Aimee couldn’t move. She was blocked in on one side by Christine Whitaker and her entourage of drama queens. Corey cut off the other side by placing his hand on the wall behind her. He leaned in to prevent any avenue of escape.
“Emma Patterson, right?” Corey’s breath smelled like cinnamon gum.
“Aimee,” she mumbled, searching past the senior quarterback to try and glimpse the freedom of her third period classroom across the hall.
“I’ve been looking for you.” His smile was straight out of a toothpaste commercial. It entitled him to his choice of any girl at Bayville High School. Only a few months away from her eighteenth birthday, and having never been on a legitimate date, Aimee was nearly susceptible.
Her command of the English language suddenly floundered. Why would the star quarterback who had eyes the color of blue topaz want to talk to a clarinet player?
“Isn’t your Dad a mechanic?” Corey asked.
Well, if you consider the Project Engineering Director of the local automotive plant a mechanic, then maybe.
“Not exactly,” she admitted. She wasn’t good at lies, especially ones that were issued under pressure like this. “He works behind a desk.”
Corey looked over his shoulder at the pack of football players making their way down the corridor with the same bullish grace they used on the field. They were no more adept than a stampede of cattle. His shoulder shifted to shield her from their view. Aimee wasn’t quite naïve enough to believe that it was for her benefit.
“Whatever.” His gum snapped and his eyes got shifty. “Look, my Dad bought me a used Lamborghini for my birthday. None of the shops in this hick town know how to work on it. I was wondering if I could stop by after school and show it to him.” He tried to flash his smile again, but it was looking rushed now that the football team approached. “Then maybe you and I can hang out or something.”
Was she supposed to faint? Get red in the cheeks? Go oh my God, oh my God, oh my God?
Aimee just wanted to get to her third period class and not be a pawn in Corey’s grand plan. Graduation was a mere forty-eight hours away and she didn’t need any drama before then.
“I’ll ask him about it,” she offered quietly.
Taking advantage of Corey’s next glance over his shoulder, she pushed under his arm and slipped across the hall to class.
“I’ll catch you later, Emma,” he called out as he turned away.
Aimee, she thought with a roll of her eyes.
With the limited pageantry of her graduation completed, Aimee sat at the dinner table and asked, “Dad, do you know anything about Lamborghinis?”
“Aim, it’s a General Motors plant.” Jennifer Patterson injected before her husband could swallow his chicken and speak. “You’re talking some fancy piece of Italian metal that gets over 600 horsepower and almost 8000 RPMs.”
Aimee smiled. Her Mom seemed to know more about cars than her father with his fancy job ever would.
Tom Patterson set his fork down. “No, Aim, I don’t know anything about Lamborghinis other than they are extravagant, unnecessary, and cost more than this house.” He sliced a look at his wife and she just dumped more potatoes on his plate. “So I hope you’re not asking because you want one.”
“No.” Aimee set her fork down as well. She wasn’t hungry anymore. She wasn’t even sure why she’d brought it up, but now that she had, she’d had to explain. “Corey Burnfield’s Dad got him one for his birthday and he wanted to know if you knew how to fix it.”
Jennifer Patterson choked on her chicken as she reached for a glass of sweet tea.
“Oh really?” Her father asked with a sniff, his eyebrows going up. “Sure wish I could help out there, but the Burnfields have a little more money than us. I imagine they can afford to find a foreign specialist.”
“Corey Burnfield, the quarterback?” Jennifer coughed on the last word. “You were talking to the quarterback? Are you guys friends?” Her mom leaned forward and grinned eagerly. “Or is he your boyfriend?”
Aimee was glad she didn’t have food in her mouth or she might have gagged on it. She shoved back from the table. This was not a conversation that she wanted to have. Picking up her plate, she took it to the sink. If her mother was waiting for her to suddenly grow popular and bring home a posse of friends, she was dreaming. Aimee could just see her mom salivating at the notion of her daughter hooking up with the quarterback and skyrocketing into social dominance. The woman watched too many movies.
“No, Mom,” Aimee answered as her mother followed her into the kitchen.
Jennifer continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “Well, I think you should invite Corey and his Lamborghini over here. If your Dad won’t look at it, I will.”
“Jen, you wouldn’t know what to do with a car like that.” Tom crumpled his napkin onto his plate and approached the counter. He leaned into Jennifer, but Aimee could hear his sardonic whisper, “and Aimee can’t handle a boy like that.”
Aimee shook her head and sighed. Both her parents believed her to be a social misfit…and about ten-years-old.
“I’m taking Zig out.” Aimee didn’t think they even heard her. “I’ll be back.”
“I bet I could take that car up to 100 in five seconds.” Jennifer continued until Aimee closed the back screen door and could no longer hear them.
Dusk in North Carolina was laced with the sweet scent of Honeysuckle. Her family’s property was sizeable—at least a few acres. Across a knoll and at the bottom of a hill sat a small pond. To the ignorant it might look like a romantic mist hugging the stagnant water, but Aimee knew it was a swarm of gnats. Careful not to slide in the mud, she let her Cocker Spaniel, Ziggy distract the mob of insects as she tip-toed to its edge. Had the surface not been so murky with the olive tint of algae, she might have been able to see her reflection. It would have revealed an ordinary seventeen-year-old with brown hair and blue eyes that sometimes had trouble focusing.
Aimee loved this pond. It was her sanctuary, and the gnats were her royal corps of knights. Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine the roar of horses approaching as a somber battle horn sounded their plans to storm the castle. A lone knight would break away and steal her from the courtyard, tearing off into the woods, and into adventure.
Aimee’s head dropped back down. It wasn’t the sound of majestic knights approaching that she heard—it was Ziggy’s incessant barking, and a symphony of Carolina locusts announcing the onset of night. The dog really knew how to kill a fantasy.
“Zig, shut it,” she yelled through the fog of gnats.
Ziggy ignored her and took off, charging around the pond to howl a threat at whatever dog demon lurked on the other side.
“Ziggy, get over here,” Aimee tried again.
He was out of sight. He’d gone into the trees.
With a huff, she started off after him. One thing they never did was to venture into the woods on the far side of the pond. She honestly had no idea how deep the forest penetrated. Once, she had estimated that it spanned several miles, but she wasn’t about to calculate on foot. It wasn’t their property anyway.
The forest on the far side of the pond looked like any childhood lair of terror spun by the brothers Grimm. Sunlight never pierced the trees, and in that cocoon, nocturnal damnation prevailed. In the past, she had walked along its shadowed edges and felt the silence reach for her with long black fingers. No birds chirped in there. No creatures scurried in the underbrush. A vacuum existed in that dark warren—a vacuum that sucked the life from the forest on the far side of the pond.
And that is where Ziggy had disappeared.
Great, she thought. Just great.
“Zigzig?” Aimee whispered as she stepped into the shadows.
Waning sunlight cast a violet glow on the outskirts of the woods, so that the thick tree trunks resembled columns from an ancient Greek temple.
“Zig?” She wasn’t sure why she was whispering, but the woods spooked her imagination into overdrive.
Aimee cleared her throat. “Ziggy, dammit, come here!”
She heard a muffled bark and sure enough it came from the gloomiest, most shadowed wedge of the forest. Aimee steeled herself. With one last look back at the pond, she started after him. She found Ziggy only a hundred yards in, and what struck her as odd was that he stood still. His long ears, which usually brushed the ground, now hovered a few inches in the air. His head and snout were held high, and Aimee found herself following his gaze up into the trees.
“What is it, Zig?” she whispered, her eyes struggling to focus.
At first she saw nothing. The darkness was a void barely penetrated by the waning sunlight at her back. Yet, there was something. A light. A reflection. Something. A hum. Definitely a hum. Not the wind. Not a motor. It sounded like the oscillating fan in her bedroom window.
Aimee squinted. She swore for a moment that they weren’t even trees overhead and that it was the massive underbelly of a giant vessel. A spaceship parked atop the forest, obliterating any sunlight. She rolled her eyes. Space ships and aliens lurking beyond the Patterson property.
“Come on, Zig.” she muttered, kicking herself mentally. “Neither of us belong here. We’re just spooked.”
Ziggy cocked his head and emitted a low growl. For a moment Aimee wasn’t sure whether he was going to dart deeper into the woods or just stand there barking like an insane puppy. But he surprised her. Ziggy, the traitor, took off back towards the pond like a herd of rabid Rottweilers were chasing him.
“Coward!” she yelled, turning to follow. “You could at least wait for me.”
At least she’d meant to turn. She’d also meant to follow. Aimee couldn’t move. If she’d done what she’d meant to do, she’d be walking nice and easy back around the pond, but she wasn’t.
She thought for a moment that her muscles were locked in spasm from the two laps around the track during gym today, but her hands and arms were paralyzed. She tried to clench her fingers into a fist and could feel perspiration bead on her forehead from the effort. She was motionless.
What the hell?
Even her lips could not move to speak those three words.
Light materialized around her as if someone had switched on a spotlight from above. She tried to squint against the vivid assault, but even her eyelids were frozen in place. Instead, all she could do was watch as the light grew brighter, bright enough that she could see through her hands. That freaked her out. Her hands were transparent, and she could see through them to the mottled leaves on the ground below.
The hum intensified and she began to feel lightheaded.
One lurch of her stomach and she felt nothing at all.