Disclaimer: This story was inspired by a wonderful book, Judas Child by Carol O'Connell. The characters and setting are mine.
Acknowledgments: I'd like to thank the Academy (I've always wanted to say that!) for asking me to participate in this project.
Special thanks to Deb for keeping me on track, Dr. Mon for the medical advice, and Faithful (fictional characters are people too!)
Jennifer Nelson was dismayed. She'd run out of her sixth-period health class as soon as the bell rang, but the locker next to hers remained untouched. Stephanie Winslow had already been and gone. The seventh-grader frowned. She'd arrived a bit late that morning and gone straight to first-period math, dashing to her locker between classes. Perhaps, she thought, Stephanie was ill and had stayed at home that day.
Jennifer shut her locker door, then leaned against the cool metal and sighed. She knew it was silly, since they rarely spoke a word to each other, but it always made her feel better that the tall girl was the first and last person she saw at school every day.
The sky was dark and cloudy, and raindrops spattered the window as Jennifer stared out at the playground. Mr. Corbett was droning on about ratios--"the end justifies the means"--but she was unable to focus on the equations. She'd gotten to school a bit early, hoping to catch a glimpse of Stephanie, but the tall girl still wasn't there.
The seventh-grader's first day at Kiva Junior High hadn't been a good one. It took her a good 15 minutes even to find her locker, then she struggled with the dial before learning how to turn it just so, finally gaining access. The final insult had come when she realized that the coathook was bolted to the compartment's ceiling, and that there was no way she'd ever be able to reach it. Hot tears stung her eyes as she shoved her books into her backpack and slung it over her left shoulder.
"Hey, watch it." Long, slender fingers confidently spun the combination lock on the door beside her.
Still facing the lockers, Jennifer spoke quietly. "I'm sorry," she said, trying to keep from crying. "I didn't know you were there."
The tall girl rested her book bag on her bent knee as she arranged her textbooks and notebooks. "S'all right." She zipped the bag, then slammed the locker door. "Just be more careful next time."
Jennifer just nodded, not trusting her voice.
"Hey," the other girl said, putting a hand on Jennifer's shoulder and studying her profile, "really, it's fine. I'll see you tomorrow, okay?"
In the two months since then, standing beside Stephanie at her locker had been the high point of her days. Being a ninth-grader, the taller girl shared neither classes nor friends with Jennifer, but she did always have a smile for the younger girl.
Mr. Corbett, now covered with chalk dust, was still trying to explain the concepts behind proportional relationships, and Jennifer realized as she stared out the window at the rain that this was the longest she'd gone without seeing Stephanie.
The bell rang and the halls filled with students trying to make their way to their next class in the allotted two minutes. Halfway to her history class, Jennifer saw the principal talking to a striking dark-haired woman. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the woman, who held it to her red-rimmed eyes.
Jennifer hesitated, then turned and ran back to her locker, where she stood for a moment, trying to get her breathing under control. She'd recognize that woman's velvet-brown eyes anywhere--they were a perfect match to Stephanie's.
And if that woman was crying, that meant something bad had happened to Stephanie.
She squeezed her hands into fists, trying to will away that thought. After all, it wasn't necessarily true. Perhaps something had happened to Stephanie's father, or even her grandparents, and that's why the older girl hadn't been in school.
Feeling a bit better, Jennifer realized the class bell had already rung. She picked up her backpack and spun around, running directly into the principal.
"Mr. Eldridge," she said, "Sorry I'm not in class, I forgot my history book, I--"
"It's all right, Jennifer," he said. "Is this your locker?"
"Yes." She looked at the dark-haired woman beside him. "Um...is there something wrong?"
"This is Mrs. Winslow, Stephanie's mother." He paused for a moment, then continued, "Are you and Stephanie friends?"
"Not really," Jennifer said. "I mean, I see her at her locker, but that's about it."
"Did you see her yesterday?"
"No," the girl said. "I was late yesterday, so I went straight to class, and then she wasn't here in the afternoon."
Mrs. Winslow gave a muffled sob. "So you didn't see her at all?"
"No, ma'am. I'm in seventh grade, so we don't have any classes together or anything. I only get to see her before and after school and sometimes at lunch." Jennifer flushed red at the "get to," but neither Mr. Eldridge nor Mrs. Winslow seemed to have noticed.
"Thank you, Jennifer. You'd better get to class now."
Jennifer nodded at the principal and hurried down the hallway toward Mr. Chambers's classroom.
As she nibbled at her sandwich, Jennifer thought about the strange conversation she'd had with the two adults earlier that morning. She'd been so embarrassed by what she'd admitted that she hadn't considered the importance of Mr. Eldridge's question. Why was he asking her where Stephanie was? Had she run away?
Thoughts swirled through the seventh-grader's mind as she walked back toward her locker. Obviously Stephanie was gone. But where? And why?
Pulling her books out for her afternoon classes, Jennifer couldn't help but glance over at the other girl's locker. She gently ran her finger over the dial, then rested her palm on the cool metal door. If only she'd paid attention, she might have been able to figure out the combination to the lock. Not hardly, her mind supplied. She could barely open her own locker.
Frustrated, she banged her fist against Stephanie's locker. A sheet of pale blue paper fluttered onto the tile floor.
She hesitated for just a moment, then picked it up. Shove it back under the door, an inner voice told her. You hardly even know her!
The folded blue paper was half under the locker door, half in her hand, when she yanked it back out. She can be as angry as she likes when she's back, she decided. But for now, I'm doing whatever I can to help find her.
Slowly she unfolded the paper. There, printed in inkjet black, were sketchy directions to what appeared to be some sort of hideout. "Don't tell anyone," the e-mail message warned. "This is my favorite cave and I don't want everyone to find out about it."
Puzzled, Jennifer folded the note and absently stuck it in her jeans pocket. Why would Stephanie care about a cave?
The bell rang, signaling the end of the early lunch period. Jennifer shoved her books back into her locker. She hastily crammed her jacket, the spare sweater she kept in case it got chilly, and a notebook into her backpack. Taking a deep breath, she slammed her locker door. It wasn't until she was outside the playground gate that she took a deep breath and pulled out the directions again.
An hour later, she arrived at the location described on the note. She could have gotten there sooner, but she was nervous about cutting classes and so had been very careful not to be seen.
She was in a wooded area with a shoulder-high chain link fence warning against trespassers. A path led off to the left, which the note said was the way to the cave.
Searching for a place to hide her bicycle, she noticed a flash of brilliant blue in the brush to her right. She dropped her bike to the ground and knelt down, pushing the branches aside. There, nestled against the trunk of a Ponderosa pine and half-buried by needles, lay Stephanie's book bag.
Jennifer took a step back, tripped on her bike and fell hard to the ground. She was confused. Had Stephanie left her bag under the tree herself? That didn't make sense. If she didn't want to take it with her, she would have left it in her locker. A sudden chill made her shiver. Someone else must have taken Stephanie's bag and hidden it.
She stood up, grabbing her bike. She had to get back. Something was wrong, and she had to tell somebody. Stephanie was in trouble.
"Where you going, little girl?"
Jennifer whirled around. "N-nowhere," she stammered. "I g-gotta get back to school."
"I don't think so." The man stepped forward and grabbed her handlebars. "I think you're coming with me."
"I don't want to," she whimpered. "Please, just let me go."
"I said," the man snarled, "you're coming with me. Now shut up and get off the bike."
She looked around, trying to find a way to escape. Slowly she dismounted her bicycle, trying to see into the shadows behind the trees.
"That other girl thought she could get away, too," the man said. "Don't be stupid."
At that, Jennifer's courage dissolved and she began to cry. "Please let me go," she said. "I promise I won't tell anyone."
"Damn right you won't," was the last thing she heard before the world went black.
Slowly, as though walking through a thick fog, the seventh-grader became aware of her surroundings. It was dark, and cold. Shivering, she tried to wrap her arms around her body for warmth, but only succeeded in chafing the skin of her wrists against the rope that bound them. Her legs were tied, too.
She closed her eyes and tried to think about her house and her room, with its large windows and the Eeyore nightlight beside the door. Someplace warm, happy. Not this dark, empty cave where she lay on her side, completely aloneat least, until that man came back. Her sob echoed against the stone walls.
"Whawho's there?" Her voice carried every ounce of her fear.
"It's me. Are you all right?"
"Stephanie?" Jennifer rolled onto her left side. She could see the cave now; it was fairly good-sized, with three passageways leading deeper into the rock. A lantern, turned so low it was almost off, hung from a hook in the ceiling. A rough wood table and a cot with soiled blankets were the only furniture.
"Jennifer?" The whisper was more urgent now. "Come on, Jenn. Talk to me."
"Stephanie?" Her voice echoed down the tunnels. "Where are you?"
"Shh." The older girl waited for the sound to die down. "You have to be quiet. I don't know when he'll be back."
"Stephanie." Jennifer was near tears. "Your mom was at the school. I didn't mean to get into your things. The note was sticking out of your locker, and I just wanted to try to help. I didn't know--"
"It's all right, Jenn." Stephanie's voice was soothing. "Calm down. It's okay. Can you sit up?"
"Just a second." Jennifer tried to push herself up, but with her arms tied behind her she wasn't able to get enough leverage to sit. "No."
"All right." With a rustling sound, the scrape of rock against rock, the older girl scooted from her hiding place into the dim light. "How do you feel? Are you hurt?"
"I-I don't think so." She lifted her head and peered at the other girl. Stephanie's normally tan face was pale and although she was trying to hide it, she was obviously in pain. "What about you? Are you tied up, too?"
"No need." Stephanie gestured with bound hands toward her right leg. "I twisted it pretty badly. Can't walk on it."
Jennifer's eyes were wide with terror and she began to cry. "What are we gonna do, Stephanie?"
"Don't worry, Jenn." The older girl's mouth set in a determined line. "I'm gonna get you out of this."
The two were silent for a moment, each desperately wanting to believe the words. Jennifer searched Stephanie's eyes for reassurance and her sobs gradually stopped.
"Ya gotta stay with me, Jenn." The older girl pushed her dark hair off her face. "I need you to listen."
The younger girl nodded, still hiccupping.
"Did you see the guy who brought you here?"
"Yes," said Jennifer. "Wh-what does he want?"
"I don't know. He didn't talk much, just drank until he passed out." Stephanie grimaced, then shifted her weight slightly. "But he was gone for a while before that."
"So he might not come back right away." The younger girl seemed hopeful for the first time.
"Maybe." Stephanie closed her eyes and sighed, then leaned forward slightly. "Jennifer, you have to pay attention. This is important. I need to tell you this before he gets back. We have to figure out a plan."
We have to figure out a plan. Jennifer stopped fidgeting. "I'm listening, Stephanie."
"Okay. Right after he brought me here this morning"
"Yesterday," the younger girl supplied. "You came here yesterday. It's Tuesday."
"Tuesday?" Dark eyes blinked. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," Jennifer said softly. "You've been gone for a whole day. That's why your mom was at school looking for you."
"I--I guess I fell asleep for a while." Her voice sounded shaky. "I thought it was just a couple of hours."
"Stephanie, what are we going to do?" The panic crept back into the seventh-grader's voice.
"It's okay." Stephanie forced herself to sound calm. "The longer we're gone, the more people will try to find us, right?"
The two girls shared a small smile.
"Right." Jennifer nodded and tried to straighten her legs, which were starting to stiffen.
"I need you to do something for me, Jenn. I need you to try to get your arms around to the front. Do you think you can do that for me?"
The younger girl sounded doubtful. "I don't know, Stephanie..."
"Sure you can. Just curl up into a ball. Get your legs as close to your chest as you can, then you can slip your hands around them." She looked into the other girl's dark blue eyes. "You can do it. I know you can."
Not wanting to disappoint the ninth-grader, Jennifer did what she was told. She rolled onto her back and bent her legs, pulling them up against her body. Small chips of rock bit into her shoulders, and her muscles protested the sudden motion. Choking back a sob, she gritted her teeth and rocked backward, raising her bottom and sliding her hands down over her slim hips.
"I can't do it," she said. Her arms felt as though they were being pulled from their sockets. She didn't think she could possibly work her legs through them.
"Yes, you can." Stephanie was leaning forward. "I'd help you if I could, but you're too far away. Just roll over on your side, take a few deep breaths, and try it again. If I did it, you can."
"He said you tried to get away." Jennifer stared at the ceiling, trying to ignore the pull on her aching arms. "Is this how you did it?"
"Yes," the older girl said. "Only my legs weren't tied. Guess he thought he didn't need to since the main entrance is locked."
The seventh-grader rolled onto her side. "How do you lock a cave?"
"It's not a cave. It's the entrance to one of the old copper mines."
"But these mines have been closed for years. How did he--"
"I don't know," Stephanie hissed. "We don't have time for that right now. Can you get your legs through?"
Jennifer swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. "I'll try."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, then pulled her heels even closer into her body, trying to force her feet between her bound wrists and the backs of her thighs. The rope bit into the exposed skin of her wrists and she felt the blood start to ooze down onto her hands. Just as she was about to give up, the pain in her shoulders so excruciating she thought she might pass out again, her feet slid under her hands and, after a bit of wiggling, her legs were free.
"I knew you could do it," said the older girl.
With her legs curled, Jennifer pushed herself into a sitting position, swaying slightly as a wave of dizziness washed over her.
"Keep your eyes open," Stephanie instructed. "You'll feel better in a minute."
The seventh-grader nodded, straightening her arms out in front of her and stretching out her cramped shoulders, wincing as the rope rubbed against the raw skin of her wrists. The nausea soon passed and she dropped her head to her chest, rolling it from side to side to loosen her neck.
"How tight are the ropes on your arms? Can you turn your hands?"
Frowning, Jennifer tested her bonds and found that she'd managed to loosen them up a bit during her struggle to free her legs. "Yes, I can. I can kinda move my hands a little."
"Good. Now, Jennifer, I need you to listen carefully, all right?"
The younger girl gazed into Stephanie's dark eyes. She nodded.
"Try to get your legs untied." Seeing the blue eyes flicker down to tied wrists, the ninth-grader raised her voice slightly. "Listen to me, Jennifer."
Startled by the other girl's forcefulness, the seventh-grader sat up a bit straighter and nodded again.
"You can run with your hands tied. You can't run with your feet tied. You need to untie your legs first, understand?"
Jennifer's eyes stung. Of course Stephanie was right. How was she going to run for help when she couldnt even stand up? Her vision blurred by tears, she began to tug at the rope.
"I'm sorry, Jenn." The older girl's voice softened. "I didn't mean to yell at you. We just don't have a lot of time."
"I know, Stephanie," came the tearful reply. "I'm sorry I let that man catch me. If I was smarter I would have gone for help instead of just standing there."
"Listen to me, Jennifer."
The younger girl lifted her head off her bent knees and looked at the ninth-grader.
"You did good. You found me." She paused for a moment to let that sink in, then went on, "And we're going to get you out of here."
"You mean we're going to get out of here." Jennifer sounded a little bit more confident now. "We're gonna go together."
"No," said the dark-haired girl. "I can't run, not with my leg like this. But you can get out, you can go for help."
The younger girl sniffled. "I don't want to go without you. What if I get lost?"
"You won't. I know the way out." Stephanie paused for a moment, listening. "Keep working on the ropes. Try and get your legs undone and then, if you can, your hands. But don't take the ropes off yet--just untie them."
"What if he comes back?"
"Move back into that shadow, where you were. If you hear him coming, curl up and pretend like you're asleep."
Nodding, Jennifer turned her attention back to undoing the knots around her ankles. The room was nearly silent. All she could hear was her own rough breathing and the scrape of hemp fiber against denim.
Minutes went by and she became more and more aware of the darkness of their prison and the chill of the damp air. From far away she heard what might be the sound of metal on stone. Terrified, she scrabbled at the ropes, desperate to free herself before the man returned.
"Jennifer." Again the quiet whisper.
"What?" Exhausted from her efforts, she was near tears and ready to give up.
"Take a break and let your hands rest. You're doing great." Stephanie's voice, though tired, was full of confidence. "Just a couple more and you're free."
It was true; the seventh-grader had slowly but surely worked her way through about half of the hastily tied square knots.
"He didn't do a very good job with these," she mused. "I mean, there's a lot of them, but they're not very tight."
"I don't think he's had a lot of practice," the older girl said. "I'm not sure he knows what he's doing."
"What do you mean, Stephanie?" Her tongue poked out the tiniest bit between her front teeth as she fumbled with the rope.
"I don't know, exactly." She shook her head. "It just doesn't seem like he really has a plan."
"What do you think he'll do to us?" Jennifer glanced up.
"He's not going to hurt you," Stephanie whispered fiercely. "I won't let him, I promise."
"I know." Her head was beginning to ache. There was barely enough light for her to see what she was doing. She used her upper arm to shove her dark blonde bangs off her forehead. "I'm almost done."
"Good." The ninth-grader shifted her weight again, leaning back against the rough wall. "I wish I could get over there so I could help."
"It's okay, I got it."
"I know." The dark-hair girl smiled. "Told ya you could do it."
"Thank you," the seventh-grader whispered. She tugged at the coil of the rope. "What do we do once I get this untied?"
"You get out of here and run for help."
"I'm not going without you."
"You have to. I can't walk."
"No. I won't leave you here."
"Listen to me, Jennifer. I know a way out, but the opening is really small and you're the only one who can fit."
"Yes, you can. For me, Jenn. Will you do it for me?"
Anything for you. The younger girl sighed. "All right. But where will you be?"
"Hiding." Stephanie pointed toward the wall. "There's a hole here, behind a rock. He thinks it's too heavy for me to move."
The seventh-grader nodded. She gave a sharp tug and the final knot came undone, the bonds slackening around her ankles. Pulling her feet apart, she was about to kick the rope off when she remembered what Stephanie had said. "My legs are free," she said. "Now what do I do?"
"Can you stand up?"
"I think so." Jennifer cautiously rose to her feet. The dizziness returned for a moment, but after a brief wave of nausea passed she felt fine. Her ankles were sore and her legs were stiff, but she was able to stand and, more importantly, she found she could shuffle around the cave.
"Do you think you can run?"
"If I take the rope off, yeah." Jennifer bent over, nearly touching her toes. "I'm sure I can."
"All right." Stephanie scooted a little bit further along the wall. "Take a good look around the room. See the tunnels leading out of here?"
"Yeah." The seventh-grader sat down and scanned the room, counting three passageways cut into the stone.
"When he was gone earlieryesterday, I guess," the older girl said, "I tried to find a way out."
" I thought you said you knew the way out."
"I do." Stephanie rolled onto her side, wincing at the pain in her right leg. "At the end of one of the tunnels."
"Why didn't you run?"
"Well, it's kind of a metal gate, but the bars are too close together and I couldn't get out. You'll fit, though."
"I don't want to go without you. Maybe there's another way"
"There isn't. I've been down all of those corridors. They're all dead ends." The older girl's eyes bored into Jennifer's. "This is the only way. You've got to go. Promise me."
"I..." Her dark blue eyes once again filled with tears.
"And you have to do exactly what I tell you. If he catches you..." She pointed to her leg. "Promise me, Jennifer. When I tell you to run, go as fast as you can. And don't look back."
Her lower lip trembling, the seventh-grader nodded her head. But I won't stop until I know you're safe. I'll come back myself if I have to.
Stephanie's voice softened. "It's gonna be all right, Jenn. We're gonna get out of this."
The younger girl nodded again, still trying not to cry. "What do we do now?"
"See that tunnel off to the right? The one closest to the cot?"
Jennifer turned her head slightly toward the opening. "Yeah."
"That one leads back into the mines. There's lots of other passageways branching off it, but they're all dead ends or blocked off."
"The middle tunnel goes down a ways, then you run into a locked door." Stephanie gestured back over her shoulder. "Tunnel on the left is the way out."
"I thought you said it was locked."
"The main entrance is locked. The tunnel splits in two. If you go to the left, you'll get to the gate. You can squeeze between the bars and run for help." She looked into the younger girl's eyes. "You can do it. Just remember to keep to the left."
I won't let you down. Jennifer ducked her head, wanting to say something but not trusting her voice.
"How you doin', Jenn?"
The younger girl looked up into dark brown eyes that were full of concern. She suddenly felt ashamed--Stephanie's leg had to be killing her. She had to be strong; she had to get out and bring help. "I'm fine. How's your leg?"
"Ohum, sore." The older girl sat back up. "You ready?"
"Now?" Surprised, Jennifer spoke at normal volume, sending echoes throughout the cavern.
Stephanie shook her head. "No, not yet. First we have to get everything arranged."
"Huh?" The seventh-grader tilted her head quizzically.
"You have to go down the same tunnel he comes in through," the older girl explained. "So we have to make sure he's not there when you're going out."
"All right..." The younger girl's mind raced as she tried to think of a way to do that. "So...?"
"So you take the rope off your feet and put it in front of the tunnel on the right."
"I thought you said that one didn't go anywhere?"
Jennifer put her head on her knees, confused by the older girl's logic. "So why do we put the rope there?"
"So that he'll think you went that way trying to find a way out."
"Oh," the younger girl said doubtfully.
"When he goes down there after you, you'll run down the tunnel on the left"
"And out through the gate!"
"Exactly." The two girls smiled at each other.
Stephanie slid back toward the shadows in the back of the room. "Go ahead, throw it over there."
Jennifer kicked her feet free, then tossed the coils of rope near the mouth of the tunnel. She stood up, stretching her arms and legs, then turned to the other girl and asked, "Now what?"
From her niche in the stone wall, Stephanie beckoned to the younger girl. "You hide in here with me until he comes back."
Shaking her head, the seventh-grader stepped back. "I don't know..."
"It's the only place he won't see you."
"But it's so dark..."
The ninth-grader nodded her understanding. "It's okay, Jenn. I'll be in here with you."
Taking a hesitant step forward, the younger girl peered into the small recess. "Are you sure there's room in there for both of us?"
"What if he looks for us in there?"
"You'll be behind me. He won't be able to see you." Stephanie gestured once more to the seventh-grader. "Come on, before he gets back."
Maneuvering awkwardly because of her still-bound hands, Jennifer squeezed past the other girl into the cramped, dark space, then pressed tightly against the rough stone as Stephanie turned so that her bad leg stretched across the width of the small cavern.
"You got enough room?" The ninth-grader's voice appeared almost in her ear, startling the younger girl.
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Ok. I'm going to pull the rock back now."
Her arms straining with the effort, Stephanie pulled the makeshift door across the small entrance. Only a tiny crack of light made its way into their hiding spot.
Trying to stay calm, Jennifer closed her eyes and focused on keeping her breaths slow and even.
"It's okay to be scared, Jenn."
The younger girl looked up at Stephanie. "You're not."
"Sure I am. After he threw me in here..." She swallowed. "It was so dark. My leg hurt so much I didn't think I could stand it."
Jennifer squinted in the darkness, trying to assess the damage to the other girl's knee. She'd noticed earlier that Stephanie's jeans were stained dark with what she thought might be blood, but she hadn't been close enough to get a good look. Now, in the darkness, she still wasn't sure.
"So how did you find me?"
It took a moment for the younger girl's mind to switch gears. "Oh. Uh, after I talked to your mom and Mr. Eldridge, I started wondering where you were. And, um, I found this." She dug in her pocket and handed Stephanie the blue slip of paper.
"Oh," the older girl breathed, recognizing the scrap in the dim light. "And so you followed me?"
"Yeah," Jennifer said, ducking her head as she blushed. "I didn't mean to--I mean, I was just, we were worried about you, and I thought maybe you were hurt or something."
"It's fine, Jenn." Stephanie tucked the note into her own pocket. "I'm not upset. I just thought I had this with me, is all."
"Oh." Turning one hand slightly, she began working at the rope on her wrists.
"The message was in my in-box Sunday night. My mom had grounded me for the weekend so Rachel and I and some other people were online Friday night, chatting about the caves up on Granite Mountain. I thought the e-mail was from one of them." The ninth-grader was silent for a moment.
Jennifer nodded. "But it was from him."
"Must have been." She paused. "When I got to the entrance to the mine, I knew something was up. I was about to leave, but he came up behind me..." her voice trailed off.
The two girls sat in silence, the seventh-grader unconsciously leaning into the older girl. After a few moments, the events of the day caught up to her and she drifted into sleep.
The seventh-grader awoke, her body tensing at the urgency in Stephanie's voice. "Wha--?"
A loud metallic bang echoed down the tunnel, followed by the slurred voice of a man singing.
The younger girl was unable to control a small whimper.
Stephanie rested her bound hands on the girl's shoulder. "It's okay, Jenn. I won't let anything happen to you."
Jennifer nodded quickly. "I know. I'm just scared."
"It'll be all right. Remember, when I tell you, run." The younger girl had to strain to hear the ninth-grader's words. "Stay to the left, and don't stop and don't look back. Promise?"
The staggering footsteps got louder and louder before stopping suddenly. "What the fuck?" Rubber soles scuffed against dirt and stone. "That little bitch. That little bitch!"
The two girls listened as he staggered in circles, looking around the room. "You know I'm going to find you," he shouted. "And when I do, you'll wish I was as nice to you as I was to your stupid little friend."
Jennifer gasped and squeezed her eyes shut.
"Stay with me, Jenn. Just another minute or two," Stephanie whispered, squeezing the younger girl's fingers with her own. "He'll go looking for you, and then you can run."
"You better run, you stupid little bitch!" Once again they heard the man's footsteps as he staggered drunkenly away from them and picked up the rope. "You just better hope I don't find you."
With the angry shouts still echoing down the tunnels, Stephanie carefully shifted the rock away from the entrance to their small hiding space.
"He's gone," she hissed. "Go!"
Jennifer scrambled out of the little cave and, stumbling as her cramped, stiff legs adjusted to her weight, ran as fast as she could across the room and down the dark stone passageway. Her heart was pounding and her lungs were on fire by the time she reached the place where the tunnel split.
"Stay to the left!" Stephanie's words echoed in her mind as she turned and fled toward what she hoped was a way out.
Sobbing, she reached the metal gate. She turned sideways and squeezed through -- head, shoulders, hips -- and ran, ignoring the pain in her wrists as she finally tore the ropes off and threw them aside.
By the light of the half moon, she recognized the path that led back to the park. Still sobbing, almost doubled over from the pain in her side, she followed the trail back to where her bicycle still lay on the grass. She grabbed it and jumped on, pedaling furiously. Only when she reached the paved surface of the parking lot did she look back to see that she was alone.
"You made it, Jenn." The whisper, full of pain, drifted into the seventh-grader's consciousness. "You made it. I knew you would."
"Stephanie!" She sat up, looking wildly around the room. It was just as it always was--the large windows framed by cheerful blue-and-white curtains that matched her comforter, her backpack sitting on the wooden chair by her desk, Eeyore keeping silent watch from his position in the outlet by the door--and yet everything had changed.
"Stephanie," her voice broke and she began to cry, reaching out blindly for her mother, who always seemed to know exactly when the nightmares returned and who now sat beside her on the edge of the bed.
"You're home now, Jennifer, it's over," she soothed, stroking the dark blonde hair. "You're safe."
When the girl's sobs turned to hiccups, then to slow, steady breaths, her mother ran a gentle hand over her daughter's forehead and, turning off the overhead light, went out into the den.
"Another one?" Her husband put an arm around her as she sank down onto the sofa next to him.
"Yes." She leaned forward, allowing him to massage her shoulders and neck. "She still blames herself for not bringing help in time to save Stephanie."
"What does the doctor say?" He'd wanted to attend the sessions, but his daughter didn't want to talk to anyone but her therapist about her time in the abandoned mine.
"She says it's going to take time. We just have to wait." She sighed, then turned sideways so that she was looking directly at her husband. "She saw the medical examiner's final report."
"There's no way Stephanie could have spoken to Jennifer. She tore an artery in her leg when she broke it. The M.E. said she was dead at least 12 hours before Jenn ever found her." She took an unsteady breath. "One other thing."
He gestured for her to continue.
"He said there was a folded piece of blue paper in her back pocket."
She nodded. "But it was soaked in blood. He could barely even read it."
"But that means--"
Standing and running a shaky hand through her hair, she finished the thought. "Jenn never saw it. Stephanie had it with her the whole time."
"So then how...?"
"I don't know." She walked over to her daughter's bedroom door, watching the girl as she slept in the semi-darkness. "I don't know."