1 - wishes of snow & child's play
I hung off the thickest branch, eyes narrowed at the ground as if it would suddenly make the snow appear.
"If you fall, I won't put you back together," Derek said suddenly, breaking the long silence. My attention turned to him, where he stood at the base of the tree. I furrowed my brow at him and his expression remained nonchalant, as usual. Unfazed.
"That's just cruel," I said, scrunching up my nose.
He shrugged. "Then I guess I'm cruel."
"You can't just say it like that." I pulled myself up onto the branch so that I was sitting and brushed the bits of leaves and twigs out of my shoulder length hair. "You're supposed to try to save the princess, not laugh at her when she dies."
"Princess?" he mumbled, eyebrow quirking as he looked up at me. "Is that what you're calling yourself nowadays?"
I sent him a dirty look in return and he just smirked, then lounged against the tree again. "Let's say you did fall." His tone was light; I listened carefully, bracing myself with one hand against knotted bark. "Let's say you fell and landed headfirst on one of these rocks, snapped your neck, and your foramen magnum lodged into your brainstem. You'd die instantly if you were lucky."
"But you wouldn't be alive long enough to suffer."
"Still. . ."
"I'm sure plenty of people die that way, Liddy," he said, his voice carrying a slight curiosity to it. A kind of wonder that only Derek Stukas would possess. "We just never hear about them because only the sensational ones make it to the news."
I gave a shrug, not convinced. "Sounds pretty sensational to me."
"That's because you're from a small town in the middle of nowhere-country," he returned casually.
"If I am, then so are you."
"Yes, but I'm not oblivious to the outside world."
"Hey." I glared down at him, hoping he would see, but he didn't. His gaze was fixed on the trees. Bare branches hung; stagnate. On the ground, shriveled leaves skittered in a faint wind. They hopped over fallen branches, sticks, twigs, cones, and sparse clumps of grass. The pines were in full bloom, and their scent permeated the air.
I couldn't wait to see it all covered in snow.
"What time does your dad want you home?" he asked suddenly. Pushing off the tree, he turned on his heel, made eye contact.
I shrugged. I hadn't told Dad I was going out, but then again I hadn't seen him since last night. "Before dark."
His eyes searched over the forest, and then his attention returned to me. "That won't be for another two hours, most likely." A hint of a grin edged at his lips. "Help me with something."
I gave a quick nod. "Sure."
He waited at the base of the tree as I quickly climbed down. He turned to me as my feet touched ground. "We're going to the shed," he said, straightening the collar of his jacket with one hand.
"For what?" I pulled a dead leaf from my hood.
"We're setting traps."
He let off a mild nod, glancing at me again before starting down the trail. I fell in line behind him.
"Have you caught anything in the other ones?" I asked, picking up my pace once I realized I was starting to fall back.
"Some raccoons; not much else."
"Oh." I took a brief survey of our surroundings; we were on the only trail that ran through the seventy-something acre forest. The one that touched the shed and his father's half a dozen hunting blinds. Closer to my house than his, technically. Although it didn't really matter, because I wasn't eager to go home anyway.
Only two more days of school left until Winter Break. Hopefully the ground would be blanketed in snow by then. That way, at least I'd have something nice to look at while I was stuck at home.
I ambled over uneven ground and let out a light sigh. My breath came out in a thin white puff. The temperature was supposed to drop below freezing tonight. Then maybe next week we could go ice skating...
My gaze flicked to Derek. I felt something in my stomach knot; tighten. I forgot, he wasn't the one that liked ice skating.
"Is Eli coming home for Christmas?" I found myself asking, without thought.
Derek slowed, looking back at me, eyes locking onto mine. "Yeah."
"You don't know when your own brother's coming home?" I let my jaw drop open melodramatically, even though his attention was directed ahead of him once again. "How is that even possible? Isn't your mom excited?"
He sighed, then spoke, "Nobody's said anything about it."
"Then how do you know he's coming home?"
"I just do."
"I wonder if he's learned all sorts of cool military things," I muttered, slipping my hands into my coat pockets. "Survival techniques and stuff."
"Don't get your hopes up." Ice laced his tone, which surprised me. He wasn't one to show his emotions so easily.
My lips drew into a straight line and I quickened my steps, so we walked in tandem. "Have you talked to him recently?"
"No. Have you?"
The question caught me off-guard and I frowned. "No."
A breeze picked up and swept through, taking what little warmth I'd had with it. I shivered involuntarily, casting a sidelong look at Derek. His mood was off now; shattered. I wanted to know why, but didn't dare ask. That wasn't how things worked.
We walked in silence for a few minutes until we came to the shed. It was more like a garage, sans the cars. He pushed open the rickety door and gestured for me to follow in. He switched on the light and a museum of rusted metal and cobwebs were illuminated.
Our fathers used to hunt together all the time. This was where they kept most of their stuff. But now, it had been a bit abandoned. Nothing but old traps and other hunting paraphernalia littered the small building.
Derek stopped at one of the tables near the center, wiped something with his sleeve. Dust floated off, thick and in clumps. I stepped through the threshold, careful to watch my step. Not just because of the cracked cement flooring, but from memory all the times my Dad used to warn me about misplaced traps.
The air carried a heavy smell that was familiar, but not easily placed. It was warmer inside, though, and I weaved through the tables, stools, and strewn equipment, made my way to Derek. He glanced up from the table as I stood by him, and I forged up a smile.
"You've got cobwebs in your hair," he said.
The smile dropped and I immediately put a hand to my hair, combed through black strands, cringing slightly as it was met with something sticky. "Gross," I muttered, wiping my hand off on the edge of the table. Derek had carried on watching me, something unreadable in his expression. I made eye contact, locking brown on brown, hoping he would say whatever he was thinking.
He didn't. Instead, he shifted, seamlessly changing the subject as his fingers grazed over the battered metal latches of one of the large boxes that sat atop the table. He flicked it open, doing the same with the second, then eased the lid up. From inside, steel glinted, catching the overhead light. Sharpened teeth jutted out from curved, cold steel, attached to thick chains that filled most of the container.
"Is this what we're looking for?" I asked needlessly. I knew it was, I just wanted to break the silence.
Nodding slowly, he closed it again. Soundlessly. "We're only setting one, so it shouldn't take long."
My tongue ran along the back of my teeth, eyes still lingering on the box. It wasn't that I was against the killing of animals - I used to hunt with my dad a lot - but just the idea of traps didn't appeal to me all that much. It seemed sneaky and unfair. A coward's choice. But I couldn't tell him that. I wouldn't.
"Where are we putting these?" I asked as he lifted the box by the handle, off the table.
"Just off the back trail. That's where all the tracks are."
"What if we see one while we're setting them up?" I asked, following him out of the shed.
There was a pause, and then he answered, as concise as ever, "They'd probably go after you first if you're ovulating or on your period. That would probably give me time to climb a tree or something."
My lips parted slightly, and I let out an incredulous laugh. "You're not supposed to admit it."
"Why?" He studied me over his shoulder. "You'd rather me humor you and spout platitudes about chivalry and protecting the weaker sex?"
I gave a fervent nod and grinned. "Yes."
"You know," he started, deviating from the path. I followed closely behind. "You know, one day you're going to end up in a bad way because of that."
"Because I want to be protected?" I asked, eyebrow quirked.
"Because you're naive," he corrected.
Rubbing at my ear, I fought off another frown. "You think so?"
"I know so."
"That's not very nice."
"See? There you go again."
Sighing, I let my eyes skim over the box again. It probably weighed a lot, but you couldn't tell from his expression, or the way he carried it. He was good at masking things.
I stepped over an overgrown tree root, hands jammed into my pockets as we walked. We were near the edge of the forest now, where the sun could reach us. The air was warmer already.
"I can't wait until winter starts," I said, dismayed.
"You know it won't automatically start snowing on December 21st, don't you?"
"But it could." It didn't hurt to hope.
"I hate snow." His words were sharp, but his tone wasn't. "You leave footprints wherever you go," he explained, switching the box to his other hand. It was something Eli would've never done. "Everyone can see them. Everyone can see where you've been."
"And that's a bad thing?"
A pause, and then he answered, "It's bothersome."
"Only if you've got something to hide."
"Not necessarily. Some people just like their privacy." He came to a stop, pivoted left, then right, and settled near a tree. He set the box down with a dull thud.
"Is this it?" I asked, gesturing. Another stupid question.
He nodded as he crouched, opening the container. Sunlight caught his hair, paled dark brown to a shade that reminded me of milk chocolate.
"Don't you need bait?" I asked, slouching against a tree. Jagged bark caught against the fabric of my coat.
"I have some meat," he said as he lifted the trap with practiced hands. "I'll bring it tomorrow."
"Why not today?"
"You distracted me, therefore I forgot."
He always blamed me when he forgot things.
He was quiet for a few minutes as he set the trap. Fingers brushed over the worn metal of the chain; skin stained a brackish orange. The chain clinked and clanked loudly. A warning to not just the bears, but to anything else in the forest.
"I still have to get Christmas presents for my parents," I said after a while. Shifting against the tree, I tilted my head. "Come shopping with me sometime?"
He gave one of those vague nods that let me know he was only half-listening. "This weekend." I took a few steps toward him, dropping to my knees. His gaze slowly slid over to me. His brow arched. "What?"
I let off a genial smile, then poked him in the shoulder. "You're the bestest bestie ever."
"Maybe, like, something to do with plants." A pause. "Or something."
I blinked; once, twice, then snapped my attention to Beth, who was fidgeting with a pen at her desk. "What?"
"Pay attention, Liddy." She let out a huff that was only just audible above the murmur of other students, and sat back, brushing auburn hair out of her eyes. "We need to figure out our science project."
"Can't we just make a volcano or something?" I slumped over my desk, cheek pressed flat against cold, beige plastic. "I've got stuff for plaster of paris at home," I said after a moment, squeezing my eyes shut. All morning I'd had a killer headache and the fact that the boy seated in front of me was wearing a shitload of cologne wasn't helping.
"What are you, a middle schooler?" There was the distinct sound of Beth's Converse rubbing against a leg of her chair. It screeched worse than ice cubes being wrestled out of a tray. "We need something creative."
"We could buy two mice and give them different kinds of food and see which one gets fatter," I found myself mumbling, without even filtering the thought. I opened my eyes and my concentration was on the window again. Wind chilled the glass, emitting a chill into the stale air that I could feel at my desk, only inches away. Outside the sky was barren. Empty.
I wanted it to snow so badly.
"Are you kidding?" Her sharp voice jerked me back to reality. "They'd call PETA on us."
"Why? We'd still be feeding them. Just not the same stuff."
"Mrs. Blake specifically said no experiments involving animals," she said. She sounded annoyed now and I knew if I looked at her, she'd be glaring at me, so I figured my best bet was to continue staring out the window. "Remember last year Allen tried that skateboarding experiment with his sister's cat and some stray dog?"
"Yeah, but that's different," I said in a whining tone as I pried myself away from the desk. I rubbed at my cheek, which was starting to go numb. "Allen's an idiot."
"Seriously, let's try to figure this out." Irritation laced her tone; she slid back in her chair, poking her temple with the eraser of her pencil. Her gaze flitted up to the clock. "Shit, we've only got two minutes."
"We have all of Winter Break to figure it out."
"And carry out the experiment." She stressed about this stuff because she was an over-achiever. I, obviously, wasn't. But that didn't mean I could sit back and let her run ahead; I had to match her, surpass her.
And I would. But being a worrywart wouldn't help at all.
Someone brushed past my desk and nearly knocked off my notebook. Frowning, I touched my fingers to a corner, pulled it so it was square in front of me. "It's not due until the second week of January."
"Going anywhere for the break?" she asked suddenly, leaning over her chair. A hand absently reached for her purse on the rack beneath. "Or is it just the usual?"
"Just the usual." I sat up and stretched my legs. The boy sitting in front of me tossed a look over his shoulder briefly. "But Eli's coming back, so that's something to look forward to."
"Oh yeah?" Her tone was light; curious. "He was in reform school, right?"
"Military school." When she met my gaze, big hazel eyes and all, I gave her my best you-should-know-better look. "Big difference."
"What're you doing?" My fingers tapped against the worn cover of my notebook. I sent her a fleeting look. "For the holidays."
"Nothing really. My mom wants to drag me to her great-aunt's again, though, and that's like a nine hour drive."
My brows lifted in mock enthusiasm. "Fun."
"Yes, bunches." Her concentration was on the compact she'd pulled from her purse. She inspected herself slowly, angling the mirror. "But at least it'll be warm there." She shrugged. "No snow."
Involuntarily, I frowned, disgusted just by the thought of it. "I can't imagine a world without snow."
"Lots of people can't imagine one with."
"You should just drop out now and become one of those people that operates those trucks that plow city roads," she said, sending me a sidelong glance. "Then you'd have more snow than you knew what to do with."
"That's a brilliant idea." Abruptly sitting straighter, I shifted, knocking my foot into my backpack, which was stashed under the desk. "What am I doing wasting my time here when all I need is a truck driver's license?"
"But it'd only be a seasonal job," she mumbled, thoughtfully, after a moment's pause. "You'd have to find some other kind of work to do when there was no snow."
"No problem." My eyes went to the clock. Fifteen seconds and counting. "I'll just move to Alaska then."
"They probably already have enough snow plow drivers." Her compact clicked shut.
I sighed, feigning disappointment. "Why must you keep crushing my dreams?"
She opened her mouth to speak, a grin quirking her lips, but the bell shrilled, and the entire class was set into motion. She began to unzip her purse and I grabbed my backpack from under my desk.
"We really need to have an idea by tomorrow," she said as she adjusted the purse's strap at her shoulder.
I nodded offhandedly. My fingers flitted over the zipper on my backpack. "Got it."
She stood, smoothing her skirt, and offered a smile. "See you tomorrow."
seven years earlier
It was the first time we played that there was the looming fear of a punishment. It had unnerved me at first, but Derek said it made things more interesting, and Eli seemed to agree, so I couldn't see the harm in it. Eli was reckless, but Derek was smart. He wouldn't do something that could get one of us hurt.
Currently, I was nestled high up in the branches of a pine tree. Visibility was low, but that meant the same for Derek - the seeker. And, unlike Eli, I was wearing a green jacket that helped me blend in.
There was no way I was going to lose this one.
I carefully sat back on the branch, ignoring the bits of bark and needles that poked me. I would probably be here for a while... Although, the rules stated that if Derek couldn't find both of us within half an hour, he'd be the loser. He'd be the one that had to go through the punishment. Despite not knowing what the punishment was, I didn't want that to happen.
I squeezed my eyes shut and recited my new mantra over in my head:
Just find Eli first, find Eli first, find Eli first, find Eli first...
I felt like I'd been waiting forever. I pushed black the sleeve of my jacket and glanced at my watch. Only fourteen minutes had passed. I shifted on the branch, carefully steadying myself. Peaking through the branches and pine needles, I searched for any sign of Derek.
Wind tore through the forest, whistling, making leaves, broken twigs, and weeds shiver and dance. I zipped up the collar of my jacket slowly, quietly, eyes skimming over the ground.
Leaves crunched; I stilled. The sound continued, irregularly. There was a pause, then a sneeze.
It was Echo.
I leaned to the side, squinting through a maze of branches. The dog stood near the trunk, sniffing the air.
"Go away," I hissed, making a mean face. She didn't seem to care. Mr. Stukas had told Eli not to bring her this far into the woods, but he had anyway. And now she was about to give up my hiding spot.
But on the other hand... the fact that she wasn't with Eli meant that he'd probably already been found. A glimmer of hope rekindled within me. Maybe I wasn't going to lose after all.
Echo began to paw at the trunk, nails scratching over bark. It sounded over the wind, and I strained to hear past it. Footsteps were approaching. I shut my mouth, exhaling slowly through my nose.
"Hi there, Liddy."
It was Derek.
I stayed put, deliberating whether or not to respond. Had he found Eli yet? I waited for a sign.
My vision kept focused on the ground far below me. I could see the edge of Derek's form. Echo stood a few feet off from him, pacing.
"Don't worry; I found Eli ten minutes ago," Derek said, finding me through the branches. He stared up at me, hands shoved into his pockets. "So you can come down now."
Relief rushed through me and I slid off the branch, grasping one below it, and carefully climbed down. I was grinning like crazy; I couldn't help it. This was one of the few times I actually won at hide-and-seek against them.
Echo followed us back to the deer blind - our usual meeting place at the game's end. It only took a few minutes to get there, and immediately I saw Eli standing near the deer blind, stick in hand. His gaze was on the ground and suddenly he looked up, first at Derek, then me.
"Dammit," he mumbled, huffed, and sank against the wall of blind. His expression hardened; the stick twisted in his hands. He gave a whistle and Echo ran to him, jumped up and down excitedly, and he patted her head.
Derek had told me once that she was the only true friend Eli would ever have.
I hadn't quite understood what he meant by that, but seeing as he was always right, I knew it would be stupid for me to question him. He'd probably think I was too stupid to understand. That was the last thing I wanted.
"So," I started, looking from one brother to the other. They didn't look all that alike, but still people thought they were twins. They were eleven months apart, so Eli was only slightly older. His birthday came shortly before school started, so while Derek and I had just started third grade, he was in fourth. I didn't think that was fair. "What's the punishment?"
Derek nodded toward the blind. "Inside."
Eli tossed the stick for Echo and she took off to retrieve it.
We went in; Eli first, then me, and Derek last. He closed the door before Echo could come in. There were stools to sit on and I slid onto one of them, watching as Derek pulled something from his pocket and laid it on the small table. He turned to the pile of boxes in the corner.
Sunlight streamed in through the small windows, but it was still dim.
My eyes went to the table. It was a green plastic lighter. I hadn't seen him with it before. I looked away from it, trying to push the unsettling feeling aside, and my eyes met Eli's. He was staring at the lighter too, his expression void of emotion. His jaw was clenched. He caught me staring and the tension dropped. He sat back on his stool, casual, fingers absently tapping at the table's chipped surface.
Derek took the third stool and sat, placing a candle onto the table. His actions deft and smooth. He picked up the lighter, lit the candle. It glowed orange, brightening the small room a little. But I knew that wasn't its purpose.
"It shouldn't really hurt," he said after a moment, pocketing the lighter again. Eli gave a casual nod and shrugged off his hoodie.
Something wavered at the back of my mind. Wasn't this a little... dangerous?
My tongue ran along the back of my teeth. I swallowed, then spoke, "Wait, what - "
"Dripping candle wax," Derek said shortly. He turned the candle as the wick burned. White wax moved, ran, but was still thick and mostly solid. "Games are no fun without punishments."
I considered the thought. "Couldn't we just have a prize instead?"
"A prize?" Derek echoed, eyes still fixated on the candle. "Why would we have a prize for a simple game like this?"
"It's the punishment that makes it fun," Eli said. He regarded me, one brow cocked. "If you're not scared of losing, then what's the point?"
I chewed at my lip. "But you said it doesn't hurt."
"It shouldn't," replied Derek. He continued turning the candle, watching it. "At least, not much."
Eli sighed, restless. Like always. "What the hell are you waiting for?"
Derek glared. "Be patient."
We sat for another few minutes in silence. The candle began to melt, and beads of wax dripped from its tip. The uneasy feeling that had never went away spread, shot through my veins.
Derek turned to his brother. "Ready?"
He gave a quick nod and began rolling up his sleeve. "Let's get this over with."
Outside the blind, Echo whimpered and pawed at the door.