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Day 2: The Wait (Heather)


The boredom was worse than the hunger, or at least a close tie. There was nothing to do in the treehouse other than stare out the window at a cloudless, deep blue sky. She stopped trying to count all the black specks she saw. It was like trying to count spilled pepper.

She learned that partially rotten treehouse wood made a fantastic insulator. It was easily ninety-five degrees inside. Her hair stuck to her face, and it was difficult to get up the energy to do anything. Even Abby had abandoned the relative comfort of the beanbag chair, finding that it stuck to her sweaty skin, causing it to tug whenever she moved.

That was how they spent the entire day, lying on the ground, trying to find a comfortable place to sit, and wiping buckets of sweat from their faces. Twice, the drones screamed their alarm, and both times they flinched and covered their ears. Each blast only lasted moments but pierced into her skull like a sewing needle. Any time she’d drift off for a nap, the alarm jerked her awake, pulling her upright.

If there was a high spot, it was Matty Cutler. She was learning he had a sharp sense of humor and a piercing intellect that lived underneath his shy demeanor. Nothing like she would have imagined. In school, he faded into the background, content to stay in Pete’s shadow.

The memory of Pete drove her down a dark spiral of thoughts, and she clamped down. No thinking. That was the rule in the tree fort. Don’t think about Kate, or her neighbors, or any of that. Her focus needed to be on getting through the next second, then the next minute, the hour, the day. Whatever it took.

Her stomach let out a loud rumble. It was close to dinner, and the only food they’d eaten all day was stale crackers. Crazy that kids in other parts of the world go entire weeks with barely a bite, but here she was after one day, complaining. She shouldn’t even be noticing this. She needed a distraction.

“What’re your three biggest fears?” She threw the question out into the middle of the treehouse, to give them something to talk about.

“Being trapped in a treehouse by robot aliens,” Matty said, and she snorted out a laugh.

“Serious answers only,” she said. “Abby, you go first.”

“Spiders,” Abby said, pushing back a soaking wet chunk of hair from her face. Her damp t-shirt clung to her tiny body.

“What else?”

“I don’t like the dark very much,” Abby said, “and even though you said it doesn’t count, I really don’t like those aliens.”

“No talking about the aliens.” Matty sat up and leaned back against the wall. “Besides, they’re not even scary. They only float around outside, they can’t even get into a stupid treehouse.”

“What about you, Heather?” Abby asked.

“That’s easy. Coming in second, failure, and heights.”

“Heights are scary,” Abby agreed. “Once I visited Mommy at the top of her building where she works, and I looked straight down the side until I got dizzy.”

“Gross,” Heather said. “I couldn’t do that.”

“You guys are babies,” Matty said. “Are you ready to hear real fears? Real toe-curling stuff?”

“Tell me, Matty.” Abby clapped, happy enough with the game. Heather wasn’t the only one grateful for the distraction.

“Number one,” he held up a finger, “riding on the subway and being struck deaf and blind at the same time.”

“That’s… specific,” Heather noted. “I think you’ll probably be okay.”

“Sure, but you never know. It would suck if it happened. Two,” he held up another finger, “diving into a swimming pool and emerging in the middle of an unfamiliar ocean.”

“Wait,” Heather interrupted. “Is the fact that the ocean is unfamiliar what makes that scary? Like if you came up in the middle of the Pacific but recognized where you were, you’d be cool?”

Matty laughed, an open and honest sound, and she smiled. He had a wonderful laugh, another thing she’d never have expected from him. No one ever laughed at her jokes except Liz. People found her humor too dry.

“Good point,” he conceded. “It’s the ocean itself that’s scary. Are you ready for number three?”

“Ready, but these are weird fears,” Abby said. “I don’t think you get how this game works.”

“This last one is a doozy, but it’s my biggest fear. You know how we get all those leaves in our backyard in the fall? I never told anyone this, but last year, I raked a huge pile into the corner. After I was done, I was tired and got a drink of water. When I came out, there was something strange about the leaves, the pile had begun to take shape, growing into something while I watched.”

“That’s not true, Matty. Stop.” Abby crossed her arms and frowned.

“Oh, it’s true. And you don’t even know the scary part. It turned from a pile of leaves into a body with and head and two arms. A lumpy leaf monster. I swear it looked right at me. We met each other’s eyes, that leaf monster and I, and then it pointed at me. One single arm, dripping with decaying leaves and worms. It spoke.”

“What did it say?” Abby’s eyes were wider than her mouth.

Matty’s voice dropped an octave, and he spoke slowly. “Leaf... me... alone.”

Heather blinked. “Christ.”

“I don’t get it,” Abby said. “What did he say after that? Does the leaf monster still live in our backyard?”

“He’s teasing.” Heather rolled her eyes at Matt, but smiled so he’d know she was joking. “If a leaf monster lived in your backyard, I’d have seen it from my window.”

“When are we getting out of here, Matty?” Abby stood up and paced around the cramped interior.

“Soon, but you have to stay calm. You don’t want your asthma to act up.”

“Abby has asthma?” Heather asked.

Matt nodded. “It’s mild, but she needs to keep an eye on it.”

“But when are we going back?” Abby asked. “I don’t want to sleep out here again, and I’m thirsty.”

“The Internet says to stay indoors. People are posting all over Twitter; it’s all anyone is talking about. Those things are still out there, and the police aren’t coming. We have to sit tight.”

“One more night won’t kill us,” Heather said, but couldn’t keep a tremble from her voice. “We have to be smart about this.”

“It’s the siren,” Matt said, staring at nothing. “It’s awful. I tense up in anticipation of the next blare, you know?”

Heather nodded. She did the same thing, as if a clock was ticking in her head until the next explosive noise. “What if we wrapped our socks around our heads or something? To block out the sound.”

“It might work.” He nodded. “It’s better than trying nothing.”

On cue, the sirens blared outside, and Heather clapped her hands over her ears and yelled. Abby also screamed, but Matt only stared. As soon as the noise started, it was over.

“It’s horrible,” he whispered.

Abby wiped tears from her cheeks and sat down hard on the bean bag chair. How long could they stay out here? Another night? They needed water, more than anything else. And sleep. She’d kill for a few unbroken hours. She’d maybe had four in the past two days.

Fear threatened to overwhelm her, and she swallowed it back. How long could they last without help?

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