ran off to find himself right after we were born,” Courtney added.
“He’s still looking, we think, so he probably got lost,” Adrian finished.
Mr. O’Neill appeared horrified. “But surely you have other father figures available to you!” he said. “Uncle Wind, for instance.”
“Dude—” said Wind, but it was too late.
“We haven’t seen you since we all met at Grandma Amanda’s two years ago,” said Courtney to Wind. “You never come by Mom’s house.”
“Last time we saw you before that,” said Adrian, “you said we stole your hash pipe, but we didn’t. It was your old girlfriend, Bam-Bam Bethany, who stole it.”
“I didn’t say that!” Wind shouted. “And she did not!”
“Yes, you did, and so did she,” Courtney said, unfazed. “You said we took your stash, but it was Bam-Bam Bethany who flushed it ‘cause you went through her purse looking for more money to buy—”
“That’s a lie!” Wind shouted. He got to his feet in rage. “Take that back!”
“Bethany also said you were a weenie,” Courtney plowed steadily on. “She said you were the weeniest weenie of a man she’d ever known, and you had the weeniest weenie she’d ever seen, whatever that meant.”
Wind’s face turned an amazing shade of purple. Without warning, he burst into tears and ran from the gathering back to his cabin, where he shut the door. It didn’t help. Everyone in camp could hear him howl.
“Oh, no!” cried Uncle Timothy, himself in tears. “I’ll be right back!” He got up from the sand and hurried after Wind. Everyone watched with unsympathetic interest as Mr. O’Neill knocked on Wind’s door, calling his name.
“Good job,” Adrian whispered to Courtney.
She held out a hand, palm up. Adrian slapped it. “Piece of cake,” Courtney said, slapping Adrian’s hand in return.
At this point, a dusty white van pulled into the campgrounds and came to a halt by the main cabin.
“Uncle Anthony’s back!” Link shouted.
The gathering broke up instantly as all the campers leapt up from the beach and ran for the van. “Uncle Anthony!” they screamed, “Uncle Anthony! Welcome back! What did you bring us?”
Anthony DeMartino got out of the van with a maniacal grin, wearing his Okay-to-Cry T-shirt inside out so the weepy face didn’t show. “You’re all ANIMALS!” he shouted, his bad eye threatening to pop out with each emphasized word. “You’re like MONKEYS who think it’s feeding time at the ZOO! Well, if that’s the way it’s going to BE—” He pulled a grocery bag from the van and quickly began pulling items from it, hurling them into the air “—so BE it!”
Packages of cupcakes and doughnuts, bags of chips and candy, juice boxes, and sticks of jerky flew into the mob. Campers screamed in hysterical adoration, snatching their prizes. “I found a sale on this PIG slop at a BARgain mart!” Uncle Anthony shouted, emptying a second sack at the crowd around him. “I regret to rePORT that they were fresh out of RICE cakes and TOFU! I hope you can forGIVE me! Now, as SOON as you barBARians are FED, I want to take all of you out for a long HIKE and a SWIM!”
In such a way was the trauma of the “Dad: Bad, Sad, Mad, or Glad?” session erased from the minds of all involved, except Uncle Wind, whose tormented outpourings were drowned out by the gleeful cheers of the campers.
“SO,” Uncle Anthony said after the sixth and last sack of goodies was emptied, “what exactly did I MISS while I was GONE?”
The remainder of the day passed swiftly. It was shortly after the campers left the Dark Caverns of Doom and before they reached Mad Mountain on their afternoon hike (sans all other “uncles” except Anthony) that Link found himself marching next to Mr. DeMartino. It was the moment he’d been waiting for. He went for it.
“Uncle Anthony,” he said, “do you have any kids?”
“Ah, no,” said Mr. DeMartino, mopping his face with a handkerchief as he walked. “Fate decreed that I would never be BLESSED, or CURSED, however you SEE it, with offspring of my own. InSTEAD, I chose a career that would allow me to have a THOUSAND kids, but still allow me to give them back to their PARENTS at the end of the DAY. It was, in the END, the WISEST thing to do.”
“Oh,” said Link. He fell silent. He’d been afraid of an answer like that.
“BUT,” Mr. DeMartino went on, “if I WAS to have spawn to look after me in my old AGE, as doubtful a FUTURE as that may BE, I could not be happier than with a kid like yourSELF. You underSTAND the imPORtance of seizing the MOMENT, making the most of your LIFE while you still can. I only wish I’d figured that out when I was YOUR age, instead of learning it so LATE in my TIME as to be practically USEless. You can’t sit on your butt in your room and moan about what happened AGES ago when you wet the BED, or emptied your MOTHER’S favorite vodka down the SINK, or went into Saigon and caught something BAD from your favorite HOOKER. That’s all DONE. It doesn’t matter anymore, and no one CARES about it but YOU. All that really matters is the HERE and NOW, TAKING what little GLORY you CAN from this filthy PIGsty we call LIFE. If you don’t make something of yourself NOW, it’s possible you never WILL. Seize what joy you can, WHEN you can, and your life will be GOOD.”
Mr. DeMartino turned to Link with a pop-eyed gaze. “Are you FOLLOWing me there, son?”
Link nodded his head so hard that he thought he would break his neck. “Thanks!” he said. “Thanks very much!”
“You’re more than WELcome,” said Uncle Anthony. “Now, get up to the front of the line and tell that damn KID up there to stop throwing rocks at that SQUIRREL. Brian Taylor will be the DEATH of me YET. And I thought his SISTER was hopeless.”
“Okay!” Link hurried off. His face was radiant. Mr. DeMartino had called him son! He’d actually said it!
From somewhere behind Mr. DeMartino, Sam looked on and smiled.
“Tired yet?” came a deep, feminine voice from behind Sam.
He turned and saw Rachel. “I’m doing okay,” he said. After a pause, he went on. “Look, I’m sorry about earlier, okay? I didn’t mean it.”
“You didn’t mean what?” Like Sam, Rachel was sweating rivers and her T-shirt was soaked through, but neither of them was terribly tired yet.
“I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
Rachel nodded. She could tell that Sam was still going out that night, chasing after the damn monster, but she didn’t feel like talking about it now. She had something else on her mind. “Thanks for getting Uncle Wind and Uncle Timothy off my case earlier,” she said, “if that’s what you were doing.”
Sam smiled. Seize the moment, he thought, like Uncle Anthony told Link. “No prob,” he said. “It was getting stupid. They can pick on me all they want. I don’t care.”
“Did you mean what you said about your dad? About how he is?”
Sam’s smile faded. “Yeah. He’s like that. Mom and my sister walk all over him.”
“You’re not like that,” Rachel said. She stopped, as if too much had been spoken.
Sam mulled over what to do next. “I’m sorry you and your dad don’t talk much,” he finally said.
Rachel shrugged. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does. You’re all right. He should know that.”
“How would you know?”
“That I’m all right?”
Sam almost laughed, but wisely stopped short of it. “I just do,” he finished. “I mean, you are. You’re all right.”
Rachel said nothing at first. They had slowed their pace until they were at the end of the column, behind the last kid by over thirty feet.
“I don’t know if I am all right,” Rachel finally said. “I’m not special or anything.”
“I like you,” said Sam. He didn’t dare look at her. They walked a few paces more. “You’re special to me,” he added, his throat dry.
Rachel straightened as she walked. She inhaled deeply. “I don’t know why.”
“Well, you are.” Sam swallowed. “I think you’re beautiful. I mean, like inside, and outside, too.” His voice almost ran out. “I think you’re great.”
They were fifty feet behind the other campers now. The last kid in sight ahead of them ran around a bend in the forested trail and was gone.
“I like you, too,” said Rachel. She came to a stop and looked up into Sam’s eyes. The other campers were far, far away.
It seemed so natural for their arms to reach for each other, all sins forgiven, and their fingers to touch each other’s skin, and their eyes to be held by such fear and longing and need as to set fire to the air between them, and their faces to draw near and their eyes to close and their mouths to meet, and then surrender. A hydrogen bomb did not have the power of that first mortal kiss.
And no one saw it. Not even they.
As the day turned to evening, the bunkmates of Cabin 13 made a concerted effort to build up their resources for the expedition to come. Snacks from Uncle Anthony were stored away in backpacks with flashlights and extra batteries, Chris’s disposable camera, Link’s cell phone, Brian’s crossbow, and an assortment of pocket and kitchen knives either secretly brought into camp or secretly taken from the Nutrition Cabin around dinnertime. Several long coils of light rope were located and taken from around the camp, though the Cabin 13 campers were not entirely sure what they would be useful for—tying up the monster, maybe, or scaling down cliffs, something like that. All monster-hunting expeditions in the movies and on TV took rope with them, though, so they did as well.
Other campers had resources as well, though no one else knew what Cabin 13 was up to. Brian negotiated the purchase of a large assortment of cherry bombs, large firecrackers, and smoke bombs from an older boy who had been waiting to use the fireworks outside the counselors’ cabins on the last night of camp. Link gave away all of his Magic: The Gathering cards in exchange for a powerful wrist slingshot that could drive a penny into a tree. Link secretly test-fired a pebble the same size as a cherry bomb and was pleased to find the combination worked very well, the stone flying several hundred feet.
Preparations moved along quite well, in short, except for one problem.
“They’ve hooked up,” said Chris glumly. He was watching his big brother and Rachel standing together on the beach, tossing pebbles into the camp’s small lake.
“He just wants to get some,” said Brian in disgust.
“Get some what?” said Chris.
Brian and Link weren’t in the mood to laugh. “If you gotta ask, you’re too young to know,” said Brian sourly.
“I am not!” Chris snapped. “And you don’t know, either!”
Link shook his head, ignoring Chris. “I think it’s more than that.”
Brian snorted. “She’s a girl. What else are they good for?”
Link gave up. Brian was a hard case. “Forget it,” he said, shaking his head. “Uncle Timothy’s coming over anyway to break it up.”
Uncle Timothy O’Neill was indeed walking toward Rachel and Sam at a quick pace. “Sam!” he called. “Sam, I wonder if you wouldn’t mind helping Uncle Wind and I look for a coil of rope we were planning to use for our evening therapy session. It seems to have disappeared from outside the main cabin earlier today.”
Sam and Rachel both sighed. “Sure, whatever,” said Sam. He turned to Rachel. “Catch you in a while, I guess.”
“Yeah.” Rachel smiled at him, and he smiled back. She was beautiful. He used to think she was so sad all the time, but now she was radiant as sunlight. It was as if everything else was an old black-and-white photo, and she was the only real color that existed in the entire universe.
And he loved her. He loved her so much it was impossible to think clearly. He loved the smell of her hair and her neck, the softness of her skin, the lightning-hot kisses she gave. He loved her smile and her laugh, the fantastic strands of gold woven through her large eyes, how small and precious she seemed in his arms, though she was almost as tall as he was.
And they fit together perfectly. When you meet someone and you fit together perfectly when you hold each other and kiss, everything at the right height and in the right place like side-by-side pieces of a puzzle, you know in your bones that you really have something, you’ve nailed it for sure, and you never, ever forget it.
Uncle Timothy was talking. Sam tried to clear his head. “What?” he said. “I missed that.”
“Oh,” said Mr. O’Neill, “I was saying, we were planning to have a Trust Circle tonight, you know, with everyone holding the rope in a big, um, circle, and we’ll do the Chant of Togetherness. Assuming we find the rope, I mean.”
Sam scratched his arm and wished he were back with Rachel. “Why not have everyone just hold hands?” he said.
“Oh, we can’t have that too much. Young people have all these raging hormones, and sometimes their judgment is clouded by too much physical contact. It leads to lawsuits, all sorts of problems. I’m sure you understand.” Uncle Timothy gave him a peculiar look. “For example, you and Miss Landon are good friends, it seems, but you both appear to be mature enough to know your proper interpersonal boundaries and respect each other’s, um, you know, uh, physical space. That’s the best way to put it.”
Sam nodded. He did respect Rachel’s physical space. She had one hell of a physical space. It was the hottest, nicest physical space in the galaxy.
Uncle Timothy was talking again. “I’m sorry,” Sam interrupted. “What?”
“I said, you should really think about becoming a counselor next year for our camp. We could use someone a little older than our regular kids, but close enough to them in age so as to understand their special needs. If you wouldn’t mind thinking about that, I would appreciate it.”
Sam was repelled. He actually forgot about Rachel for a few seconds. Sam Griffin, a counselor at Camp Cry-a-Lot? Pigs would build rockets and colonize Mars first. “I’ll, uh, think about it,” he said.
“Great!” Uncle Timothy had reached the main cabin and was surveying the area. “Um, just look around the grounds here and see if anything turns up.” He waved and headed off for the lake again.
Sam shrugged and began walking in an aimless circle around the main cabin. The log pile came into view, he thought of the axe that chopped it up, and then he remembered he was supposed to go look for the Hot Lake Monster that night, with the other guys. Suddenly, Rachel’s plea for him to dump the whole thing made a lot of sense. What good would it do? It probably was some tape recording of a lion put out over a loudspeaker. He would rather hang around Rachel—but she’d be in her cabin at midnight, asleep. She sure wasn’t going with them to hunt for the monster. Or maybe he could see if she’d come out for a walk or something, without the counselors knowing. Sam grimaced. No, Rachel wasn’t likely to do that, but maybe she would. They’d get into a lot of trouble if they were caught, but they could be careful. He was sure it could be worked out.
For some reason, he thought of Uncle Anthony walking in front of him on the hike earlier in the day. What had he said, something about going for it, seizing the moment, finding the joy you could before it was too late. He could let Rachel sleep, maybe, but he could go out with the guys for one night, this once. He had Chris and Brian and Link to think of. What if they went without him and broke a leg or met a bear or something? He still couldn’t bring himself to rat on them. It just wasn’t right.
Sam walked around the cabin twice before it occurred to him that the other guys might have picked up the rope in preparation for going out that night. “Oh,” he said aloud. Of course they had.
He looked around the cabin’s exterior, then carefully wandered inside, through the unlocked door.
The main cabin was a single large room with a wooden floor and a high, open ceiling showing the rafters. In the room were three desks and chairs, filing cabinets, bookshelves, maps on the walls, and the other usual things one expects an administrative center to have. The “uncles” were out.
Including, Sam noticed, a single-bladed, two-handed axe carefully stuck behind the cabinet next to the door. Sam left it alone and walked around slowly, observing everything. Within two minutes, he’d also found another box of highway flares and a red plastic container of gasoline inside one of the metal cabinets. It held a gallon and appeared to be full. Probably for filling the camp van or the emergency power generator, he reasoned—but gasoline had other uses. Sam had watched all the Jurassic Park movies and a hundred other man-vs.-monster flicks besides. He knew lots of things he could do with a gallon of gasoline. That monster was toast.
Rather, the monster was toast if Sam had the guts to take the gas. He thought about it, and he realized he did. If they didn’t need it, he would not use it. It would be up to him to make sure no one—except the monster—was harmed. He decided to do it.
A new thought occurred to him: How would he get everything out of the cabin after dark? He wandered over to examine the cabin door. The door had no deadbolt or internal lock; a heavy padlock was all that kept it securely shut. Sam studied the padlock latch and saw that he could remove the entire thing with a screwdriver. He had a pocketknife with a flathead screwdriver attachment that would work. Better still, the cabin had no security alarm. As long as no one saw him, he had it made.
Sam cleared his head as he left the cabin, carrying nothing with him yet. Rachel would forgive him if he went out tonight, one more time. He was sure she would. He hoped.
The sun was low over the hills to the southwest when Sam walked back into Cabin 13 and closed the door behind him.
“Look what the cat dragged in,” said Link from his top bunk. “Uncle Timothy chew you out about Rachel?”
“Nah,” said Sam. His face reddened. “He lost some rope.”
“If it’s that rope that was by the main cabin,” said Brian, “we got it. Got a bunch of stuff, no thanks to you.”
“What?” said Sam. “I got some stuff for us.”
“Got something from your girlfriend, you mean?”
His eyes cold, Sam turned to Brian and pointed at his chest. “You shut up about Rachel. You got that?”
“So, what’d you get?” said Link quickly. “Tell us what you got.”
Sam and Brian finished their stare-off with Sam looking away. He got down on his knees and pulled the rice-cakes box from under his bunk. “I got these,” he said, and opened the container.
Everyone leaned over to see. “Those flares?” said Link, getting off his bunk.
“Red flares, in case we need ‘em hunting around on the other side of the fence. I don’t know what kind of monster’s back there, but I’ll bet it doesn’t like fire.”
Brian picked up a flare and studied it with interest. “So, you taking all of these?”
“No. Everyone’s getting a few. We’ve gotta split up some of this stuff so each of us has some equipment, in case we get separated. I know where we can get an axe, too. I’m taking it.”
“An axe?” said Chris. “You mean like Gimli uses?”
“I ain’t no dwarf, dope,” said Sam in a friendly tone, “but yeah, a big axe. It should come in handy.” Even as he said that, he knew he was only talking big. He didn’t want to find himself in a position in which he did need to use an axe in close fighting.
Brian helped himself to six of the road flares and pulled his backpack over to see if he had room for them.
“Don’t ignite those unless we need ‘em,” said Sam. “Chris, you can have some, too, but be careful with them.”
“Okay,” said Chris, but he made no move to get a flare.
Link grabbed a half-dozen flares for himself. “Anything else you have for us?” he asked. “Dynamite? Machine gun? Howitzer?”
“Gasoline can, full to the brim, back in the main cabin. I’ll get it after dark.”
Link, Brian, and Chris eyed Sam with surprise and respect. “Well, boom,” said Link in a low voice.
“You gotta be careful with that stuff,” said Brian. “It’s not like lighter fluid. My dad used it on the grill once when he was cooking steaks and burned all the hair off his arms. It blew up big time. I thought he’d set the whole yard on fire.”
“He was lucky, then,” said Sam. “We’ll just have to make sure we’re a long way away from the gas when we set if off.”
“Is that safe?” asked Chris.
Sam, Link, and Brian laughed. “Don’t worry,” said Sam. “We’ll be careful.”
Link, Chris, and Brian showed Sam what they’d managed to scrounge up, and everyone felt a glow of satisfaction that they were far better prepared than before to find the Hot Lake Monster. “We can hit it at long range with the crossbow and slingshot,” said Sam. “Just be careful and make sure you aren’t shooting at somebody’s ass instead of the thing, whatever it is.”
“Unless the thing’s actually a recording,” said Link.
“It’s not a damn recording,” said Brian in disgust. “It’s real, you moron. Stop thinking like that.”
“I think it’s real, too,” said Sam. “It’d be stupid to play a monster noise to keep people away, ‘cause that never works. Weird stuff draws people to see it, you know?”
“Kind of like what we’re doing, right?” said Chris with a smile.
Sam gave his little brother a smile. “Yeah, I guess you’re right. Just like us.”
“One thing,” said Link. “You’ve got that axe, and we’ve got some knives and stuff, but is any of this going to make a dent in that thing when we find it?”
“We’d better hope it does,” said Brian.
“Or we’re camper steaks,” said Link.
“I was thinking hot dogs,” said Sam, grinning.
“Wieners,” said Brian, “like Uncle Breakwind.” Everyone laughed. Chris collapsed on the floor, helpless with mirth. It went on for a minute before someone knocked on the cabin door. The laughter shut off, just like that.
“Jesus!” said Sam. In seconds, the flare box and all other items were hidden away under beds or pillows.
“Hey,” came Uncle Wind’s quavering voice. “We’re supposed to meet over the lake now. We found some more rope, so we can have the Trust Circle after all, so let’s go do it, okay?”
“Okay!” shouted Sam. “Be right out!”
A two-minute scramble insured that everything was put away securely, as well as circumstances allowed. The four boys left and went off to the Trust Circle with the other campers. Brian belched in the middle of the Chant of Togetherness, and several kids laughed so hard they stumbled into the lake. As a joke, other kids ran to get them out, and a water fight ensued, after which the participants were sent to their cabins to dry off. All four boys in Cabin 13 got soaked and loved it. The sun went down, and the day was over for everyone at the Okay-to-Cry Corral.
Wide awake in the depths of the night, Rachel Landon lay on top of her blanket and sheets, wearing her nightshirt and an old pair of gym shorts. She stared up at the faint outline of the bunk above her, barely visible in the oven-warm darkness inside Cabin 7. One of the girls in the next bunk snored lightly in concert with the crickets outside.
I’ve done it now, Rachel thought, alone in the darkness. Boy, oh boy, I’ve really done it now.
Rachel closed her eyes. The theater of her mind opened. In it, Rachel walked through the front door of her parents’ gigantic home in Lawndale. Her mother, Michele, was in the great room at her study table, reading something on the screen of her executive-model laptop. Her mother tried to keep up with the fast-moving world of business that she left three years ago, to be a stay-at-home mother for an unplanned baby, little Evan. Watching the world pass her by ate Michele alive. She fished the Internet and networks all her old friends for jobs, hoping to put Evan in daycare and reclaim her glory days as a corporate vice president, the highest-paid African-American woman in the state, but catching up with the world was very hard once she had dropped out of it. She’d been gone a long time, and the world had moved on with heartless speed.
Rachel knew about all this. Her mother talked about little else these days.
Hi, Mom. I’m home.
What? Oh, you’re back early. How was camp?
Great. I met someone there.
Fine. You can bring her over if you clean up your room. You left it a mess when you took off for camp.
It’s not a girl. It’s a guy.
Michele looked up from her computer. Are you in trouble? she asked.
I’m not in trouble, Mother. Not yet.
Smart mouths say stupid things, Rachel. What do you mean, you met a guy?
I met a boy at camp and he was so sweet to me. He touched my hair and he held me in his arms, he held me so close I could feel everything about him, and then he kissed me, he put his mouth on me, all over me, and I liked it. I let him do it.
Rachel’s mother stared as if Rachel had grown four heads. You WHAT?
You know what else? Rachel said. When he kissed me, I got all weak inside, and it made my knees shake, and I felt like I had to lie down right there in the woods with him while he was kissing me. I didn’t do it, I really didn’t do it, but if he kisses me again like that, I might. I might lie down right there, anywhere we are, right on my back, and I might let him do whatever he wants to with me, and I’ll help him. I’ll let him have me.
Wait a moment, Mother, there’s more. When that boy kissed me, I started to burn up inside, like a fire was raging in me, heating me up till I turned into steam, and my brain flew off into the clouds. I was hot. I was so hot I about burned my underwear off.
The next time he kisses me, Mother, it’s going to be just me and him, this boy who smells so good I could bite him, I could eat him up, this boy who fits right up against me like a new skin, and how do you like the news from camp so far, Mother?
Michele Landon did not breathe. The white was visible all around her eyes. She completely forgot her laptop computer and the world of business passing her by. She seemed to be moments from her first heart attack.
And guess what else, Mother?
Her mother sat motionless in Rachel’s crosshairs. She could do nothing else.
He’s white, Mother. He’s Sam Griffin. His mom’s Linda Griffin, the snotty TV station lady you can’t stand. That’s the guy I kissed.
The bomb slammed home, dead on target. Michele Landon’s head exploded from the inside out. Flames roared out from her ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. Tongues of yellow-orange heat blasted out every window in the Landons’ beautiful mansion in the lovely gated Crewe Neck subdivision of Lawndale.
He’s white, Mother, and I’m black, and I don’t give a crap. He touched me. He looks at me like I’m the only woman there is, like I’m the most valuable thing in the universe, like I really mean something to him. He looks at me like I’m special. I want to be special, Mother. I’m a nothing, I’m not even the faintest shadow of Jodie or Evan. I’m as invisible as the air and people look right through me every day, but this boy sees me, he alone of everyone in the world can see me, and he likes what he sees, and I like that. I need that. I need it bad. I’m not a nothing, I know I’m supposed to be a someone and I don’t need a boy to tell me that, but damn it, no one else sees me! You don’t see me, Dad doesn’t see me, all that people see when they look at me is Jodie, Jodie the Wonder Woman. They see the person I can’t be and will never be, but not me!
Look at ME! I’m Rachel, Mother! I’m not Jodie! I’m not going to an Ivy League college or make the honor roll or write plays or be the President of the United Freaking States of America! I’m just Rachel, can’t you see? Can’t you see me? Can’t you love me for who I am? I think he loves me, this boy who touched me. I think he loves me, but even if he doesn’t, at least he can see me, and that’s all I want. He can use me, he can have me any way he likes, he can do anything he wants to with me, just as long as he can see me. But I hope he loves me, I really do. I could really use that, being loved. I hope he loves me, this good-smelling boy, because I am pretty sure now that I love him, too.
Michele Landon detonated. Lawndale exploded in white-hot flames. Everything was gone.
The theater of Rachel’s mind closed its curtains in silence. No one clapped.
Rachel covered her eyes to hide her face from the darkness of the cabin, but it was impossible to hide so many tears when they came so fast. She shook as she wept, but she never made a sound.
I do love him, she thought. I do love him. I do. I’ve really done it now.
She cried and cried until she was completely cried out, and then she lay on her mattress, sniffing and wiping her eyes, miserable in love and thankful to God for it. It was the best misery ever.
I love you, she mouthed into the darkness to Sam, wherever he was. I love you.
And it was then that she heard something like low thunder, perhaps in response to her words. Through the shuttered window of Cabin 7, she could hear it. She sat up in bed, listening to the echoes of the rumbling sound fade and die.
It wasn’t thunder, though. It was the monster.
She lay there motionless for a moment more, then carefully got out of bed. She made her way to the shuttered window and listened, but the sound was gone.
Sam’s going to hunt for the monster of Hot Lake, she thought. That idiot. I could kill him.
She got dressed as quickly as she could, leaving everything behind except the sweatpants she pulled on and her high socks and hiking sneakers. She made her way out of Cabin 7 as quietly as possible. No one awoke as she closed the door behind her and headed off for Cabin 13, looking around her with every step.
If you went looking for that monster, Sam, she thought, I’m going to hit you. I’m going to kick you in the ass and make it hurt. How dare you do a stupid thing like that? You big dumb idiot. I could kill you, Sam, I love you so much. Don’t go. Don’t make me hit you. Don’t . . .
Two other shadows were visible ahead of her, near the main cabin. Rachel gasped, got hold of herself again, then set off steadily for them. The shadows had been whispering, but they stopped when Rachel got close.
“Sam?” she whispered. “Sam, is that you?”
“No,” said one of the shadows, a girl. “I’m Courtney. This is Adrian.”
“Hi,” said the Adrian shadow.
“Hi,” said Rachel. “I’m sorry. I was looking around.”
“For Sam?” said Courtney.
Rachel sighed. Big mouths spill big secrets, her mother would say.
“He’s gone,” said Adrian. “Everyone in cabin thirteen is gone. We saw them go about a half hour ago.”
“What?” Rachel said, barely able to keep her voice down. “They already left?”
“Yeah. They went off that way.” Courtney pointed. “They broke into the big cabin here and took some stuff. We caught them, but they let us use the phone before they screwed the padlock back on, so we wouldn’t tell on them. And they let us watch Brian Taylor put a bucket of—”
Adrian poked Courtney in the ribs.
“All right, I won’t tell about that!” she said in an aggrieved tone.
“See, we’re running away, sort of,” said Adrian to Rachel.
“Well, not really,” said Courtney. “We’re getting a ride. Uncle Wind got mad at us for making him look like a ding-dong earlier, which he is.”
“He’s a big wimpy jerk,” said Adrian.
“He is,” said Courtney. “He hates kids. He said he was going to whack us good when no one was looking, so we called Officer Margolis and she’s coming to pick us up. She’s a nice lady cop with the Carter County Child Protection Agency. She’s overseeing our . . . our . . . what’s it called?”
“Delinquency prevention placement to keep us from running away from Mom all the time because of all her stupid boyfriends and because she’s never home and because she drinks.”
“Like a fish,” said Adrian, nodding solemnly.
“And she snores like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Officer Margolis should be here in—” Adrian checked his glow-in-the-dark watch “—twenty-five minutes.”
“If she took the freeway,” Courtney added.
“She will,” said Adrian. “She likes us.”
“She’s strict, though. We have to learn something each time we’re staying with her, waiting for the CPA to tell us if we have to go back to Mom’s or not.”
“I bet she makes us do creative writing again,” Adrian muttered. “That sucks.”
“We get ice cream, though, and Cartoon Network until ten p.m.”
“And she’s got that big rabbit, Fang the Flemish Giant. He’s cuddly and fun.”
“Look,” interrupted Rachel, “I have to go get those guys. They went after that stupid Hot Lake Monster, and they’re going to get hurt. I have to go.”
“Oh. Here.” Adrian thrust a shape at her, and she took it. It was a large-beam flashlight.
“And this,” said Courtney. She handed Rachel a small, heavy tube like a cigarette lighter. “Pepper spray,” she said. “Don’t aim it at yourself. I have three more, in case Uncle Wind or some bad guy bothers us.”
“I have five,” Adrian said. “All different kinds.”
“I won’t need it, but thanks! I gotta run!” said Rachel quickly. “Good luck!”
“You, too!” Courtney called softly as Rachel hurried away until her shadowy form faded into the darkness by the woods. “We’ll see you again, maybe!”
“Unless the monster gets her, like he probably just got her boyfriend,” Adrian whispered.
“Oh, I hope not,” said Courtney. “They were so cute together.”
Adrian sighed. “Yeah,” he whispered. “Bummer.”
Rachel snapped on the flashlight and found the beam was enormous. She jogged briefly up the forested trail toward the back of the camp, but soon began to run. The images of trees jumped and dodged in the light as she ran, looking all too much like scenes from The Blair Witch Project, which Rachel hated because watching the bouncing camera images made her ill. Now, however, the images frightened her to death.
She was starting to believe in the monster again.
“Sam?” she called, ten minutes up the trail. “Sam? It’s Rachel!”
She ran on. She wished she had brought her watch. The path twisted and turned.
“Sam? Sam, Chris, Brian, you guys, where are you?”
She ran on. Daggers stabbed into her tired lungs. More bends in the path, more curves, more turns she half-remembered.
“Sam! Sam, damn it! Chris, Link, Brian, where the hell are you?”
Her voice echoed across the low hills.
She heard screams.
She slowed down and stopped and gasped for air, flashlight swinging from her right hand. She listened to the screams. It was the boys from Cabin 13, all of them screaming. She knew it without a doubt.
“SAM!” she screamed back. Her lungs ached. “SAM! SAAAM!”
The Hot Lake Monster roared. It sounded different, pressured, like the cry of a wounded or angered monster. It drowned out the screams.
Rachel ran. Sam, she thought, where are you? Where are you? She saw the fence along the top of the ridge. Gasping heavily, she forced herself to climb the steep ridge, pulling herself up on handfuls of weeds and brush. She had forgotten about the snakes; they weren’t important now. She saw where the boys had widened the gap under the fence, removed stones and dug away dirt to crawl under. She crawled under the fence, too, skinning her arms and legs on rocks and wires on the fence, and she almost dropped the big-beam flashlight down the slope.
On the other side of the ridge was a valley between the hills, a half-forested valley that ran down into blackness. She thought she could hear someone still screaming. It sounded like Chris. Rachel swept the area around with her light. Overgrown brush, weeds, scattered trees, rocks, but no trails, no way to know where the boys had gone from here. She squinted at the ground, looking for footprints, looking for anything that would tell her where—
A burning red light attracted her attention. Far down in the valley, the sparkling red pinpoint rose and fell in an arc—and a staggering Light went out where it hit, a house-sized fireball that shot into the air, licking the night with yellow-orange flames. Rachel felt the heat flash on her face and arms, and she stepped back in fear. For less than a second, everything in the valley fell into bright relief before her eyes.
On the valley floor was a black lake, around which was an overgrown wasteland of tall grass dotted with dead trees and large rocks. The vast fireball climbed up from a burning spot in a clearing near the lake. A large thing moved on the far side of the flame, a thing almost hidden from view by the light itself. A tiny human figure ran from the base of the fireball, visible only as a moving shadow in the fireball’s light. She could not tell who it was. The fireball faded as it rose upward, and she lost sight of the figure and everything else but a dozen small fires by the lake.
Rachel flinched as the deafening thunder of the explosion rang around her. As it passed, she heard the boys’ screams and cries again, mixed with violent roars and hisses from the throat of a beast. Some of the boys had survived, whatever had happened—as had the monster, or whatever it was.
Without another thought, Rachel set off as fast as she could, down into the valley of night and fire.
Brian knew a lot of dumb-blonde jokes. He told dozens of them, one right after the other, on the hike to the fence. It made the trip seem shorter. It also lessened the fear each of the four campers felt as he considered what he was about to do, though that fear did not go away.
Sandy-haired Chris gripped his little camera and a flashlight. He didn’t understand all of the jokes Brian was telling, but he laughed at them anyway. I’m glad Quinn’s not a blonde, he thought. She’d never do anything so stupid. She’s too beautiful to do that. He wondered if she would kiss him when this was over, and what that would feel like—it would be great, that was for sure. Her skin would be soft, and she would smell really good, like perfume, and her lips would be warm and soft, too. He’d never been so sure of a thing in his life. Would she marry him? That would rock! If she didn’t see all of his famous pictures of the Hot Lake Monster when this was over, he’d have to find a way to tell her what he’d done—
—assuming, of course, that he was still alive. Chris’s imagination quickly conjured up several possible images of the Hot Lake Monster and how it might kill him in horrible ways. He shoved the images aside as Brian finished another joke.
“‘Oh, my gosh!’ said the blonde. ‘Don’t you have a vase?’”
Chris laughed aloud. He wasn’t sure he understood that one. The “legs in the air” part was a little confusing.
Link groaned aloud but smiled. “Oh, man. That was low.”
Sam sighed and shook his head as he walked. “Where did you learn all these?”
Brian grinned. “My dad told ‘em to me.”
“Your dad?” Sam said. “Wow.”
“He knows a million of them.”
“Jeez, he must.” Sam adjusted the two flares he had stuck in his belt. He didn’t want them to fall out if things got tense. He also worried nonstop about starting a fire in the forest. He could be held responsible for anything that went wrong, including burning down the woods and O’Neill’s camp, letting the littler kids get burned or injured, or any other nightmarish outcome. This whole idea of hunting for the Hot Lake Monster was looking pretty lame, if not downright dangerous. Now that he was neck deep in this mess, he had to make sure nothing bad happened, no matter what.
The fact that he was carrying a stolen two-handed axe with the flashlight in his left hand and a stolen gallon can of gasoline in his right hand (and stolen flares and ropes all around) wasn’t helping, either. Okay, he thought, the axe and gas weren’t stolen—they were borrowed. He was a camper, and that stuff was camp property, so it wasn’t stolen—but he still had gasoline! Was he insane, or what? What made him think bringing a can of gas into a forest at night along with campers armed with road flares and fireworks was a good idea? He swore to himself he’d never open the gas can for any reason. He’d bring it back to camp and hide it in the main cabin again before morning. Sam felt a rush of relief at this plan. He’d make it work out, no problem. No one else would find out what he’d done. It would be like nothing had happened at all.
Sam’s relief was short lived. More likely than meeting up with the monster in the woods tonight was the possibility of running into careless hunters or sociopathic killers, or a rabid animal with claws and teeth, and Sam would be blamed for everything (again) because he was the oldest. He glanced over at Chris, trudging along nearby. If anything happened to Chris, he’d never get over it, even if his little brother was a pain sometimes. Chris was mostly okay for a little brother, and besides, you never let your family get hurt or killed. That was the bottom line, the dreadful weight on Sam’s shoulders.
And there was Rachel. Rachel would be bloody pissed if she found out Sam had gone out after the monster. He should have just told Uncle Timothy and derailed the whole thing. Sam thought of Rachel and felt empty inside. He loved her—he was sure of that now. She was worth it, worth it all, but he was blowing it off for nothing. He was worse than stupid. He should have stayed back in camp so he could spend more time with her. She would have been proud of him if he had done the right thing. He wanted her to think the best of him, and he was screwing it up royally.
“‘Boy, that was a close call!’ said the blonde. ‘My boss almost caught me!’”
Chris laughed again, for real this time. He got that one. That was good.
Sam sighed. “I’ve heard that one.” Actually, he hadn’t paid any attention to it and wasn’t in the mood to laugh anyway.
“New one to me,” said Link. “It was okay.” Brian must have a low opinion of blondes, Link thought. So must his Dad. Link wondered if Brian’s stepmother or his sister Brittany were blondes. Brian had never said a good thing about either one; he’d even called them “cows” once. That sure wasn’t a good sign, not that Link’s family was a lot better. At least Brian’s home sounded peaceful. Link’s home lacked both respect and anything resembling peace, and it was getting worse.
Link shrugged and tried to think of something else. He wondered if the camp had figured out yet that Cabin 13 was empty. That would create a real panic. Uncle Timothy and Uncle Breakwind would pee in their pants when they found out their campers had run off. The “uncles” would be hauled off in ambulances with mental breakdowns.
But what would Uncle Anthony think?
The bottom dropped out of Link’s stomach. He was deathly afraid Uncle Anthony would be really angry about Link’s running away to look for a monster. Sure, Uncle Anthony had said you had to seize the moment, go for it when you could, but did he really mean to do this? What if Uncle Anthony yelled at him or didn’t want to see him again? Not to mention if Link or one of the other guys got hurt. Link’s feet began to drag. He did not fear any monster half as much as he feared losing Uncle Anthony in his life.
“What’s the difference between a blonde and a space shuttle?” said Brian.
“Give up,” said Link, not caring what the answer was.
“Not everyone’s been inside a space shuttle.”
A second went by. Link laughed, caught off guard. He was glad to stop thinking about his troubles for a moment. Chris laughed, too, though he didn’t get this one.
“How many of these jokes do you know?” Sam asked, incredulous. “I can’t believe you can knock ‘em out just like that, bam bam bam.”
“I know lots of ‘em,” said Brian. It was true, he did. He understood them all, too. His information about sex came not just from the Internet, but also from spying on his sister and her lame-brained quarterback boyfriend, who weren’t always careful about where they made out or how far they went. Brian had no respect for Brittany at all. She was a brainless cow, and why his father idolized her was beyond him. Other guys thought she was hot, which was stupid but made disgusting sense. In Brian’s mind, Brittany was the basic model of what was wrong with women in general. She knew lots of amazing acrobatic tricks that other people thought were awesome, but that was purely for cheerleading, which was worthless. What girls had on the surface was all they had, as far as Brian was concerned, which was why he found Rachel to be especially troublesome.
Rachel certainly didn’t act like a brainless cow. That business when she bluffed everyone at poker the other day was a shocker. Brian could almost respect that, but then Rachel wimped out the night before, when she pussy-whipped Sam into taking everyone back to camp because she got a little shook up when the monster roared. That had worked out anyway, true, now that only the guys were going and they were loaded for bear. She’d probably gone along last night only because Sam went, but there was still a nagging doubt about her. Brian couldn’t pin it down, but she definitely had a wild hair. If she wasn’t so obviously hooked up with Sam and acted a little more like she had balls, he could respect her. That would be a first.
Brian tapped his assembled crossbow against his leg as he walked. He hoped Rachel wouldn’t rat to Uncle Timothy if she figured out where the four of them had gone. He suspected she would not. He would definitely respect that. Anyway, he had more pressing problems, like hunting this monster. He hoped his dad would finally be impressed with him if he killed the creature. That would be the coolest.
“Tell another one,” said Chris.
“Sure,” said Brian. “Why did the blonde get fired from her job sorting candy at the M&M factory?”
“I give up,” said Chris.
“She kept throwing out the W’s.”
Chris laughed. He got it. Link and Sam groaned aloud.
“God,” said Sam, “I can’t believe you—”
A roar echoed through the trees. It was not terribly far away. All four boys stopped on the trail and listened. After a moment, Brian put his foot in the crossbow’s stirrup and carefully cocked the weapon, keeping the weapon aimed down. Link put an inch-wide pebble in his slingshot and drew it back, aiming at the ground.
“Whoa,” said Chris as the echoes faded away.
Sam hefted the gas can and felt for one of his flares. He knew how to tear off the top wrapper and use the scratch-off patch to ignite one, having seen his dad use one to mark his car at night beside the Interstate. If he could pitch the gas at the monster, he could follow it up with a flare, and that would solve everything. Bringing the gasoline now seemed like a perfectly good idea. He would be careful with it, sure, but—
“I bet they heard that back at camp,” said Brian. He put his backpack on the ground and reached inside it.
“Don’t put anything in your bow yet,” Sam said, pointing at Brian. “Don’t waste shots.”
“I know what to do,” grumbled Brian. He took a bolt from his pack anyway and stuck it in his belt.
The four began walking again, carefully inspecting the trees with their lights. Shadows of tree limbs flickered across the forest. They walked through a different world, a dark world, and nothing about it was friendly in any way.
“The fence is right around the bend,” said Link, who had taken the lead. They reached the spot a minute later and examined the climb to the top of the slope in detail with their lights. Link put away his slingshot and, avoiding the poison ivy, climbed up the weed-covered ridge and reached the fence in moments. He examined the eroded area at the bottom of the fence, then began digging away with his hands to widen the gap.
Sam put down the axe and gas can, then climbed up to help him. Five minutes later, they were able to crawl under the fence and pass their equipment to the other side. There, they stood up and looked around, nervous and sensitive to any sound. They had crossed the Rubicon in their journey, and they all knew it.
“Is it show time yet?” Link asked Sam with a tense smile.
“Yep,” said Sam. “Let’s go.” He carefully led the hike down the hill into the black valley on the far side. Light from the crescent moon and their flashlights showed scattered trees, rocky outcroppings, tall weeds and briar bushes everywhere, but no pathway. Crickets, birdcalls, and their trampling feet were the only sounds. Sam put Brian in front, next to him, and told him to load his crossbow, which Brian quickly did. Link and Chris were put behind. Sam made sure Link was ready to fire his slingshot and had a good supply of ammo. “Just don’t hit me,” Sam warned.
“Don’t worry about me,” said Link. “Worry about our big pal out there.”
“Yeah. That and the ticks and snakes.”
“Stamp your feel,” said Brian. “Snakes will go away if they can hear you coming.”
“I heard that, too,” said Link, and everyone trod the ground heavily as they went. Sam and Chris picked up rocks and threw them at outcroppings and into trees. Their flashlight beams swung in every direction. Long minutes passed as they reached the valley floor, following a dry creek bed.
“Oh, man,” said Sam, wiping at his face with his flashlight hand. “Something stinks.”
Everyone caught the stomach-turning scent. They kept moving, but they made faces and slowed down.
“God, that’s bad,” said Link, wrinkling his nose. “Smells like something died.”
Sam frowned. It did have the sick-sweet odor of a rotting animal, like old road kill or spoiled meat. And something else smelled, too, with the stench of rotting fish and pond scum. Must be the lake, he thought, and made a mental note not to drink out of it.
“Wow,” Chris gasped, covering his nose. “That smell is making me sick!”
Sam coughed. “Oh, man, that really is bad,” he said and came to a stop. Everyone else did as well.
“Something’s dead around here,” said Brian, turning in place with his crossbow raised. “Watch your step.”
“That’s for sure,” said Sam, eyeing the crossbow. “Be careful with that.” He looked back at Link and Chris. “I think the lake’s right over there,” he said, pointing with his flashlight. “It looks flat back there, behind the weeds. Let Brian and me go first. You get ready in case anything happens.”
“Okay,” said Link. “Tell us if you see anything.”
“Be careful,” said Chris, clearly nervous.
“Don’t worry about that,” said Sam, forcing a laugh. “You two shine your lights head for us, okay? Brian can’t carry his bow and a flashlight at the same time.”
Sam and Brian walked forward. Brian held his crossbow out and level, at the ready. Sam put the gas can and flashlight in his left hand, holding the two-handed axe behind the head in his right. He was thinking in an emergency he could drop the gas and use the axe, if it came to that. They waded through tall grass, past dried logs and small boulders, listening to crickets chirp in the night.
“I see something ahead,” said Sam. “Link, Chris, come up closer and hold your lights higher. I can’t see anything.” It was hard to talk, as the stench of death was overpowering. He spat on the ground to clear his mouth, fighting the urge to vomit, and watched his feet to make sure he didn’t step on anything.
The shadowy hump on the ground he’d spotted came into better view. Sam and Brian both came to a stop and stared at it. It lay on muddy, weed-covered ground only a few feet from the calm black water of Hot Lake and a couple dozen feet from the boys.
“A deer, I think,” Sam gasped. “Gross.”
“Been dead a few days,” said Brian softly. The smell didn’t bother him much. “Kind of bloated up.”
“What is it?” called Chris. The flashlight beams flickered over the swollen corpse.
“Dead deer,” called Sam. “It’s pretty bad. You don’t need to see it.”
“Something’s been eating at it,” said Brian. “Look on that side.”
Sam moved closer to Brian and looked. “The front legs are gone,” he said in a low voice. “I think those were the front legs. Hard to tell.”
Brian grunted, looking around again. “It doesn’t have a head, but I think you’re right.”
“I’m going to take a quick look up close,” said Sam, “and then I think we’d better get the hell out of here. If this is a kill, we don’t want to bother it.”
Brian didn’t argue. He went with Sam to inspect the body.
Sam walked until his sneakers began to sink into muddy ground. He was only twenty feet from the lake, he discovered. He played his flashlight beam over the rotting remains of the deer, or whatever it had been. He was almost used to the stench, but he had to spit to get the nauseating odor of it out of his mouth.
He played the flashlight over the places where the deer’s front legs had been. They appeared to have been torn out of the remains, pulled right out of it. The ground around the deer was torn up, the tall grass flattened into the dark mud. The head wasn’t missing, just half decomposed and half eaten. Sam wondered if he’d ever get this image of death out of his head, or the rotting smell of it out of his sinuses.
He decided he’d had enough. “We gotta get out of here,” said Sam to Brian. “We shouldn’t be messing with a kill. Whatever did this is probably around. We gotta go.” He turned to Brian to wave him back.
Brian was looking down at Sam’s feet. “What’s that?” he said. He couldn’t point, as he was still holding the loaded crossbow with both hands.
“What?” Sam quickly aimed his flashlight down, fearing a snake, but it was difficult to aim the light downward while holding an awkward, heavy, sloshing gas can in the same hand. He quickly changed the big axe to his left hand and the gas can to his right, flashlight also in his left, and then aimed the light at the ground with more ease.
“By your foot,” said Brian. His voice didn’t sound right. “I thought I saw a—” He stopped, having nothing left to say.
The muddy ground was covered with enormous tracks. Sam had stepped in the middle of one of them, but his big right sneaker did not touch the sides of the footprint. It was a round, four-toed track half a yard wide. It did not look like the water-filled tyrannosaur footprint in the first Jurassic Park movie, which Sam remembered now with intense clarity, but here, in a flashlight beam in the middle of the night in unfamiliar ground, it was much worse because it was real.
And it was fresh. The outline of the track in the soft mud was very sharp.
Sam swore softly and swung the flashlight beam around as he stepped out of the print. The muddy ground was completely covered with giant, four-toed prints. They were everywhere.
I am dead, Sam thought. I am so freaking dead.
“We’re out of here!” Sam shouted. His mind was supernaturally alive. He headed for Link and Chris, turning his flashlight from side to side in search of the doom he knew was nearby. “Let’s go!”
“What’s going on?” called Link. “What’d you see?”
“Lemme take a picture, Sam!” Chris cried.
“Shut up! We’re getting the hell out of here!” Sam turned around and played the flashlight one last time over the deer.
Chris walked forward and raised his camera anyway, managing to hold it as well as his flashlight. He could see the dead deer now. Gross, he thought, but a great picture. His finger began to push down on the shutter button.
Brian’s gaze went past the dead deer to the lake. The black water was moving. “Hey,” he said.
The black water exploded. A monstrous thing shot out of the water and ran up onto the shore faster than could be believed. Jaws a yard long with giant white teeth clamped down on the deer’s corpse and lifted it clear of the ground, shaking it until dead flesh and scavenging insects flew from it like rain.
Flash! went Chris’s camera.
Everyone saw the monster now, clear as day.
To everyone’s amazement, it was the real thing.
His mind blank, Brian raised his crossbow, aimed, and fired in a half second. Panicked, Sam threw the heavy, sloshing thing he held in his right hand at the monster and saw the gas can slam into the creature’s long snout with a thump.
The monster flinched and dropped the deer carcass. Illuminated by flashlight beams, it bellowed, a bone-jarring roar from a hundred million years gone. It was unquestionably reptilian and stood as high as Sam’s waist on its four stumplike legs. It was longer than a stretch limo, half its length a thick black tail. Jaws open, the monster took a hobbling step toward Sam and Brian, favoring its right front leg. It stepped on the gasoline can, crushing it with a pop.
Brian and Sam ran. Sam screamed for the others to run.
Chris lowered his camera, saw the creature, screamed, and fled.
Link did not. He stood rooted in place, flashlight held over his head, staring white-faced at the creature only fifteen yards away. Sam yelled incoherently at him as he ran past—but Link did not follow. Hardly aware of what he was doing, Sam dug in his feet, skidded to a stop, and ran back. “Run!” he screamed at Link. “Run, you stupid son of a bitch, run!” He grabbed Link by the arm and jerked him back. Link almost fell, stiff as a mannequin and his skin cold. His face was blank with terror.
Do something! screamed a voice in Sam’s mind. Do anything!
Sam snatched a flare from his belt, ripped off the cap, and scratched the cap hard across the flare’s top. The flare sputtered like a giant match, then burst into a blinding, hissing jet of flame, red heat roaring off it. Sam threw it at the monster, then pulled the second flare to throw it as well. He turned to Link, but Link was gone.
It was hard to say what happened next, as a vast yellow-white Light reached out and hit Sam. He came to his senses not knowing where he was or what he was doing. He was half-running, half-staggering away from a pillar of roaring fire whose light was already dying as it rose into the night. Sam’s ears rang, and his nose was filled with the stench of gasoline. He was vaguely aware he had been burned on the left side of his face. He slapped at his hair, realized it was scorched, and felt the first slow throb of pain enter his consciousness from the exposed skin of his left arm and hand.
He remembered where he was, then, and what had just happened.
He shook off his stupor and ran, following distant cries and flashlight beams jumping madly across the night land ahead. He realized he was still holding his own flashlight and the axe. He didn’t care, but he held them anyway as he fled.
Running in the dark proved his undoing. His left foot came down on a branch, twisting and catching his ankle. Sam fell headlong to the ground. Rocks slammed into his chest and knocked the wind from him; sharp branches clawed his face and arms. Sam tried to get to his feet, but he fell again and cried out in pain. His left ankle was a white-hot knot of agony. He fought for breath as he got to his hands and knees, then realized he’d dropped his flashlight and the axe. In the faint moonlight he spotted the axe by his hand, which he grabbed, but the flashlight had gone out and was lost.
Sam looked back, but there was no sign of the monster. He saw the silhouette of a dead tree twenty yards to his left and forced himself up on his right leg. He made for it with a hopping gait, clenching his teeth as he struggled to keep his balance.
Then he heard something moving over the ground behind him.
He panicked and ran, the pain from his ankle stabbing through him like lightning, but he didn’t care. He hobbled and stumbled and hopped and gasped, his lungs burning and aching, doing everything he could to get to that dead tree. When he reached it, he grabbed it and swung himself partway around the trunk. He then looked back in the moonlight at the source of the noise.
And the monster was right there.
Even limping, it was very fast. Its immense jaws opened wide and its head turned sideways to catch him across the hips and thighs with its white teeth.
It was just like a scene from Jurassic Park, Sam thought when it came at him. It was exactly like Jurassic Park.
Rachel’s downhill dash was brought up short when a briar whipped across her right thigh, ripping open the leg of her sweatpants. Startled, she stumbled but caught herself before she fell. She descended the slope at a slower rate, using her powerful flashlight to avoid further obstacles. She was dreadfully aware now that the boys’ screams had stopped. Far ahead, small fires burned in a broad cluster by the lakeside where the explosion had occurred.
A wobbling light appeared closer at hand, bouncing over the weeds and heading upslope. Rachel made for it. “Hey!” she shouted. “Hey, over here! It’s me, Rachel!”
It came to Rachel too late that she didn’t know if the person she was approaching was friendly. She slowed further and aimed her flashlight, discovering in moments that it was Chris, wearing a backpack, long dark pants, and a sweat-soaked t-shirt. Panting and sobbing, he ran up and grabbed Rachel around her waist, almost knocking her down. He could barely speak as he was so exhausted from running.
“Where’s everyone else?” she yelled. “Chris, where’s everyone else?”
He shook his head. Rachel pried him loose and crouched to look him in the face, shaking him once by the shoulders to get his attention. “Chris! Stop it! Talk to me! Where are the others?”
Chris shook his head again and drew in a ragged breath. “Dunno!” He pointed behind him with his right hand, which still held his flash camera. “Somewhere!”
“We have to go back and get them, Chris! Do you understand me?”
“Monster!” he cried, still gasping for air. “Monster . . . back there!”
“A monster? What kind of monster?”
“In . . . in the lake! It . . . it almost got us!”
Rachel kept her grip on Chris. “We have to go back and get the others, do you understand me?”
Chris stood there in her grip, finally nodding his head.
“Where is the monster?”
In better control now, Chris again pointed behind him. “We were running,” he choked out, “and . . . I don’t know where the other guys are! I think it killed ‘em!”
“No, you’re wrong!” Rachel said sharply, fighting her own fear. “We have to go back and get them out of there! Come with me!”
“You stay with me, do you hear me?”
Chris nodded again, wiping his eyes. “Okay,” he said and sniffed.
Rachel set off again, at a brisk
walking pace this time and making sure Chris was at her right side. “Tell me
about the monster,” she said. “What did it look like?”
“It was huge! It was the biggest thing I ever saw! It came out of the water and it grabbed the deer and ate it! It tore it to pieces, then it came after us!”
“Wait, wait, wait! Calm down! What deer?”
“There was a dead deer, over by the lake, and the monster picked it up and tore it apart, and then it came after us!”
Rachel frowned. “You saw it?”
“Yes! It was right there in front of me! We all saw it!” He held up his camera. “I think I took a picture of it!”
“Were all the boys with you when you saw it?”
“Yeah! It’s not a joke, Rachel! It’s real!”
Rachel digested this information as she walked. Chris’s terror was genuine. Rachel remembered the creature’s roars and hisses, remembered the huge moving thing she saw in the light of the fireball, half-engulfed by the flames. Was that the monster? What the hell was it? A bear? A mountain lion?
He nodded as he walked. He looked at the camera in his hand, then stuffed it into a pants pocket.
“If you have to run,” Rachel went on, “go back to the camp and get everyone else up. Tell O’Neill what happened, okay? You tell him everything, and make sure they get back here as fast as they can. But right now, let’s get the guys and get out of here, okay?’
Chris nodded again, in control of himself. “Okay,” he said, puffing heavily.
“You stick with me for now, though, until we get the other guys out.”
“Okay.” Chris swallowed and walked closer to her.
They walked a little farther until Rachel spotted a flashlight beam in the distance. “Chris,” she said, “I think that’s one of the boys. You see it? It’s way off—”
“I see it!” he said, his excitement growing. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Hey, Sam! Link! Brian! Hey!”
The distant light swung in their direction. It was higher off the ground that Rachel had first thought.
“Run over here!” screamed a distant voice. It was Link. “Chris, run over here and get up this rock! Run, damn it! The monster’s coming!”
The hair on the back of Rachel’s neck stood up. Link sounded panicked. “Link!” she yelled. “What’s going on?”
She then realized that Chris wasn’t with her. He was running through the brush and weeds toward the other flashlight. “Chris, be careful!” she yelled. “You’ll fall!”
“Rachel!” Link shouted in the distance, his voice rising. “Rachel, run! Get the hell over here!”
Rachel picked up a fast trot. She was damned if she was going to run over this rough ground in the night and risk breaking her neck, but she moved as fast as possible through the weeds and around the briar bushes. I bet I get ticks, she thought, or I’ll step on a snake and get bitten and die, but the bad thoughts didn’t slow her down.
Ages later, her flashlight revealed a large, fractured boulder ahead, surrounded by thick shrubs, saplings, and smaller rocks. The highest peak of the boulder rose over a dozen feet above the ground, though most of the upper surface formed a tilted mesa about seven feet up, barely within arm’s reach. A blinding flashlight beam above the tilted mesa top revealed a pathway of shattered rocks and debris leading up the side of the boulder. Rachel saw Chris scrambling up that path, silhouetted in the beam.
The monster roared again in the distance, its voice sharp and loud. It was very close. It bellowed furiously twice more, quickly, either enraged or attacking.
“Rachel!” Link shouted, hysterical. “Rachel, you idiot, run!”
“The monster!” screamed Brian, also on top of the rock. He was crying as he screamed. “It’s the monster!”
That did it. In no time at all, Rachel found herself right behind Chris on the path up to the top of the boulder. She shoved him in the butt and pushed him forward to the boulder’s top, then scrambled up herself, hardly aware of how fast she was moving. Someone grabbed her when she reached the top, pulling her down flat. She gasped and fought back until she realized it was Link, yelling incoherently at her.
For several seconds chaos reigned, between Brian’s screaming, Link shouting at Rachel, and Rachel shouting at Link. Link let go of her, yelling for her to shine her flashlight around from the top of the rock and look for Sam.
Sam. Rachel snapped out of her panic. “Shut up!” she shouted at Brian, who lay curled up in a ball, arms over his head and elbows shielding his face. Chris was crouched down nearby, blubbering quietly. He aimed his flashlight down the rugged pathway to the boulder’s top as tears ran down his face.
Rachel swore and aimed her own flashlight off the top of the boulder. “Sam!” she screamed. “Sam! Answer me! SAM!” She screamed his name until she was hoarse—but no one answered.
Rachel lost track of the time. Someone yelled her name, and she turned and shouted, “What the hell do you want?”
“We have to block the way up!” Link shouted back. “We have to keep the monster from getting up here!”
“What kind of monster is it?” She tried not to shout now, but it was hard to stop.
“Jesus, I don’t know! It’s freaking gigantic! The thing’s bigger than a goddamn city bus! It’s like a big lizard or something, black all over, with big scales! We have to block the path up here so it can’t climb up!”
Rachel stared at Link for a moment, then turned around and hoarsely screamed, “SAAAM!” out to the night. Her voice echoed across the wasteland.
Link grabbed her by the arm. “We have to save ourselves!” he shouted. “Help me, damn it!”
“You don’t tell me what to do!” she screamed back. “Where the hell is Sam?”
“I don’t know where the hell he is! He’s out there somewhere! Help me keep the monster from getting up here!”
“Go to hell!”
Link swore. “Chris!” he said, turning away. “Chris, help me block the way up!”
Chris looked up, aiming the flashlight in Link’s face. After a moment, he nodded and slowly got to his feet, wiping his eyes.
Rachel looked out over the ledge again. She swept her flashlight beam left and right, squinting to see as far as she could. Most of the small fires by the lake had burned down now, but two or three were still putting out clouds of smoke that rose to the black sky. The plain was quiet except for the distant crackling of flames and Brian’s wails.
Rachel swallowed and realized her throat hurt terribly. Her bare limbs ached from the scrapes and bruises she’d accumulated on her nightmarish journey. She rubbed her face with the back of one hand and realized she was crying, too. She fought to hold it back as her face twisted up, but it overcame her and she knelt down on top of the rock and began to shake. She put down her flashlight and covered her face with her hands.
Sam was gone. She knew it. He was really gone.
Very little went through Brian’s mind, just a garbled conglomerate of thoughts flash-heated into a silent shriek. He was going to die, that was for sure, and the monster was going to kill him. It would find him, and he would be so terrified he would freeze, unable even to scream, and it would tear off and swallow his arms and legs as it had torn out the legs of the dead deer, and last of all it would bite him in the face, tearing off his head, and he would die with his head rolling into its mouth, trying to scream but not a thing coming out of him, nothing coming out but his blood and his infinite terror.
The irony was not lost on him. He had tortured and killed small animals for years, and now he’d met a giant thing that was about to do the same favor for him. He’d shot the beast, he thought he’d hit it, and his powerful crossbow had not even slowed it down. Now he had no crossbow. He didn’t even have his backpack or flashlight or anything, as he’d thrown away everything in his desperation to flee from the monster that came out of Hot Lake. He knew it would find him like this, lying defenseless like the little creatures he’d burned and cut apart and electrocuted, unable to run or even hit back, and it would do to him what he had done to so many others before now. Brian Taylor was a small thing, and the monster would be the Brian now, and there was no escape from it.
He lay on the rock, curled up like an embryo in an open womb, and waited to die.
Link scrambled around on the tilted top of the rock, looking for a way to block the climb up the side of the boulder. He quickly realized the task was almost impossible. He had no idea if the monster could climb—as large as it was, climbing was certainly not out of the question. He remembered it was four-legged and didn’t look like it could stand up on two legs, like a dinosaur. More than anything else, it looked like an alligator or crocodile, though of a size he had never imagined possible. Maybe he had been wrong in thinking the nuclear reactor’s cooling pond wasn’t radioactive and prone to creating horror-movie mutations. If Sam hadn’t slapped him, Link knew he would likely be somewhere in the monster’s stomach about now.
If Sam hadn’t slapped him, he would be dead.
Link stopped searching for ways to fortify the boulder. He turned his flashlight out into the darkness around them. The crickets were chirping away in the distance, though the birds were silent. Aside from a few small fires near the lake, nothing moved in the vastness of the night.
He swung the flashlight beam toward Rachel, but flicked it away when he saw that she was on her knees, crying her heart out. He looked away in shame. He was sorry he’d yelled at her. Sam was out there somewhere, and she was sweet on him, and maybe what had almost happened to Link had happened to Sam a little while ago.
I’m sorry, Link thought, looking into the night land. He rubbed his eyes, trying not to cry himself. I’m so sorry, Sam. I hope I didn’t get you killed when you came back for me and made me snap out of it. I hope you’re okay out there. I am so sorry. You saved me, and now I’m here but you . . . I hope you’re safe. Please be safe. Be safe for Rachel and all of us. Just be safe.
Link looked across the wasteland and saw and heard nothing that indicated Sam was alive. Dully, he turned his light back to see Chris, then sighed and bent himself to the task of defending their redoubt against an impossible being.
Chris talked with Link about their defenses. Doing something kept him from thinking about Sam. He did not want to think about what had happened to Sam.
The group on the rock didn’t have much: a dozen highway flares, Link’s slingshot, some cherry bombs and smoke bombs, flashlights, a few coils of rope, a couple of knives, and Link’s cell phone. The loss of Sam’s equipment and Brian’s as well was sorely felt. The cell phone would of course be useful when they called for help, but it was of little use in stopping something from climbing up after them. Chris thought of the third Jurassic Park movie, in which a carnivorous dinosaur ate a man with a cell phone, which then kept ringing in its stomach. It was funny in the movie. It wasn’t funny now. Anyone who came along later would be able to find the monster by calling the cell phone and listening for the noise, rather like listening for the crocodile in Peter Pan that swallowed the alarm clock.
Blocking the pathway up the side of the rock was not possible. They would have to shoot or throw things at the monster if it came over. A highway flare in its mouth might work wonders, and the high-velocity slingshot could easily put out an eye or inflict a painful welt even on a giant beast.
“Maybe we could lasso it,” said Chris. “We’ve got the ropes.”
“Do you know how to lasso anything?” Link said with a frown.
Chris shook his head and looked away. Rachel was still crying, though quietly now. “Maybe we could get it tangled up or something,” he said.
“We’d be better off using the rope to get up and down this rock if we’re in a hurry,” Link said.
“If we could knock it out, we could tie up its mouth.”
Link considered this for a second and shrugged. “I wouldn’t get within a hundred feet of it to even try to knock it out.”
“Can we make a trap of some kind?”
Link looked down at the surviving pile of equipment he and Chris had put together. “Lemme think,” he said. “Beats the hell out of me right now.”
Chris looked over at Rachel, then down at his empty backpack at his feet. “Can we do something with the backpacks?” he asked. “We have two left.”
And with that, Chris started thinking about Sam again, because Sam had one of the missing backpacks. Link started talking about doing something with the backpacks. Chris stared down at his feet and stopped listening. He was thinking instead, My big brother is gone. He’s dead. He won’t be back.
It was strange and terrible to think of Sam as gone. Chris had wished a million times that Sam would disappear and stop bugging him or teasing him or punching him. How awful that wish was, now that it had come true. Quinn wasn’t important; Chris didn’t care if he ever saw her again. He would trade anything to see Sam again, alive. He missed it when they punched each other. That had been fun. Brothers did that.
Chris looked at Rachel, who hid her face in her hands and moaned, then out into the night. He looked at the darkness while Link talked, hearing nothing. Soon he knew that Link had stopped talking. He didn’t care what Link had said. He thought about Sam and felt worse than he ever had in his life.
A flash of light appeared out of the darkness a moment later.
“We could make something like a satchel charge,” said Link. “We don’t have any gasoline left, but we could use one of the backpacks to make up a satchel charge, like they used in World War Two, and bomb the monster with it if it comes too close. I was thinking we could use the cherry bombs and flares for that, maybe put some wood in there, too, so it would burn good. Maybe if we shoot the smoke bombs at the monster, the sulfur smell will drive it away. Enough of them might do it. They’re safer to shoot with the slingshot than cherry bombs, anyway. I dunno about the ropes. We can use them to scale up and down the rock if we have to, but I don’t know what else. We’re never going to tie it up or lasso it.”
Link looked up at Chris. Chris was staring off into the distance, saying nothing. He was obviously thinking of his older brother and what had become of him.
Link swallowed. He knew of nothing to say. He rubbed his head and prayed for this to be a bad dream, though he knew it wasn’t.
“Hey,” said Chris with a gasp. “Look! Look over there!”
Link and Rachel turned their heads.
Far away, a small jet of red flame waved slowly in the night. It wobbled unsteadily back and forth, held above the ground by the barren trunk of a tilted tree.
“Sam!” said Link. “God Almighty, there he is!”
“SAM!” Rachel screamed hoarsely. She cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted his name again and again. She wept as she did, her voice on the verge of giving out. Chris and Link joined in, arms and flashlights waving.
The distant flare rocked back and forth, then steadied and did not move again.
“I think he dropped it!” Chris shouted.
“No, he just put it down.” said Link. “He didn’t drop it. He’s up a tree over that way.” Link shouted again. “Sam! Are you okay? Tell us what’s up!”
The trio felt silent. Even Brian was quiet, though still clutching himself as he lay on the rock. No reply could be heard.
“Maybe that’s not Sam,” said Chris.
“It can’t be anyone else,” Link snapped. “Listen!”
“I hope he’s okay.” Chris wiped his face and sniffed.
“Maybe he can’t hear us,” said Link.
“I can’t yell anymore,” Rachel rasped, her voice barely audible.
Link sighed. “He’s alive, that’s for sure. I hope he’s all right.”
They stood on the rock and watched the tiny flare light in the distance.
“We should wait until dawn before we decide what to do next,” Link added. He looked at his watch and grimaced. Dawn was still hours away.
Chris nodded slowly. Brian lay silently on his side a few feet away, sniffling.
Rachel crossed her arms over her chest and said nothing. Her voice was almost gone, and her throat felt like she’d gargled broken glass. The tiny red flare flickered from where it lay in a tree across the wasteland. Nothing else moved.
It took Sam over thirty tries to get the flare lit. The throbbing pain from his left foot made it difficult to concentrate on anything else. His nerves were shot after his narrow escape from having the monster’s fang-filled jaws snap him up like a giant bear trap, and his mad scramble up the dead tree had added to his myriad scrapes and scars.
On the thirty-third try, the top of the flare sparked and burst into red flame with a hiss. Sam jerked his right hand away to avoid burning himself, dropping the sandpaper-like igniter from his aching fingers. The igniter fell over the side of the tilted tree trunk on which Sam rested, the toes of his sneakers barely a dozen feet above the ground. He was too tired to climb farther.
Gripping the flare in his left hand, Sam carefully waved it in the air to one side, hoping someone would see it. In moments, faint shouts and waving flashlights told him that he’d been spotted, but the others were a long distance off. He wiped sweat from his eyes and was able to make out three figures with flashlights, standing in a cluster. He hoped they weren’t just standing out in the open, in case the monster went for them instead. Sam recognized the calls of Chris and Rachel (What the hell is Rachel doing here? he wondered, and why does her voice sound so awful?), and then he heard Link. He’d recognized Brian’s screams earlier, though he heard nothing from the kid now.
Sam felt a terrible weight settle on his shoulders. He’d led everyone into this nightmare, and here he was, up a tree with a broken foot and a monster waiting for him somewhere below, and there was nothing he could do to get everyone out of here alive.
Sam looked over the sides of the limb, searching for the monster on the far left and right. No monster could be seen. He tried to crawl a little farther up the trunk, but a stabbing pain in his left foot caused him to remain where he was. His position wasn’t too bad. The dead tree leaned sideways at an angle roughly thirty degrees from the vertical, some of its roots pulled out of the ground and only two thick branches left. The bark was getting crumbly, however, and some of it broke away if struck too hard. Sam feared the tree would be too rotten to support him if he did climb farther up.
He sighed and looked around again for the creature. He wished he knew where it was. He couldn’t take another surprise like the last one. He remembered too clearly the monster’s sudden attack, but he tried not to dwell on it. Pure instinct had saved him as he backpedaled out of the monster’s way, its jaws snapping shut barely two feet from him. Panicked, Sam had swung at the beast with the two-handed axe, landing a solid hit somewhere behind its head. The axe was jerked out of his hands a moment later as the monster whipped about in pain, hissing like a dragon. It lashed out with its giant tail as Sam tried to escape. The thick tail slammed hard into the dead tree before it hit Sam, however, sending hundreds of pieces of bark and small branches flying.
Though he tried to run, Sam’s left foot could not support his weight and he fell beside the tree, hearing a snap from his ankle as he did. The searing, blinding pain caused him to scream, but he knew he would die if he stayed a second longer. In desperation, he got up on one foot and scaled the dead tree using his bare hands before the injured monster could have its revenge.
And here he was. Sam checked the flare. It had burned a quarter of the way down, and the fire was only inches from where he gripped the flare’s base. It was best not to wait until it burned down to his hand. He carefully set it down on the tree trunk between deep grooves in the old bark, with the fiery jet aimed away from his face. Shielding his eyes from the glare, Sam looked around once more for the monster, but he saw no sign of it. Perhaps it had gone back to its lake—but perhaps not. He managed to turn and look behind him, but again saw nothing nearby. His face hurt from the flash burn earlier.
He drew a ragged breath and stifled a humorless laugh. If only his friends from the swim team at school could see him now: Sam Griffin, cowardly action hero. It would make a great story for the front page of the Lawndale Sun-Herald, assuming he survived. He wouldn’t be swimming—or walking without crutches—for weeks to come. Maybe this was some kind of cosmic revenge for causing Sandi to break her leg. If so, the cosmic wheel of fate had overdone its job.
After a minute of glum thoughts, Sam noticed that the flare was burning into the bark of the tree trunk. Setting fire to his place of refuge would not do. He reached for the flare with his right hand and slapped at the burning bark with his left.
This was a bad move, as the burning bark was hot enough to scorch Sam’s hand. He flinched and cried out—and let go of the flare. He tried to grab for it as it fell, then realized moments after he missed it how lucky he was that he didn’t grab the fiery end. Darkness descended again as he heard a thump from below.
Something very close to him hissed loudly.
Sam was paralyzed with terror. Was the monster standing on its hind legs and rearing over him from behind? He dared turn around again, but nothing was there. Perhaps the sound had come from below. With infinite care, Sam scooted sideways and put his head over the side of the tree trunk to look straight down, the one direction he had not yet checked because the tree trunk blocked his view.
The monster was right below him, just over ten feet away and clearly illuminated by the flare that had struck it before bouncing away into the dirt. The monster was sprawled out motionless, resting on its stomach. The vertical slits in its yellow eyes looked up at Sam with a steady, patient gaze. It was in no hurry.
It was just waiting for him to come down.
Sam did not dare move for many minutes. For the first time ever, a human being got a good, long, detailed look at the full-grown Monster of Hot Lake.
If the creature had been half the size it actually was, it would be the largest alligator Sam had ever dreamed of. He tried to get an estimate of its length, finally guessing it was well over twenty feet, possibly twenty-five feet, from the tip of its black snout to the end of its curving, spine-topped tail. Years ago in better days, the Griffins had visited a Florida alligator farm on a long summer vacation, and the largest gators there were barely over eight feet long. The tour guide had said alligators rarely got over twelve feet in modern times, and twenty feet was their normal maximum size. The Hot Lake Monster was a monstrosity by any standard.
Sam guessed that half the monster’s length was made up of its thick tail. Its legs were enormous, and its broad feet were clearly the source of the giant reptilian footprints around the deer carcass by the lake’s shoreline. If the creature stood up on all fours, the top of its scaled back would be almost up to Sam’s belt.
It was the monster’s head that captured most of Sam’s attention. Its skull was about as wide and long as a good-sized office desk. Ivory fangs longer than Sam’s fingers stuck out from the sides of the creature’s closed jaws. The two large amber-colored eyes were set about a foot apart, glistening in the flare’s red light.
Sam had never given much thought to how an alligator looked, but he studied this one with great intensity. He noticed in detail the shape of its black scales, the faint patterns of color on its hide, and the peculiar way the monster held its right foreleg—through which a bit of Brian’s crossbow bolt could be seen protruding from its shoulder. Sam could not tell if the monster had been burned in the gasoline explosion, but he saw a gash along its neck where his axe had cut into the hide and exposed the fat and muscles underneath. No doubt the wound was quite painful and making the monster even worse tempered than it was before—but no doubt, too, that the injuries the monster had taken to this point were, relatively speaking, minor. It had full command of its powers and needed only one victim to prove that.
Sam took a deep, reflective breath. He was unbelievably lucky to have lived this long. Alligators could not climb, so all he had to do was wait in the tree until the monster walked away. Maybe it would leave at daybreak. I can wait, no problem, Sam thought, unable to smile at his own little joke. I’m in no hurry. My foot doesn’t hurt so much now, but if I move, it will probably—
He turned his head. The other campers were waving flashlights at him again from their distant gathering point. He doubted they could see him in the flare’s light now.
What if they decided to come looking for him? He realized that when he dropped the flare, the others might have assumed he’d fallen out of the tree. He tried to shout back, but a racking cough stopped him. His chest ached from his earlier fall and the panicked climb up the tree—plus, he was just too nervous to be coherent right now. Shouting back was not possible for a while.
But what if the others did try to walk over? What could he do?
He thought of Rachel. He thought of Chris and Link and Brian, too, but mostly he thought of Rachel. He couldn’t let her be hurt. He was supposed to be responsible, and the lives of everyone in their little group depended on him as no one had depended on him before. He had to signal the others and ward them away from the area.
Sam carefully let go of the tree trunk with his left hand and reached behind him. His fingers encountered the side of his backpack, and he tried to manipulate the zipper to get another flare out. A thick coil of rope strapped to the backpack kept getting in his way, and he batted it aside in frustration.
Rope. He hesitated, thinking. Was it possible to . . .?
Sam stopped trying to push the rope aside. Instead, he tugged on the rope itself, tried to recall how he’d tied it to his backpack. He then reached behind his head with both hands, carefully anchoring himself to the tree with his thighs. His left foot bumped against the tree, and he grunted from the burst of pain that shot through him. When it passed, he worked at the knot that joined the rope to the top of the backpack, and a minute later had it free. He slowly pulled the rope around to his face and examined it, ignoring the continuing calls of the other campers.
The nylon rope was almost an inch thick, a heavy-duty brand kept at the Okay-to-Cry Corral for everything from pulling cars out of ditches to tying up canoes. He carefully undid the coil and pulled a five-foot length free. He swung this around the tree trunk with his right hand, trying to catch it with his left. Many attempts passed in failure before he grabbed the rope end and pulled it around, encircling the tree. He tied the rope off with a series of knots he remembered from long-ago days at other summer camps.
This done, Sam tugged on the loop encircling the tree trunk until he had moved the knot to the far side of the trunk, so it was over the monster. He hesitated, trying to remember how to make the next knot he needed, then slowly set to work making a three-foot-wide loop with a sliding knot, like a hangman’s noose. This work took a long time, as Sam’s foot was beginning to throb again. The other campers had fallen silent, and Sam hoped they were not already walking toward his refuge and into the monster’s mouth.
When the large loop was finished, Sam peeked over the side of the tree trunk, looking down at the creature that quietly waited for him. A series of tests began as Sam lowered the large noose, estimated his height from the ground, and made adjustments in the length of the remaining rope by knotting it off. When he was finished, Sam had only a twenty-odd-foot length of rope left, not counting the noose, the rest of the rope wound numerous times around the tree trunk.
Sam let himself rest at this point. Sweat ran down his face and stung his eyes, blurring his vision. His clothing was soaked through. He looked over the side of the tree again. The flare was dying out, but he could still see the monster’s shape.
With great care, Sam lowered the nylon noose. He had to hurry, but he tried to be patient and do it right the first time. It took several minutes to get the noose into place, lying open on the ground before the monster—one footstep ahead of its half-yard-wide left front foot. The gigantic alligator ignored the rope, its simple mind on other things.
Sam reached behind him again, unzipping the backpack. He pulled out another flare and tore off the igniter. He had to stop halfway through his efforts to light it, as his hands were cramped up from tension and overexertion. He finally scratched off the top of the flare, and it spit out a narrow torch of crimson flame, blinding his light-sensitive eyes. Voices from his friends arose in the distance, confirming that they’d seen the flare; Link and Chris shouted his name over and over. He wondered why Rachel and Brian weren’t calling with the others. Maybe they were already coming toward him. He had to hurry.
Sam looked down at the largest alligator any human being had seen in hundreds of years, perhaps longer. His right hand swung down, the flare’s butt gripped in his fingers, and he tossed the flare toward the monster’s hindquarters.
The flare missed the monster right rear leg and fell into the grass behind it. The dry grass crackled into flame in moments. The titanic alligator swiftly rose up and stepped forward to get away from the flare’s heat.
Sam saw the monster step into the noose, its left forefoot perfectly into the center of the loop. Instantly, he jerked on the rope. The knot slipped and the noose tightened on the monster’s foreleg.
The monster felt the noose and immediately lurched and spun, jaws snapping. The rope was whipped out of Sam’s grasp, almost throwing him off balance and over the edge. As he struggled to keep from falling, the monster backed up, pulling the rope taut.
The tilted dead tree snapped and popped, then with a particularly loud crack it came partly free of the ground and swung in the direction of the retreating monster. Sam felt himself sliding back down the trunk as vast sections of the bark to which he clung shattered and broke loose. “NO!” he shouted in horror. “NO! N—”
The Monster of Hot Lake bellowed in rage and jerked hard on the rope. Sam fell sideways off the trunk on a raft of broken bark as an ear-splitting crack rang out from the tree’s base. The dead tree fell. Showered with debris, Sam hit the ground on his right side. A flat rock punched his ribs, cracking several and knocking his wind out. The pain in his left foot was beyond belief. Gasping for air he couldn’t get, Sam quickly crawled away from the wild roars of the monster. He was going to die, he knew this for sure, but he did not want to die yet. He would cheat the beast of every second he could.
Flashlights waved in his direction from far away. He crawled over rocks and through tall weeds toward the lights, shouting his heart out. He wanted to get up and run, but his left foot could not support any weight. His vision swam, and he was terrified he would pass out at any moment. Curiously, in that moment he was truly sorry he had ever tormented his sister, no matter what she’d done to ask for it. He hoped she would forgive him after he was dead.
Behind him, loud cracks and snaps rang out as the monster struggled to get free of the rope trap. The creature hissed like a steam boiler at one point, causing Sam to redouble his efforts to get away, though he knew he wasn’t moving fast enough regardless. Briars scratched at his face and arms, snagged his clothing. He put his right hand down on something extremely painful, a nettle or briar or broken glass, and he flinched backward and cried out in agony. He got up on his knees and tried to see what he’d done to his hand, hoping to fix it so he could get away.
“Sam!” Chris’s voice echoed through the night. He was getting hoarse, too. “Sam, where are you?”
“Get away from here!” Sam shouted back. Pain stabbed into his chest from his cracked ribs. “Get out of here! I trapped it! The rope won’t hold it for long! Run!”
“Get over here, Sam!” yelled Link. “We’re on top of a big rock! Come on, Sam!”
“I can’t run! I can’t get up! Get the hell out of here!”
“Sam!” It was Rachel. Chris and Link were shouting, too, but Sam heard only Rachel’s cracked, faded voice.
“Rachel! Get out of here!”
“Come on, Sam! Come on!”
“I can’t! My ankle’s broken! Get out of here while it’s trapped!”
“Sam! Sa—” Her voice broke and was gone.
The fallen tree cracked like a bomb exploding. Sam turned. In the flickering light of the second flare and the brush fire it had started, Sam saw splinters fly as the dead trunk broke in two, several feet above the spot where the rope was tied around it. The lower part of the tree, roots and all, twisted around on the ground until it was pointed roughly in Sam’s direction. A vast black shadow on four legs then blocked out Sam’s view of the brush fire and the fallen tree.
The monster was coming for him, dragging most of the tree trunk behind it.
“He said he broke his ankle!” Link tried aiming his flashlight where he thought Sam was, but the light was too faint at that distance to reveal anything.
“Sam! Run!” screamed Chris, waving his arms over his head. “Run over here!”
Link heard a sound behind him like someone or something climbing over rocks. He swung around in fear, his flashlight aimed at the source of the sound.
Only Brian was behind him, still lying curled into a ball with his arms shielding his head. He was weeping softly.
Of Rachel, however, there was no trace.
Rachel used the flashlight Adrian had given her to find her way down from the big rock. She hurried around the boulder to her left and took off, running as fast as she could. Falling down was of no consequence. Losing Sam was the only disaster.
A highway flare burst into view, the length of a football field away. Rachel headed for it, her flashlight held over her head to light the way. She tried to yell for Sam, but her throat burned and her voice was gone. After a moment, the flare flipped up in a long arc away from her. It bounced when it hit the ground but kept burning. Even running, Rachel saw something large moving near the flare where it fell (The monster? she wondered), and she heard a wood-cracking, earth-rumbling noise in that direction.
A second flare appeared a few moments later. Rachel was close enough to see a teenage boy on his knees held the flare, preparing to throw it. As she ran up, the figure heard her approaching and turned around. It was Sam. In the hissing red light of the flare, he looked as if he’d been beaten into pieces several times in a row.
“Get back!” Sam shouted, wide-eyed. “It’s right here!”
Rachel came into view of his flare a few seconds later, and his expression turned to horror. “Rachel!” he shouted, aghast. “No! You have to run!” He turned and threw the second flare, but not as far as the first. Rachel was on him seconds later. She grabbed his shirt to pull him to his feet.
“OW! Ouch!” Sam yelled, struggling with her. “I broke my ankle! Careful!”
She fought until she got Sam to his feet. He reeked of sweat and blood and an awful odor like dead fish. In her momentary glimpses from her swinging flashlight, she saw Sam’s face was red and bruised, his skin cut in dozens of places, and his clothes filthy and torn. Pulling his left arm across her shoulders and gripping his waist with her right arm, she forced Sam to hobble with her through the undergrowth. He grunted or cried out in pain with every other footstep.
As they fled, Rachel heard a low rumble from behind her. It sounded like a huge thing was dragging itself over the ground. She couldn’t tell if it was getting closer. Whatever it was, it beyond her imagining and she did not want to see it. She forced Sam to move faster, fighting to keep them both from tumbling over rocks and branches. She couldn’t keep her flashlight aimed ahead of them, but she could see someone on top of the distant rock waving a flashlight at them.
Running footsteps sounded ahead of her. Rachel saw another flashlight coming rapidly over the ground. “Rachel!” shouted Link. “Rach—”
Something grabbed one of Link’s feet, and he fell as if shot.
For an instant, Link was terrified that the monster had caught him. He fell but was able to roll and cushion the blow enough to avoid breaking an arm or leg. Something still had him by his right foot. After a few seconds of crazed struggle, he realized he had stepped on the black metal crossbow Brian had thrown away. The bowstring had gotten caught around his shoe. Link pulled his foot free and got up holding the crossbow just as Rachel and Sam reached him. “I’ll help!” he shouted, and he quickly pulled Sam’s right arm over his shoulders. The three then headed for the rock. It took forever to get there.
“Come on!” Chris shouted, flashlight on them. “Come on!”
“That side!” Link shouted, pointing the way to the path up to the top of the rock. Rachel guided Sam over. He was worn out and had trouble hopping on his right foot.
“Chris! Brian! Help us get Sam up!” Link aimed his flashlight beam up the crude pathway to the boulder’s top, but only Chris appeared and came down.
“Is he alive?” Chris cried. He grabbed his older brother in a tearful bear hug.
“OW! Careful, squirt!” Sam groaned through clenched teeth. “Hold me up! Hold my arm—I can get up—”
They got to the top of the boulder in seeming seconds. When they reached the top, the four fell down exhausted in a heap, next to the weeping Brian. Sam took off his backpack with Chris’s help and rolled over flat on his back, soaked in sweat. A fallen flashlight revealed his blood-smeared face and arms. He then cried out in pain and tried to move his left leg. “Help me get my shoe off!” he panted. “My left shoe! Hurry!”
Rachel got up and bent over him to unlace his left sneaker. She pulled it off as gently as she could, but Sam grimaced and swore as she did. His ankle was grossly swollen, and the part visible above his dirty white sock was turning dark purple.
Rachel looked around for something to cushion his foot. “Shirt!” she whispered to Chris, her voice like sandpaper. Chris quickly peeled off his t-shirt and handed it over, kneeling by Sam’s other side. Rachel wrapped the shirt around Sam’s foot. She then lay down on her side next to Sam and lifted his head and put her arm under it for a pillow.
“Rachel,” whispered Sam. “Rachel.”
“Shh,” she whispered back. She could say nothing else. “Shh.”
“I thought I was . . . it was right under me, right under the tree, and—”
“Shh.” She kissed his forehead. She tasted blood and dust. “Shh. Shh.” She kissed him again, then a third time, then she put her head on his chest and cried.
Link got up on his hands and knees, crawling over Brian’s feet for the edge of the boulder. The crazy kid was breathing shallowly but responded to nothing; at least he’d stopped crying. As Link crawled by, his hand came down on an object like a long, cold pencil. Link turned his flashlight on it. On the rock by Brian’s belt was a black crossbow bolt with a large, razor-sharp, double-bladed head. It was one of the two Brian had stuck in his belt on the walk up earlier that night. The other belt-carried bolt had been fired at the monster, and any other bolts were lost with Brian’s backpack. Link picked up the bolt and looked over where he’d dropped the black crossbow after reaching the top of the boulder. He shook his head and then set the weapons aside, out of Brian’s sight.
“You’re gonna be okay, Sam,” said Chris, sniffing and wiping his eyes. “You’re gonna be okay.”
“You gotta be kiddin’ me,” Sam replied. He forced a smile. “God’s getting’ me back for making Sandi break her damn leg. She got me back.” His arms were wrapped around Rachel, pulling her close to him through it hurt to do so.
Chris managed to laugh. “Sandi always wins,” he said. “She’s such a bitch.”
Sam laughed but began to cough. It hurt insanely. He knew he’d cracked or broken something in his chest. He was hospital bound, and that was okay with him. Getting out of here was the only real problem.
A loud noise like a gunshot rang out, not far away. Sam couldn’t respond as he was trying to stop coughing before it killed him. Chris and Rachel looked up, faces streaked with tears. Brian curled up tighter. Link wearily crawled to the edge of the rock, then held up his flashlight and swept the night land with it. After only a second, he stopped, light frozen in place, and stared down at something that came into view.
“God damn it!” he shouted, almost screaming.
“What?” said Chris, getting up.
Link quickly put down his flashlight, aiming it off the rock. He grabbed for the crossbow and bolt. “It’s here! It’s right here!” he shrieked, his words running together. “Jesus Christ, the freaking thing is right below us! Get the lights on it!”
Chris grabbed his flashlight and Rachel’s as well, aiming both of them down from the rock. The sight turned his blood into ice. “Link!” he cried. “Link, can it get up here?”
“I don’t freaking know!” Link tried not to panic. Panic would kill them all. He found the cocking mechanism on the crossbow, but he couldn’t figure out how to unlock it and pull it back. He had never used one of these weapons before, and he had only the barest idea of how to operate it from watching Brian, who had used his foot somehow. He gave up, throwing the crossbow and bolt down in frustration. “Chris!” he yelled. “Put all the fireworks and flares together in one of the backpacks! Put everything in there that will burn or blow up! We’ll make a satchel charge!”
Chris staggered away from the edge of the rock, then put the flashlights down on the edge of the boulder’s top as Link had done. He did everything he could to carry out Link’s orders, though he didn’t have much of an idea what a satchel charge was.
Rachel could not see what the boys were talking about. If it was the monster, it was too close to the rock to see from where she sat. She looked down at Sam, who had caught his breath at last and was breathing with difficulty, his eyes closed tightly. She kissed him one more time, touched his sweat-drenched brown hair, then got to her feet and unsteadily walked over to see what Link and Chris were looking at. She saw it after just three steps.
Illuminated by three flashlight beams, the black-scaled Monster of Hot Lake paused, standing on all fours, just thirty feet from the boulder. Its yellow eyes gleamed as it surveyed the lights playing over it, and its jaws parted, revealing long rows of teeth. A tangled white rope trailed on the ground behind it, now unencumbered by the tree trunk.
Rachel had secretly hoped the Hot Lake Monster was a fake. Seeing it right before her was the biggest shock of her life. It made the stunning news of her mother’s unplanned pregnancy with little Evan look trivial, unworthy of mention.
It’s real, she thought in a daze. The monster was real after all. It’s a big crocodile or alligator or something, but it’s real. Thank you, God, for not letting it eat Sam or me. Thank you for helping me find Sam and get him away from that thing. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
“Rachel! Help Chris!” Link’s shout penetrated the fog in her mind. She looked at him blankly. Link pointed to Chris. “Help Chris make the satchel charge! Put all the explosives in one backpack, but save a few of the flares!
Feeling very unconnected to reality, Rachel gathered up as many of the fireworks and flares as she could and helped Chris stuff them into one of the backpacks. Link meanwhile picked up a rock shard and put it in his wrist slingshot, which he’d strapped on his left hand after discarding the crossbow. He stood up, aimed, and fired, but the rock went wide. He snatched up another missile. The rock bounced off the side of the monster, causing it to flinch slightly. It started walking again, circling the rock.
Link swore and fired another rock from the slingshot. It was useless against the creature’s natural armor. He fired two shots at the monster’s eyes, but the shots went wide and smacked its head, which merely annoyed the beast. He took off the slingshot and dropped it, then reached down and re-aimed the flashlights on the rock to keep the beast pinpointed.
“Link, here it is,” said Chris. He held up the backpack. “We stuffed some leaves in it so it would burn a little.”
“Rachel, you take this,” said Link. He handed a flare to her. “You know how to light this?”
Rachel nodded. She had once watched her sister’s boyfriend, Mack, use flares when he was marking the Landons’ driveway at night for a New Year’s Eve party.
“Okay, when I give the word, light this and stuff it in the backpack. I’ll throw it. Let’s wait until the thing gets closer, then we’ll blow the hell out of it.”
Chris stepped back. On impulse, having nothing else to do, he reached into his pants pocket and pulled out his camera. This was stupid, but he felt like doing it. He raised the camera, waiting for the monster to get closer.
The creature came around to the side where the broken rocks and debris formed the inclined path up to the top. It paused here, then took a step closer. It was only twenty-five feet away now.
“Can it climb up here?” asked Chris in a high voice.
“I don’t know!” Link yelled. “I don’t think so, but I don’t know. Rachel, get ready! Don’t light it yet, but get ready!”
Rachel tore the cap off the flare and held it away from her face, close to the rock. She knew the flare could be ignited by striking it on a rock or roadway, and this looked better than the igniter cap because there was less chance of burning her hands.
Link zipped up the backpack, leaving a foot-wide space at the top into which the flare would be jammed. He prayed that a pile of minor explosives would be enough to drive the monster away until morning, when they could see well enough to escape.
Chris pressed the button on his camera to charge the flash. The camera made a tiny whine as it powered up.
“Just a little closer,” said Link, bracing himself to throw the backpack. “Just a little closer, and we’ll serve you something nice and hot. Come on, boy.”
A metallic click came from behind the trio.
Chris turned around. “Brian?” he said in surprise.
Link and Rachel turned, too, eyes wide.
“Get out of the way!” said Brian. He stood at the other end of the rock. He took his foot out of the stirrup at the end of the crossbow and clapped the cocking bar down, then lifted the crossbow with his left hand. He held the black bolt in his right.
“Brian, for crying out loud,” said Link, “what are you doing?”
“Get out of my way!” snapped Brian. His voice shook. “Move or I’ll shoot you!” He fitted the bolt into the crossbow’s center track, then raised it. He aimed it at Link.
Link stared at the crossbow in astonishment, then looked out at the Monster of Hot Lake, which seemed to be watching what transpired on the boulder. Link looked back at Brian and his crossbow. “You’re crazy,” he said.
“Shut up!” yelled Brian. “I am not crazy! Move or I’ll kill you!”
“Somewhere else? Sure!” Brian moved the crossbow to one side—aiming it now at Rachel’s midsection. “You get out of my way, or the bitch dies, do you get that?”
Rachel took a half-step back, bringing her to the edge of the boulder. She raised a hand to shield herself from the threatened attack, her eyes huge and mouth open.
“Move!” Brian took a step toward Link, thrusting the crossbow in Rachel’s direction.
“Brian, take it easy, damn it!” Link said, his voice rising. “Calm down!”
Brian took another step closer. “I said—” he shouted.
Sam lunged up from the ground. His right hand snagged the stirrup on the front of the crossbow and jerked it downward. The bolt was knocked out of the weapon a quarter second before Brian squeezed the trigger and the crossbow thumped—firing only air.
Flash! Chris’s camera went off, aimed at Brian’s face. Brian, struggling with Sam for the bow, jerked back and shut his eyes, blinded.
Rachel was on Brian a half second later. She grabbed Brian by his hair and struck him twice across the face with the unlit flare. Pulled off balance, Brian stumbled and fell over Sam, who shrieked in agony as Brian stepped on Sam’s broken ankle. Rachel fell over as well, and Link dropped the backpack and waded in. Fifteen seconds later, Rachel knelt over Brian with her knee pressed hard into his back, both his arms pulled behind him and pinned. Link had the crossbow, bolt, and backpack, and Chris had the flare.
Brian struggled until Rachel put all her weight on her knee. Brian howled and began to cry again. Rachel bared her teeth at him, then looked up at Sam.
Sam lay limp on his back, eyes half-closed. His face was white and still.
Rachel mouthed the word Sam, then looked at Chris and Link. Chris knelt by his brother’s head, shouting his name.
“He’s still breathing,” said Link, bending over Sam. “Calm down, okay? He looks like he’s knocked out. Did someone hit him?”
“Brian stepped on his leg,” said Chris. “He’s breathing. He looks bad, though.”
“We got to get him out of here.” Link turned to look for the monster.
It was at the foot of the inclined pathway up to the top of the boulder, one foot on the base of the debris pile, head lifted, jaws parted, eyeing him. It was ten feet away and coming up the rough incline for the boulder’s top.
Link, Chris, Rachel, and Brian saw the monster at the same time. All screamed. Rachel fell backward off Brian, scrambling away. Link grabbed the backpack and jumped to the other side of the top of the rock with Rachel and Chris. Brian lay facing the monster, unable to move an inch and howling like a madman. Next to him lay Sam, unconscious. The monster took another step up. Its snout reached the top.
“Flare!” Link yelled in panic. “Get the flare!”
Rachel saw the flare where Chris had dropped it. She grabbed for it. At the same moment, the monster’s teeth snapped at her, but its footing slipped and it slid a few feet down the debris pile. It immediately tried to climb again, hissing in frustration.
Rachel scraped the top of the flare across the rock. It sparked, then a jet of brilliant red flame shot out from its end. Link grabbed the flare from her, shoved it in the backpack, and lifted it over his head.
The Monster of Hot Lake lunged up for him, jaws open and white teeth shining. Link threw the smoking pack into its mouth. The monster’s jaws clamped shut by reflex, and it threw back its head to swallow its prey whole.
Explosions louder than gunshots burst from the monster’s mouth. Flashes of white light and staggering concussions blinded and stunned the campers, who fell down to escape it. Teeth and thick shreds of flesh blasted out from the creature’s jaws as the fireworks went off. The monster fell sideways off the pathway, rolled over on the ground, and came up on its feet, shaking its head madly to dislodge the smoking backpack even as more cherry bombs flashed and thundered in the back of its throat.
Ears ringing, Link snatched up the crossbow and quickly tried to imitate what he’d seen Brian do. Holding the bow down with his foot, he pulled back on the cocking lever until the bowstring was locked in place. He found the black bolt near a flashlight and slapped it into the groove, fitting the back of the bolt into the bowstring. He raised the crossbow and aimed at the monster, but it was writhing so violently he could not get a clear shot at any part of it.
Brian tried to get up. Rachel leaped on him and slammed him facedown into the rock, putting him in a headlock the way she’d seen wrestlers do it on TV.
Chris held up two of the flashlights, the third one having been knocked off the rock entirely. He focused them on the monster as it shook its head violently. “Between the eyes!” he yelled. “Shoot it between the eyes!” He remembered the alligator farm in Florida, too, and the one spot where alligator hunters were said to aim their guns.
Link panted heavily, waiting. The cherry bombs were finished, and the shredded backpack had been thrown from the monster’s mouth. It writhed slowly now, badly injured. Link guessed it was stunned from the explosions. He took a deep breath, held it, then let it out and aimed, just as Uncle Anthony told him that all soldiers do when they fire their rifles in battle.
The monster held a pose for a moment. It was turned away from the rock, only twenty-five feet away, head thrown back and ruined jaws opened wide. Chris’s flashlights were centered on the monster’s head.
Link squeezed the trigger with a slow, steady motion. The crossbow stock thumped back into his shoulder, dealing a glancing blow to his right cheek.
“No,” moaned Brian, unable to move in Rachel’s headlock.
The Hot Lake Monster jerked as a dark spot appeared on its skull between its amber eyes. The bolt went right through bone and brain together. The monster made an odd noise like a deep cough, then it slowly relaxed and fell to the ground on its belly. Its massive head flattened a patch of weeds. Quivers ran through its body, and a hind foot clawed once at the ground.
And it fell silent and still and stayed that way.
It was after the cheering and screaming and yelling and crying had died down that Link realized he still had a cell phone. Exhausted, he punched in 9-1-1 and waited for someone to pick up.
No one got down from the boulder until the police and ambulance helicopters arrived. By the time the sun came up, the campers were gone.
Brian Taylor lay on the bed on his back, staring at the closest wallpapered wall in his hospital room. He never once looked at the doctor who tried to talk with him. He did not even struggle against the leather restraints holding his wrists and ankles to the bed. After fifteen minutes, the doctor sighed and made a note on his clipboard, then stood up. The doctor wore a blue shirt and tan slacks, and his nametag said he was from the Cedars of Lawndale Hospital pediatric unit.
“Brian, I’ll be back this evening to talk with you again,” the doctor said, but Brian did not answer then, either. Only his chest moved, rising and falling slightly. The doctor opened the door and went outside, signaling to a nurse to go in and stay with the boy. He then turned to Brian’s parents.
“How is he?” asked the young blonde. The doctor remembered her name was Amber something, Brian’s stepmother.
The doctor looked back to make sure the door was shut, then exhaled. “Well, it’s my guess that he’s having a serious reaction to the trauma he’s been through,” he said in a low voice. “At the moment, he seems depressed or bottled up, or maybe both. He hasn’t talked to anyone or eaten anything since shortly after he was brought in last night with the other children. I’m concerned we’re going to have to put him on an IV if he doesn’t start taking in liquids.”
“Why isn’t he eating?” asked Brian’s father, Steve. He wore the same polo shirt and short pants he’d pulled on when the police called him the night before and told him to come to the hospital right away. He tried to smile. “I know hospital food’s not that great, but—”
“I can’t say,” said the doctor. He found it hard to return the smile. “Brian seems to be angry more than anything else. He’s going through an enormous amount of internal turmoil, probably from all the stress he’s been under.”
“The other kids who were with him,” said Steve, “are they having these kinds of problems, too?”
The doctor took a deep breath. “Not as far as I can tell, no. They were shaken up, but the others seem to be dealing with things better than Brian has. We’re still doing tests to see if Brian’s suffered any injuries we’re not aware of, but I’d have to say he’s in good physical health, if nothing else. The nurses tell me he didn’t sleep well, apparently because he was having nightmares. I think that’s understandable given—”
“Nightmares?” interrupted Steve. “Isn’t he a little old to be having nightmares?”
“Anyone can get nightmares,” said the doctor. “Given everything I’ve heard so far about what went on last evening, the intense stress was bound to have an effect on him. The other kids might suffer from nightmares or emotional problems later, but Brian’s the one who’s showing those kind of problems right now.”
The doctor coughed and lowered his voice. No one else was in the corridor. “There’s another matter, one that was brought to my attention by the Lawndale Police. The other children have made statements alleging that Brian attempted to harm them, specifically with a crossbow he had with him, as events unfolded last night. I can’t—”
“He what?” said Steve. He took his hands out of his pockets. “They said that Brian did what?”
“They say he tried to shoot one or more of the other children with a crossbow. We’re going to have to go to my office and talk more about this. I’m afraid that the Lawndale Police and the Carter County Child Protective Agency have indicated to me that they also wish to speak with you, but I can’t say what they want to talk about.”
Steve and Ashley-Amber stared at the doctor for a speechless moment. “What, do they think we abused Brian, or what?” said Steve, stunned.
“No, I don’t think it’s that,” the doctor said quickly. “I think it has to do with the consequences of what went on last night. He was highly combative when he was brought in initially, kicking and punching several of the orderlies, and he had to be restrained. I think this was explained to you earlier.”
“I need to talk with you, too,” said Ashley-Amber. “About what Brian’s been doing at home.”
“About what?” Steve looked from the doctor to his wife.
“Those things he does to animals,” said Ashley-Amber, “when he tortures and kills them. He’s killed three of our cats—”
“Ashley, for God’s sake!” Steve looked at her in horror. “Brian did no such thing!”
“He’s been killing things ever since I’ve known you!” Ashley-Amber shouted. “I keep telling you about it, but you won’t listen to me! Brittany’s even seen him do it, and you didn’t listen to her, either!”
“That’s enough!” roared Steve. “How can you say such a thing?”
“I’m trying to help our son!” Ashley-Amber snapped. “He’s been doing these sick things for years and it’s getting worse, and now he almost got killed playing ‘Crocodile Hunter’ and I’m really worried about him and every time I tell you about it, you keep blowing me off like—”
“I’m not blowing you off! He—” Steve looked from Ashley-Amber to the doctor, then appealed directly to the doctor. “I know he’s done some things, I know, but it’s the kind of stuff all kids do! He’s not a monster, he’s just—”
“Wait a minute! Just wait!” the doctor interrupted. “Let’s go to my office. We can talk privately there. The police and CPA want to talk with you as soon as possible afterward, but we need to clear up what’s to become of Brian, medically speaking. Let’s do that first, if we could, though I suspect what the police have to say will affect what happens next, too. Plus—” The doctor sighed “—I got a phone call from Brian’s mother, his biological mother, Vivian, in Los Angeles. She’s flying out—”
Steve’s face became impassive. “Of course she would, the meddling bitch. I’m going to call my lawyer.”
The doctor nodded in resignation. “You will find a telephone in my office, but a lawyer isn’t going to cure what’s happening with him right now.”
Ashley-Amber put a hand on the doctor’s arm. “Is Brian going to, like, need drugs or a shrink or something?”
“Shut up, Ashley.” Steve didn’t look at his wife. “Don’t say another goddamn thing until my lawyer gets here.”
“This way, please,” said the doctor, leading the way. He rubbed his face as he walked. This was going to be a very long day.
Michele Landon checked her watch. She had been at Cedars of Lawndale for three hours and a half now, and in fifteen minutes she had to make a call to a headhunter agency to find out what they’d uncovered for her in the way of executive positions. There was nothing else she could do here for her daughter. She leaned over, patted Rachel Landon on the arm, and stood up.
“Your father and I will be back this afternoon to pick you up, dear,” she said in her usual businesslike way. “He’s flying back from Chicago a day early. Jodie’s coming with Evan, too, so we’ll be together. I want you to stay in bed until then. You have my permission to talk to the police if they need any more information, but trust me, you and I are going to have a little talk when you get home about this running off in the middle of the night.” She shuddered. “God Almighty, I cannot believe you were almost eaten by an alligator. That’s something only your crazy Uncle Ross would do. He always was the wild one in the family.” She paused to give her daughter the eye. “Girl, are you sure those boys didn’t make you go out running around with them? Tell me the truth, now.”
“Nope,” Rachel said. “They didn’t.” She tensed, but then made herself relax. She had nothing left to lose, and it was best to get this out of the way early on.
“Well, I can’t understand why you would take out after them, knowing what a stupid trick they were up to. That was a fool thing to do, and then there’s all these boys and you, one girl. That was just plain dumb. You should be thankful that nothing worse happened to you. You never know what boys have in mind at that age. You should have called the counselors or the police instead of heading out there yourself. Jodie would have done that. Jodie always knows the right thing to do.”
“I know,” said Rachel quietly.
“Then why didn’t you do what she would do?”
“Because I wanted to handle it myself, and I did.”
Michele Landon drew back in surprise. “Handle it yourself? Handle it yourself? Who do you think you are, Wonder Woman?”
Rachel took a breath. “I know who I am. I knew I could do it, and I did.”
Michele stared at her daughter. “Is there something about all this that you’re not telling me?”
“Yup,” said Rachel after a moment’s hesitation.
Her mother studied her with narrow eyes, then put her hands on her hips—a clear signal that a fight was in the wings. “Girl,” she said, “you’d better not be getting smart with me, and you’d better not be saying what I think you’re saying, because if you are—”
“Mother,” said Rachel, looking her mother in the face, “one of those boys I was with is my boyfriend.”
Michele Landon’s face went blank. She blinked rapidly. “What?”
“Sam Griffin. He’s my boyfriend.”
Michele continued to blink, her eyes getting wider. “That boy from camp whose life you saved? That man-eater Linda’s oldest boy? He’s your what?”
A pause. “You’re lying.”
“No, I’m not. He’s my boyfriend. Really.”
Michele stared at her daughter for a long moment. “How long has this been going on?” she said in a dangerous tone.
“Long enough,” Rachel said. She tensed and swallowed, waiting for the explosion.
Michele’s lips pressed together in a flat line. She stared at Rachel for several long seconds.
The moment for the explosion to occur came—and went.
Michele’s shoulders slumped. She picked up her purse and stared at her daughter. “You and I are going to have a long talk, young lady,” she said quietly. “We are going to have a very long talk, but it can wait until we get home. You stay in that bed and don’t you move for anything once I leave this room. You hear me?”
“I hear you,” said Rachel. “I’ll look for you this afternoon, then.”
“I’ll be here,” Michele said. She walked to the door and took a look back before she opened it. “I’m thankful to the Lord God that you’re alive, girl, I really am, but you and I are still going to have that talk.”
“Okay,” said Rachel. “I’ll see you then. Goodbye, Mother.”
Her mother shook her head and looked away. “Boyfriend,” she muttered. Rachel watched without expression as her mother left and shut the door behind her.
I stood up to her, Rachel thought. I can’t believe it. I stood up to her and told her, and she took it—and she saw a little of who I really was, for the first time ever. She saw Rachel Landon. Rachel could not believe it. It was a bigger shock than seeing the Hot Lake Monster in all its hideous, primeval glory trying to bite her arm off when she reached for the flare that Chris had dropped.
Rachel waited two minutes, then got out of bed and went to the door. Her mother was not in sight. Rachel closed the door, put on the shorts and shoes she had managed to salvage when she was admitted to the hospital, tied up her hospital gown, and crept out into the corridor.
Link sat up in his hospital bed and read the morning edition of the Lawndale Sun-Herald. There was nothing in it about a group of middle-school campers hunting down the legendary Hot Lake Monster, but he had already given the full story to the police—when his mother wasn’t interrupting to yell about something. The lurid tale would be splashed everywhere in tomorrow’s papers. Chris’s photos would go with it. Chris had shot the rest of his roll of film of the dead monster when the helicopters arrived, before he and the others were whisked away. Link wondered if Chris’s parents were smart enough to sell the pictures for the mint they were worth.
Finishing with the front page, Link thumbed through the paper in search of the comics. He couldn’t wait until he was out of the hospital later in the day. The doctors told him he was being kept for observation like the others, but he had no injuries to speak of, just the usual cuts and scrapes everyone else had—everyone but Sam, of course.
Faint shouts echoed up the hallway and seeped through the heavy hospital door. Link listened, then groaned. His mother and stepfather were fighting again in the waiting room. His stepfather sounded like he was already drunk. Perhaps it was better to stay in the room and relax before facing the horrors that lay ahead at home. Link looked up at the TV and then hunted around for the remote, for use after his comics were done.
Someone knocked on his door. Link winced and put the paper down. It had to be his mother, coming in to yell at him again about the whole mess. She’d yelled at him five times since she’d gotten in the night before. The police had to pull her out of a bar in Oakwood, the very one Link was sure she’d be in, and she was hung over and in a foul mood. He braced himself for the tornado to come.
The door opened.
Anthony DeMartino came in, wearing a new shirt and slacks, and shut the door behind him.
“Hey!” yelled Link, his face brightening. “Uncle Anthony!”
“Link JACKson!” Mr. DeMartino pointed a finger at Link. His face was pitiless, and his bad eye almost popped out when he emphasized words. “I don’t know whether to throw you out the WINdow or spank you with a BASEBALL bat!” he shouted. “Is this horse-hockey I’m hearing TRUE about you breaking curfew at the Okay-to-Cry Corral to RUN off into the night with your friends to hunt down a giant ALLIGATOR at a nuclear POWER plant? That this STUNT of yours is what caused the Okay-to-Cry Corral to be shut down this morning and the campers sent home because every other parent is terminally afraid his or her child will be EATEN by MONSTERS in the NIGHT?”
Link’s heart was in his throat. He felt his eyes fill with tears. He nodded yes, terrified of what Uncle Anthony would say next.
Mr. DeMartino’s face broke into a relieved grin. “My BOY!” he cried, and he ran over to the bed. To Link’s amazement, Mr. DeMartino gripped him in a bear hug. “Where were YOU when I was stuck in a foxhole in Da Nang in sixty-FIVE? We would have kicked Charlie’s ass into the PaCIFic! I could KILL you for scaring the hell out of the entire CAMP and risking your life on such a crazy, foolhardy WHIM, but I feel such a misplaced and unwarranted PRIDE in you, it’s all I can do to SPEAK! You are the greatest camper in the HISTORY of Okay-to-Cry campers—but if you ever do this to me again, I SWEAR you will spend all the rest of your years until you are eighTEEN breaking rocks at a summer camp for CHAIN gangs!”
“You’re proud of me?” Link couldn’t believe it.
“That I AM!” said Mr. DeMartino. “But if you breathe a WORD of this, your parents will undoubtedly SUE me, so let’s keep it just beTWEEN us if you COULD!” Mr. DeMartino stepped back from Link, held him by the shoulders, and beamed at him. “First chance you GET when you’re finished reLAXing in your BED, give me a call at HOME. I’m thinking of starting my OWN summer camp, a kind of outdoor adventure program—withOUT the ALLIGATORS!—and I would appreciate your advice on what activities active campers like yourSELF would like MOST! I might even find a JOB for you as an assistant counselor—for a decent amount of PAY, of course! You’ll probably earn MORE than I do, but that’s the curse of being a TEACHER!”
Link was speechless.
“And the NEXT thing I want to hear from you,” Mr. DeMartino continued with a grin, finding a chair and pulling it up next to the bed, “is your OWN war story about how you killed that ALLIGATOR! I’ve bored you long enough with MY tales! You may FIRE when you are READY!”
In another part of the hospital at the same moment, Wind Lane lay in bed with his forehead bandaged and a splint over his broken nose. A revolting scent still clung to him, though he had been given a sponge bath twice. Alone with his dark thoughts, he clicked the remote to find a TV channel that wasn’t talking nonstop about the Okay-to-Cry rug rats that killed that giant alligator at the nuclear power plant.
His mood would have been foul enough after discovering that the kids who’d killed the alligator had ransacked his cabin for “supplies.” Then he learned his least favorite niece and nephew had filed a complaint with the Carter County Child Protective Agency, charging him with making a physical threat against them. The chewing out he’d received from the CPA’s Officer Margolis earlier in the morning had almost blistered the wallpaper from Wind’s hospital room. Then his sister Summer called to scream at him for scaring her kids, and then Timothy O’Neill came by and, along with his condolences, reluctantly fired Wind from his job as counselor, though Tim did promise to find him another job that didn’t involve working with kids.
What really irked Wind, however, was the knowledge that someone—probably his niece and nephew, but possibly one of the other campers, like that little snot Brian Taylor—had rigged a trap to his cabin door that emptied a bucket of latrine waste all over him when he raced out of his cabin after hearing Tim O’Neill shout that children were missing from camp. Blinded and choking on filth, Wind ran into a tree and knocked himself unconscious. He woke up as he was being unloaded from an ambulance at the Cedars of Lawndale Hospital ER.
At the present moment, Wind was nervously awaiting the results of an X-ray of his nose (cosmetic surgery was horrifically expensive) before he checked himself out of the hospital and back into his parents’ home, there to figure out what he would do with himself until he found another girlfriend. It was possible that one of his ex-wives might take him back, maybe even Gwendolyn, if he only found a way to—
There was a knock on the door to his room.
“Who could that be?” he muttered, lowering the TV’s volume with the remote.
The door opened. Adrian and Courtney came in, carrying a gift-wrapped present and a large red balloon, respectively.
Wind’s jaw dropped. Then he glared. “This isn’t funny, you rotten Munchkins. Do you know how much crap I’m wading through right now because you miserable cruds lied to the CPA about—”
“Uncle Wind,” Adrian interrupted, “we came to apologize.” He held out the present in the silver wrapping paper and put it on the foot of Wind’s bed.
“We’re sorry if you got into trouble with Officer Margolis,” Courtney continued. She tied the red balloon to the back of a folding chair and pushed it close to Wind with her foot—making sure, as did Adrian—that neither came within arm’s length of him.
“Being sorry won’t help,” grumbled Wind, but he reached for the package anyway. “What’s this?”
“We got you an all-natural organic pie,” said Courtney.
“We hope you like it,” said Adrian.
“You did?” Wind asked, taken aback. This was too good to be true. Alarms went off in his head, but he was ferociously hungry after picking at the miserable excuse for a breakfast that the nurse had served him at eight a.m. Hospital food had nothing organic in it at all, tasting like processed pseudo-paste despite the nurse’s claims that it was good for you. A pie . . . maybe the kids really were sorry. Wind hoped he could milk their sorrow for a while and maybe get them to talk Katie into letting him stay with her again.
He began to unwrap the gift. “Thanks, guys,” he said. Maybe they can get me some granola, too, he thought. “You know, when I get out of here, why don’t we go—”
The smell hit him first. He hesitated, startled, then flipped up the lid of the pie box and looked inside.
“This is cow manure!” he yelled, looking up at the kids.
Adrian had a peashooter in his mouth. He blew hard on it, and something shot out of the peashooter and hit the red balloon, which Adrian and Courtney had carefully and completely filled with gas from a large pepper-spray bottle. The balloon exploded only three feet away from where Wind sat up in bed.
Courtney quickly closed the door, Adrian tossed the peashooter in a nearby trashcan, and they ran down the hallway for the elevators as Uncle Wind’s muffled shriek burst from his room. Adrian and Courtney smiled at each other when they reached the elevators and hit the down button a dozen times in a row. The doors for one elevator opened, they dodged in, and the doors shut. Once safely inside, they leaned against opposite walls and grinned at each other.
And they thought of the same song at the same moment, the song Uncle Wind always listened to when he broke up with a wife or girlfriend.
“‘Did she make you cry?’” Adrian sang softly.
“‘Make you break down?’” Courtney sang back.
“‘Shatter your illusions of love?’” they sang together, heading for the hospital lobby and freedom. “‘Is it over now? Do you know how / to pick up the pieces and go home?’”
Sam Griffin turned the TV’s volume down with the remote and rolled his head toward the door to his hospital room when he heard the knock. “Who is it?” he called.
In response, the door opened and his brother Chris came in with a quiet smile. Sam sourly noticed that Chris wore a blue t-shirt and brown slacks that their mother had undoubtedly brought earlier that morning to replace his soon-to-be-discarded hospital gown. Chris pushed the door half-closed behind him.
“Hey, butthead,” said Chris. “You gonna sleep all day?”
“Hey yourself, asswipe,” said Sam. He smiled, too, though the painkillers were wearing off and his left foot was beginning to throb. “’Sup?”
“Nothin’. Walkin’ around to bother you. Damn, your face is really scarred up, bro. Looks like someone beat you good with the ugly stick.”
Same old Chris—though, in a way, it wasn’t. The tension they’d often felt between them was gone. “Thanks loads,” Sam said in a flat voice. “Soon as I get out of bed, you’re gonna be scarred for life, too. Mom and Dad give you the clothes?”
Chris nodded, though his smile faded. “Yeah. Mom didn’t know if she should cry or scream at me. Dad looked kind of overwhelmed, but I think Mom’s pissed at both of us, so we’ll hear about it later when we get out. Hey, on the cool side, Mom took my pictures in to the TV station to be developed, and she’s going to see if any of them can be used for the TV news or the newspapers. I bet I get a ton of money for them! I took some really good shots of that thing. Did you know I even got a picture of it when it came out of the lake and ate that deer? I think I got a great picture of that one!”
Sam sighed. “Yeah, I know. Dad said he didn’t know what to do with me, like he’s really gonna do anything about this at all, you know, but Mom said she was thinking about suing the power plant for keeping an alligator in the lake.” He pointed to the TV. “I saw on the news an hour ago that they arrested the guy who was the head of security at the plant. He said the alligator was his. He did some poaching in the Everglades, and he caught that gator alive about twenty years ago and kept it at the plant, ‘cause he was working there back then, too. The police are still trying to find out how he got the gator into the lake without anyone seeing it and kept it quiet all this time, but like he was the main security man, you know? He could do anything and no one would know about it. I bet he messed with the security cameras and just sneaked it in inside a truck. He probably even kept everyone from going to the lake so he could keep it a secret. The news said he was in charge of the security patrols, so he could fix it up however he wanted. Who knows. Man, I’d sure love to know how he did it, right before I pound his ass.”
Chris nodded in agreement. “Let me pound on him some, too. Link told me no one could go to the lake anyway because it was some kind of wildlife place for wild birds and all that.”
“Yeah, I heard that on the news, too. Kinda figures. I can understand how that thing got so big, eating everything around it and not having anyone around to shoot it or eat it. The police took the dead gator and put it in a freezer somewhere. Must’ve been a damn big freezer, too. They said it’s the biggest American alligator in all history, as far as they know. Twenty-five feet, three inches. I forgot how much they said it weighed, but it was a lot. Two museums are trying to get the gator and stuff it for an exhibit.”
“Huh. Guess Link’s really famous, since he was the one who killed it.”
Sam grinned and pointed to the TV with the remote. “Dude, we’re all famous! Didn’t you see the tube? KSBC’s carrying most of the news on it since Mom works there, but they’re all saying that each of us helped kill it, which is about right. Even Brian’s getting credit, but I hear he’s messed up over everything.” Sam swallowed and looked at the silent TV. “Jeez, I can still see him pointing that crossbow at Rachel. I thought he was going to kill her. I don’t know what got into him. I hope they get him straightened out soon. He’s messed up.” Sam shrugged. “Anyway, it’s a good thing we killed that damn thing, before some little kids or someone wandered around back there and got themselves eaten alive like we almost did.”
Chris nodded. “Mom say if Sandi was coming to see us?”
“Yeah, she’s coming. She was over at the Morgendorffers last night, sleeping over. I bet Sandi dumps a load in her pants when she hears about this.”
Chris laughed so hard he almost fell over. “I bet she does! That’ll be great!”
Sam’s smile faded. That will be great, he thought, but only if it shocks her off of her princess throne. Then maybe she and I can talk about stuff after that and act more like a normal brother and sister. Maybe we can sort of start over and not get on each other’s nerves so much. It won’t hurt to hope for it.
Chris’s gaze wandered down to the big cast on Sam’s foot. “Is Sandi bringing Quinn with her?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Damned if I know,” said Sam, trying to shift his position in bed. “Damned if I care, either. She’s not my girlfriend or anything.”
Chris nodded, strangely unconcerned with Sam’s response. “So,” he said, looking at the cast, “when do you get that off?”
“Jeez, I dunno. The doctor said I broke it pretty good. I won’t be swimming or doing much of anything for a while. I gotta use crutches. Sucks.”
Chris fought down a smile. “Does it hurt?” He pretended to swing at the cast with his fist.
“Hey, you little butt-sucker! Touch my cast and I’ll put your head in a cast.”
Chris grinned. “You and what army?”
“This army,” said a hoarse whisper from the door as it opened. Chris turned in surprise.
Sam smiled. The pain in his foot went away. “Rachel,” he said softly. “Hey.”
“Hey,” whispered Rachel. She coughed. She was in a hospital gown, too, belted tightly around her, but she’d gotten a pair of sneakers. Her hair was unbraided and pulled back into a puffball with a yellow scrunchie. She coughed again and pointed in frustration at her throat, shaking her head. Her voice had given out again.
“It’s okay,” said Sam. “Come on over.” He reached for her with the arm that had an IV needle in it.
Rachel was at his bedside in a moment. She carefully got her arms around him, kissed him, and put her face next to his. His arms encircled her, one around her back and one holding her head. They gripped each other as gently and tightly as they could and said nothing.
Chris became aware that his presence was no longer wanted. He waved as he left the room. With nothing to do, he went looking for the hospital cafeteria. He took the elevator down to the first floor and was about to walk out when the doors opened—but his big sister Sandi was right there in front of him.
Sandi stopped and blinked. “What are you doing out of bed, brat?”
“I was going to ask you that, Frankenstein,” said Chris evenly. “You don’t look like you got enough beauty rest last night.”
Sandi sneered. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. “Quinn and I came over to see if these rumors we’re hearing are true—this nonsense about you and Sam and . . .”
Chris had already stopped listening to what Sandi was saying. The gorgeous Quinn Morgendorffer was right behind her, long red hair and all, dressed in a robin’s-egg-blue dress that showed off her teen-model figure perfectly. She was a 27 on a scale of one to ten, shining brighter than a supernova in the hospital hallway.
“Hi,” said Chris to Quinn.
“Hello,” said Quinn, eyeing him uncertainly.
“Excuse me,” said Sandi in annoyance, “but I was asking this brat here if—”
“It’s true,” said Chris, his gaze fixed on Quinn, and suddenly James Bond took over. “We hunted down the world’s deadliest alligator, and we got it.” He hesitated just the right length of time. “I took some great pictures of it when it was attacking us,” he said to Quinn. “I’ll show ‘em to you when they’re ready. Care to see ‘em?”
“Hey!” said Sandi, her voice rising. “I was talking here!”
“Kuh-winn!” Sandi yelled.
“You wanna meet the rest of the gang?” said Chris. He stepped back in the elevator and put a finger over the buttons. “Come on up.”
And just like that, Quinn got into the elevator with him. Sandi started to walk in, too, but with a quick motion Chris pushed her out and hit the button to shut the doors. They closed just as Sandi turned red and began to scream, cutting her off nicely.
There was just a moment of silence as Chris and Quinn looked at each other in the elevator. Chris did not let the moment linger. “I thought about you when the alligator was trying to kill us,” he said. It was the first thing that popped into his head. At the same moment, he knew he had been preparing for this moment since he first set eyes on Quinn Morgendorffer, walking into his home for a Fashion Club meeting several years ago.
“You thought about me? But why did you think about me?”
Chris put on a serious expression and shrugged. “I hope this doesn’t come out sounding silly, but . . . I needed the strength to go on when things were really bad, and I thought that if I could think of something beautiful, it would help me know what to do next.” He looked down at the floor. This next part required a touch of humility. “So I thought about you. That saved me. It gave me the strength I needed when I thought I had nothing left.” He looked up into her spring-blue eyes. “Just thinking about you made me a better man, and it got me through.” A one-beat pause. “Thank you.”
Quinn stared at him, stunned. “Really?” she said.
Perfect, he thought. Perfect. You did it. He looked at her with all the sincerity he could muster. “That’s the truth,” he said. “I swear.”
Quinn stared at him a moment more.
The elevator bell dinged. The door was seconds from opening at Chris’s floor.
Quinn leaned down, closed her eyes, and softly kissed Chris on the cheek. Her lips left a spot on his face that burned red-hot for half an hour. She pulled back just as the door opened.
“Thank you,” Chris said solemnly, the perfect gentleman. He owned the world, so he could afford to be polite. He showed Quinn out of the elevator and down the hall to Sam’s room, where he opened the door without knocking first.
Sam and Rachel broke from a deep kiss and looked up from the bed, entangled in each other’s arms. Rachel lay next to Sam under the bedsheets, still in her hospital gown but missing her shoes, which were on the floor. Rachel covered her mouth to hide her embarrassed laughter.
“Do you mind?” said Sam, mildly irritated.
“Is this a new mouth-to-mouth technique, or what?” Chris said, grinning broadly.
Before Sam could respond, Quinn looked in the room. She put a hand on Chris’s shoulder as she did. “Oops!” she said, spotting Sam and Rachel, and she withdrew, blushing. “Excuse me!”
Chris treasured the look on Sam and Rachel’s faces for the rest of his life. “Hey,” he said, “carry on, okay?” With that, he closed the door and looked up at Quinn.
“Well!” Chris said, fighting back his grin. “That was awkward! We can come back later when they’re, um, finished with the physical, but in the meantime . . . hey, there’s a soft-drink machine down the hall. Can I get you a soda before we go see Link?”
“That little rodent,” said Sam. He lay on his back now. “I’m going to squash his head when I get out of here.”
Rachel lay on her side next to him, still under the sheet. She propped her head up on an elbow. “You want to squash him because he got Quinn and you didn’t?” she whispered, her voice back for a few moments.
“Jeez, no, Rachel. I want to squash him because he broke up the best kissing I ever had in my life. He messes up everything.”
Rachel hesitated, avoiding Sam’s gaze. “You sure—” She coughed, then continued, her voice worsening “—you sure you don’t want Quinn instead of—” she coughed, her voice out for good.
Sam stared at Rachel with concern. “Quinn’s nothing, Rachel,” he said, “but if Chris really did get her, then more power to him, because that’ll keep the little toad out of my hair better than anything else in the world.” He reached for Rachel’s face and gently ran his fingers down her cheek. “Save your voice, angel.”
Rachel looked like she was about to say something else anyway.
Sam’s fingers touched her lips.
“God,” he whispered, “you look so good to me.”
He forced himself to roll partway over on his side, ignoring the pain from his foot, and he put his face close to hers. They looked at each other from a four-inch distance for a timeless moment. Sam stroked her hair and cheek, stroked the side of her neck, and took in the impossible beauty of her. He smelled her fresh scent, the scent that was only hers, and it filled his head and left room for nothing else. Rachel Landon was everything that mattered, everything that was or would be, the heart of the universe.
Their arms naturally found their way around each other, despite the annoying IV. Their faces drew closer, their eyes closed and their lips met and the world went away and left them alone.
* * * * *
Author’s Notes: The major characters in this story are not major characters in the Dariaverse, and material on them was rather thin but easy to flesh out. Sam and Chris Griffith appear in assorted “Daria” episodes, particularly “Gifted,” “Daria Dance Party,” and “Fat Like Me.” They are further described in The Daria Database, under “Family Portraits.” Rachel Landon never appeared in the TV series but was described in The Daria Database under “Family Portraits.” Brian Taylor appeared in The Daria Database (“Family Portraits”), but he also makes brief appearances in the TV episodes “Lab Brat” and “Groped by an Angel.” Link’s sole appearance was on the TV movie, Is It Fall Yet? (The movie’s title comes from a depressing comment made by Link himself.) Adrian and Courtney appear on the TV episode, “Lane Miserables.”
Part of this story was serialized online at Paperpusher’s Message Board (PPMB, the old version), and part of it appeared in slightly different form on the Scorched Remains Message Board (SRMB) through early July 2003. Some of the chapters were inspired by Iron Chef contests posted on PPMB by various people, as noted below.
As most readers have probably figured out by now, this story’s chapter titles are the names of popular daytime TV soap operas. “The Secret Storm” might look unfamiliar, as it was an early TV soap and was cancelled in 1973. “The Edge of Night” was another early TV soap opera, cancelled in 1984. “Search for Tomorrow” was cancelled in 1986. My mother watched these shows on our black-and-white TV while she ironed. I can even remember the opening theme music. Amazing the kinds of things you keep inside your head about your childhood, isn’t it?
Chapter I, “The Young and the Restless,” was originally a PPMB Iron Chef entry for the contest from Ms. Lee on May 27, 2003, about younger siblings. It swiftly ballooned out into this novel from there.
Chapter II, “All My Children,” was for Ms. Lee’s “a mile in another person shoes” Iron Chef competition from June 20, 2003.
Chapter III, “As the World Turns,” was for yet another Iron Chef contest started by Ms. Lee, on June 16, 2003. The theme was that a “Daria” character lost something, major or minor, material or abstract.
Chapter V, “The Days of Our Lives,” is based on yet another Iron Chef competition on PPMB, one created by angelinhel on June 5, 2003. She called for stories about the fathers that appear on the “Daria” show. This chapter also makes use of a suggestion on SRMB from Ruth “Ruthless Bunny” Margolis, about a certain pair of runaway siblings that Wind Lane would know—Adrian and Courtney, Summer’s kids from “Lane Miserables.” Adrian and Courtney are here assumed to be fraternal twins.
Chapter IX was inspired in part by a book probably few people have heard of, let alone read: The Night Land, a marvelous 1912 horror/fantasy/apocalyptic-SF novel by William Hope Hodgson. It’s an acquired taste, but it sets the mood nicely.
Chapter XI, “General Hospital,” recaps some of the rewards the campers get after the adventure—their “graduation presents” from their short visit to camp. Thus, it (sort of) fulfills the requirements of yet another PPMB Iron Chef contest in June 2003, this one from angelinhel on graduation gifts. The song lyrics that Adrian and Courtney sing as they leave Uncle Wind’s room are from “Gold Dust Woman,” written by Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac, 1977). It’s the song Wind tried to remember in Chapter II.
Acknowledgements: My happy thanks to Ms. Lee, angelinhel, and Ruthless Bunny, for reasons noted above. Thanks also go to Crusading Saint, from whose stories I borrowed the idea of Rachel Landon’s crush on her big sister’s boyfriend Mack, and to Brother Grimace, who reminded me that Michele Landon might have a problem with Linda Griffin. Thanks also to everyone who passed on encouragement to continue the story when I was overrun by real life a few times.
And finally, of course, those wonderful, wonderful, wonderful Jurassic Park movies inspired me beyond measure. Steven Spielberg, you rule!
Novel, action-adventure, camp situations, shipper (Rachel Landon/Sam Griffin)