Chapter Five ~ A Girl and Her Ruffian
After a long, refreshing swim, Melissa and Elizabeth squelched up the hill to collect their backpacks. Neither mentioned going home again. They filled their water bottles, tied their shoes together and hung them around their necks, then tromped downstream.
As they walked, the stream grew wider and the bottom slippery with mud. Once Melissa had fallen twice and Elizabeth three times, they scrambled onto the bank, put their shoes on and kept going.
Elizabeth massaged her grumbling stomach. She kept a firm grip on her pencils in case a woodland creature came near enough to stab. If it comes to it, we can always eat grubs. She smiled, imagining her mum, dad, and Eddy Brier pulling disgusted faces at the idea. Then she frowned. Was it practical to eat grubs or not?
Melissa tore a piece of bark off a tree. She chewed for a bit, then spit it out again, made a face, and rubbed her tongue with the edge of her shirt. It’d been worth a try.
Eventually the spaces between the trees widened, the stream spread out, and they stepped onto the shore of a marshy lagoon. The sun shone on the water, ducks bobbed and wagged their tails among the water plants, and insects zoomed here and there.
Melissa shaded her eyes, “What’s that?”
On the far side of the lagoon sat a lopsided hut. A maple sapling sprouted from the ruins of the porch and the roof had tiles missing. Shutters hung at ragged angles from the windows and moss furred the sides.
“An old hunting cabin I bet,” said Elizabeth. She gripped her pencils to keep from hopping up and down with excitement. “Might be something useful inside. Skinning knives, baked beans, rabbit furs.”
“Sasquatches,” added Melissa, eyes shining.
“Come on! Let’s sneak up on it.” Elizabeth hunched over and slunk from tree to tree, Melissa close on her heels. They wove their way around the lake, tip toeing behind bushes, crawling alongside logs, and pausing now and then to peer at their target. If it noticed their approach, it didn’t let on.
When they rounded the tip of the lagoon, a stand of trees hid the hut from view. Elizabeth decided to risk a short sprint. Using hand signals, she communicated her intentions to Melissa who gave her a thumbs up. They tensed, gripped their backpack straps, and then sped off.
Just before they reached the hut, they flopped behind a log to catch their breath, then edged higher to peek over the top. Grass hemmed the edges of the broken down hut. Old boards lay scattered around it and leaves overflowed from the troughs. If it hadn’t been for the sunshine, it would have looked haunted.
Then they saw something else. Something that made them forget all about Sasquatches and hunting knives and being hungry. A brute of a pickup hunkered on the bare earth behind the hut. It had beefy tires, gleaming chrome, and black paint waxed to a nefarious sheen. The license plate read EATD UST. On the back window was a skull with criss-crossed spatulas and the words GRILL SLAYER.
Melissa sucked in a breath. Elizabeth narrowed her eyes and growled. Then she clamped her lips to stifle the sound. Voices. There were people inside the hut. Elizabeth couldn’t make out any words, but her mind raced with possibilities. Who could they be? Mafia? Poachers? Kidnappers? Ruffians?
Her skin tingled and her heart skipped rope. Melissa looked at her, eyes wide. Could this be the adventure they’d been hoping for? But how to proceed? What to do? Wait and watch? Pound on the door? Rush across the porch yelling war cries and demanding food?
Elizabeth had just opened her mouth to suggest the latter when the voices got louder. A lot louder. The girls exchanged wondering glances. From the sounds of the shouting, there were two people inside the ramshackle structure, a boy and a girl. As far as Elizabeth could tell, they didn’t like each other much.
“I told you!” said the boy.
“Then what’d you bring me out here for? You don’t even like me, do you?”
“Oh sure, start crying. That’ll make everything better.”
“You’re so mean! I’m sick of it!” said the girl.
Something smashed inside the hut. “Oh yeah? Well I’m sick of you too!”
The girl sobbed and screamed something.
Then the door of the hut slammed open. Elizabeth and Melissa ducked, then peeked back over the log in time to see a teenage boy stomp out. He had thick boots, spiked hair, and wore a sleeveless shirt over a slender, muscled chest. Mafia, Elizabeth decided. Tripping behind him came a teenage girl wearing denim hot pants, converse shoes, and a crop top. Runnels of mascara smeared her cheeks, making her look like a zombie. She tried to grab the boy’s arm, but one of the porch boards gave way and her foot went through. She stumbled and cried out.
The boy didn’t turn. In five strides he reached his pickup, yanked the door open, and catapulted inside. By then the girl had scrambled off the porch. She ran for the pickup, blood running down her ankle. “Logan!” she screamed, managing to sound both angry and desperate. Before she could get her fingers under the handle on the door, the pickup pulled away, spitting clouds of earth onto her calves. It roared off, smoked around a corner, and thundered down a logging road. Slices of it flickered in and out of view between gaps in the trees. Then it disappeared, leaving a fading trail of sound in its wake.
The girl wailed, collapsed to the ground, and beat her fists on her thighs. Fleeing ducks filled the sky over the lagoon.
Elizabeth realized her jaw had dropped and closed it before any mosquitos could fly in. Crikey. She rubbed her eyes to push them back in their sockets. With the blood on the girl’s ankle and the makeup running down her face she looked like something from a halloween movie. An ax murderer maybe. Or a vampire. Elizabeth preferred The Paper Bag Princess and adventures of that ilk, not horror. Now that she thought about it, the hut was sure to be booby trapped. There couldn’t be anything useful inside. Better to sneak around it and be on their way. But before she could suggest any such thing, Melissa hopped over the log.
Elizabeth hissed her name, but Melissa didn’t come back.
Shucks and bother. Elizabeth had to admit that talking to a girl zombie was as impractical as anyone could get. She sighed. Could she un-vow her vow? It would be nice to be practical sometimes. Screwing up her courage, Elizabeth followed Melissa, her heart flopping in her chest.
Melissa strode towards the girl, a determined expression on her face. “Hello,” she said loudly. “Are you alright?” The girl startled, one of her cries ending in a cut-off squawk. Her eyes went wide and surprised.
“I’m Melissa,” said Melissa, smiling with as much assurance as she could muster.
The girl settled back on her heels, then stiffened. Melissa followed her gaze. “Oh. This is my friend Tw—”
Suddenly Elizabeth’s made-up name sounded childish and inappropriate to her, not right for this kind of adventure. “Elizabeth,” she cut in.
Melissa raised her eyebrows and Elizabeth shrugged.
The girl stared at them. If Elizabeth hadn’t heard her yelling, she’d have thought she was mute. Or planning a sneak attack. Elizabeth tried to catch Melissa’s eyes to warn her, but she wasn’t paying attention.
“What’s your name?” Melissa asked.
“Nicki.” The girl’s voice sounded raw and tentative, much different than it had in the hut. A trick, Elizabeth supposed. Unless she was a kidnapping victim.
“Who was that boy?” Elizabeth asked.
Nicki sniffed and twisted her lips, “My boyfriend, Logan Tanner.”
Elizabeth wrinkled her nose. What did the girl want one of those for? Boyfriends, oatmeal, and history class were about on par in her opinion.
Melissa shrugged, then pointed at Nicki’s ankle. “You should wash that off. I’ll help you.” She stepped to Nicki’s side, tucked herself under the girl’s arm, and leveraged her up.
Nicki grunted, winced, and muttered “thanks.”
Elizabeth started to follow but Melissa jerked her chin at the hut and mouthed food. Then she turned her back and helped Nicki limp towards the lagoon.
Elizabeth scuffed her foot and scowled. She didn’t like the looks of that hut. But if Nicki turned into a zombie, Melissa’s brain would be the first to get eaten. This was the better job. Elizabeth allowed herself a small grin, then traipsed across the porch. She kept to the struts, half visible between the eaten boards, and though the wood creaked, she didn’t fall through. The door squealed when she pushed it aside and stepped into the hut.