Thursday, May 11, 2017

City of Secrets--Chapter 12

City of Secrets

Chapter 12




Previously: While visiting her parents' graves, Natasha got caught in a thunderstorm. She ran into Chase, a classmate, who offered to show her a shortcut home. Though unsure whether to trust him, Natasha agreed, and followed him into the woods.

Chapter 12
Natasha


    Natasha no longer existed.

    Or at least, that was how she felt walking through the overgrown forest with Chase. His large hand swallowed up her smaller one. Even worse, the wild tangle of trees—which were so close together that Chase had been forced to fold the umbrella—devoured the rest of her body. The rain had mostly stopped, but water from the leaves still dripped onto their heads.

    Chase hadn’t been consumed by the forest; he’d become one with it, as though he belonged. Natasha could barely see where to put her feet, yet Chase knew exactly which turns to take and which ones to avoid. It was encouraging and frustrating at the same time. All Natasha could do was keep her eyes glued to his feet to avoid tripping.

    She’d told Chase she could be a mountain girl, but she couldn’t. She didn’t belong there. She belonged on a paved street in front of a Starbucks with the sun shining down on her. Her fingers belonged entwined with Nick’s. She was meant to be laughing with her best friends while fielding texts from her parents, who were supposed to be Steven and Ellen Jameson.

    Supposed to be. Should’ve been.

    Wasn’t.

    That perfect world had shattered when she’d found the piece of paper that her Uncle Steven and her AuntEllen (by marriage only) had never meant for her to find—her birth certificate. Because of them she wasn’t sitting in a world of light with a boyfriend who was so perfect for her it felt like he was half of her whole, and friends she’d once thought she could share anything with. Instead, she was stumbling deeper into a world of darkness with a strangely duplicitous boy and making friends with people who seemed like they’d make better enemies.

    The farther they walked, the more Natasha wished she’d insisted on going through the main gate, but she couldn’t turn back now. She’d never find the way. No one knows you’re with him, she thought again.

    As if he’d read her mind, Chase asked, “You okay?”

    No, this place is creeping me out. You’re creeping me out. “Yeah. Fine. Are you sure you know where you’re going?”

    “Trust me. We’re almost there.” He said it with confidence, but Natasha wasn’t reassured. She’d already learned that Chase said everything with confidence.

    But a few more twists and turns later, Natasha saw light ahead—or at least, less darkness. Space opened up around them. Chase stepped to the side, letting go of her hand. They were in an overgrown field with a scattering of aspens. A dirt path led to a group of houses in the distance. It was her aunt’s neighborhood—just as Chase had promised.

    He gave her an I-told-you-so look. “See? What’d I tell you?”

    “It wasn’t that I didn’t believe you,” she lied. “It’s just that I never would’ve guessed that,” she nodded to the mess of pines behind them, “led anywhere.”

    “So, does this mean I’m worth keeping around?” He grinned, nudging her shoulder lightly with his.

    She pretended to think about it for a minute before returning the gesture. “Yeah, I suppose you could be useful.”

    “Oh, I’m very useful.”

    I’m counting on it. “Come on. I’m exhausted.”

    Natasha looked around as they walked. Caribou Canyon was much larger than one would think based on the population. A lot of the houses took up two or three lots; Natasha was quickly learning that the residents of Caribou Canyon liked their privacy. The houses were not the usual rustic, mountain cabins or ranch-style homes. Many of the older dwellings had had additions built onto them over the years as their owners’ wealth and tastes grew. The newer houses had a more modern look, giving the town a motley, patchwork appearance that Natasha hadn’t seen anywhere else.

    Natasha pointed at a house up ahead. “Hey, Ms. Miller must’ve just gotten home,” she said, noticing the academic advisor’s car in the driveway. The driver door was open.

     “Yeah, looks that way,” Chase said as he reopened the umbrella and held it above their heads. The rain was picking up again.

    “It’s weird, her living so close by. Back home, I had no idea where any of my teachers lived,” Natasha said, feeling a surge of homesickness. She’d told Laurel that Caribou Canyon wasn’t that different from Denver, but that had been a lie, plain and simple.

    Chase shrugged. “She inherited the house from her parents. Lucky for her, the mortgage was already paid off. Otherwise she’d be living in a shack.”

    There was a clear note of distaste in his voice. Natasha wondered if it was really how he felt, or if he’d adopted his parents’ opinions. She couldn’t imagine that a teenager actually cared whether or not someone’s mortgage was paid off.

    “Let’s go say hi,” Natasha said when they reached the end of Ms. Miller’s driveway.

     “Really?” Chase’s tone made it sound like Natasha had just asked him to volunteer to take double the amount of classes.

    She laughed. “Come on, she’s my neighbor. Plus, it looks like she might need help.”  

    “Fine. Teacher’s pet.”

    “Technically, she’s not a teacher,” Natasha said as they walked up the driveway.

    As they neared, rain poured down around them again. The sound echoed in Natasha’s ears. She froze. Despite the droplets of water that bounced up and down on the pavement, there was a feeling of stillness around the car; it didn’t look like anyone was in it. Ms. Miller had probably left the door open by mistake. So why then, did Natasha have a sudden sick feeling in her stomach?

    “Natasha.” Though Chase’s voice was nearly drowned out by the rain, Natasha still heard a note of dread in it. “Let’s just go,” he said.

    “No. We can’t.” She put one foot in front of the other. One step at a time, she moved toward the open car door.

    “Natasha, wait,” Chase said, just before Natasha stepped up to the driver side of the car and looked inside. Ms. Miller was leaning over the passenger seat, head down, as if she were searching for something on the floor.

     “Ms. Miller,” Natasha said. The woman acted as though she hadn’t heard her, so Natasha poked her head in the car. “Ms. Miller?”

    There was still no answer. Natasha reached out to tap her on the shoulder, but froze with her hand in mid-air. Wrong. Ms. Miller wasn’t searching for anything, because her left arm was dangling limply by her legs. Her right arm was out of sight, probably trapped underneath her body. Why hadn’t Natasha noticed that right away?

    “Chase, something’s wrong.” Natasha hardly recognized the sound of her voice; it was as though she wasn’t even speaking. “Call 911.”

    “What? Are you sure?”

    “Just do it!” Natasha didn’t wait to see if he listened. Leaning farther into the car, she stared at Ms. Miller’s chest, looking for movement. It was hard to tell through the brown suit jacket she wore, but Natasha thought the woman was still. Reaching a shaky hand forward, Natasha moved the edge of the woman’s open jacket aside, revealing her blouse.

    At first, Natasha thought the blouse was a strange choice to pair with the conservative jacket. It was multicolored—cream and different shades of red in a tie-dyed design. The splatter pattern blurred in front of her eyes as the truth registered. Natasha was moving without realizing her brain had sent the instructions to her arms.

     “Natasha, don’t.”

    Why isn’t he calling 911? But Natasha was only vaguely aware of this thought, only vaguely aware of Chase telling her not to do the thing she was doing. She gripped Ms. Miller by both shoulders and used all her strength to pull the woman to a sitting position.

     Ms. Miller—no, Ms. Miller’s body—flopped toward Natasha, her head banging against the back of the seat. Wide, empty eyes stared up at her. Blood, thick and dark and unreal in its volume, poured from the wide, gaping wound across Ms. Miller’s neck. It stained her cream-colored blouse—thick and dark in some places, thin and light in others.

     Natasha screamed and stumbled back, bumping into Chase. She kept screaming, as if that might somehow erase the horror, as if it could fix everything.

     “Oh god,” Chase muttered, staring over Natasha’s shoulders. “Oh god. It’s real, it’s real,” he whispered, over and over.

     His words brought Natasha back to reality, and she let her scream fall away. “Call the police!” she shouted. He blinked and looked at her like he had no idea what she was talking about. “911! Now!”

     He nodded, his eyes wide. At some point, he’d dropped the umbrella. It had rolled down the driveway and was now spinning back and forth lazily in the street. It was raining too hard to even consider pulling out a phone, so he dashed up to the front door and ducked underneath the overhang of the roof.

     Natasha stepped away from the car, hugging her arms to her chest. Around her, the world spun out of control. She heard rain and the roar of thunder, which was so strong it made the ground shake. No, that was her body, shaking from cold or fear, or maybe both. Was she crying, or was that the rain on her face?

    “Natasha, get up here!” Chase said. Natasha jumped, realizing he was by her side again. He grabbed her arm and pulled. Dazedly, she let him lead her up the driveway and to the door. “They’re coming,” he said, his voice monotone. Natasha looked up at him and nodded. His face was ashen.

    Natasha stared around her at the quiet, empty street. Wrong, she thought. There was a dead body in the driveway. Natasha had screamed at the top of her lungs for several seconds. Someone should’ve heard her. People should’ve come outside to see what had happened. Except no one had. The street was quiet. Dead quiet. It was all wrong.

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