He despised his life. Nothing was the way it should be: his father was dead, his mother blamed him, his only friend in LeVir Lake hated him, his friends in Salem had probably forgotten him, and he was coming down with a serious case of cabin fever. On
top of that, he felt gypped that he couldn't see the landscape behind the wall. All he could see were the very tops of the trees poking up like arrowheads. What was the point of living in an oasis if he couldn't receive visual pleasure from the contrast of the desert and the town?
A jogger trotted along Prudence Boulevard.
Luke performed a double take. There was a jogger. Trotting along Prudence Boulevard. After sundown. He quickly opened his window for a better look at this strange phenomenon.
It was a girl who looked just about Luke's age, though from the distance he was at he couldn't be certain. She didn't look like a Padres. Her jet-black hair tied into a ponytail swept across her back as she moved, counterbalancing skin so pale it almost glowed in the impending darkness. On her petite yet shapely physique, she wore tiny black shorts with a tight white tank top, under which her black sports bra was evident. Her squeaky clean white running shoes nearly covered her white ankle socks. Luke loved ankle socks on women. The less sock, the more leg! And unlike Marlene's varicose appendages, the girl's lean legs were the kind at which Luke liked looking.
Despite the sun being set, the beautiful jogger wore sunglasses. As she passed Luke's house, he leaned out the window to keep her in view and she detected him ogling her. When she glanced at his house, his brain told him to hide, but something else kept him in place and he continued staring. The jogger didn't seem to mind having an observer. She smirked at him before refocusing on her path.
It was the centerfold girl! The jogger was the girl Luke had seen in his magazine that he couldn't find again. Luke felt temporarily paralyzed, the same way a small child feels after hearing a particularly deafening thunder strike.
Something fell from the girl's body. Her sunglasses lay stranded in the middle of Prudence Boulevard, and she was jogging away without them. Luke's need to return them to her inflated in his chest and filled his veins.
Luke raced out of his house and snatched the sunglasses. He looked for the girl, but she had disappeared. "Not again," Luke moaned. He ran in the direction she had gone until he reached the town gate. The exertion took his breath away and he paused to retrieve it while he looked to see where the girl had gone, but he didn't see her anywhere. What he did see was that the gate was open. He strayed outside it, his old sneakers crunching over the gravel drive that led to the dark desert. The skyscraping trees seemed to bow toward him in the last remaining traces of dusk.
Luke caught a glimpse of someone flitting into the trees a few yards ahead. The centerfold girl. Luke, determined to return her sunglasses to her, dashed into the woods, thinking of nothing except meeting this mysterious, beautiful stranger.
Inside the trees, darkness blinded him. The thick branches blocked the residual twilight from reaching him. He strained to see as he hiked forward.
Luke halted as his rationality suddenly returned. Why was he venturing into the black forest? The girl probably lived in LeVir Lake. Someone with such clean shoes couldn't possibly reside in the woods. There was no reason he couldn't return the sunglasses to her another day. He'd knock on every door in town until he found her.
Luke turned to go home, a little embarrassed at his impulsive action, and hoping Lisa didn't know he'd left.
A disembodied cough canceled his retreat. Luke spun around, his singular purpose snapped back into place, searching for the cough's maker. He spotted a tiny light. It hung around the girl's neck, bouncing as she jogged in place, checking her pulse between two trees.
"Hey!" Luke called.
The girl ran off without seeing him.
"Wait!" Luke yelled. "You dropped these!" He waved her sunglasses in the air. They slipped from his grasp and plummeted to the black ground.
The girl looked back at Luke and laughed, but she didn't stop jogging. Luke felt an even stronger urge to follow her. Her pace quickened. Luke raked the ground for the sunglasses, found them, and hurried after the girl.
He slammed into a thick tree in his path. He swayed back, dazed for a moment, but he shook off the shock. He didn't remember a giant tree standing between him and where the centerfold girl had been. He must have turned when he picked up the sunglasses. He looked around for the two trees he had faced before, but without the girl's light, it was too dark to see anything.
A screech echoed above him. Luke gulped. "Please don't be a bat." Luke wished he had kept the promise he’d made to Jan to stay out of the woods as another screech resonated through the trees. "I don't like bats," Luke told himself as he felt his way around trees. He had never actually been near any kind of bat, but that didn't matter.
Luke's shins collided with some shrubs. He tried stepping over the plants, but he misjudged their height and tripped. He fell flat on his face, and the sunglasses once again flew from his hand.
He crawled over the ground, searching, pawing, begging his eyes to adjust to the blinding dark. He came across something smooth and rigid--the sunglasses frames. Luke picked them up. Triumphant, he regained his stance.
The sunglasses tickled his palm. That wasn't good. Luke brought his hand to his face, squinting as hard as he could to identify what he held.
A scorpion! Luke flung it away. He ran. Without knowing where he was going or what was in his way, he ran. He slammed into trees, but they failed to slow him. More screeching echoed above him, sounding like unnatural laughter roaring from all sides.
The ground opened under Luke's feet. His body plummeted, his heart jumping into his throat. His arms reached for something to stop his descent, but there was nothing around him. He was falling into a pit, and he didn't know how deep it was.
His throat closed as his shirt collar tightened. His body jolted up as something yanked him back. He flew through the air and landed on his back on solid ground. The adrenaline pumping through his body kept his breath in his lungs, and the hard landing didn't even faze him. Luke's fingers dug into the root-infested soil, making sure it was real.
"What are you doing out here?" Jan's voice whispered coarsely.
Luke flinched, all thoughts of finding the centerfold girl startled away. Jan was the last person he expected to encounter in the woods. He felt even more in trouble than he would have if his mom had caught him out of the house. "Where did you come from?" he exclaimed, looking in the direction from which her voice had come but seeing nothing but black air.
Jan shushed him. She was near enough that he felt her breath rush over the top of his head. She was standing over him. "You have to be quiet. What are you doing in the woods?"
Luke grunted as he stood, hoping he was facing her. "I followed this girl. She dropped her sunglasses."
"Do you still have them?"
"I lost them."
"Good. We have to get out of here." She grabbed Luke's wrist and started walking.
"Jan," Luke demanded, resisting her pull, "what's going on?"
She stopped. By the way her hand twisted his wrist, he knew she was staring straight at him. "Now you want to listen? We're standing in the darkest, most dangerous place in the world and you want me to explain everything now?"
"Are we really in danger?" Now that Jan was with him, Luke felt like nothing could hurt him. Not even a bat.
Jan tensed, squeezing Luke's wrist. He felt a breeze as she crossed herself, and his strange sense of calm was replaced by the familiar panic.
As if someone had fired a silent start gun, Jan took off, rocketing through the woods, hauling Luke behind her. His feet struggled to find solid footings and he could barely keep up. Jan's speed astounded Luke. His old football coach would have loved her. She moved as if nothing was in her way, but the branches she effortlessly pushed aside slapped Luke's face. Some had thorns.
Suddenly, they were free of the woods. Aided by the twinkling sheet of stars above him, Luke could see again. They came out of the woods much farther down the gravel drive than Luke had entered. Jan pulled him away from the desert, down the very middle of the drive, not slowing until they reached the town gate. Once there, she finally stopped and released Luke's wrist while she peered into town.
"Can we talk now?" Luke wheezed, doubling over, trying to catch his breath. Even at the top of his athletic prowess, he had never run so far so fast. As he sucked in fresh air, he noticed the gate had gone from wide open to almost closed during the time he was in the woods.
"We're lucky we made it out of there alive," Jan whispered. "Now we're going to have to be especially quiet. Pad your footsteps when we enter town."
Jan's hand skimmed Luke's palm as she reclaimed his wrist to usher him through the town gate. The flesh of his hand tingled, sending a tiny, pleasurable shock into his chest.
An obstacle immediately faced them: two men strolled along LeVir Lake Avenue. Luke wondered if all of the residents of LeVir Lake had had a meeting and decided that was the perfect night to start going out after dark. Jan wrenched Luke into a backyard and pressed herself against the house, shimmying across the back wall. Signaling Luke to be silent, Jan checked around the corner. Shivers visibly raced through her body. She shot a glare at Luke, her circular eyes filled with both agitation and desperation. Luke had no idea what to do. He didn't even know from what they were hiding.
He spied movement by the town wall. Luke squinted, distinguishing a pale face wearing sunglasses. The centerfold girl. She was leaning against the town wall, grinning at him, almost laughing.
Luke nudged Jan. She took a break from scanning the street to see what he wanted. Luke nodded toward the centerfold girl. Jan looked.
Jan didn't warn Luke as she took off from behind the house, nearly tearing his arm off in the process. She towed Luke across Prudence Boulevard.
Luke glanced back at the centerfold girl. She watched them from her spot on the wall, not following, wearing a satisfied smirk.
Jan pulled Luke past his house to hers. Karol opened the front door for them, being careful to stay inside the house. She slammed it shut the instant they cleared the doorframe.
Luke fell to the floor and panted. Karol held Jan, who was on her knees, rocking back and forth and rambling about "her." Luke assumed she meant the centerfold girl. He rolled onto his back, inhaling long, measured breaths, trying to relax his wound-up muscles. They'd sprung to life after a year of depressed sluggishness, but the second he hit the floor, they'd turned to rocks.
Jan stopped talking. Luke looked to see what was up. She had released herself from her mother, stood up, and was staring down at him. The emotions in her face were so intense, Luke couldn't figure out whether they were loving or spiteful. He could feel her silently ordering him to get up and face her. He ordered his muscles to move. They reluctantly complied. He stood, looking directly into Jan's passionate eyes.
"Jan," he started, "why--?"
Jan slugged him across the jaw. Luke stumbled back against the front door.
"What were you thinking?!" she screamed. "I warned you! I made it blatantly clear that it was dangerous to leave your house after sunset. And I told you, I told you very clearly that the woods are off limits. Do you have any idea how lucky you are that I got to you first? I did not have to go after you. I warned you. Why didn't you listen?"
Jan dropped back to her knees, sobbing into her hands. The way her body bent made her look like a quavering Z. Neither Karol nor Luke comforted her that time. They were both afraid of what she might do to anyone who touched her.
The phone rang in the other room. Karol left to answer it. Luke stepped toward Jan, but she held her hand out, warning him not to come near, pushing his friendship away.
Luke felt a hand on his upper back. It belonged to the old man who lived with Jan. The man motioned for Luke to follow him and left the opposite way Karol hard. Luke glanced at Jan's doleful form once more before going to the other room.