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Authors: Megan Whitmer

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Between (3 page)

BOOK: Between
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I roll my eyes. “Nerd. Open it.”

He pulls the bracelet from the bag and grins, pressing his fingertips to the rounded corners of the pick. “This is awesome!”

I watch his eyes light up and can’t help but smile too. Giving someone a gift I know they’ll love is one of my favorite feelings.

“Thanks, Chuck.” Sam slips it over his wrist, adjusting the knots to make it fit, then turns his bright eyes on me. “Your turn!”

He hands me a small square box. I shake it, widen my eyes, and say, “What could it be?” in my best Sam impersonation ever.

He purses his lips, unimpressed. “Dumbest joke you’ve ever made.”

I open the box and find a red string bracelet with five tiny silver beads in the middle. I put it on and admire the way it lies on my wrist. It’s perfect—simple but beautiful, unique without being outlandish. Exactly my style.

I beam at Sam. “I love it.”

He nods. “I have great taste.”

“I know. You’re practically a girl.”

“Only prettier.” He rests his head on the back of his chair.

The wind picks up, and a collection of leaves toward the side of the yard catches my eye. I lower my arm and watch the darkened shapes lift and trail through the air before leaping across the fence. My favorite tree stands amid the overgrown weeds on the other side. It’s tall and wide, with thick, sprawling branches perfectly spaced for climbing. Two smaller trees flank its sides, their leaf-filled branches mingling together. The leaves spiral toward the trees and then dash upward. As my eyes follow them, I catch sight of something else. The curve of the branches, the gathering of the leaves, the shadow from the moonlight—

I stand up, knocking the empty gift box from my lap.

“You okay?” Sam asks, sitting up.

I walk to the edge of the porch, keeping my eyes on the tree. “What is that?”

“What?” he asks, rising from his chair.

“That.” I look from him to the tree and point.

His response is slow and measured. “It’s a tree.”

“No. Hang on. Let me find it again.”

I jump off the side of the porch to the edge of the yard, and Sam follows. A few wide, ragged chips of black paint flake off the fence as I step on the lowest slat and stare, eyes straining.

There’s nothing.

“Chuck.”

“Shh!” I wave my hand to shut him up. “Wait.”

The fence gives a bit as he climbs onto it, swings his legs over the top, and takes a seat on the post by my elbow. “What’d you see?”

I don’t move, don’t even blink. “I saw—” And now I’m doubting myself. What did I see? A face? In the tree?

No. Not in the tree, exactly. Around the tree. In front of the tree. When the wind blew through the leaves.

I’m sure of it. The branches of the trees reached toward each other, forming perfectly arched eyebrows. Clumps of leaves on narrow branches made up the eyes, curved into pointed ovals with darkened edges. The lower, nearly bare branches portrayed full, closed lips. Streams of moonlight through the clouds beyond the trees created the shading of the face itself, showing the rounded edges and high cheekbones.

“There was a face.”

“A face?”

“A face.”

“Like, a person? You saw someone in the tree?” His eyes are fixed on the topmost branches of the tree, where the leaves are thickest, where someone might hide.

I shake my head. “No, not exactly.” But that sounds a lot less crazy than I saw a giant face floating in the air outside of the tree, rippling in the leaves.

Sam hops down from the fence before I have a chance to say more. He’s already walking slowly toward the tree, his head upturned.

I climb up the next two planks and swing my legs over, landing on the other side. I gather my hair and twist it into a bun while I walk, wrapping the ends around until they stay in place. When I catch up to Sam, he’s at the tree’s edge, barely outside the leaves’ reach. He runs his hand through his curls and stares upward.

It’s a large tree, one I’d played in and under a million times growing up, and that’s all I’ve really noticed about it—it’s big. Branches spread in all directions with broad leaves hanging wildly throughout.

I take a few steps back and look again.

No face.

It’s so dark; who knows what I saw?

“I think the wind and the moonlight played tricks on me,” I say. “I must have imagined her.”

“Her?”

I’m not sure where that came from, actually.
Her
. Yeah, okay. I guess the face was female. Something about it seemed soft. Too soft for a man’s face. Full lips, dark-rimmed eyes, smooth, rounded cheeks—definitely not male.

And definitely not here anymore.

“You sure I shouldn’t check it out? Maybe there’s a hot chick hiding up there!”

I’m positive I said nothing about the face being hot. The Y chromosome is so weird.

It was pretty, though, now that I think about it. The way the moonlight filtered through the leaves and outlined the face in silver, framing its features—

“Charlie! Sam!” The front porch light comes on, casting a yellow glow across the yard. Mom comes down the steps and around the side, calling for us.

“Coming!” Sam responds.

I lift my feet high as we walk back through the weeds toward the house, trying not to think about how many ticks are out here. Every couple of steps I glance back over my shoulder. It’s a tree. A big tree. Just like it’s always been.

“What were you doing out in the field?” Mom asks as we climb the fence and drop over it.

“I thought I saw something in the tree,” I tell her. As soon as I say it, I know how dumb it sounds.

“What’d you see?” she asks, zeroing in on the tree.

“I, uh…” I watch her eyes dance over the tree’s branches from top to bottom. The wind picks up again, fluttering the weeds around the fencepost. She lifts her nose into the breeze and her entire body shudders. She pulls something small and green from her pocket, about the size of a cellphone but more rounded. A calculator, maybe?

“Sam, Charlie.” Mom’s eyes are focused on the thing in her hands, her fingers tapping across its screen. “Get in the house.”

Her tone is hushed, but the alarm in her voice is thunderous. My heart speeds up.

“Huh?” Sam asks. “What—”

A loud keening cuts him off, and we all spin around, each looking in a different direction. The sloping fields distort the sound, and while I can’t figure out exactly where it’s coming from, I know it’s close. It rises in pitch, then ceases.

Mom raises her voice as she shoves the thing back in her pocket. “Now! Go!”

Her hand is firm between my shoulder blades, shoving me toward the porch. I take off running, propelled by fear. Mom never gets scared. Ever.

The whining starts again, louder, closer.

I stop at the front steps and turn around. Sam and Mom are several steps behind.

Something enormous and dark drops down in front of me, landing in a crouch, and I topple backward. I press my hands against the steps until I’m standing again, and the thing rises as well, slowly unfolding itself and stretching upward, illuminated in the light from the porch.

Anxiety creeps up my spine. The sight in front of me is straight out of my nightmares. No, it’s worse. I don’t even think my subconscious could create something like this. I clench my hands into fists, my fingernails digging into my palms. I feel them tremble against my sides.

At its full height, the creature is easily seven feet tall. It looks like some kind of man-bird hybrid, standing on two legs with a human-like head and pair of hands. Stiff gray feathers cover its entire body, from the tips of its pointed ears to the curved, black claws on its feet, and thick black wings rest against its back. Its eyes are the worst—bright red orbs that glow against its gray face.

“Chuck! Run!” Sam yells.

The creature’s head swivels around, rotating 180 degrees, like an owl.

My heartbeat pulses through every part of my body. I’ve heard about people being frozen with terror, but until now I never really understood how anyone could be too scared to run. Short, unfulfilling breaths burst in and out of my lungs, and my chest heaves with each one.

My feet remain glued to the ground while the creature’s wings lift and spread, and the thing grows even larger. Its wingspan must be at least ten feet. My eyes wander from the tip of one wing to the other.

“Holy sheet,” I breathe, and its head snaps back around to me.

“Hey!” Mom’s voice is loud, clear, and certain. “Mothman!”

Mothman?

The creature lets out a loud hiss, pivoting on its talons until it stands with Mom and Sam on one side and me on the other, its back to no one. I press my lips together, clamping my teeth against them to keep from screaming.

What is she doing?

“That’s right,” Mom says, tucking her hair behind her ears with both hands. She steps away from Sam and walks backward, taking the Mothman’s attention with her. “Follow me, you big freak.”

As soon as the creature is distracted, Sam darts toward me and we stand together, watching the giant monster approach our mother. The closer the thing gets to her, the shakier I become, and beside me I feel Sam shudder.

Mom reaches the driveway and leans back onto the hood of her dark sedan. “Come on!” she yells. There’s no sign of the fear I heard in her voice when she addressed us earlier. “Come at me!”

“Mom!” I scream. Why is she baiting this monster?

Sam gasps and leans forward on his toes. He gives me a sideways glance and rocks back a bit. His eyes fall to the ground, searching, probably for some kind of weapon. “We have to help her.”

I wrap my fingers around his wrist, anchoring him to me. “You’ll never make it past that thing,” I hiss.

We lock eyes for a moment, and he exhales hard through his nose, then nods.

My knees tremble so hard I have trouble standing. Mom’s bizarre composure is terrifying in itself. She must be having some kind of break from reality. Maybe she’s in shock. Maybe she’s on autopilot, responding to the threat against her children without regard to the fact that this threat is a gigantic freak of nature who’s clearly going to kill all three of us.

The creature squats, and Mom stays in place as it launches itself straight into the air.

Oh my God, it’s going to crush her. Sam lunges forward, but I yank him back. “No!”

She rolls away right before the thing crashes down on the hood of the car, its long talons screeching against the metal. The windshield shatters. She dashes around the mess and places herself in front of the Mothman with her back to us, keeping her eyes on the creature. “You two,” Mom orders, turning her head slightly to throw her voice back to us, “get in the house.”

“I’m not leaving you out here alone with that,” Sam argues, his voice higher-pitched than normal.

“Samuel!”

He pulls me backward around the end of the porch, and we crouch there. “I’m not leaving her out here,” he repeats, and I nod in agreement. We stay with her, no matter what. I raise my head to peek through the legs of the porch furniture, unable to take my eyes off my mother. She’s like some kind of warrior, standing out there in the middle of the yard with that beast.

“Mom’s a badass,” Sam whispers.

“What
is
that thing?” I ask.

“The Mothman. Haven’t you ever seen that movie?” A voice whispers next to my ear, and a hand clamps over my mouth before I scream. I grab at the hand and a voice whispers, “It’s me, Charlie! It’s me!”

I freeze. Seth? How—?

“Seth!” Sam whispers. “Where’d you come from?”

Seth meets my gaze and raises his eyebrows, silently asking if he can trust me not to scream, and I nod. He releases my mouth and I do a quick scan of the yard and fields behind me.

Where
did
he come from?

Seth’s eyes are glued to the Mothman, and his lips are pressed in a thin line. There’s no uncertainty, no surprise. Our car has been crushed by a giant feathered man and Seth acts like he knew what he’d find before he got here. “Long story. You two stay down.”

I reach for him, but he creeps around the porch before I can stop him.

Mom stands solidly in the middle of the yard, watching the Mothman stagger off the hood of the car. Her head turns slightly as Seth moves closer.

“Do you have it?” she asks.

Seth pulls a long knife from his pocket.

“No sudden movements,” she says, and he slowly approaches, never taking his eyes off the Mothman. The creature lets out another hiss, and I whimper.

“Make sure you stab him right below the rib cage,” Seth tells her.

“I know that, Seth,” she replies, like he’s giving her any mundane instruction, not telling her how to kill a monster in our front yard.

The Mothman skulks toward her, his red eyes shifting from Mom to Seth and back.

“On the right side,” Seth mutters.

“I
know
that, Seth,” she repeats, harsher.

She steps away from Seth, moving in a wide circle that takes the Mothman farther from the house. He follows at first, then stops. The creature’s head swivels backward, examining the front of the house. I crouch lower, pulling Sam with me. The Mothman’s red eyes land on me when we move, and he releases a shrill scream. Mom lunges forward, releasing a loud grunt as she attacks.

Sam and I run out from behind the porch in time to see her plunge the blade into its chest, twisting it with a jerk before pulling it out. I pump my fist in the air and jump, fueled by more adrenaline than I’ve ever felt running through my body. Sam is on the ground, clutching his face in his hands while he stares wide-eyed at the Mothman. The creature stumbles, his body weaving from one side to the other, but never falls. Mom doesn’t wait to see what happens. She turns and runs toward us.

“I don’t think you got him!” Seth yells.

“I know that, Seth!” she shouts, breathing heavily. “We have to go! You take Charlie. I’ve got Sam.”

She grabs Sam, lifting him from the ground in one swift movement, and Seth moves closer to me. I can’t take my eyes off the Mothman as he struggles to steady himself.

“Ellauria?” Mom asks, and Seth nods.

Ell-who-ia?

“You take the bridge gate. We’ve got the one by the woods,” Seth tells her.

BOOK: Between
6.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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