I shook my head hard, clearing just enough of the vision to escape. I made for the door, snagging a horse blanket, then out toward the cane. Rainclouds had gathered above the field; thunder rumbled.
“No, Evie,” he called. “Not under the clouds! Rain . . .”
I glanced back. He looked frightened, unable to follow. Scared of precipitation?
He didn’t need to know that Sterling’s clouds were two-faced scammers, hadn’t delivered on their promise all summer. I marched on.
“You aren’t ready!” he called after me. “Your eyes will go bright if you look at the lights!”
“Just leave me alone, Matthew!”
“Turn away from the lights. Turn away! Want you safe!”
Right before I reached the edge of the cane, he warned once more, “The Beginning is nigh. . . .”
When I hadn’t heard from Mel or Brandon by noon, panic set in. Why wouldn’t they pick up their phones?
Surely the two of them hadn’t gotten . . . gaffled.
Especially when no one else seemed to have been. Without my cell, I’d been on my laptop, scouring students’ posts online for info.
All morning, I’d looked at keg-party pics and Solo-cup shares. I’d read updates from kids bragging about being at the party of the year.
Not a word about the cops. And apparently, Mom hadn’t heard anything either. . . .
I’d woken at dawn in the middle of the cane field, having slept soundly for hours. Surprisingly, I hadn’t been hungover—a miracle considering how tanked I’d been, so drunk I’d hallucinated worse than ever before.
I’d been desperate to shower and brush my teeth, but I hadn’t wanted Mom to see me in the clothes I’d gone out in. After a while, I hadn’t cared.
She’d been so distracted by the drought, on the phone with another farmer, that she hadn’t even noticed I was wearing a Versace halter and a moth-eaten pair of last year’s jodhpurs.
Mom would’ve heard about the bust by then, yet she’d said nothing, just absently kissed my cheek before running off to another emergency farmers’ meeting.
After I’d showered and dressed, I’d begun to feel confident that my boyfriend had truly hushed the situation.
Just as he’d said he would. My drunken knight in shining armor had won his battle.
Now I patted the enormous diamond solitaire around my neck, realizing that Brandon Radcliffe was not just the type of boy I needed in my life; he was the one I wanted—dependable, happy-go-lucky, easy to read.
Not brooding, mysterious, and impossible to decipher.
I decided to get something locked down with my boyfriend, so I’d stop thinking stupid thoughts about Angola-bound Cajuns.
With that in mind, I called Brandon’s cell from my home line yet again, intending to leave a message this time.
“Hey, Brand, I hope everything’s okay. Starting to worry.” I nibbled my bottom lip, debating how to begin this. “Last night, about our conversation . . . we got interrupted—when you went off to save the day for me. And I just wanted to tell you my decision.”
I paused, knowing there was no turning back from this. “My decision is . . . yes. I’ll spend the night with you next weekend.” Done. Locked down. “I . . . I’m . . .” Relieved? Nervous? “Um, call me. At home.”
He still hadn’t called by three in the afternoon, when Mel sauntered into my room.
“Where in the hell have you been?” My mood was foul. My plans to talk to Gran had been thwarted. I hadn’t dared to call her from the house phone. “What happened to you last night?”
“Spencer and I went to his car, totally hooked up. I threw one over on him, released some steam, and he’s puppy-dog whipped now.” She made a whip-cracking sound. “Melly’s got mojo—he wants an ER.”
Exclusive relationship? Already? I felt excitement for her, before remembering I was pissed.
“Just when we were finishing up, the cops came,” Mel said. “We drove out the back way.”
“Why didn’t you come here to find me?” I demanded.
She blinked. “I just did. So what happened to you, Eves?”
“Hmm. After Brandon left to go smooth things over with the sheriff and find you, I sat alone in the woods.” I was attacked and terrified. “Eventually, I walked miles to get home—with that annoying Jackson Deveaux—and spent the night in the barn.” Or rather, in the cane field. “You just left me out there, Mel. You chose bros over hoes,” I said, drawing blood.
She gasped. “I thought you were with Brandon! I’ll break up with Spencer as penance!”
The thing about Mel—she truly would. How could I stay mad at her when I’d been lying to her so much? In the end, I muttered, “You’re forgiven.”
“Thank you, Greene! I didn’t want to bwake Spencey’s wittle heart.” She lay back on my bed, adding mischievously, “Not yet.”
My laptop chimed. “An e-mail from Brandon?” Strange. We texted 99 percent of the time. He basically used his cell phone as his computer.
everything’s cool w/ the cops. bout to get lecture from Dad tho. talk later.
“That’s weird. Why didn’t he just text? He doesn’t know that I got stranded without my phone.” And why hadn’t he even mentioned my voice mail?
“He couldn’t text you,” Mel said, raising her hands in the air to study her nails. “Everybody’s phones got stolen.”
“What?” I shot to my feet.
“Why do you think I didn’t call all morning?” She rose with a frown. “Somebody snatched wallets and cells right off of people. And they broke into all our cars. But don’t worry, your bag didn’t get taken.”
I bolted out of my room, scrambling down the stairs to reach Mel’s Beamer. My journal!
“What’s wrong with you, Evie?” she demanded, trotting behind me, easily keeping up.
When I reached her car, I frantically slapped the door until she clicked it open. “Jesus, Evie, chill.”
My hand trembled as I reached for my bag. Surely a thief wouldn’t leave it but then steal the journal. Please let my drawings be inside—
I reeled on my feet.
My sketchbook was . . . gone. The one filled with rats and serpents under an apocalyptic sky, bodies mangled in thorn barbed wire, and horrific sack-faced bogeymen. I’d drawn one lapping blood from a victim’s throat. Like an animal at a trough.
My tear-blotted drawing of Death on a pale horse was dated from just a couple of nights ago.
It was the journal that Jackson had repeatedly angled to see. My eyes shot wide. The figure skulking among the cars last night—it was Lionel.
He’d stolen the phones and my sketchbook. My very own one-way ticket back to CLC.
And Jackson had kept me occupied, had acted interested in me . . . so that Lionel . . .
Oh my God.
Struggling not to throw up, I told Mel, “I know who’s got our phones. And if you help me, I’m going to get them back.”
“You’ve had better ideas,” Mel muttered, squinting to see out of her bug-splattered windshield. At dusk the insects swarmed, and their squashed bodies had meshed till they were like tar on the glass.
“Maybe so, but I have to do this.” I’d never been so incensed in all my life, and I’d be damned if I let Jackson get away with this. “Can’t you go any faster?”
The sun would set soon, and we hadn’t even made the parish levee yet. It’d taken us hours to find the Cajun’s address on Mrs. Warren’s computer, and then I’d wasted even more time persuading Mel to drive me into the Basin.
“You’re lucky I’m in for this one at all, Greene. I’m not losing my license because of a fifth ticket this year. . . .”
She still hadn’t stopped grumbling by the time the towering levee loomed. “Let’s just call the cops.”
And then they’d confiscate my journal. “Jackson only did this because he’s a bully and because he can. No one ever calls him out. But it’s time somebody did.”
“How do you know he’ll have the phones? You said he just served as a lookout.”
I hadn’t told Mel exactly how good Jackson had been at his job, only that he’d kept me talking to him while Lionel snatched our things. “I just know, okay?” Which wasn’t precisely true. He might not have the phones, but he’d have that sketchbook, which was my main priority.
Not that the phones weren’t a big deal. Though I code-locked mine—good luck accessing any of my info—Brandon never locked his phone. And he had all our private texts over the last seven months, not to mention a folder filled with countless pics and vids of me.
Were those Cajuns even now ogling images of me in my bathing suit, or snickering over the goofy faces I’d made for Brand’s camera? The corny jokes I’d told.
Had they listened to my voice message from earlier? “Yes, I’ll spend the night with you.” My face burned, my fury ratcheting up to new heights.
When we came upon the new bridge, stretching over acres of swamp, my lips thinned. Without this line of dull gray cement, I’d never even have known Jackson Deveaux.
Once we reached the end of the bridge, we were officially in a new parish. Cajun country. Bayou inlets and smaller drawbridges abounded. A pair of wildlife agents in their black trucks sat chatting on a shoulder.
Mel exhaled. “Why are you forcing me into the voice-of-reason role? You know that never works out for us.”
“I need to do this,” I said simply. When I’d realized Jackson had played me, that the almost-kiss had been a ruse—it’d hurt. Even though I’d never wanted his kiss to begin with.
Why did he have to act as if he’d liked me? It was a mean-spirited, coldhearted prank. How he and Lionel must have laughed at my gullibility!
“It’s getting really dark,” Mel said as we approached the Basin turnoff. She didn’t just mean daylight-wise.
Ominous clouds were back-building over the swamp. “Yeah, but what are the odds that it’ll actually rain?” Those clouds reminded me of the scene I’d painted on my wall, and of the blazing eyes I’d soon see.
Folks didn’t usually drive to lower land when faced with a gale like that. I didn’t know which storm would prove worse—the weather or Jackson’s anger.
Didn’t matter; I was bent on seeing this through tonight. I directed Mel to turn onto the dirt road that led to the Basin.
After a few miles, she said, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”
We saw shrimp boats, bayou shacks, and shipyards filled with rusted heaps. Statuettes of the Virgin Mary graced every other yard. I’d known how Catholic the Basin folk were, but even I was surprised.
We neared the end of the road, closing in on Jackson’s address. There were fewer structures down here, but more palmettos, banana trees, cypress. Trash had collected all around the ditch lilies.
By the time the marsh was visible, it was dark and the car lights had come on. Red eyes glowed back from the reeds. Gators. They were so thick, some of the smaller ones lay on top of the others.
Pairs of beady red dots, stacked like ladder rungs.
Mel nervously adjusted her hands on the wheel, but she drove onward. The car crept deeper under a canopy of intertwined limbs and vines, like a ride going into a haunted tunnel.
When the road surrendered to a rutted trail, Jackson’s home came into view—a shotgun house, long and narrow, with entrances on both ends. The clapboard framing was a mess of peeling paint. A couple of gator skins had been tacked over the worst spots.
The roof was a rusted patchwork of mismatched tin sheets. In one section, a metal garbage can had been battered flat and hammered down.
This place was as far from proud Haven as possible. I thought I’d seen poor. I was mistaken.
“That’s where he lives?” Mel shuddered. “It’s horrid.”
Suddenly I regretted her seeing this, as if I’d betrayed a secret of Jackson’s, which didn’t make any sense.
“Evie, my car’ll get stuck if I drive any farther. And it’s not like we have our phones on us.”
“Not yet. Just stay here, and I’ll walk it. Be back with our stuff.”
“What if he’s not even here?”
I pointed out his motorcycle, parked under an overhang beside the rickety front porch. “That’s his.”
When I opened the car door, she said, “Think about this.”
I had. This entire situation was so unnecessary. None of this had needed to happen. All because Jackson had stolen from me! He’d violated my privacy, had possibly seen and heard my intimate exchanges with Brandon.
And he’d seen my drawings.
That freedom I’d vowed I would never take for granted? His actions were threatening it!
Remembering what was at stake made me slam the car door and venture forth. Yellow flies swarmed me, but I kept going, wending around tires, busted crab traps, cypress knees.
Closer to his house, there was no cut lawn, there wasn’t even grass. In these parts, some folks who couldn’t afford a lawnmower “swept” their yards, keeping them free of vegetation—and of snakes. His yard was a giant patch of hard-packed earth.
As I neared, I saw tools hanging from the porch roof. A machete and a saw clanked together in the growing breeze.
I crossed a dried-out depression in front of four wobbly-looking steps. The first stair bowed even under my weight. How did a boy as big as Jackson climb them?
There was no knocker on the unpainted plywood door, just a rusted lever to open it. The bottom was shredded in strips.
From when animals had scratched to get in?
With a shiver, I glanced back at the sky, saw the clouds were getting worse. I gazed at Mel in the distance, pensive in her car. Maybe this is . . . stupid.