Wild by Kim Pritekel

Wild
by Kim Pritekel & Alexa Hoffman

Summary: Zac Mitchell returns after six years on the rails to her life in the woods in Maine, only to discover the young girl that occupied her mind and kept her sane has grown up. Abel Cohen, a 19-year-old college student, who remembers when she played at her parents’ summer cabin as a child, finds that perhaps an old childhood ghost isn’t a ghost at all.

 

 

Introduction

You’ve asked me to write in this application for grad school about the one person who changed my life. Well, I imagine you’ve gotten plenty of good answers over the years to that question. Some people may have written about their mom or dad, a sibling, perhaps a neighbor, professor, or maybe just a friendly, neighborhood police officer.

Not in my story.

I write about Abel Cohen. Though her namesake was murdered in legend and lore, in this story, she was sent as an angel to earth to show me what real freedom is all about. This is my story; her story; and most importantly, our story.

* * *

Prologue

 

The small blonde child walked on, looking around with green eyes, large with growing apprehension and fear. As she walked through the woods, one tree began to look like the next in a maze of an unending forest.

Getting really worried now, the little blonde brought up a hand, chewing on her fingers as tension began to fill her small body, long golden hair becoming damp against her skull as she began to sweat, her tiny hand clutched into a fist to try and keep herself under control. She didn’t want to call for help because her mommy would be angry at her for wandering off so far.

She stopped, suddenly feeling eyes on her. In her childish mind, she imagined all sorts of monsters hiding in the shadows of the trees. Monsters who wanted to eat her up and never let her play with her baby brother again, or see her mommy or daddy.

Whimpering in fear, she stopped where she was, looking around in all directions, small, white teeth chewing painfully on her fingers.

“Hello?” she asked, her small, high voice causing a bird to take flight from a nearby branch. She looked up, following its progress above the tree tops, wishing she could fly like that.

“Hi.”

The little blonde whipped around, eyes the size of saucers, immediately breathing out a sigh of relief when she saw the child standing before her. The child had short, dark hair, and bright blue eyes. Dark blonde brows drew.

“Who are you?” she asked, glad it was a child, but suspicious all the same. Her mommy had told her not to trust anyone who was a stranger.

“I’m Zac,” the other girl said, a small grin on her face, her bright blue eyes seeming to glow in the shadows of the canopy of trees.

“You have pretty eyes, Zac.” Smiling green eyes met surprised blue.

“Thanks. What’s your name?”

“Abel. Nice to meet you, Zac.”

“Nice to meet you, Abel. I think you’re lost.”

“Yep. Can you help me?” Abel asked, hoping beyond hope that Zac knew where to go.

“Sure! Are you from that house with the green dock?” At Abel’s nod, Zac smiled.

“Come on.” The little brunette led the way through the trees, glancing often at her smaller companion. She had never seen a child roaming through the woods, and wondered if it would be okay to talk to Abel. She wasn’t sure what her father would say, or if he’d get mad again. Deciding she didn’t want to chance it, she’d keep the little blonde her own little secret.

* * *

14 years later…
Part 1
“Who let the dogs out! Who, who, who, who!” Abel Cohen grinned as she sang, blonde locks bouncing back and forth as she bobbed to the beat. She drove her small two-door Jetta through the winding roads that would lead to Maine’s Wachiva Forest.

Finals over by two days, she had loaded up her car and driven from the family home in Greenwich, Connecticut, to the family cabin. She promised to air the place out and get it cleaned up and ready for a fun summer until her younger siblings finished school and her family could join her.

As she tapped the wheel with dancing fingers, she looked at her surroundings, watching as the trees passed, the extensive wooded area coming back to life after a harsh winter that had lasted far into spring, leaving plants and trees shocked and frozen when they should have been blooming and growing new life. Abel could tell that even though it was late May, she’d be taking a nice, hot bubble bath tonight. She smiled as she thought of her time alone at the cabin.

As much as she dearly loved her parents and four younger brothers and sisters, she would wallow in her isolation. Able to do whatever whenever, and not have to worry about dorm roommates or parents bugging her.

Abel sighed, changing the radio station as a string of commercials came on, then finally gave up. Opening her sun visor, she grabbed a CD at random, slid it into the car’s player, and turned up the volume.

*****

A car was coming up the road, the unused road that led to the two cabins set a mile apart. Keen hearing listened, trying to place the make. Sure it wasn’t the Wilkins’ truck, a lithe body moved quickly through the trees, hiding behind massive trunks, and making an already thin body thinner behind the not-so-thick ones.

There, just coming up the road. A dark blue sedan. Making its winding way up the road, slowing around the numerous turns. A careful driver, not aggressive or impulsive. Must be a woman.

Not a sound was heard as the figure got closer to the road, watching to see which way the sedan would turn: left to the Wilkins’ or right to the Cohen’s. When the car turned right, a sharp intake of breath could be heard, unsettling some nearby birds, then the muffled steps as a shadow swept across the forest floor, a large, calloused hand resting on a rough tree trunk.

Blue eyes closed as the car pulled up into the drive, and a warm, familiar feeling stole over the crouched figure, forming a small smile. The figure watched as the door to the sedan opened, and a blonde head popped out, long hair blowing in the breeze that seemed to be a constant companion to the forest. Blue eyes opened further as that feeling, that know, filled her body.

“She’s back,” was barely heard, a whisper upon the whispering wind. “Spinney.”

*****

Abel was still humming the song she’d been listening to as she rounded the corner to her parent’s cabin. She looked up at it now, a soft smile lining her lips. She had so many incredible memories at this place, and it saddened her to know that her time there was coming to an end. She would be a junior in college next year, and knew that as more and more demands were made on her time, she would have less of it for her family.

Her parents had bought the original small, three-room cabin when the blonde had been four years old. Over the years, they had added onto it as their family grew, creating the wood and glass beauty that stood before her now. Five bedrooms for five kids and two parents, and just a cozy environment for a fun-filled summer or special holiday season.

Abel looked around, seeing the sun-splashed landscape. The lush forest around the cabin looked as it always did, trees as far as the eyes could see with the lake and dock out not twenty yards from the house.

Suddenly the smile slid off her face and she began to look around, eyes scanning the dense forest off to her left. She felt like she was being watched, and an odd, unsettling feeling settled over her. Brows drawn, she turned in a small circle, searching out something that she wasn’t aware, just . . . something.

“Hello?” she called out, her voice echoing out over the lake and bouncing off the surrounding foothills. The squawk of far-off birds was her only reply.

Deciding to shrug it off, she turned back to her car, opened the trunk, and began to lift out her bags of clothing that would get her through three months, and the food she’d brought to last her for the next week. Her folks would provide the rest of the food for the summer once they came.

Humming loudly and badly, knowing there wasn’t a soul around to hear, she made her way up the dirt walk that led to the wrap-around porch. Digging out her key and holding open the screen door with her butt as she maneuvered around, she juggled the things she held to unlock the heavy door and push it open.

Abel wrinkled her nose as the stale air of the place being closed up for six months met her nose.

“Yuck,” she muttered as she dropped her bags and headed over to the alarm system, disabling it before a silent alarm sent dozens of cop cars swarming around the cabin.

*****

A squirrel scampered by as the dark figure moved yet closer, hiding behind a small thicket of trees that was not even fifteen feet from the cabin.

Inside, the blonde could be seen unpacking a brown paper bag on the kitchen counter. She watched as a package of meat was taken out, a plastic bottle of something, though it read Coke, and a jar that read Prego.

The figure moved to the other window so she could see better. She studied the face of the angel that she had dreamed of for
years . . .

*****

The gangly teenager grabbed the cold, metal handle of the boxcar, and heaved herself up into its cavernous depths, looking around to make sure she was alone. Satisfied, she dropped the heavy knapsack she carried and slid down the metal wall, landing squarely on her butt, knees bent, wrists dangling over her knees.

She brushed long, dark hair out of her eyes, angry yet again at herself for losing her last comb when she had been running from the cops.

“Bastards,” she muttered, trying to run long fingers through the tangled strands, bracing herself as the train groaned to life and began to move. Zac watched as the snow-swept scenery began to whoosh by faster and faster, finally having to move further back in the car as snow began to stick to her hair and clothing.

Leaning her back against the cold metal side of the boxcar, she stretched out, her head back, and closed her eyes with a sigh. A slow smile curved her lips up as she brought up her favorite daydream subject.

Spinney is running through the trees, her long, beautiful hair, just like spun gold, flying out behind her. Her green eyes squeezed shut as she stops, raising her arms to the sky and spinning just like she did at the age of five. This time, though, Zac imagined what the girl would look like at fourteen. She wondered how tall Spinney had gotten. She had been so tiny as a rowdy five year old.

Spinney stopped spinning and shined those eyes on Zac, smiling as she walked over to the brunette and reached out her hand. Zac took it, entwining their fingers and smiling in return. She felt so safe with the blonde, like nothing, the cold weather, life, or the Boogie Man, could ever hurt Zac again.

She reveled in that feeling as she sat in the cold boxcar. She could somehow feel the presence of her old friend, even though she hadn’t seen her in so long, and longer since she talked or played with her. Even though she could feel her, knowing that she was out there somewhere, she still missed her. Terribly.

“I had such a crappy day today, Spinney,” Zac said into the empty boxcar, her voice quiet with fatigue. “Almost got thrown into the can again. Damn, sucks.” She looked out into the night, the star-filled sky mostly hidden by heavy, pregnant clouds, threatening to drop more snow on them. “More snow, Spinney,” she whispered, her words coming out in puffs of air as she huddled her long body in upon itself, wrapping long, gangly arms around her shins. “Cold.”

Zac wondered if it was snowing wherever Spinney was that night. Was she warm and safe? She felt that the blonde was, and had the distinct feeling that she’d know if something was wrong. Just felt it. Like she felt the cold snow blowing against her skin. As blue eyes shut, she wondered if Spinney thought about her, too. She smiled at the thought.

*****

Abel sat on the recliner her mom had bought her father last year, plate of baby carrots with a blob of Ranch dressing on the side, and put her feet up on the attached ottoman.

Humming her delight for relaxation, she grabbed a carrot, dragging it through the white goo until it was half covered, and then smiled at the satisfying crunch the root made between her teeth. She loved carrots. Her mom used to tell her she’d turn orange if she continued to eat as many as she did.

Grabbing the remote from the small table next to the chair, she flipped on the TV, and happily waded through the hundreds of channels that the satellite dish on the roof provided. Her dad was a sucker for every single sports channel that was offered, and who was she to disagree?

Settling on ESPN, she continued to eat her carrots, her feet tapping together as she nearly bounced from her excitement. Summer break, a whole week completely alone, and another 4.0 GPA to add to her files. She and Kyle had broken up last semester, but that wasn’t exactly a storm cloud in her sunny day. Just a detail.

When a whole slew of commercials came on, Abel growled and grabbed the remote, flipping through again. She truly loved channel surfing. With her dad as master and sovereign ruler of the remote control, she never got to choose. Not today.

“Ha ha!” she grinned, stopping on an infomercial for ladies’ nose hair clippers. Almost mesmerized, she watched as the host demonstrated the shiny silver tool. Head slightly cocked to the side, the blonde watched in fascination as the tool was inserted into a rather hairy woman’s nose, and quickly yanked out again. “Ew! Okay, yeah. Time to change.”

“. . . third missing child was found today near Deer Creek Lake, just south of Route 1. The child’s identity has not been released yet, but has been confirmed as female. As with the other cases, certain items belonging to the child were missing. More from meteorologist Marty Craig after this break.”

Abel wrinkled her nose. “Oh, creepy.” She changed the channel again.

*****

The figure moved around the large cabin, hearing talking within. She listened, trying to see if it was Spinney. She hadn’t seen anyone else go into the cabin, but there was a man’s voice, too.

She moved around the stand of trees to look into another window, and bent down, holding her weight up with a hand on the rough bark of a tree, and the hard ground beneath her.

Not a sound was made when she moved. Even a humming bird that was feasting on a birdfeeder didn’t move as it sucked down the sugary, colored water.

The form stood again, one blue eye peeking out from behind her hiding place. Inside, she saw Spinney sitting in a chair, her feet up, and an empty plate on her lap. She was smiling, then her head was thrown back as she laughed outright at something she was looking at. Blue eyes tried to focus on what it was that humored the blonde so much, and spied a black box with a cord running from it to out of sight. She realized it was probably a TV. She had seen them a few times in store windows when she was traveling.

Her gaze moved back up to Spinney’s, looking into those bright green eyes, and wishing, hoping, and wanting to see them up close again. Wanting them to see her.

“Soon, Spinney,” she whispered. “Soon.”

*****

“Zac?” the blonde child asked as they walked through the forest, hand in hand. It had been two weeks since the Cohen family had arrived at their cabin, the parents so proud of their first investment outside of their home in Greenwich and cars.

“Yeah, Spinney?” the six year old asked, looking around, blue eyes already keen, as she watched their environment carefully, wanting to make sure they weren’t seen.

“Will you meet my mommy today?” Hopeful green eyes looked up at her companion. She asked this nearly every day, and usually got the same answer. She just hoped that maybe just once the answer would be yes.

Zac looked down at her best friend of two whole weeks, and seeing the hope radiating there, felt her heart drop. She knew her hide would be scalped if she did, but oh how she wanted to make the blonde happy. She loved to see the small girl smile, and acted like a complete maniac half the time just to ensure that response.

“Can we, huh?” Spinney insisted.

“No, Spinney. I can’t,” Zac said, her voice soft and filled with sorrow. Just as she knew she would, she saw the slender shoulders droop and a head drop. “I’m sorry, Spinney. Please don’t be mad, ‘kay? I don’t wanna get into trouble.” Zac pleaded for understanding.

“Why? Will your mommy get mad?” Spinney asked.

“Um, yeah. Yeah, that’s right,” Zac lied. But since Spinney seemed to already understand that possibility, she’d go with it.

“Oh, okay. Can we spin today?!” Green eyes lit up again at the idea, and, as per the last two weeks, Zac couldn’t deny the girl anything.

“Come on!” she called out, running.

*****

The blue-eyed girl sat in her lean-to consisting of a tarp she found and a large piece of canvas that she’d had with her during her travels. The pieces of material were tied just outside a rock overhang that served as part of the shelter. She hoped it would keep her protected from the summer rains, anyway.

She looked around at her meager belongings. A small stack of books, either ‘borrowed’ or left over from her childhood. A small fire ring was just outside the shelter; she wasn’t too keen on seeing just how fireproof this stuff was. A rolled up bedroll was in the corner, dirty and grungy from years of use and very few washings. It was hard and flat, but at least it kept her off the ground. For the most part.

Looking outside the small opening to her home, she saw the charred ruins of what had once been the cabin where she had grown up. After her father had died, she had packed up everything she owned and made for the rails. When she returned to Wachiva Forest three months ago, she had found it burned to the ground. She had an idea who had done it, but left it be. She knew he’d be back around soon enough, anyway.

“Bastard,” she muttered as she removed one of her three sweatshirts, tucking it into a ball to lean back on so she could read.

As she opened the book on Wildlife Preservation by Judith Duncan, fourth edition, she looked over at the black rubble again. Someday she wanted to rebuild the cabin. As soon as she was able to get the supplies, she would. May have to go back onto the rails for that. See, it’s called a Touch’n’Go. You see something from the tracks, like a lumber yard or even a private house, and you jump from the train while it’s moving real slow. Run over to the place, grab what you saw, and then run like the devil to get back on and out of there.

Yep. A Touch’n’Go would definitely be necessary.

Settling back onto the sweatshirt, she opened the large hardback and began to read.

*****

Abel stood, stretching her screaming back. Sitting for the long six hour drive from her parent’s house, not to mention the drive there from college in Boston, and then sitting on her rump to watch TV. Yeah, not smart.

She rinsed her dish under the faucet, then put it into the dishwasher. It was late, and she was dead tired. Walking over to the front door of the cabin, she made sure the lock was engaged, and set the alarm. Then stopped. The hair on the back of her head prickled to life.

The blonde drew the curtains over the glass in the door aside, and looked out into the near pitch black night. Her father had put up a light post near the drive, but it only illuminated about 25 yards around it, leaving everything else to the moonlight. Stands of trees surrounded the house on two sides, and at night they looked like giant soldiers standing guard over the cabin.

She walked over to the window over the sink in the kitchen, looking into the small but dense stand of trees nearby; still nothing.

Abel could almost imagine a pair of eyes on her as she looked into the inky blackness. Though she could see nothing, she somehow knew that someone or something was out there. She wasn’t one to believe in fairy tales or monsters, but this was ridiculous, and she couldn’t shake the feeling. She couldn’t identify it as fear, really. But she was afraid.

With a shiver, she let the lacy curtains fall back into place, and headed upstairs to the second floor where her parent’s bedroom was. She didn’t want to go on up to the attic for her own bed; tonight she needed the security of their familiar smell.

As she climbed onto the large bed, kicking her slippers off to smack against the far wall, the blonde pulled back the comforter and sheets, and sank into their warmth and comfort.

“God. I feel like a damn five year old,” she muttered, then shut off the light.

*****

The figure moved through the dark once more, making sure all was well. She saw the lights on the second floor dim, then die out, blackness filling the windows now. She sighed, wishing she could wish Spinney a good night.

*****

The darkness hid the figure well. The moon was low, but not especially bright, which was good.

“Yes, yes,” he panted, re-doubling his efforts to keep tiny hands within the grasp of his large, sweaty ones. “This way, my sweet. This way.” He hated the awful sound of the leaves and dirt being disturbed as he dragged his burden. That bum leg of his wasn’t making it any easier, either. But, a job worth doing was a job worth doing well. That’s what his father had told him.

*****

The prone girl cradled her head in her open palms as she looked up at the rock ceiling of her shelter. Her belly was full of fresh rabbit and a few wild berries. She was glad it was summer time, ’cause all the good fruit would start to ripen up.

She smiled to herself as she thought of her day. She had been lucky in the hunt, as well as lucky in seeing her friend again. Spinney had long since gone to bed, but she was still very much awake and alive in the girl’s mind. She closed her eyes, conjuring up the blonde’s face again behind dark lids.

That soft-looking mouth that she knew would say sweet things to her, just as it had done as a child. Spinney would smile and be so happy to see her again, and she couldn’t wait.

It had been so long, so very long. She had waited for 14 years to say hello again. Maybe she could do that tomorrow? Maybe not. She’d have to see what Spinney was up to. She wanted to allow the blonde some time alone first.

Instead, she would ease her pounding heart with memories . . .

*****

“Look at me, Zac! I’m spinning!” the small, blonde child yelled, her voice sucked up by the incredibly dense foliage that surrounded them; a tall, deep thicket with a solid canopy of tree tops, leaves and branches reaching out to embrace overhead, save for one lone hole that allowed sunlight to filter in, a spotlight for the spinning child.

“I see you!” Zac exclaimed, running around in the shadows, growling like the bear she had seen last week. A grizzly, her father had called it. She brought up small hands, arching them into menacing claws, and baring nearly unnaturally white teeth as she ran by Spinney, swiping a ‘paw’ at her, making the small child giggle.

“Do it again!” Spinney cried, cringing even as she smiled.

“Raaarrr!” Zac growled, swiping again, making the girl spin in a circle to keep up with her frantic gallop. “I’m a bear! Raaarrrr!”

*****

The figure smiled, almost laughing again as she remembered the look on Spinney’s young face. Oh, she was so much fun.

Within moments, however, the smile slid right off . . .

*****

“Abel! Abel, where are you?” a woman’s voice called out somewhere in the forest. Spinney had stopped in her tracks and tried to look out past the wall of trees all around her.

“Uh, oh.” She said. “I have to go, Zac. I’ll see you tomorrow, ‘kay?”

“‘Kay,” Zac had said, her head beginning to hang. Oh how she’d miss her friend. The blonde hurried over to her, giving her a soft kiss on her cheek with a wide grin.

“Bye!” She gave the brunette a small wave, which was returned, and the blonde disappeared through the trees, leaving Zac alone. Always alone. She sat on a large rock, burying her face in her hands.

*****

Abel stirred, then flinched as bright light hit her closed lids. With a soft groan of protest, she rolled over and opened her eyes. Sunlight stretched through the room, long, greedy fingers touching everything in its path.

“Morning already?” she grumbled, not wanting to be up yet, but knowing that since she’d awakened, chances of falling back asleep were slim to none. Stretching her short, but powerful body with a squeak, she swung her legs off the high mattress, and planted bare feet solidly on the floor.

Finally standing, she strained her ears, then heard it again.

“Shit!” Running through the door, and then flinging her body around the balustrade to the stairs, she just barely made the phone before the answering machine picked up. “Hello?” she said, breathless.

“Honey? Are you okay?”

Abel rolled her eyes. “Yes, mom. I just had to run to get the damn phone. When are you guys going to get the service hooked up to the upstairs rooms? I nearly lost a toe on the couch to grab it.”

A soft chuckle floated through the line. “I know, honey. I’ll talk to your dad about it again, okay? So how is everything? Cabin okay?”

“Yeah, it’s great.” The blonde plopped down on the toe-stubbing couch in question, folding her legs under her body. “It looks great, nothing’s amiss.”

“Good, good. It looks like we’re going to have to come up on Saturday instead of Friday,” Sherry Cohen explained, disappointment evident in her soft-spoken voice.

“Oh,” Abel said, halfway excited. Another day alone. Woohoo! “Why?”

“Well, turns out I have a meeting with the principal Friday afternoon about the new Spanish class I’m starting next year. Of course, it couldn’t wait until later in the summer like everything else does.” She clicked her tongue. “Man drives me nuts.”

“Mom, hate to break it to you, but you’re already nuts.” The blonde giggled.

“Well, you come from that same tree, sweet pea.” Sherry smiled. She adored her oldest daughter, and could not wait to see her on the weekend. “Well, if everything’s okay, I guess I’ll go.”

“Okay. Oh, wait,” Abel said, deciding to ask about the weird sensation she’d been having. “Mom, did anyone new move up here? Are the Wilkinses still there?”

“Ah, no, not as far as I know. Why?”

“Well, nothing. Well, okay. Since I got here yesterday, I’ve had the strangest feeling that I’m being watched. It’s kind of creepy. I mean, it may very well just be a deer or something. Maybe I’ve disturbed his winter stash of food, or something. But still . . .”

“Are you okay, honey?” Sherry asked in concern. “Do you want me to call Jim for you?”

“Oh, no. If anything goes wrong or anything, I can always call the Wilkinses myself. I just wondered. I have no doubt I’m being a total idiot, just scaring myself. But, still. Thought I’d ask.” Abel twisted the phone cord around her fingers, staring up at the support beams in the ceiling.

“Okay. Well, if you need anything, Abel, you tell me. Okay? Do not hesitate to call. Anything funny. Got me?” Her mother’s words were an order, but Abel knew she was just worried.

“Yes, ma’am,” she promised. “I’ll see you guys Saturday, then. I love you.”

“I love you, too, sweetie.”

When the blonde hung up the phone, she looked around, trying to decide what to do today. She could go read by the dock, or go for a walk through the woods. Oh, that sounded great!

Making her decision, she hurried back up the stairs and found a pair of jeans and a light-weight henley. Lacing her hiking boots, she was ready.

*****

Using the toe of her large boot, the figure tried to bury the evidence of her morning release, not wanting any uninvited guests to come sniffing around. She stopped, mid kick when she heard the snapping of a twig probably fifty yards to the north. Her head snapped in that direction, and she quickly ducked behind a tree, watching.

Just over the ridge, a lone figure became visible, a long stick swinging gently at the figure’s side. Blue eyes narrowed, and instinctively she knew it was Spinney.

She smiled, white teeth reflecting off the early morning sun. She ducked to another tree, matching the blonde’s pace, soundlessly following her through the forest. She wanted to make sure the girl was okay, and didn’t fall or find anything that could hurt her.

The figure’s heart was pounding as she watched, loving to watch Spinney do anything. The blonde could be standing stock still and she’d be a happy camper. The blonde was whistling, though what the song was, was a mystery.

Spinney walked toward the small, natural spring that the figure often bathed in. She felt herself becoming antsy, afraid that the blonde would stumble upon her home and find evidence of her existence. She couldn’t be found – the Boogie Man would find her, then.

With stealth borne of years of hiding and moving along like a ghost, she followed Spinney to the cliffs that overlooked a small, basically abandoned, old town.

“Wow,” the blonde breathed, which startled the figure. She hadn’t heard another’s voice in nearly two years.

*****

Abel looked down at the old town, having heard about it from her father before. She really wanted to go exploring, but feared she’d lose her way back home. She hadn’t wandered through these woods in a few years, and didn’t trust her instincts anymore.

Smiling up at the warm sun that kissed her face, she stopped, her body becoming very still, the smile frozen.

There it was again. That feeling. She felt chilled, the sun turning to ice as her blood ran cold. Fear clutched at her chest like a vice, leaving her short of breath.

Abel turned, scanning her surroundings, seeing nothing.

“Hello?” she called, her voice echoing down in the silent, deserted valley below. She heard movement in the trees, then movement caught the corner of her eyes, and her head snapped in the direction to see a red fox scamper out of his hiding place.

“Goddamn fox.” She placed a hand to her pounding chest and closed her eyes, taking several deep breaths. Maybe that’s what I felt. Nothing more. She opened her eyes, looking around one last time. The feeling was gone. She was alone.

*****

Sensing Spinney’s discomfort, the figure shrunk back into the trees, deciding to lay this one out. The blonde would be okay watched from afar. Nothing would happen to her. Ever.

Bright blue eyes watched the clouds moving overhead, knowing that storms would soon be coming. She could smell them in the air. Heading down to the far end of the lake where she wouldn’t be seen, she kicked off her worn boots, the shoe strings too thin to hold tight now, but they were something. She peeled off the three layers of socks she had on. This served two purposes: one, it kept her feet warm and pretty dry, and two, it helped make the oversized men’s boots fit better.

Stripping down to smooth, white skin, she made her way into the water, mindful of rocks at the bottom of the lake floor. Though the bottom of her feet were like leather, it still wasn’t nice to pick lake crud out of the cracks of her skin.

She closed her eyes, moaning in delight as the cool water washed over her. Since her dip hadn’t been planned, she didn’t have her bar of soap, made from lard, so she’d have to make due. For now, she’d just enjoy the feel. It was a bit cold yet to be swimming around naked, but it was certainly refreshing.

*****

Still feeling his body thrum, he closed his eyes, sighing in contentment as he sat on the forest floor, blade of his Bowie hunting knife glinting off the dying sunlight. His crotch was still slightly damp from when he’d lost control too early. Pissed, he’d done his job without the release he sought.

Oh, well. The job was done, and he stuck his hand in the pocket of his worn denim jacket, smiling at the feel of the soft material, though something slightly slimy met his probing fingers. Wet and slimy, still slightly warm.

This made him sigh again, a smile curving over his crooked features. Delight for later.

Opening dark eyes, he looked down and saw the small, white thumb connected to a tiny hand that was not quite hidden in the shrubbery, and realized he needed to do a better job. Wiping the knife on the leaves nearby, he stuck it in his boot, and went to work.

*****

The lone figure roamed through the forest, hair still slightly damp, top layer of sweatshirt slung over her shoulder. She looked up, enjoying the feel of the almost warm night breeze brush against her face. She sniffed the air, loving the smell of the natural honeysuckle that grew sporadically through the forest.

“Nice,” she breathed, humming quietly to herself, then picked up the tune in words. “El coqui, el coqui a mi me encanta,” she hummed a few lines, then continued. “Por las noches al ir a acostarme . . .”

She smiled at the memory of being taught that lullaby.

*****

The blonde giggled, showing the gap between where her front tooth had been and her incisor.

“It’s el noches, not nachos!”

“Oh.” Zac flushed, feeling stupid. The little green-eyed imp laughed heartily, her voice like music in the air, but then sobered, seeing that her taller friend wasn’t so amused. “What does it mean again?” the brunette asked, trying to find some way to get out of blushing.

“Okay. It means, ‘The little frog, the little frog, enchants me; The singing of the little frog is so pretty; When I’m going to lay down at night; It induces me to sleep, singing to me.’ Pretty, huh?” Zac nodded. “My mommy used to sing it to me.”

*****

“Es tan lindo el cantar del coqui; Por las noches al ir a acostarme; Me adormece cantandome asi; Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui;” Abel smiled at the comforting words her mother used to sing to her, and had taught her as a very small child. She hummed the little tune as she, once again, stared up at the ceiling in her parent’s room. She needed the extra added comfort of the old lullaby after the day’s events.

She felt nearly scared out of her mind! All day long, save for a brief reprieve after the fox had darted past her and into the dense forest, she had felt eyes on her. Even going to school in a big city like Boston, she had never felt so violated.

She was truly scared now. She had considered calling her mom, and talking to her until she fell asleep, but then rationalized that she was being childish. They’d be there soon enough, and she would just stay closer to the cabin. Maybe she’d get her dad’s gun out tomorrow.

The blonde sighed. She hated guns. But, if it would make her feel safer, then so be it.

Humming the lullaby once more, she finally drifted off to sleep.

*****

“I’ve missed you, Zac,” the blonde said, green eyes smiling up at her friend as they walked through the forest, holding hands. Just like the good ol’ days.

“I’ve missed you, too, Spinney.” She could feel the warmth of their connected palms, arms lightly swinging back and forth. The sun was bright and warm, almost burning through Zac’s sweatshirt, making her shoulders hot.

“I wanted to come back and visit, but you weren’t here.” Spinney looks sad as she said this. “Where did you go?”

“Far, far away. I needed to leave,” Zac explained.

“Oh.” She studied her friend’s profile, so much older now, so much more beautiful. They had caught up in the forest, Spinney roaming around, and then she had spotted Zac, who, tired of hiding, had stepped out from behind a tree. She knew that it was only Spinney up here, so wasn’t afraid.

“Do your parents still think I’m not real?” the brunette finally asked. The blonde smiled and nodded.

“But I know you’re real . . .”

*****

Blue eyes fluttered open, non-seeing for a moment, the cavernous surroundings of her shelter slowly coming into focus. Then reality did.

She wanted to cry. A dream; it had been another goddamn dream.

She sat up, rubbing her face with calloused hands, trying to scrub away all the leftover sleepiness and sadness.

So many times she’d dreamt of meeting up with Spinney again, and now that she was so close, so very close, she had no courage. The blonde had been at the cabin for four days, and had not yet been contacted.

“Shit,” she sighed, wondering what to do. For some odd reason, she felt afraid. She felt intimidated and unsure. She knew that Spinney had a good life with good parents who loved and cared for her. After all this time, and the realization that comes with growing up, would Spinney still find her so interesting? Would she still be interested in being her friend?

Or would the blonde think she was weird and scary? Living all alone in the woods. Living off the land like some animal. A specter in the trees.

Shaking these thoughts from her mind, she pulled herself up, ignoring the screaming of her back from too many years spent sleeping on the ground. She was twenty years old, and felt fifty half the time.

She tugged on a sweatshirt to ward off the early morning chill, and headed off to find some place to relieve herself. She’d drunk too much water last night before bed, and felt like she’d burst.

*****

Abel awoke, deciding that today was the last day she’d be afraid. She was up and showered, dressed and ready to enjoy a day reading by the lake. She had packed herself a nice brunch, all fitted neatly in a basket her mom had buried with the holiday decorations, of all places.

Basket and book in hand, she felt the slight weight that made the basket just slightly unbalanced, and was glad of it. Not scared today, no way, no how.

Whistling as she made her way down to the colorful dock, she let her eyes roam around, looking for anything remotely suspicious, then grabbed the fold up chair that rested near the side of the cabin. Hoisting it under her arm, she continued on her way.

It was a good day. The sun was out, the air warm, and her fingers itched to dig into the book she’d brought with her.

“Yes, this is certainly the life.” The blonde grinned. She had the basket set on the dock near her feet, and opened the folding chair, looking up to see which direction the sun was shining, and positioned the chair that way. She wanted to make sure she had the absolute best light.

Plopping down in the plastic chair, she reached into the basket and grabbed the tube of sun block, SPF 45.

She squirted the fragrant, white cream onto her palm, and rubbed her hands around, searching the lake as she began to apply it liberally to her arms and shoulders, bared for the first time that summer by her tank top.

She hummed contentedly as the cream disappeared into her skin. She closed her eyes as she began to smear some on her face.

*****

The figure made her way down the line of trees that would lead to the lake. She saw the white speck down on the dock that she knew was Spinney. The breeze blew around her legs, wrapping winter-dried leaves around her ankles, only to flutter away as she made her way through them.

She hid behind a tree when Spinney turned to rub her hand over her shoulder. Blue eyes watched this, wondering what the blonde was doing. She moved closer, and saw that Spinney was smoothing something white on her skin, and wondered if it was lotion. She had a tube of it once. A long time ago.

The figure found her way closer to the dock, resting her palm against the trunk, fingers kneading at the bark it found there, feeling as the rough mulch dug into her palm and finger pads. She didn’t care. She was in sight of Spinney again. Oh, how she wanted to see her again.

*****

Abel tossed the sun block back into the basket, seeing her weapon of choice when she did. With a confident smile, she grabbed her book, opened it up to the first page, and settled in to read, cursing quietly as she smudged the lens of her sunglasses with the greasy suntan lotion.

As her eyes scanned the page, suddenly she felt that strange . . . feeling, again. She looked up at the lake, trying to listen to the day, but heard nothing. Turning her eyes back to the page, she scanned until she found her place.

*****

The figure gripped the tree even tighter, fighting the urge to just jump out from behind it, and say, ‘Spinney! How are ya?’ Instead, she stayed put, her heart pounding in her ears, indecision making her blood rush faster.

This would be the perfect chance for her to say hello to her old friend again. For her to put her dreams and day dreams to rest, and exchange them for new, fresh memories.

Blue eyes squeezed shut, a pink tongue sliding out to rake across suddenly very dry lips. She took several deep breaths and opened her eyes again.

*****

Abel followed the page as she turned it, starting at the first line of the new page, and making quick progress down through the opening sequences of the story. She lifted her leg to cross over the other when she froze.

Floating on the soft breeze.

“Hi, Spinney.”

Abel leapt out of her chair, heart flying up to her throat. She heard a distant splash as her paperback fell into the water.

There before her, standing at the beginning of the dock, not ten feet away, stood her ghost.
Part 2
Abel followed her instincts and instruction from her father. She grabbed her keys from her pocket, never once taking her eyes off the strange girl who stood before her at the end of the dock. Placing three of the sharp points between her fingers to use as weapons, she held her arm out in front of her.

“Who the hell are you?” she asked, briefly eyeing the dock around her. She was trapped. Water on three sides, and this crazy woman in front of her. She focused on the woman, trying to think. Long, disheveled dark hair, wrapping around her shoulder and face, giving her a wild appearance, though the woman’s posture was calm and focused. She took in extremely baggy, dirty black pants that puddled around over-sized boots.

Her gaze drifted back up to the old, worn out, thin in places, sweater, and finally up into blue eyes that were looking into hers.

“Who are you?” the blonde asked again.

“You don’t remember me?” the brunette asked, and Abel was amazed as her entire face seemed to fall.

“Should I?” she asked, still holding the keys out in front of her, her eyes darting to the picnic basket where she had left the gun, forgetting about it in her fear and surprise.

“It’s me, Zac.” The brunette pointed to herself, blue eyes wide, looking shocked. Zac felt a profound disappointment as she watched Spinney standing there, holding sharp keys out toward her like the brunette would actually hurt her. “Spinney?” she said, her voice quiet as she hoped that the special name for the blonde would make her remember. How could she have possibly forgotten?

“I don’t know you,” Abel exclaimed, her heart about to beat out of her chest as fear clasped it in a vice. Again she tried to ponder her options: Go for a swim? Try and run past the taller girl? Stay and grab the gun? The strange girl who called herself Zac didn’t seem dangerous, somehow. She stood there, shoulders slumped, and her hands buried in deep pockets. Was she hiding a weapon in there? “Let me see your hands,” she ordered, her voice shaky.

Zac looked at her, confused, but slowly slid her hands from her pockets, holding them out, palms up. The blonde looked at them. She could see how nervous Spinney was. I don’t understand.

Feeling better to see those large hands were empty, green eyes darted back to blue. “How do I know you? And why do you keep calling me Spinney? Who is that? Do you have me confused with someone else?” Abel lowered the keys, feeling innately that she wouldn’t be hurt, but freaked out nonetheless.

Those expressive eyes seemed to fall again, looking down for a moment, then meeting Abel’s again.

“We used to play when we were kids.” Her voice was so quiet, barely audible.

“What? As kids? What are you talking about? Why don’t I remember you?”

Zac shrugged, but said nothing. Abel stared at the girl, then reached into her pocket for the ever-present cell phone.

“You stay there.” She pointed at Zac, then looked down at the keypad to dial her parents’ number.

Zac watched as the girl grabbed something from her pocket, then realized what it was. Her eyes widened in surprise and fear.

No cops! No Boogie Man!

Abel dialed, then looked up, gasping when she saw nothing. She was alone. She looked around, frantically trying to find where the strange girl went. She even looked toward the lake, seeing if the girl had made a dive for it.

Nothing.

“What the hell?” she breathed, feeling all the more frightened. “I’m going crazy.” Her train of thought was interrupted by her mother’s voice. “Mom? Oh my god. I’m losing my mind!” Watchful green eyes scoured the landscape as she spoke, desperately trying to find any sign or trace of the girl who called herself Zac.

*****

Zac, once out of earshot, ran through the forest, her eyes burning as tears streamed down her cheeks. The sensation felt strange, like she was using dry, chapped lips for the first time. She could only remember crying once before.

She climbed the bluff that she used as a perch to watch over things, and over the Cohen cabin. Hastily sitting down, she swiped at her eyes, leaving dirt smudges along her cheeks, and sniffled.

Why doesn’t she remember me? She was going to call the boogie men on me. Why, Spinney? Why?

Fresh tears poured down, and she brought her hands up, covering her face as a sob wracked free, startling a bull frog who was croaking nearby.

*****

“Wait, wait. Honey, calm down. What are you talking about? An intruder? In the house?” Sherry Cohen was nearly beside herself as she listened to her daughter’s impassioned voice on the other end of the line.

“No! Well, not exactly. But she just showed up, out of nowhere. God, I was so scared,” Abel exclaimed, sitting back in the chair, but turning it so she faced land. She wasn’t about to be snuck up upon again. “I was reading, like I told you, and she was just . . . just . . . there!” She brought a trembling hand up to her mouth, covering her lips as wide green eyes looked out into the woods. “Like some sort of mountain woman or something. It was so strange.”

“Honey, I want you to listen to me,” Sherry said, her voice stern but caring. “You need to call the police. Who knows who this girl is. She could be dangerous.”

Abel thought back to Zac, and deep in her heart, she didn’t feel she was. Those eyes, so brilliantly blue, were seemingly filled with the innocence of a child. She looked so genuinely hurt when the blonde had said she didn’t know who she was. That look almost haunted her.

“No,” she said, surprised as the word just sort of fell out of her mouth.

“What? No? Abel . . .”

“No. She’s not dangerous.” What are you doing??!!

“Wait, I thought you said you didn’t know her?” Sherry was beginning to get impatient now. Her daughter had called, frightened out of her mind, damn near scaring her mother out of hers, and now she says there’s no threat? “Abel, this is ridiculous.”

“Mom, did I have a playmate when I was a kid?” The blonde remembered Zac’s words: We used to play when we were kids.

“What? A playmate?” Mrs. Cohen was completely confused now. “What does that have to do with this strange woman?” She sat down on the couch, truly worried now. She motioned for her husband to come over, grabbing a notepad and telling him to get her cell phone from the charger.

“She said something about us playing as kids. Did I play with anyone here? At the cabin?” Abel drew her brows, a headache already beginning to pound dimly at the back of her head.

“Well, let me think.” Sherry took her mind back through the years that they’d owned the cabin, trying to think of any single thing that the girl could be talking about. “Well, when you were real little, you had a little imaginary friend you used to talk about.”

“What? An imaginary friend?” Blonde brows drew further down.

“Oh, yes.” Sherry chuckled. “Shoot, we teased you about that for a while. Finally one day you just stopped talking about her.”

“Did she have a name?”

“Oh, gosh. I don’t remember what that would have been, now. I don’t recall hearing about her since you were maybe, oh, eight or nine. But you always used to talk about her bright blue eyes.” Sherry smiled into the receiver, remembering an excited six year old.

Abel felt her stomach drop and her hands get sweaty.

“Bright blue eyes? Mom, did she have a name she used to call me?” Green eyes closed as the blonde was afraid to hear what her mother would say. God, I really have gone crazy.

“Oh, gosh. Hmm, let me think. It started with an s, I think . . .”

“Spinney?” came the weak reply.

“That’s it!” Sherry smiled. “Spinney. I never understood where you got that.”

Abel felt sick now. “Oh, god,” she moaned, her hand running through her hair. “Was her name Zac, Mom?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Well, uh, that sounds about right.” Sherry was really worried now. “Honey, what’s this all about?”

“Her name was Zac. She called me Spinney, and she had bright blue eyes. Mom,” she said, near tears now. “Am I losing my mind?”

Sherry sat there, unable to speak, not sure what to say if she could. What was going on? “Honey, I want you to stay with the Wilkinses until we get there Saturday, okay?” She waved at her husband, Adam, to call their long-time friends on the cell. “Your dad is calling them now. I don’t want you staying there. I wish you’d let me call the police, honey. Just let them look around, just to give us all a piece of mind.”

“No! No cops, mom. It’s not necessary. I’ll go with Jim, but no cops. I think she’s harmless.” I just don’t know if she actually exists. “She just disappeared as quickly and quietly as she appeared,” she muttered, not understanding.

*****

Zac watched as a white and orange truck pulled up to the cabin, a rugged-looking man getting out. She recognized him from the cabin about a mile down the lake. He walked over to the home and knocked on the door. It opened, and he went inside.

She had watched as Spinney had talked on the phone, sitting on the dock where she’d left her. Her heart was heavy, and it hurt. She felt a knot still in her throat, even once her tears had dried up. She was waiting for the boogie men to come, but they hadn’t. Only the guy in the truck.

Who had Spinney called?

As if the blonde had heard, she hurried out of the cabin, followed by the man, a bag in her hand. She walked over to the truck, but stopped at the door of it, her hand on the handle, and looked out into the woods.

Zac’s breath caught as it seemed those green eyes were staring right at her. She held her breath, watching to see what would happen. She knew that there was no possible way for Spinney to see her on the bluff, but still . . .

A few bloodless moments passed, then the blonde opened the truck door, jumped in, and with a muted drone, the truck drove away.

*****

Abel sat next to Jim Wilkins, her bag on her lap as he pulled out of the yard of the Cohen’s cabin. She watched out the side window, her eyes peering into the dark thicket of woods.

She felt strange, like she didn’t have that feeling anymore. She knew no way to put it into words, but knew she could feel when she was watched. Right now she wasn’t.

The blonde couldn’t help but wonder who the hell this Zac girl was, and what her imaginary friend had to do with things. Was this girl a ghost? She looked so real! She looked as real as Abel herself was. Was she something that she conjured up in her mind? The mind of a lonely child playing in the woods?

With a sigh, she concentrated on the road before them.

*****

He stroked a white thigh, just a sprinkling of hair smattered across it, as if she hadn’t shaved in a couple days. That was okay. He could handle that. He preferred the smooth softness of a child, but this would do.

Dark eyes looked up into terrified brown ones. A smile spread across his face, pink tongue poking out between missing teeth, rotten and pungent. He could already feel himself respond to what he knew lay ahead. Blonde hair, cut a little too short for his tastes, but silky and beautiful. Forever that way. His eyes traveled down, real slow like, over the face, then down the neck, bare, white skin that opened up to the expanse of a chest, small breasts. How he liked them, if none at all. They were small, so he could appreciate this one.

That tongue licked chapped lips.

*****

Abel stretched out on the twin bed that resided on the opposite side of the room to Marie Wilkins. The twelve year old slept on peacefully, while the blonde stared at the ceiling, her body tucked under the covers, her arms behind her head.

Her mind was whirling on the events of the day, as well as the last few days. She was going to stay with the Wilkinses until Saturday, when her parents would be coming up to the cabin. It had taken some persuasion for Jim Wilkins to not grab his hunting dogs and go search the woods. Abel didn’t want Zac to be harmed, and if there was no Zac, she didn’t want others to think she had lost her mind.

So she lay there in that small bed, in the even smaller, cramped bedroom, and thought about the mysterious girl. Who was she? Her mother remembered Zac, and supposedly the blonde had talked about her as a child. Why didn’t she remember?

She turned to her side, staring at the wall, hands curled up under her chin. Was this girl a figment of her imagination still? Was she even real or alive? Abel didn’t believe in ghosts, but now she was beginning to wonder. Apparently, the blonde was the only one who had seen her. Upon talking with Jim’s wife, Ava, no one had seen or heard from some dark-haired girl. Abel tried to think of how old the girl looked. Probably not much older or younger than herself. She looked as though she had been in those woods forever. She was so dirty, and looked weathered. Obviously not someone who had spent her life in a warm cabin or house somewhere.

What if Zac was a ghost? What if at some time she had been killed, or had gotten lost and died from exposure? What if she had fallen into the lake and drowned, destined to forever roam those woods?

Abel shivered, thinking her scenarios were ridiculous, but they disturbed her all the same. Why her? Had she totally made up this apparition in her mind as a child, and it was still there in her sub-consciousness? Had she been so lonely at the cabin that she’d conjured her up again?

“That’s ridiculous,” she muttered, rolling her eyes. “So who is she?”

She had realized in the two days she’d been with the Wilkinses that she hadn’t felt that, that, well . . . feeling. She knew she wasn’t being watched, and though calming, it was slightly disconcerting.

*****

Zac wandered through the woods, looking out over the lake, her hand on the trunk of a tree. The water was calm, the surrounding woods and foothills reflecting off its glassy surface. She picked up a small rock, and threw it, breaking that perfect picture, turning that upside down world into ripples that spread out.

Felt a little like she did. She was torn up inside, disappointment being a nasty bedmate.

Spinney had been gone for two days, and the brunette missed her. Despite what had happened on the dock, and the obvious fear that Zac had instilled in the girl, she still missed having her presence around. She hadn’t been able to feel Spinney since she’d been whisked away in that orange and white truck. She felt empty again. Now even the blonde’s memory couldn’t keep Zac company.

She turned away from the lake and walked some more, knowing her little furry buddy with the big, bushy tail, was following her. He was scampering from tree to tree, wiggling his nose, and cleaning his face with reddish brown paws at every limb. She looked up, seeing Teddy sitting up there, beady black eyes looking down at her.

“Hey, little fella,” she said, waving to him, hearing a squeak in return. The squirrel’s jerky movement followed it. Zac chuckled and moved on, shoving her hands deep into the pockets of her pants. The sun was hot today, but she dare not leave too many layers at home. She knew that she had to conserve her body heat and not allow herself to get too cold. When night came, her body heat would drop substantially, and she’d be cold. So, she plowed on with the pants, boots, and two sweatshirts.

Just up ahead, she saw the edge of the cliff and stopped, not wanting to get too close. Just beyond was the ghost town, called “Spectreville” by her dad. It was haunted, an old lumber town back in the nineteenth century. It had been abandoned for seventy years or more.

The place scared Zac. She heard noises from there all the time, and it’s said that when people venture inside, they never come back out again.

Shivering in the warm May sun, she hurried away from the scene below her, and continued on through the woods. Maybe she’d start making maps again. That’s what she used to do to keep herself busy. She would tear out a sheet of paper in one of her books and draw maps. She’s map out the entire area, including each little stump, large set of rocks, anything.

Yeah. That’s what she could do. That would keep her mind busy, and she wouldn’t have to think about Spinney.

“Oh, Spinney,” she moaned into the unfeeling forest.

*****

Abel was following Marie’s trail back to the cabin, a stack of freshly cut wood in her arms. She watched as the pre-teen stacked it neatly next to the house, and followed suit. She hissed as a small piece of wood snagged into her finger.

“Damn.” She picked at it, hating splinters.

“You okay?” Marie Wilkins asked, looking up at the girl she had idolized since she was a small child. Abel Cohen was so smart, and pretty and fun. She loved that the blonde girl was sharing her room right now, and wished she wasn’t going back to her own cabin tomorrow.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Do you guys have tweezers?” asked hopeful green eyes. Marie nodded.

“Uh huh. In the bathroom upstairs. In the cabinet over the sink.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Abel smiled, and hurried inside. That girl drove her nuts. She was a nice kid, but she followed her around everywhere she went, constantly asking questions. She had definitely become more annoying than she had been last summer.

The blonde hurried up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and opened the cabinet, finding the metal tool immediately. Sitting on the closed toilet lid, she began to concentrate on trying to pull the bugger out.

She grimaced as the sharp tips of the tweezers pulled at the skin of her fingertip. As she worked, her mind began to wander. She wanted so badly to just go home. The Wilkinses had been so nice, and she’d known them forever, but still, she wanted her own cabin with her own things.

Abel thought about just going home, but decided against it. There was still the question of this Zac person. As she had thought about it in the past few days, she began to wonder if that feeling of being watched was purely linked to Zac. Had it been her for the first few days the blonde had been at the cabin? Why? Why had the brunette been stalking around the place? What did she mean to do?

“Ow!” Abel pulled the splinter out and looked at it, holding it up to the light that streamed in from the small window above the bathtub. Cleaning the tweezers off into the trashcan under the toilet paper dispenser, she put the tweezers away, and ran a hand through her hair.

What was she supposed to do with this girl? With the situation? Should she head out into the forest once her folks got there and look for her? See if she could find the brunette? How long had Zac been there in the forest? Did she live in one of the neighboring cabins? That would make sense. There were a lot of families that lived in Wachiva Forest, but she had never seen her before. Though Zac seemed to know Abel, or thought she did.

But then her mind spun again to her conversation with her mother. Imaginary friend. Spinney. Bright blue eyes. Zac.

It was all so confusing. There was a part of her that wasterribly curious about all of it, but the larger part that was wary and frightened.

“Damn.” She blew out, her bangs ruffled in the puff of warm air.

*****

Zac peered around a tree, watching as the orange and white pickup truck pulled up in front of the cabin. She saw Spinney smile at the burly man behind the wheel, and nod as he said something to her. She grabbed her bag and opened the truck’s door, stepping out into the dirt.

“Bye, Jim!” The blonde waved to the man, then headed for the porch. She set the bag down, then stopped.

Abel looked around. The moment she stepped out of the truck, she could feel again. Green eyes scoured the trees around her, then she looked toward the green dock. She knew someone was around, and on a whim, decided to try.

“Are you there?” she called out, her voice echoing off the trees and into the early afternoon. “Come out!”

She jumped, grasping at her chest when a figure stepped out from behind a tree not six feet away. It was the same girl, dressed in the same clothes. She just seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Zac stood there, hands shoved into her pockets as she looked at the blonde, deciding to come out when called for. She wanted another chance to talk to Spinney.

“You scared me,” Abel gasped, taking several deep breaths.

“I’m sorry,” the girl said, her voice that same quiet, soft sound.

“Were you watching me?” the blonde asked, taking the girl’s appearance in more now that she was closer to her, and felt slightly less fear. But only slightly. The brunette nodded.

“Yes.”

“Why? You scare me, you know,” she said, then was surprised as that same pained look crossed Zac’s features again. Like she had just lost her best friend.

“I’m sorry,” was whispered, and Zac’s head hung. She had no desire to scare Spinney. She wanted the blonde to like her again, not be afraid.

“Are you real?” the blonde asked, having to know, having to try and understand. The dark head raised, surprised blue eyes boring into hers. Abel looked into those eyes. They certainly were bright blue as her mother said she used to say. Zac nodded. “Why don’t I remember you? Why does my mother say you were my imaginary friend?” Abel crossed her arms over her chest in a defensive position. She was defenseless, and felt that vulnerability. She did have her pocket knife in her back pocket, if it came down to it. “Why did my parents never meet you?”

“I didn’t let you,” Zac stated, as if it was the most obvious answer.

“Why?”

“Because they’d take me away.”

Blonde brows drew in confusion. “Taken you away to where?”

Zac shrugged. “I don’t know. Away.”

These cryptic answers weren’t helping anything. Abel decided to try a different track. “Why do you watch me? Do you watch me?” The brunette nodded.

“Yes. I like watching you.”

“Okay, that’s creepy. Why?” Abel shifted her weight to her other leg, her eyes never leaving this strange girl in front of her.

“Because you were my friend. And to protect you.”

“From who?” Abel asked softly, sensing that Zac was telling the truth, but still feeling like something was missing.

“The Boogie Man,” Zac answered, her voice deepening just a bit, hardening. Abel watched the slight change of the girl’s face, but was not afraid of it. She felt that hardness was not meant for her.

“Boogie Man?” Blonde brows drew, confused, and slightly amused.

Zac nodded.

“Oh,” was all she said. Weird. “Where do you live? Why are you here?”

“I live here,” Zac said, indicating the forest behind her. “I’m here because you are, Spinney.”

“Why do you call me that?” The blonde sounded slightly agitated, as if she were hearing a joke that only Zac knew the punch line to. Zac looked at her, slightly cocking her head to the side. Spinney didn’t remember anything?

“Well, you like to spin,” she said simply. “When you do, your hair would fan out around you, looking like spun gold.” She smiled at the memory, one of her favorites. Spinney had such pretty hair. Still did. Though now it was even longer than the shoulder-length style of her childhood.

“I did like to spin,” Abel whispered, then shook herself out of her reverie. “Tell me more. Something that would convince me you’re not a loon, or are real. Why did you run the other day?”

“You were going to call people and get me in trouble,” Zac answered, feeling the sting again from the other day.

“Call people? What, like the cops?” The brunette nodded. “Should I? Are you in some kind of trouble?” The blonde drew her brows in suspicion

“No.”

Abel stared at the girl for a moment, then said, “Show me where you live.”

“No.”

“How am I supposed to believe you, or know anything about you if I don’t even know if you’re real?”

“Touch me,” came the simple response.

“Oh, no! Not a chance in hell I’m getting that close to you, Zac.” Abel stared at the girl like she was nuts. The brunette looked hurt, then looked down.

“Then throw something at me. There are rocks down at your feet.”

“No. Just show me where you live. If there’s a slim chance that I’m going to trust you, this isn’t the way to do it, by being obstinate.” Abel pointed an accusing finger at her.

Zac looked at her and nodded, turning around and heading off into the woods. Abel brought out her pocket knife, opening the blade and casually, discreetly, marking tree trunks as she went. She had no idea where this girl was leading her, nor how to get back if they got deep enough into the foliage.

The brunette led the way, her heart heavy as she had to prove herself to her friend, confidante, and only person in the world she cared about. She felt an immense sadness consume her, taking over the absolute joy of being with the blonde again. She knew Spinney didn’t trust her, and she hated it.

She led the way through the dark forest, some places even the full overhead sun couldn’t penetrate. She knew the way, the path marked by small, subtle markers that years of roaming and experience had alerted her to. The smallest group of leaves acted as the biggest highway sign marking an exit.

“How do you know where you’re going?” Abel asked, her voice hushed in the dense trees as her ever watchful eyes tried to take in everything, in case she needed to remember something.

“Lots of walks,” Zac said simply. She headed toward a large cropping of rocks, turned the bend around them, and suddenly, they were upon a camp sight. Abel took in the burned pile of rubble next to the rock overhang, where a small, thrown together lean-to, was set up. Next to it was a fire ring, the rocks covered in soot on the inside.

She took in the blue tarp that was tied to a tan canvas, both anchored to the ground to form a wall and entryway. The blue stuck out in sharp contrast to the natural colors of everything else.

“This is where you live?” she asked, her voice a whisper. Zac nodded. “My god. How can anyone survive in this?”

Zac looked hurt for a moment, digging her hands even further down into her pockets, and kicked at some rocks at her feet.

“I just do,” she muttered.

“What was that?” Abel pointed to the burnt out ruins. Zac glanced over at them, then looked at the blonde.

“That’s where I used to live. When I was a kid. When I knew you. My dad and me lived there.”

“Your father?” Abel looked at the girl, and saw her nod. “Where is he now?” She walked over to it and looked through the rubble, noting the semblance of certain things, including a dented, half melted teapot. “What happened?”

“I don’t know. He died when I was 13, so I left here. When I came back a few months ago, I found it like this. Don’t know when it happened. I plan to rebuild someday.” She met the green-eyed gaze.

“Do you own this land?” Abel asked quietly. She felt her fears begin to melt away as she saw the humble, yet proud dwellings of this girl, though she still wasn’t sure she was even talking to a living, breathing person. And if she was, was she a total mad woman, there to rob her or worse?

“No. That’s why I stay out of trouble,” Zac said, trying to defend herself, and her right to be there and stay there. Though she was with her beloved Spinney, she still felt violated in a way, having to show the blonde her sparse home, and having to defend it. She had never shown anyone where she lived before. Not even Spinney when they were children.

“Can I look inside?” Abel asked quietly, and at the brunette’s nod, she walked over to the flap, knelt down and peered inside. It was small, maybe large enough for the tall girl to stretch out, but not much more than that. She had a rolled up bedroll at one end, with a small stack of books piled near it. An old, weather beaten canteen hung on a natural ledge in the rock wall, and a small leather pouch sat on the ground under it, with a nearly completely melted candle next to it.

Zac’s heart raced as the blonde looked around her home, her body flowing with natural energy as she began to lightly bounce on her toes. She worried that Spinney would be disgusted with her few, meager belongings, and not want to be friends at all. Not that it was looking so hot for that, anyway.

Abel backed out of the small space, and stood, brushing her knees off. She looked at the darker girl who watched her, hands still in those ever-present pockets.

“Tell me something about me then, Zac. Why should I believe you?” she asked, her voice quiet. She wanted to understand this great mystery.

“Um,” Zac looked up into the blue sky, chewing on her lip as she thought of what she could say to the younger girl to make her understand and believe. Then it hit her. She looked at the blonde, and began to sing:

“El coqui, el coqui a mi me encanta

Es tan lindo el cantar del coqui

Por las noches al ir a acostarme

Me adormece cantandome asi

Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui

Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui

Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui

Coqui, coqui, coqui, qui, qui, qui”

Abel listened as Zac sang, her voice quiet, but not unpleasant, the blonde’s mouth falling further and further open with each chorus.

Oh my god.

“How did you know that?” she breathed. Zac looked at her, confused, head slightly cocked to the side.

“You taught it to me,” she said, the smallest of smiles tugging at the corners of her mouth. That had been a fun day.

“When?” Abel was flabbergasted. She remembered when her mother used to sing that to her as a small child. She always planned to sing it to her own children someday.

“That summer. You used to sing it all the time.” A full out smile broke across the brunette’s face now, her mind years away as she saw them, the little blonde girl, and the tall brunette, sitting on that big rock in their special place, singing. “I told you I was afraid one night, so you taught it to me. You said the frog song would keep me safe.”

“I don’t believe this.” Abel put a hand to her head, covering her eyes for a moment. “Did I ever see you again?”

“Not after that summer, no.” Zac’s voice became even softer, making it hard for Abel to hear. She looked into those bright blue eyes, and was near gutted by the immense sadness she saw in their depths.

“Why?” Abel took a slight step forward, but realizing what she was doing, quickly moved back to her original spot. She felt compassion fill her at whatever was troubling the strange girl.

“I saw you with your friend. She had dark hair and a blue bow in her hair,” Zac said, looking down at her boots. “I didn’t want to intrude, so I stayed away.”

“Friend?” Abel thought for a moment, then brought her hand to her mouth, remembering that summer. She had been six years old. Her parents had made her bring a friend along, for some reason, so she’d asked her friend Melanie to go to the cabin with them that summer. “You saw us?” Zac nodded, finally meeting the green eyes.

Zac’s head turned, and she looked out toward the road, and Abel looked to see what the brunette was looking at, or had heard. Then she heard it, too. A car.

“My family’s here,” the blonde said absently. She turned back to Zac. “Will you meet them?”

“No,” Zac said, shaking her head.

“Why not?”

“I can’t.” Zac took a step back from the blonde, looking like she was terrified out of her mind.

“Okay, okay. I won’t make you.” Abel put her hands up to placate the frightened girl. “But I have to go. Um, can you lead me?” Zac nodded.

She walked toward the way they’d come, Abel sure to give her a wide berth as she passed, keeping her eyes on the brunette the entire time. She had the distinct feeling that the girl was not dangerous, but seeing as how the situation was so totally crazy and beyond her reasoning, she decided to be cautious anyway.

As they walked, and the car got closer to the cabin, the girls were quiet. Zac was trying to reconcile the fact that someone had just been to her home, while her blonde counterpart was trying to reconcile that such a place existed at all.

Finally Zac stopped, turning toward Abel.

“Spinney, I’ve taken you halfway. Follow that line of trees and it’ll lead you to the dock,” she explained. Abel looked up at her and nodded.

“Thank you.” She looked up into the troubled blue eyes, then looked away, about to start walking, but stopped, looking over her shoulder. “Zac?”

“Yeah?” came the quiet response.

“Please don’t hide. It makes me uncomfortable.”

The brunette looked down, and nodded. “Okay.”

Abel turned and quickly made her way through the woods, following the path Zac had pointed out, and indeed found herself at the dock. She saw the SUV pull into the drive, and hurried over to it.

*****

Abel, running at near breakneck speed, reached her family, which was quickly unloading from the car.

“Honey!” her mother called out, hurrying over to her daughter and taking her in a huge hug. “We were so worried.” She brushed a soft kiss atop her oldest daughter’s head, and looked at her, making sure the girl was, in fact, okay.

“Oh, I’m fine.” The younger blonde brushed off the concern. “I just talked to her, actually.” She glanced over her shoulder at the woods behind her. Adam Cohen joined his wife and daughter.

“Is she still here?” he asked, body stiffening slightly. He wasn’t too thrilled at the idea of some strange, crazy girl scaring his baby girl.

“Yeah, but she’s not dangerous, dad,” Abel said, suddenly feeling the need to defend Zac. “She’s harmless, really.”

“How do you know, honey?” Sherry asked, slinging an arm around her husband’s waist.

“I talked to her,” Abel said simply, as if that should be answer enough. “She lives out there, and . . .” She looked pointedly at her father. “We’re going to leave her alone.” She eyed him, knowing full well the mighty father routine her dad could sometimes try.

“Adam, go help the kids unload the car,” Sherry said, seeing her husband’s protests already start. Once he walked away, she turned to her daughter. “What’s going on, sweetie? I mean, you called us up, frightened out of your mind, and now you’re protecting this girl.” She looked at Abel with concerned.

“I know. I know it doesn’t make any sense. She’s still creepy, but this morning when Jim brought me back, I called out for her, and there she was!” She pointed to a nearby tree. “She just stepped out from behind that tree right there. I don’t know how she does it.” She ran a hand through her hair, realizing that she was still a little weirded out by the situation, but no longer frightened.

Sherry looked at her daughter, not sure what to say or think of the situation. She knew Abel, and had never heard her be so frightened as she had been the other day when she’d called after first seeing this Zac person. She had tried to talk Adam into dropping everything and loading up the kids that day, but he had convinced her that that Wilkinsed would take care of her, and she’d be fine.

“Honey, what is Zac? Who is she?” Sherry put an arm around her daughter’s shoulders, and led them toward the cabin. Abel shook her head.

“I don’t know. She told me things, mom, things that should couldn’t have known unless she really knew me.” The blonde looked perplexed, trying to figure this out. “She knows the frog song,” she said quietly. Sherry looked at her daughter, stunned.

“How on earth could she know that?” The two women headed into the kitchen where bags of groceries waited to be put away. “Help me, Abel.” They began to unload the bags, putting things in the cabinets and fridge.

“She said I taught it to her, said that I told her to sing it to herself when she was afraid.” Abel laughed, just so unsure about so much. “It’s crazy. Oh, she also remembered Ben running around in his diapers, as well as that summer I brought Melanie Waynes. Remember that?” She looked to the older woman, standing just an inch shorter than herself. Sherry Cohen nodded.

“Yes. Your father and I felt it would be best if you brought someone up to play with.” She glanced at the girl. “Because we thought you were so bored you had to make up imaginary playmates.” She shook her head sadly. “Is . . .” She stopped herself, not sure how to ask the next question. She and Adam had discussed this at length over the past week, and still had come up with no real conclusions.

“What?” Abel asked, putting a carton of milk away before turning to her mother. She could see the older woman was troubled. “What is it?”

“Is Zac real, honey? Is she still just something that’s around when you’re lonely or alone up here?” She didn’t have to wait long for the expected reaction.

“What! Are you asking if I’m crazy? Mother! I’m almost twenty years old. I think I can be alone without having to make up some damn imaginary girl to keep me company,” the blonde steamed, a hand on her hip. “God, you make me sound like I’m crazy or something!” Abel took a step back, hurt with her mother.

“Oh, honey. Please don’t be mad,” Sherry begged. “I didn’t mean to upset you. We’re just trying to cover all the bases.” She walked over to the girl, and bundled her up in strong, motherly arms. She spoke as she stroked the long, blonde hair. “I’ve even thought if perhaps this girl is a ghost.” Sherry chuckled at her own foolishness.

“Me, too.” Abel laughed in turn. “Crazy, yes. So maybe I am. I don’t know. She took me to where she lives,” she explained softly, still nuzzling into her mother’s warmth.

“Really?”

“Yup. She just has this crappy lean-to under a group of rocks. I was so stunned.”

“How can anyone live like that?” Sherry asked, the concern of a mother of five in her voice.

“I don’t know. I wonder the same thing. How she doesn’t freeze I’ll never know.” The blonde pulled away from her mother. Continuing to put groceries away, she said, “You know, the strange thing is, I think I can feel when she’s around.” She glanced out the window, wondering if she’d see the girl out there. She felt that feeling. Kind of like a constant hum.

“Really?” Sherry tossed a box of cereal on top of the fridge, and turned back to the bag of canned goods.

“Yeah. Strange.”

*****

Zac laid on her bedroll, the night sky making everything dark and beautiful. She loved the dark, the way it could hide her and keep her safe. She almost saw better in the dark, feeling her way through the woods, and allowing her senses to take over for her.

She smiled, remembering that afternoon. She still felt slightly uneasy about having her privacy so intruded upon, but let it slide, knowing it was for Spinney. She’d do anything for her, and if bringing her to her home helped Spinney to remember her, or at least not be afraid, then it was worth it.

Oh, how she wished the blonde would remember her. The feeling of being around Spinney again was priceless. Just for the one hour of time they’d had that day was worth all of it. The blonde of her hair, the green of her eyes.

Zac sighed, feeling happy and content. She knew that Spinney was okay, and safe and happy, and that meant everything else would be okay. She had watched from the bluff as the blonde had joined her family, and had certainly been surprised at how much that family had grown. And when she had spotted the little one, her heart had leapt into her throat.

The girl looked young, younger than Spinney when she’d met her, but had that same blonde hair and curious face, looking at everything. Zac had to smile when she’d seen the youngster. She could read trouble all over that girl. It had been Spinney all over again, and nearly made the brunette’s heart weep for a time lost. A time when she had been trusted by Spinney, and had been her friend. And remembered.

Zac sighed, folding her hands behind her head. She’d just watch from afar, making sure the entire clan was happy and healthy and safe. No Boogie Man for them.

*****

The nighttime was a good time. It was dark, though the stars and moon shone brightly overhead. The lone figure walked through the night, that familiar buzzing still whirling through his veins. He felt the roughness of his hands rub together as he tried to clean the large paws, blood and grime and dirt getting trapped between the cracks in the skin.

Running thick fingers through greasy hair, too long forsaken by soap and water, he squinted ahead. What was next? Where would his trail lead now?

He saw a sign, then heard the drone of a car, and quickly jumped back into a thicket of trees. Headlights scanned across the sign, then the car drove on, but it was too late. He had already seen what the sign said:

Welcome to Wachiva Forest!

“I’ve been here,” he mused, and continued, sticking to the dense foliage.

*****

Abel grabbed her brush from the dresser near the window. It felt good to not only be back in her family’s cabin, but also in her room on the third floor. The attic room.

She looked around, all the posters and pictures hanging on the walls. Some had been there for years, while others were only a year or two old. Sports figures, movies she’d liked, actors and actresses, or just simple sayings. In the corner near the closet was a stack of crates, all filled with memories of the cabin, and her family’s years there. She was quite the nostalgic one, and loved to keep everything.

Just fresh from her shower, she stood in the center of her room, the slanted ceilings on either side, also covered with posters. She wore her sleep wear, tired from a long week. The boxers, covered with little Tweety Birds, and a tank top. She carefully ran the bristles of the brush through the wet, golden locks, mindful of the tangles she usually got.

She thought back to her day. The blonde had finally convinced her parents to trust her. They, especially her dad, was determined to borrow Jim Wilkins’ hounds, and set them free through the woods. It was ridiculous, and she couldn’t do that to Zac, no matter what the situation was. She’d never allow Zac to be hurt, regardless of how odd the whole thing was.

Abel closed her eyes, letting the comforting strokes of the brush brings a smile to her face. She figured that the feeling of being watched was from Zac watching her, and nothing else. She had no idea what the brunette had meant by protecting Abel from what the taller girl called the boogie man. What the hell was that? The cops? Was Zac afraid of police?

She had no idea, but she did stop, brush in mid-stroke. There it was. That feeling.

Abel set the brush on her bed, walked over to the window, brushing the sheer curtains aside, and looked down. She was not surprised when she saw the figure standing below, half hidden by a tree. She smiled, knowing it was Zac, and knowing that she was safe. The blonde raised a hand in greeting.

*****

Zac leaned against the tree, her head peeking out from behind the mighty oak. She saw the silhouette in the window on the third floor, and knew it was Spinney. She looked up at the dark figure, wishing she could see those green eyes again.

A soft smile spread across the brunette’s face when she saw a hand lift in greeting, and she mirrored the action, her stomach rising in her throat as she was nervous. But happy.

She watched the figure for a moment, then it slowly slipped away, the curtains floating back into place. Within a few moments, the light flickered off, and all was silent and still.

Zac turned, making her way through the darkness to her home.

*****

Abel smiled as she climbed into bed, knowing for certain now that it was indeed Zac that she felt, and knew that it was Zac that watched her. She also smiled because she realized she didn’t mind that so much anymore.
Part 3
“That is so not fair!” Ben shouted, scattering a few frightened birds off their perches nearby.

“Don’t be such a whiner.” Jake grinned, smacking his older brother in the arm. The incensed fifteen-year-old looked down at the twelve-year-old brat.

“You suck, Jake.” Ben ran over to the tree and began to climb, the Frisbee taunting him from a branch just out of his reach.

“You guys both suck.” Abel grinned as she brought out a plate of raw hamburger patties for her father, who was manning the grill.

“Shut up, Abel!” Ben yelled from the tree. Finally his fingertips grabbed the toy, and he hurled it at his younger brother, nearly beaning him in the head with it.

“Jerk,” the boy grumbled.

“Here, dad.” The blonde set the plate down, and smiled at the older man. His dark blonde hair was beginning to show a few streaks of gray, which she loved to tease him about. Soon enough you’ll look like grandpa, she’d tease.

“Thanks, sweetie.” He leaned down and kissed the girl’s cheek. He was so proud of his oldest. Going to college, making a life for herself, and her mark in the academic world. He sure was proud, indeed. Now if only Ben would get his act together so well.

The blonde wandered back into the house where Sherry Cohen and Rachel were preparing a salad. The nine year old sat on the counter top, tearing apart lettuce as her mother chatted with her.

“Hey, you two. Dad’s got the burgers going,” Abel announced, opening the fridge and grabbing herself a bottled water. The summer was nearly a week in, and the weather was improving exponentially. The boys had even gone swimming the day before.

“Okay, honey,” Sherry said, continuing to cut slices from the block of Cracker Barrel’s sharp cheddar. “Bring those out to your dad, Rach.” Sherry helped the girl down, and handed her the plate of slices. “Abel, did you bring down your laundry?”

“Oh, crap. I forgot. Hang on.” The blonde popped up from where she’d sat to start reading a magazine and ran upstairs. She hit her room first, grabbing the hamper she kept up there, then headed to the second floor to grab the other hamper used by the family. She saw her youngest sister’s hot pink shirt with the koala on the front and smiled. The four year old was so cute, though utterly evil.

Abel grabbed the other clothes in the hamper, adding it to her own, then stopped, brows drawn.

“Where is Becky, anyway?” she muttered, not remembering if she’d seen the tiny girl lately or not. “Hey, mom?” she called as she headed down the stairs, dropping the clothes off in front of the washer and dryer that were located in a closet, hidden behind folding doors.

“Yeah?” Sherry called from the kitchen, opening a can of baked beans.

“Have you seen Beck?” Abel asked, hands on her hips as she stood in the archway that lead to the kitchen. Sherry stopped what she was doing and thought for a moment.

“Isn’t she out playing with the boys?” She looked at her daughter over her shoulder.

“I don’t remember seeing her out there.” The blonde headed outside, curious, though not quite getting to panic stage yet. The youngest was very prone to following her curiosity and finding trouble. Her mom often told her that Becky was a lot like she was at that age. Always wandering, following a bug or even a wind-blown leaf.

“Hey, Jake. Go far!” Ben yelled out, trying to get his brother to land in the lake with a well thrown Frisbee. He knew the boy loved to try and dive going after the disc. Out of the corner of his eye he saw his older sister walk out of the house, looking around. Wonder what’s up.

“Hey, any of you guys seen Beck?” Abel asked no one in particular. She figured if they knew, they’d say. With negative answers all around, Abel began to get worried.

*****

The small blonde child walked on, looking around with green eyes, large with growing apprehension and fear. As she walked through the woods, one tree began to look like the next in a maze of an unending forest.

Getting really worried now, the little blonde brought up a hand, chewing on her fingers as tension began to fill her small body, long golden hair becoming damp against her skull as she began to sweat, her tiny hand clutched into a fist to try and keep herself under control. She didn’t want to call for help because her mommy would be angry at her for wandering off so far.

She stopped, suddenly feeling eyes on her. In her childish mind, she imagined all sorts of monsters hiding in the shadows of the trees. Monsters who wanted to eat her up and never let her play again, or see her mommy or daddy.

Whimpering in fear, she stopped where she was, looking around in all directions, small, white teeth chewing painfully on her fingers.

“Hello?” she asked, her small, high voice causing a bird to take flight from a nearby branch. She looked up, following its progress above the tree tops, wishing she could fly like that.

“Hi.”

The little blonde whipped around, eyes the size of saucers, immediately breathing out a sigh of relief when she saw the girl standing before her. The girl had long, dark hair, and bright blue eyes. Dark blonde brows drew.

“Who are you?” she asked, glad it was a girl, but suspicious all the same. Her mommy had told her not to trust anyone who was a stranger.

“I’m Zac,” the other girl said, a small grin on her face, her bright blue eyes seeming to glow in the shadows of the canopy of trees.

“You have pretty eyes, Zac.” Smiling green eyes met surprised blue.

“Thanks. What’s your name?”

“Becky. Nice to meet you, Zac.”

“Nice to meet you, Becky. I think you’re lost.”

“Yep. Can you help me?” Becky asked, hoping beyond hope that Zac knew where to go.

“Sure! Are you from that house with the green dock?” At Becky’s nod, Zac smiled.

“Come on.” The brunette led the way through the trees, glancing down at her smaller companion who held her larger hand in small, sweaty fingers. This was Spinney in a smaller, slightly different form. She couldn’t help but marvel at how much alike this little one and her sister were at the same age. Obviously just as curious, too.

Zac had stayed away from the cabin for a few days, opting to give Spinney and her family some space so maybe she wouldn’t get into trouble, and maybe Spinney would remember her again. It had been hard staying away, going no closer than the bluff to watch. She knew if she got any closer, the blonde would be able to feel her, just as she felt Spinney. She wanted the blonde to be free of her.

“Zac?”

The brunette looked down to see green eyes peering up at her with something akin to hero worship.

“Yes, Becky?” she answered quietly.

“Do you live here?” The little blonde’s high-pitched voice charmed Zac to no end. The brunette nodded.

“Yep, sure do.” Zac smiled down at the girl.

“I like you.” Bright green eyes smiled up at the tall brunette, who seemed to be as tall as her daddy. “You’re tall for a girl,” she voiced her thoughts out loud. Zac smiled, then froze. Off in the distance she heard someone calling Becky’s name.

“Uh oh. They’re looking for you, Becky.” Zac hurried the girl through the forest, and then stopped them, kneeling down. She pointed. “You see that trail right there?” she asked, making sure the little girl was paying close attention. At the affirmative nod, she continued. “Follow that, and it will take you to the lake, okay? From there you’ll be able to see the cabin and can go home.” She looked at the little blonde. “Do you understand?” Becky nodded, happy at the task she was given.

“I go home now.” With a big, toothy smile, the little blonde let go of Zac’s hand and ran off. The brunette watched to make sure she went the right way, then hurried back into the trees.

*****

“She’s got to be around here, mom. Hang on,” Abel, nearly as frantic as her mother, hurried with the older woman toward the lake, praying they wouldn’t find anything. They had no idea how long Becky had been gone, but they had been searching for the past twenty minutes, getting more and more frantic with each tick of the clock.

She was about to tell her mother to wait on land as she headed for the dock, not wanting her mother to see if there was anything to see. Her mouth open, ready to speak, she saw a little flash out of the corner of her eye.

“Becky!” she screamed, running toward the girl, kneeling down to grab her, Sherry at her heels.

“Honey, where have you been!” Mrs. Cohen took the girl from her daughter’s arms, and inspected her for herself, a wave of utter relief washing over her, bringing tears to her eyes. She felt Abel’s comforting hand on her back.

“I was talking to Zac,” Becky said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Both Sherry and Abel stopped, looked at the girl, then at each other.

“You were doing what, honey?” Sherry asked, not sure she’d heard the girl right.

“I got too far, and got lost, and Zac saved me!” the girl exclaimed, rather proud of her new friend.

“Oh my god,” Abel breathed, her hand on her chest.

“You guys found her?” Adam huffed, running from the woods, where he and the boys had been searching for his little girl.

“Yeah,” Sherry said, still in awe. “Here, honey. Take her.” She handed the smiling girl to her father, and turned to Abel. “Holy shit,” she said.

“I told you.” Abel reached out and jabbed her mother in the shoulder with her finger. “I told you I wasn’t nuts.” The blonde was almost giddy. Someone else had seen Zac! She wasn’t her imagination.

“I’m stunned, honey. Truly, I am,” Sherry said, her eyes wide at what this meant. “I’m sorry we didn’t believe you then.” She took her daughter into a hug, holding her by the back of the head.

“It’s okay. I was little,” the blonde said against her mother’s shoulder. As they hugged, she couldn’t help but look out into the woods, wondering where Zac was. She didn’t feel her.

“Burgers are done!” was called from the cabin, causing both women to separate, and look toward a grinning Adam. All his family was around him, and he was off work at the firm for a whole month.

“Coming right up!” Sherry called back, then turned to her daughter again. “Are you okay, Abel?” The blonde nodded.

“Yeah. Come on. Let’s go eat.”

*****

Zac’s ears perked up as she heard her name being softly called. She stood from her bedroll, softly closed the book she was reading, and set it aside. There it was again. She stepped out of the lean-to, and headed down the path that would lead toward the Cohen’s cabin. About halfway there, she saw Spinney standing there, not sure where to go.

“Where are you?” the blonde whispered, looking around.

“Right here.” Zac stepped out from behind a tree, looking shyly at the blonde from beneath bangs, long since needing to be cut.

“Thank you,” Abel said, a soft smile of appreciation on her face. “Becky is safe because of you.” She took an unsure step toward the older girl. The brunette shrugged.

“No worries. I’m glad she’s okay.”

The blonde smiled, and then so did Zac. “Yeah, she’s okay. My mother was frantic. I think you saved her a heart attack today.”

“Your mom really should watch better. That’s almost two of her daughters who got lost.”

Abel was about to get defensive of her mother when she saw the twinkle in those blue eyes. She smiled, looking down at her shoes and nodded.

“Yes, well. What can I say? All the Cohen children are far too curious for their own good.” The blonde looked up at the other girl. “Is that how we met, Zac?” The brunette nodded.

“Yes. You were lost.” Zac shoved her hands further into her pockets, her long, lanky body swallowed in the huge, baggy pants.

“Then thank you twice.” Abel looked up shyly. “Was there somewhere I used to go? Like a . . .” She paused as she thought of her dream from the night before. “It was kind of dark, but there was almost like a, well, a spotlight.” Blonde brows drew. “Am I crazy? I used to spin?”

A smile spread across Zac’s face, and she shook her head.

“You’re not crazy, Spinney. We used to go there all the time.” Hope filled her heart and her face as she thought that just maybe Spinney was starting to remember her. Remember their time together. “Do you want to go there?”

“No.” Abel shook her head, hating the look of disappointment that filled Zac’s face, but she couldn’t. Not yet. She just didn’t feel comfortable enough, didn’t remember enough. She remembered spinning, but did not remember Zac there. “I should go,” she said, her voice quiet. “Thanks again, Zac.”

“You’re welcome, Spinney.”

Zac watched as Spinney, once again, walked out of her forest and her life. For the time being. With a heavy sigh, she headed back to her home, her unfinished book calling to her.

*****

Abel, filled to the gills after a dinner of freshly caught trout, headed upstairs, ready for bed. Once she stepped into the spacious room, though, she saw the stacked crates in the corner and remembered how she had hoped to go through them tonight. Fatigue forgotten, she took the first and set it on the bed.

Every couple of years she went through the boxes, sometimes just for a hoot, others to actually throw some stuff out. The blonde was a horrible pack rat, and if she thought a gum wrapper had some sort of sentiment behind it, she’d save it. Granted, when she ran across it about three years later it was just a gum wrapper again.

Standing over the crate and taking out pinecones, awards from family game night two years ago when she had been the undefeated backgammon champ, she grinned, setting them aside. She’d save them for sure.

As she continued to pick through, a thought occurred to her, and suddenly her hands began to scramble through the memories, looking for something, anything, that would take her back to a forgotten summer.

Pictures, measurements of how much she’d grown that year, when her brothers and sisters were born, a party hat from her eleventh birthday, a report card from second grade, a little stick figure made of Popsicle sticks . . .

“Oh . . .” Abel’s breath caught, and her hands stilled, her eyes riveted to what lay beneath a score sheet from a family game of UNO.

With trembling fingers, the blonde reached inside the crate, closing over the edge of the paper, gently pulling it out from under the weight of the other items, then brought her hand to her mouth as she studied it.

A drawing, done by the impatient, inexperienced hand of a five or six year old, done on finger paint paper. Two little girls, one with long, blonde hair, the other with short dark hair. Holding hands. The one with dark hair had immense blue eyes, just twin dots of cobalt among the near colorless picture, and was dressed in overalls. A single tree was drawn on either side of the girls, and above their heads, in a child’s scrawl, read: Zak and Spinee.

“God, she was there,” she breathed, heart racing as she tried to think back, tried to remember, tried to see Zac as she had when she’d drawn the picture. She lowered the picture, letting it slowly float to the bed, and closed her eyes, allowing her mind to race back in time, to a simpler time.

“Come on, Zac! Follow me!” The little blonde darted between trees, doing her best not to crash into one. Her mom would get angry for sure then. “Last one there’s a chicken!”

“A chicken, huh?” The taller brunette ran hard, but held her long legs back, giving her friend a chance to win.

“Come on, come on!”

“I’m coming, Spinney!”

Zac’s voice echoed in Abel’s mind as her eyes opened, tears threatening to escape as it all came flooding back to her and her trembling hand once again found her mouth.

“Come on, Spinney! I’ll help you climb the tree!”. . .

“Zac, wait up! I can’t run as fast as you!” Giggles followed the galloping girls through the forest, running at breakneck speeds . . .

“Be gentle, Spinney. Hummingbirds are very fragile,” Zac explained, helping to steady the young blonde’s hand. Green eyes widened in wonder as they took in the brightly colored body of the tiny bird that perched in her palm. She nearly held her breath, afraid that it would flutter away.

“How pretty,” she whispered . . .

“Oh my god. I know you, Zac,” she whispered.

*****

Zac sang to herself, kneeling down by the lake, cleaning off her boots, which had gotten thoroughly gross after she’d managed to step into a nice pile of deer sh-

“Zac!”

She stood, head whirling around to see a very excited blonde blur running toward her. Concerned for a moment, she dropped the boot to the ground, hobbling over to her with only one shoe.

“Zac!” Spinney cried again as she reached the brunette. The blonde’s smile was infectious, and Zac found herself smiling, wondering what on earth was wrong with the girl. Spinney stopped, taking several gulps of air before continuing. Her bright, alert green eyes looked directly into the curious blue. “I remember you,” she said, her voice soft, belying the excitement from only moments before.

Zac looked at her for a moment, trying to compute what the blonde was telling her, then a slow smile began just at the corners of her mouth and gently spread throughout her entire face, landing squarely in her eyes.

“You do?” she whispered. Spinney nodded.

“Yes.”

The brunette felt a warmth spread so quickly through her body that she thought she might melt right there.

“Take me there, Zac. Where we used to spin.” The look in those green eyes, so full of mischief, nearly brought Zac to her relieved knees. With a smile and simple nod, she grabbed her boot, forgetting about the mess inside the tread, shoved her foot inside, and hurried out. She’d worry about tying the long laces later.

Reaching out, she took the blonde’s soft hand in her own and turned, leading them deep into the forest.

“It’s good to have you back, Spinney.” The brunette smiled over her shoulder, and the blonde gave her the sweetest, most endearing look.

“It’s good to be back, Zac.”

The two friends headed deeper and deeper, the silence surrounding them comfortable and comforting. As Abel followed the other girl, still being led by her hand, she remembered the quiet strength that was Zac, that which she had depended on so much as a child, and had craved.

She thought back to the summer of her fifth year and remembered waking up, her mother amazed that the girl actually got up on her own. The little blonde had trouble waking even then. The girl would get herself dressed and run to the kitchen, begging to be able to go outside and play with Zac.

Zac couldn’t keep the smile from her lips if she tried. She was so excited and overwhelmed by the warmth that engulfed her. She was so happy, getting her Spinney back, and knowing she wasn’t terrifying the girl. What a joyous gift.

“What do you do all day?” Abel asked, looking around at the beauty around them. The immense trees and thick shrubbery and greenery compelled her still childish mind to run and play, hide and make forts. Just like that summer.

“I look at plants and try to find the animals,” the brunette answered as she slowed her progress, allowing the blonde to take in her very own private wonderland.

“Do you like plants?” Abel asked, taking in her taller companion. The same clothes, same dirt smudges from the day before on her face. Even so, she was amused at the random thought that the girl didn’t smell. She’d seen homeless people come around campus, begging for money or food, and they had stunk to high heavens. But not Zac.

“Yep. Animals, too. I like to try and figure out what they are. I sto-, um, borrowed, a book from the library that has all sorts of varieties and species. I try and match them up.”

“Did you ever got to school?”

“Nope.”

“Never?” Abel was stunned.

“Never.”

“You can read?” This was more of a statement rather than a question. The brunette nodded with a smile, proud of her ability despite the lack of formal education.

“Yes, I can read. My father taught me, then I taught myself.”

“Wow,” the blonde breathed, truly impressed. She remained quiet for a bit as they continued on, further and further, deeper into Zac’s domain. She realized that she felt absolutely no fear. After the memories had tumbled all around her the night before, she felt that she knew this girl, that she trusted her, and that she was indeed, safe.

Finally Zac pushed back a low overhang of branches, and held them aside for the blonde, who walked under Zac’s arm, eyes wide.

“Oh, Zac,” she breathed, taking in the small clearing that she remembered so well from childhood. It looked the exact same. Towering trees with entangled branches forming a dark little room in the forest. It was chilly inside, and Abel looked up, smiling when she saw the hole made by the overhead branches. She knew that when the sun was overhead, the spotlight would turn on.

She walked inside, turning in a small circle, marveling at how small it seemed now. She saw the large rock where Zac used to sit and watch her spin, and turned to see Zac standing behind her, a soft, gentle smile on her lips.

“It’s still beautiful,” she said, her voice wistful. “Why didn’t I see you after that summer? Where have you been?” She looked up into peaceful blue eyes, and couldn’t help but wonder how they could be so still when Zac had nothing, and no one.

“I told you. I didn’t want to disturb you and your friend,” Zac explained softly. “I didn’t want to hurt you, Spinney. You two looked like you were having such a good time. You ran through the trees, yelling and screaming, then would go swimming in the lake.” The brunette looked away, her eyes suddenly very sad. She felt the pain from all those years ago resurface, nearly as breathtaking as it had been then. “I didn’t want to interfere.”

“Oh, Zac.” Abel reached out, laying a hand to the taller girl’s arm. “We used to have fun. We would have then, too. Mel was a nice girl, and would have liked you.” She smiled, and Zac matched it, though weakly. Truth be told, she didn’t want to share her friend with that other girl, and so stayed away.

Abel walked deeper into the small, natural cavern, and then with a look at her friend, spread her arms and raised them to the tree tops, which she could now almost touch, and began to spin, round and round, her hair whipping out around her shoulders.

Zac watched, transfixed and delighted. Yup. Her Spinney was back.

“So where were you today?” Sherry asked as her oldest helped her to prepare dinner.

Abel shrugged. “With Zac.” She glanced over at her mom to see green eyes, just like her own, looking at her.

“Zac? Mystery girl, saved my daughter, Zac?” The younger blonde nodded.

“One and the same.” She smiled at Sherry, cutting knife in hand. “I remember her, mom.” She grinned, then dropped the knife. “Come here.” She hurried toward the stairs, mounting them two at a time, her mother panting behind her. Once up the second flight, the older woman looked around her daughter’s room, long ago deemed private territory, no intruders allowed. She watched as Abel began to ruffle through some papers in one of her numerous ‘junk boxes.’ It always took everything the older woman had not to toss all that stuff away.

“Check this out . . .” The younger blonde hurried over to Sherry and showed her a drawing. “I found this last night.”

Sherry Cohen studied the picture and was charmed at what her daughter had done at such a young age.

“Oh, how cute is this!” she exclaimed, seeing the little girl with the overalls and blue eyes, and then her daughter. She read the scrawled names and gasped. “Honey,” she said, looking at her daughter, who was grinning rather smug.

“I remember her totally, mom.” Her smile widened. “We used to have so much fun. Don’t you remember how you’d have to keep calling for me to come home? She and I used to do everything together that summer.”

“I want to meet her,” Sherry said, making up her mind. She would insist.

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Abel hedged.

“Why not?”

“I don’t know if she’ll do it. I think she’s afraid of people. I’m like the only friend she’s ever had,” the blonde said sadly, sitting on the edge of her bed. Sherry followed suit.

“God, how sad. What is she doing in that forest all alone? How old is she?” Mrs. Cohen brought a hand up, running it through her daughter’s long hair, feeling the silky strands. I used to have hair like that.

“I’m not sure. I’d guess she’s about twenty, and all I know is she used to live with her father in a cabin. The cabin is nothing more than a pile of burnt rubble, now.” She sighed. “I worry about her out there. Obviously she can take care of herself, but still. No one should have to be alone like that.”

“I agree. Poor thing. She’s the one who saved Beck, isn’t she?”

Abel nodded. “Yeah. Just like she saved me. She found me when I was lost, too,” the young blonde admitted. “I had wandered off, and she found me.”

***

“Come back, Michael!” Mary Hayes called out, her eyes still on the clothes that she was hanging on the line outside the family’s cabin. She knew her nine-year-old son would do as she asked. He was a good boy. She hurried back inside to go spend time with her new boyfriend, Paul.

Paul wasn’t a huge fan of the kids, but that was okay. Michael was out playing, and wouldn’t get under Paul’s skin. They would have a little private time, and then they’d all sit down for dinner.

“‘Kay,” the nine year old said absently, his eye on a cotton tail that was hopping into the forest. The boy used his stealth, silent as Commander Stone from his new Rescue Squad play set. He was glad he’d brought it to the cabin with him this time.

The strawberry blonde got down on his hands and knees, mindful of the protruding stickers and twigs that might tear the tender skin of his palms, and began to crawl after the small bunny. He wanted to pet it. So soft.

He saw the bunny stop, its nose twitching as it sniffed the air for predators, then kept hopping, its black eyes ever watchful. Suddenly the bunny bolted, hopping for all it was worth, disappearing under a bush.

“Darn,” the boy growled, then looked over to his left, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He saw a pair of worn boots, a hole beginning to form in the toe of the left one. His gaze trailed up from the boots to a ragged pair of disgustingly dirty pants with pockets all over them, seeing two hands resting near one of those pockets, the fingers fidgeting nervously, index finger and thumb rubbing together. He looked up further to finally meet a pair of dark eyes fixed on him.

“Hi,” a gruff voice said, rotten, spaced teeth showing in the smile. The boy said nothing, but felt a slow trickle of warm fluid begin to spread from his crotch.

***

“Zac? Are you out here?” Abel knew it was a stupid question as she could feel the other girl. Sure enough, the brunette stepped out from the thicket just ahead, a smile planted firmly on her lips.

“Hi,” she said shyly, stepping toward Spinney, digging her hands into the pockets of her pants. She looked down, noticing that the blonde was carrying something.

“Here. I brought you breakfast.” She handed the warm plate to the taller girl, and smiled when Zac looked at it as Jake would a new toy.

“What is it?” Zac looked at the package she held in her hand, feeling warmth seep into her skin. The top was covered with some sort of strange reflective material. She could see her own distorted reflection in it. “What is this?” She gently ran a fingertip over it, feeling the smooth surface.

“Are you kidding? It’s foil. You don’t know what foil is?” The blonde looked incredulous. Zac shook her head. “Come here.” She led the brunette over to a fallen log and sat down, Zac following suit. Abel set down the small jug of syrup she carried and reached over, gently untucking the foil from around the plate, revealing waffles, eggs and bacon. She was about to crumple the foil when Zac stopped her.

“No. Save it,” she said quietly, seeming to be absolutely amazed at this new material. She was already thinking of all the things she could do with it.

“Oh. Okay. I can bring you more, too, you know?” Abel smiled.

“More? You have more of it?” Zac looked so amazed that the blonde couldn’t help but rest her hand on the girl’s arm.

“Yes. We have more. Now, do you know what this stuff is?” In this modern world, Abel was just amazed. She truly thought that everyone would know what foil was. She felt like she’d just stepped back into the seventeenth century, and would have to explain all the modern marvels to a peasant she found there.

“Eggs.” Zac grinned, proud that she recognized something.

“Good! Yes, eggs. I had no idea if you liked them, so I just fried them. This is bacon, and these are waffles.” She smiled when Zac looked at her like she had three heads. “Here.” She picked up the jug of syrup, and uncapped it. “Do you like syrup?”

The brunette shrugged. “I don’t know. What is it?” The total look of innocence and trust on her face melted the blonde’s heart.

“Try it,” she said, taking the fork she’d handed the brunette and cutting a small piece of waffle. She poured a smidge of syrup on the bite and handed Zac the fork. The taller girl took the fork and sniffed the food on it, tentatively brought it to her nose, sniffing, then brought it to her mouth. Bringing out a pink tongue, she tasted the sweet, sticky substance, letting it roll around in her mouth, then quickly stuck the entire thing in her mouth, closing her eyes as the array of tastes mixed in her mouth.

“Mmmmm,” she moaned, never in her life tasting something so good and sweet. She was used to berries if she wanted anything remotely sweet. Grabbing the small bottle from the blonde, she poured the amber fluid over the entire plate, covering eggs, bacon and waffles.

“Oh, Zac, um,” Abel watched, feeling her stomach roll at all the syrup, but figured the brunette would figure it out on her own. But, to her surprise, Zac ate the entire thing, including licking the plate once she had plowed through the food. She grimaced as she watched the spectacle, but figured she’d give the girl the benefit of the doubt, considering it was Zac’s first taste.

She chuckled. “I’ll bring you more syrup, too.” Barely listening, Zac nodded as she licked her lips, a very content smile on her face. “Here.” Abel handed her the jug of Minsen’s Own Maple Syrup. “Keep this.”

Zac happily took it, setting it on the ground next to her foil prize.

“Will you ever meet any of my family, Zac?” the blonde asked quietly. She remembered always being told no when she was a child, but hoped that maybe now she could talk the brunette into it.

Zac thought for a moment. She could hear the hope in Spinney’s voice, and hated disappointing her. She had always had to say no when they were young as her father would have skinned her alive. He had to stay hidden, and going to the little blonde’s home would have brought attention to himself and his past.

“I don’t know, Spinney,” she finally said, afraid to invite anyone else into her little world. She looked at the girl, seeing the disappointment in the green eyes, but could tell Spinney was trying to hide it. She sighed. “Who’s the most important person to you?” she asked, eyeing the younger girl. Spinney’s face lit up immediately, and Zac knew she was doing the right thing.

“My mom,” the blonde answered, trying to keep her hope at bay, but praying that what she thought Zac was saying was in fact, what she was saying. The brunette sighed, and nodded.

“Bring her here,” she said, her voice very quiet, as though she were trying to convince herself.

“Oh, Zac!” Abel stood and went to hug the darker girl, but stopped herself, not sure how she’d react. “You stay.” She pointed at the brunette, her face stern. Zac nodded, seemingly defeated. For a moment Abel thought of leaving it good enough alone, but decided that she needed her mother to validate what she was seeing.

Abel flew through the woods, taking the path that Zac had pointed out for her, nearly skipping by the time she reached the cabin and her family, who were all settled around the picnic table playing Scrabble.

“Mom!” she called out as she crashed through the trees. Sherry Cohen looked up, startled by her daughter’s impassioned cry.

“What?”

“Come on. Zac will meet you.” The blonde grinned from ear to ear, stopping at her mother’s chair. “Come on.” She was so excited. Sherry gave her letter tiles to Adam and hurried after her daughter.

“How did you get her to do this?” she asked as the made their way through the woods, Abel hoping she remembered the way.

“I asked her. She said to bring you.”

The two women quieted as they approached the taller girl who still sat on the fallen log, feet firmly planted, spread, forearms resting on her thighs. She looked up at Spinney’s mom, surprised at how much Mrs. Cohen had aged in fourteen years.

“Zac, this is my mom, Sherry. Mom, this is Zac.” Abel felt elated as she was able to introduce two very important people in her life.

“Hello, Zac,” Sherry said with a kind smile. She took in the state of the girl, and her clothes. She was dirty, her hair far too long, nearly reaching her waist, and her clothes were in shambles. She wanted to take the girl home and bathe her, then buy her all new clothes. She’d talk to Adam. Maybe they could do just that.

“Hi,” Zac said, her voice quiet and soft. She looked up at the older woman, and felt warmth toward her, just because she was Spinney’s mom and had taken such good care of the blonde.

“So you do exist.” Mrs. Cohen smiled. She wanted to shake the girl’s hand, but somehow felt it wouldn’t be received too well. She’d never met a real life wild child before. Abel had told her that Zac had never gone to school, so had no formal education. Her daughter didn’t know where Zac’s mother was, but she knew that Zac’s father was long dead. Who had taken care of her? Who had tucked her in at night, and held her when she got scared? She just wanted to reach out to this girl.

“Yes,” the brunette said. “I do. Thank you for taking care of Spinney,” she nearly whispered. Sherry smiled. What a sweet girl.

“Well, I love my daughter. Of course I’d take care of her.” She smiled, her eyes twinkling, just like her daughter’s.

Abel watched the exchange, truly curious at how Zac would handle it. She knew her mother was a sweetie, and would do her best to put the girl at ease. But still.

“So, why are you out here all alone, Zac?” Sherry asked. She could tell that the brunette was very special to her daughter, and so wanted to learn as much as possible.

“Oh, uh, well, uh, my father died,” Zac stuttered.

“Of what?”

“Mom,” Abel said quietly. Sherry put her hand on her daughter’s shoulder and looked to the darker girl expectantly.

“Um, I’m not real sure. He was just dead one day,” Zac answered, feeling slightly uncomfortable.

“And so you were then alone?” At the brunette’s nod, Sherry continued. “So what did you do then?”

“I left.” Zac seemed to shrink slightly under the questioning.

“How? Where did you go?”

“Um, I ran to the train. I hopped on, and just went. Wherever it was going, I went.”

“Really? How wonderful for you to be able to travel. Did you stay in the east?”

“Um, no.” Zac stood, her eyes beginning to dart back and forth, seeing where she could run off to should the need arise.

“Mom,” Abel said again, seeing how jittery Zac was becoming under the barrage of questions. She should have known to either warn the brunette ahead of time, or to tell her mom to lay off on the way there.

“Hang on, honey. So Zac, when did you come back to Wachovia?”

“A few months ago, um . . .” Zac took a step back, stepping over the fallen log, putting some distance between her and the older woman. “I need to go,” she took another step. Sherry looked surprised, and turned to her daughter. Hard green eyes were looking back at her.

“Zac, I’ll find you later, okay?” Abel said, her voice calm and gentle to the brunette’s rattled countenance. Zac nodded and hurried off through the trees.

“What did I do?” Sherry asked, feeling rejected.

“You pounded her with questions, mom!” Abel exclaimed. “She’s not used to people like this.”

“Oh, god . . .” Mrs. Cohen covered her mouth with her hand, feeling horrible. “I’m so sorry.” She felt like crying, never meaning to run the poor girl off.

“It’s okay. I’ll talk to her,” the younger blonde said, picking up Zac’s foil and syrup. “Come on.” She put her arm around her mother’s shoulders, and they walked back toward the cabin. “I was wondering if maybe we could buy Zac some stuff,” she said, looking at her mom with hopeful eyes. She was met with a smile.

“I was thinking the same thing.” Sherry grinned. “Let me talk to your dad.”
Part 4
Zac ran a hand across her eyes as she made her way to the lean-to, needing to regroup and gather strength from familiarity. Spinney’s mother seemed really nice, but all the questions! She had no idea what to do with them, or how to answer them. She had freaked, and now felt really stupid. Would Spinney be mad?

She crawled into her home, bringing her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around her shins, taking in several deep breaths, calming herself down.

You’re okay, Zac. You’re okay. She meant no harm. You’re okay and will be okay.

People made her feel so claustrophobic. She had never been around a great number of them in her life, let alone at a time. And Sherry Cohen had the presence of several at one time.

Spinney is going to think you’re such a wimp. So pathetic!

Then Zac stopped berating herself, listening. There it was again.

“Zac? Where are you?”

The brunette crawled out of her self-imposed prison and hurried through the forest until she spotted the blonde. Spinney was looking around, walking backwards before she turned to look in the other direction.

“I’m here,” Zac said quietly, standing by a tree, her hands in her pockets, head hung.

“Hey.” The blonde smiled, walking over to her friend. “Are you okay?” Zac flinched slightly at the comforting hand that was rested on her arm. She nodded, still feeling like an idiot, even though Spinney didn’t seem to be mad.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered, and looked down into green eyes completely filled with compassion.

“No, I’m sorry, Zac. I should have warned you. My mom means well, but she just worries. She’s a mom, you know?” The brunette nodded, though she didn’t understand what Spinney was saying. “She feels really bad. She didn’t mean to blow it, or scare you away.”

“I’m sure she didn’t. I just, I just freaked.”

“I know,” Spinney said gently, her hand still on Zac’s arm. “It’s okay. Come on. Let’s put this stuff in your house, okay?”

Zac looked down to see that the blonde held the forgotten jug of syrup and the foil. She smiled and nodded.

***

“You’re kidding,” Adam looked at his wife as though she’d lost her mind. “You want to buy this girl clothes? As in taking the credit card and putting items on it for her?” Surely Sherry was joking.

“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m saying. Adam, this girl has nothing. It looks like she’s been wearing the same clothes for god only knows how long, plus I don’t know if she knows what the word shampoo means,” the small blonde explained. She had to make her husband see.

“But she’s not our responsibility, hon.” The man tried to reason with his wife, though he had the feeling that between Sherry and Abel he’d lose this battle.

“So? Are we not supposed to help her just because I didn’t give birth to her?” Sherry drew down the comforter and fluffed the pillow before climbing in. Her husband changed from his shorts to a pair of skivvies that he slept in. They had learned the hard way that with five demanding kids, their days of sleeping in the nude were behind them.

“I don’t know . . .” Adam sighed, sliding down in the bed, and adjusting his head on the pillow several times before reaching for his wife, pulling her into his arms, her head resting comfortably on his bare chest. “We’ll see.”

Sherry smiled into Adam’s warm neck, knowing that meant yes.

***

Zac cut up the last of the rabbit and placed it on her homemade spit over the open flames of her fire. She closed her eyes, inhaling the smell of the meat, and feeling her jowls begin to water in anticipation. It was late, but she had woken up from a short nap hungry and had gone out to hunt. Her quarry had been easy enough to find, and now was to be her dinner.

A small slice sat on her one and only plate and she chewed happily, when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. Chewing her bottom lip, she contemplated.

Scurrying on her hands and knees over to the lean-to, she grabbed the plastic jug of syrup and hurried back to her place near the fire. Unscrewing the cap, she looked down at the meat, then at her dinner, and without a further thought, poured some of the thick, sweet goo onto her plate, watching as the small reservoir flowed toward the meat. Stabbing it with her knife, she carefully dipped a corner into the syrup, and then brought it to her mouth.

“Mmmm,” Zac closed her eyes, savoring the flavor of her beloved rabbit mixed with her newly beloved syrup. Good stuff.

Munching happily, the brunette leaned back against the log she was using as a backrest and stretched her long legs out, crossing them at the ankles, following by her arms over her chest as she continued to chew, waiting for the final bit of meat to finish.

Spinney had spent half the day with her. The blonde had been filled with joy as she was led through the woods, given a long reunion with Zac’s much loved home.

Spinney had tried to get Zac to go eat dinner with her and her family, but the idea had been met with a resounding and unflinching ‘no.’ The taller girl felt bad for putting Spinney off, but knew that it was a bad idea. She had nearly lost it when she’d met the blonde’s mother a few days before. She knew that she’d be overwhelmed to meet the entire clan.

So, for now she’d just enjoy the time she had with her old friend, and just live with being a social moron. She was afraid of people, not knowing what they could do or were capable of. Well, that wasn’t true. She knew exactly what they were capable of. She had learned that lesson the hard way many years ago, and it was, in fact, a lesson in progress.

Zac’s dad used to tell her that a person never stops learning, and when he did, he died. Maybe her father had finally stopped learning.

She tried and tried to figure out what had happened to Bud Lipton, but was no closer to figuring it out as she ate her dinner as she had been the night she’d come back from a two-day hike to find him dead. He had been sitting in that disgusting armchair he loved so much. His hazel eyes had been open and staring into forever, never to blink again.

At thirteen, Zac had been tall for her age, and strong from endless days outdoors, chopping wood, hiking, running from the law, whatever. But she had crumbled that day. The only person she knew, the only one she knew other than Spinney, that is, was dead.

The Cohen family hadn’t been to the cabin yet that year, and Zac felt she had nothing left to stay for. So, one morning she got up, gathered her belongings, and headed out. She caught the first freight she came upon, climbed on, and didn’t look back.

The brunette traveled all around the west, seeing different parts of the world, expanding her world to an amazing degree. Born in Rhode Island, she and Bud moved to the Wachovia Forest when the brunette was two years old, and there she’d stayed. Terrified of being alone, the girl knew she had to try and see what else was there.

She had done her best to try and stay away from the other rail riders, coming into contact with some pretty nasty characters. She had done a pretty good job of it, really. Ironically, the only truly evil person she’d ever met had been at the cabin. Zac had been twelve years old, and her father had been off on a job, actually casing a job, and she’d been alone.

Hearing strange footsteps that she knew weren’t her father’s, she went outside the cabin to investigate, club in hand just like her father had taught her.

The footsteps had gotten louder, the person having a very pronounced limp marking his every step. Plus, him being a large man, the steps were heavy and ungraceful.

Zac shuddered as the rest of the memory came to her. Bastard. That damned bastard Boogie Man.

If it hadn’t been for her father’s unexpected return, Zac often wondered where she’d be. Probably dead, surely damaged. She’d seen it in those dark, beady eyes. Purer evil she’d never seen. The Boogie Man had intent that night, and she was his target.

Shivering, the brunette turned back to her rabbit, which was beginning to burn. She took it off the spit, and placed it on her plate.

She had wished that her father had killed him that night, but he hadn’t. After a good whoopin’, he had let the man go.

Zac sighed, pouring more syrup on her meat, and dug in.

***

“Zac? Where are you?” Abel headed into the woods near the lake, not wanting to go very far. She was hoping that the brunette would come out and not force her to turn back. “Zac!”

“I’m here.”

The blonde brought a hand to her chest, turning to see her friend step out from behind a tree about ten yards away.

“You startle me every time you do that,” she scolded the blushing girl. “Come here, you, please?” She walked over to Zac, the heavy bag she carried swinging at her side. “I brought you some stuff.” She grinned triumphantly, excited to show Zac all the stuff her mom bought for her.

“What?” Zac asked, quietly following her friend as the blonde headed toward the lake. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I brought you some stuff. Sit.” Abel pointed to a log, and Zac quickly sat. Sitting next to her, the blonde set the bag on the shore between her spread legs, and reached in. “We’ll start with this.” She pulled out a folded pair of brand new jeans. Zac’s blue eyes widened and lit up, but then dulled. Never would Spinney buy her something like that. Clothes were far too expensive, and to waste that kind of money on her . . .

“They’re nice, Spinney. I’m sure you’ll look very nice in them.” She smiled, wanting her friend to know she supported her fashion choices.

“No, silly. They’re for you.” The blonde grinned, standing and unfolding the denim, holding them up to her own waist. “Man, these are really long.” She grinned, looking up at the brunette. “We had to guess on size, but my mom’s got a pretty good eye with that. I mean, with the boys growing like weeds, she has to keep up on sizes, you know?”

Zac nodded dumbly, nearly salivating as she looked at the pants in Spinney’s hands. Oh, to have a new pair of pants! She had never owned new clothes. Hers had always been ‘borrowed.’

“Okay, hold these.” Abel handed the jeans to a surprised Zac, and then reached into the bag again. Hell, just the look of shock on Zac’s face had been totally worth the dip into her savings account. She had insisted on sharing the bill with her mom.

She felt the smooth plastic of a bag, and pulled it out. Six pairs of thick white socks were bundled up in a pack, and she handed those to the brunette.

“Again, we had to guess on sizes, but we should be close.” Next came a package of eight pairs of underwear. Abel looked a little sheepish as she handed those to Zac. “Um, hope you don’t have a problem with French cut.” She grinned, handing the panties to her friend. Zac, looking stunned, took the garments, adding them to her growing pile. “Okay, now they’re not fancy, but I figure they could serve dual purposes.” The blonde brought out a package of twelve undershirts, all white, and the thick Hanes kind.

She stood again, and opened the pack. She took Zac’s hand.

“Come here. I want to see something.” The taller girl stood, carefully, almost reverently, putting the clothing aside on the log. When she was on her feet, Spinney held one of the t-shirts up to Zac’s shoulders, eyeing the fit. The blonde nodded. “These should do. Okay . . .” She handed the shirt to Zac and went back to the bag. Patting the log, the brunette sat down, wondering what on earth the smaller girl could possibly have now.

“Um, Spinney?” she finally found her voice. Once she was met with questioning green eyes, she asked, “Why are you doing this?”

“Because you need this stuff. I hate the idea that you’re all by yourself out here, Zac, and won’t allow me to help you. So, I’m doing what I can. Okay?” She waited for the brunette to process this information, and smiled when she got a nod. “Okay, on with the goodies.” She stopped, turning to look at the other girl. “Speaking of, how are you doing on your syrup?”

The blonde grinned at the sheepish look on Zac’s face.

“I’ll bring you more. Okay, do you know what this is?” She brought out a large bottle of Herbal Essence.

“It says shampoo,” Zac said quietly.

“Yes it does. Have you ever used it?” Zac shook her head. “I only have my bar of lye soap.”

“Ah. Okay, well that’s going to change.” Abel looked at the brunette, letting her eyes trail over the long, unkempt dark hair that she figured was probably beautiful when washed. It was long, too, and she wondered how Zac felt about that. Was it a hardship having all that hair when she was running through the woods? “When was the last time you had a haircut, Zac?”

“I don’t know.” The brunette shrugged. “Long time.”

“Want one?” Abel cocked her head to the side as she studied the other girl, watching for any signs that she was going too far, or that her help wasn’t wanted.

“Okay,” Zac said, a small, quick smile gracing her lips.

“Great!” Abel jumped up and reached into the bag again. Her hand came out with her fingers in the loop holes of a large, shiny pair of scissors.

Zac was off that log faster than Abel could blink, looking terrified.

“Zac? Are you okay?” She looked from the girl whose blue eyes were trained suspiciously on the tool she held. “What is it?” Her voice softened.

Zac watched the hand that held those deadly things, making sure there wasn’t going to be any funny business. Spinney held the weapon at her side, no malicious intent evident. Taking several deep breaths to calm herself, Zac reached down to her tattered sweatshirt and lifted it, revealing a well-muscled, though thin, stomach. Abel took in what was being showed to her, and her eyes landed on a long, ugly-looking scar that ran the length of Zac’s side.

“Oh, Zac,” she breathed, taking a step closer to look at it. “What happened to you?” she put a hand on the brunette’s forearm, looking up into those amazing eyes to try and show her that she cared.

“Someone I came across on the rails used to carry scissors,” Zac said quietly, looking down. She had thought she was going to bleed to death that night.

“I’ll show you what happens to bitches who try and ride my train.”

“I’m not going to hurt you, sweetie.” Spinney’s soft, soothing voice ripped Zac from her memories, and she shook the shiver away. She nodded, knowing that she trusted Spinney implicitly. While keeping a close eye on the scissors, she sat on the log again.

“Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way, I’ll show you what else I got.” The blonde smiled, feeling terrible for scaring Zac. She had no idea that the tool would set her off, but would do what she could to show the brunette that a weapon is harmless by itself. It’s all in the handling of it.

She went on to show the taller girl the can of Skin So Soft and package of Bic razors.

“Have you ever shaved before, Zac?” For about the hundredth time that morning, the brunette shook her head no. “Okay. I’m going to teach you how. This will be for your legs and your underarms, okay?” Zac looked at the two areas in question, then looked at the blonde as though she were nuts. Abel chuckled. “Trust me.”

***

Abel chuckled as she watched Zac mess with the pink shaving gel. The way it came out of the can as pink goo and quickly turned to white lather absolutely amazed the tall brunette, which charmed the blonde to no end.

“How does it work?” Zac asked, again squirting the gel onto her palm and lifting the hand close to her eyes so she could watch the amazing metamorphosis into fragrant cream.

“I don’t know.” Abel laughed. “Pretty cool, though, huh?” The brunette nodded absently as she brought the stuff to her nose. She smiled.

“Yum.”

“Yeah, well, don’t eat it. Come on.” Abel led them to the water, bottles of shampoo and conditioner in hand. “It’s time to wash your hair,” she announced, a huge grin spread across her lips. Zac swallowed, but nodded in agreement. She didn’t mind Spinney touching her, quite the opposite, but she had no idea what to do with all the undivided attention.

The brunette knelt down, letting her long hair dip back into the cool water. Not caring about her clothes, Abel knelt beside the girl, nearly waist deep in the water, and worked the long, dark strands through gentle fingers. She massaged Zac’s scalp as she worked the thick lather of Herbal Essence into it. She smiled when she heard a small moan come from the brunette, who had her eyes closed, a constant smile on her lips.

“Feel good?” she asked, and smiled at the vigorous nod that was tossed her way. She rinsed the long strands, then decided to wash it again, then a third time, always giving it a thorough scrub, and the scalp a thorough massage. She enjoyed doing these nice things for Zac. She knew without a doubt that Zac would do anything for her, and wanted to be able to return the sentiment in some way.

Hair washed, Abel applied the conditioner, which she had to explain to an overly curious Zac. Once it, too, was rinsed, she helped Zac to her feet, wrapping a towel around the girl’s head, and leading her back to shore.

“Okay. This is a brush. Have you seen one before?” Abel asked, holding the tool up. Zac nodded.

“Yes. I have one.”

“Oh, uh, okay.” Spinney looked down for a moment, as if she were bummed by that, and for a moment Zac wanted to take it back, just to bring that smile back.

“But it’s old and kind of gross,” she said, a hopeful smile on her lips. When she saw Spinney brighten, she was glad she’d told the small fib. She kept that brush, though old, in impeccable condition.

“Okay. Sit.”

Zac was directed back to the stump, and Abel stood behind her, brush in hand. She carefully, tenderly began to brush the long hair, admiring the way it shone in the early morning sunlight. It was truly beautiful. She would love to see the Zac beneath those horrible clothes and the layers of grime. She intended to do just that, starting with the hair.

“You know, when I was a kid, I used to love to brush my doll’s hair. I’d do it for hours at a time.” The blonde smiled at the memory. “I used to brush your hair all the time that summer.” Her voice softened. That was such a special time for her. Now she remembered it, and could recall every moment she and Zac had shared. She held it close to her heart, so glad they were able to make new memories.

Zac smiled at the mention of what she had just been thinking about. “Yes, I remember, Spinney. You’d sit there and do it for hours.”

“You were so patient with me. Still are, I suppose. Guess I’m just doing an older version of dress up, huh?” She brushed the dark hair off the back of Zac’s neck, seeing the tanned, smooth skin. “You had short hair then, though. When did you let it grow?”

“Well, my dad said I had to let it grow. I had been seen with short hair, and most thought I was a boy for a long time. Said I needed a new disguise,” Zac explained as though it were nothing.

“Disguise? For what?” Though Abel was finished brushing Zac’s hair, she kept going, enjoying the soothing strokes, as well as she didn’t want to interrupt the brunette’s story. She knew that Zac would tell her anything she wanted to know, but always felt strange asking, somehow.

“He was a stealer, Spinney,” Zac said, her voice matter-of-fact, but quiet.

“A stealer? Oh, like a robber? A burglar?” The brunette nodded. “Oh. So this was where he would hide out?” Again the nod. “Wow.” She let that soak in and swirl around in her brain for a few moments, then finally took the brush away from the hair. It shone like polished mahogany. Her heart hurt for this girl who never had any semblance of a normal childhood. Abel understood that there was no such thing as a great childhood, or even perfect parents, but still. She deserved so much more than she got. Zac didn’t deserve to live terrified of what she called the Boogie Man, or of people finding her and kicking her out of her home. Or even of wild animals attacking in the night.

Abel had done everything in her power to try and get Zac to stay with her and her family in the cabin, but she’d hear nothing of it. The blonde did her best to not push, as she knew she was prone to do, but couldn’t help it. She wanted a guarantee that her friend would be safe once they left in just under two months.

“Okay, Zac. I’m going to cut now, okay?” the blonde said softly, not wanting to startle the poor girl any more that day. Zac nodded, though it was stiff. “How much do you want cut off?”

The brunette thought for a moment, not sure what was even prudent. She knew that the long hair would keep her warmer during the winter, but for now, maybe a tad off would be nice.

“How about here?” she brought her hand up to just below her shoulders. Abel looked to see where Zac indicated, and nodded her approval.

“You really do have beautiful hair, Zac,” she said as she grabbed the hair tie she’d brought from her pocket and tied off the dark hair in a pony tail, ending where Zac had said she wanted it cut.

“Thank you.” Zac smiled. She had never been given a compliment before, and had no idea really what to do with it. So, she let it buzz around her head, where she could take it out later and let it warm her.

Abel snipped, well several snips, actually, as Zac’s hair was thick, and one cut wasn’t going to do it. Finally the pony tail came off in her hands, and she held it out for the brunette to see. “You could donate this, you know? There are places that take hair like this and make it into wigs for kids who have cancer and lose their hair.”

“Really?” Zac took the offered hair, a little creeped out by the fact that she was holding her own hair that was no longer attached to her head.

“Yes, ma’am.” Abel began to even out the bottom of Zac’s new do.

“Then maybe you should do that.”

“Really? You want to donate it?” Abel quit cutting and looked at the brunette over her shoulder. When the taller girl nodded, the blonde smiled. “Then I’ll do it.”

She continued to cut, brushing and combing out the smooth strands, glad to see the hair taking some shape. She also knew that Zac was just humoring her, and she loved her for it.

“Okay, lady. Check it out!” Abel brought up the hand mirror that was still in the bag she’d brought, and watched expectantly as the brunette looked at herself.

Zac looked on in wonder. She had seen her reflection in storefronts, and in the lake on a calm day, but never so clearly. She even forgot about the haircut, and instead studied her face. She saw some lines around her eyes, placed there from years of being outside and squinting into the sun without benefit of sunglasses.

Abel was growing nervous as her friend hadn’t said a word. I bet she hates it, and doesn’t have the heart to tell me. When will you learn to stay out of other people’s business, Abel?

“I have really high cheekbones,” Zac marveled. Head hung in shame, Abel whipped hers up in surprise.

“Huh?”

“I do. Look.” Zac looked at the blonde, running a finger over her cheek. Abel looked at her astonished for a moment, then cracked into a huge smile. She suddenly realized that chances were slim to none that Zac had ever had the chance to really study herself.

“Yes, you do, Zac. Do you have some Native American ancestry in there somewhere?” She began to play with Zac’s new hair, running her fingers through it. The brunette closed her eyes at the sensations and shrugged.

“I don’t know.” She looked over her shoulder at Spinney. “Would that be bad?” The blonde laughed.

“No! Of course not. Okay, now that we’ve gotten this taken care of, what say you get cleaned up so you can put on all your new clothes?” Abel smiled, so excited to see her friend all cleaned up and freshly dressed. At the suggestion, she could see the bubbling excitement on Zac’s face, lying just under the surface. It was almost like the brunette was trying to hide it.

“Okay,” she said, her voice quiet. Abel rested her hand on Zac’s arm.

“Are you happy about the stuff I brought, Zac?” The brunette raised her eyes to look into the blonde’s. She nodded. “It’s okay to be excited, you know. It’s good to get excited about things.”

“Yeah?” Blue eyes peered at her through dark bangs. Zac’s insecurity made Abel’s heart hurt.

“Yeah.” She gave the brunette the most reassuring smile she could conjure and took Zac by the hand. “Now, I’m going to show you a new and exciting way to get clean.” She gave the taller girl a mischievous smile. Grabbing the handle of the bag she’d brought, she stopped at the shore and reached into the bag. Bringing out a few items, she looked up at Zac and began to explain.

“This, dear Zac, is called a loofa.” The blonde held up the peach-colored bathing scrubber. “And this is called body wash.” She held up the white bottle of Caress Body Wash. “Here’s how it works.” She knelt down by the water, and dipped the loofa in, making sure it was completely saturated. Zac stood next to her, watching, completely fascinated.

“What does it do?” She knelt down, reaching out a finger to touch the strange-looking sponge.

“It helps to clean you. And it feels really good against your skin.” Abel ran the wet loofa over Zac’s arm, and the brunette shivered.

“Strange,” she whispered, and Abel smiled.

“Yeah, it’s kind of cool. Now, this stuff,” She popped the top of the body wash, and squirted some of the creamy liquid onto the sponge. “Is soap. Here’s how it works. You do this,” She began to rub the loofa together, causing the body wash to lather. Zac’s eyes opened wide, stunned. “Then you rub it over your body.” Abel mimicked the motion over her arms. “Understand?” The brunette nodded, never taking her eyes off the loofa. She wanted to try that!

Abel stood and looked around, trying to figure out how this was going to work. She wanted to stay near in case Zac needed her, but wanted to give the older girl privacy, too.

“Hmm. Okay. Bath time.” She set the loofa on a rock, and turned to Zac.

The brunette reached down and whipped off her sweat shirts in one try, the thick bundle of clothing falling to the sand at their feet.

“Oh, uh . . .” Abel stood there, stunned, then shook herself out of it. “Zac, what about modesty?” She grinned.

“Modesty?” Zac raised a brow. “Out here?” She indicated the woods around them and the obvious lack of people as she leaned down to untie her boots, using the toes on her other foot to push it off, then doing the same to the other boot.

“Okay.” The blonde chuckled, knowing she was right. So, she walked over to the log and sat down, her back to her. If Zac wasn’t interested in privacy, Abel know she still was. She could hear Zac wading through the water, and droplets falling to rejoin the lake as she washed herself.

Zac looked at the loofa, wondering why on earth you’d need something like this for such a simple job, but knew that it was important to Spinney, so she used it. She had to admit that it felt good against her skin, though. She closed her eyes, a soft smile on her lips as the soft sponge trailed thick lather over her body, making her skin feel soft and fragrant. She inhaled, closing her eyes at the smell.

Grinning, she ran the loofa across her underarm, ticklish to the bone, then down her side, across her stomach, and finally reaching back as far as she could to get her back.

Abel sat with her legs apart, the bag on the dirt between them. She was ruffling around, setting out her next task alongside her on the log. A long shadow stole her sun, and she looked up.

“What next?” Zac asked, water still dripping from her naked body.

“Oh, uh . . .” The blonde blushed, looking away. Zac may be cool with showing herself and all her glory to the world, but Abel felt embarrassed for her. “Well, first off you need to dry off.” She grabbed the towel she’d already brought out and stood, wrapping the soft terry cloth around the brunette’s broad shoulders. “Next, put something on.” She walked over to the package of panties and ripped it open, handing Zac a pair of blue ones.

Dutifully the brunette pulled the cotton underwear up her legs, and into place. She looked at the blonde, waiting for further instructions.

“Okay. I’m going to teach you how to shave.” Abel picked up one of the disposable Bic razors and the can of Skin So Soft, and held them up for the brunette. “Razor. You take this protective cap off.” She popped the plastic blade cover off, and showed the razor part to inquisitive blue eyes. “Don’t touch this,” the blonde warned. Zac nodded.

“Now what?”

“Now lift your arm for me.” The blonde watched as a deeply tanned arm was raised, and took a step closer to the brunette. She felt a slight blush caress her cheeks as she neared the mostly naked girl. She studied the dark thatch of hair under the taller girl’s arm.

Holding the razor between her teeth by the handle, she squirted some of the pink shaving gel into her palm and watched as it began to grow and fade to white.

“Wow,” Zac breathed, again amazed at the magic cream. Abel chuckled.

“This may tickle.” She spread the cream over the hair, doing her best to keep her opinions off her face, and handed Zac the razor. “Now. This is what you’ll do.” She took hold of the taller girl’s wrist, and showed her the motions.

Zac was a quick study, and in no time her underarm was smooth and smelled really good. She ran her fingertip across the silky smooth skin over and over, amazed. Abel was just amused.

“Do that on your other one, okay?”

The brunette nodded, then did as she was told. Abel watched Zac’s almost child-like amazement at this new skill she’d been taught, and the results it produced. She proudly showed off her freshly shorn armpits, and the blonde smiled her approval.

The brunette had no idea why this was so important, but went along with it anyway. If it made Spinney happy, who was she to argue?

“Okay. Last thing. Well, actually,” Abel, feeling decidedly piggish, gazed at Zac’s breasts, trying to gauge their size. She knew that running around the forest without any support could not feel so hot. She met curious blue eyes. “Zac, does it hurt when you’re active?” A dark brow raised. “I mean, like when you run? You know, your breasts.” She pointed, and Zac looked down at herself. Finally understanding, she nodded.

“Yes. Especially when I run,” she said quietly.

“Okay. I’m going to guess you’re a C, maybe a D,” Abel said, mainly talking to herself as she looked at them again. Making a mental note to talk to her mom later, she smiled at Zac. “Okay. Here,” She grabbed the bag again and took out one of the t-shirts she had brought. “Put this on.” The taller girl quickly scrambled into the clean shirt, inhaling the scent of new, clean clothes.

“Now for the legs.”

*****

After showing Zac how to shave her legs, and a couple bloody cuts later, Abel set about gathering all the goodies she’d bought the brunette as Zac got dressed. She crammed everything into the bag she’d brought it all in, figuring it’d be easier for Zac to take home that way.

She thought about their afternoon. Even though it was an odd activity, trying to teach Zac all about the things that Abel had known her whole life, it was nice. She smiled as she packed things away. It felt good to help the girl. To be able to do things for her, and introduce her to new things. The blonde couldn’t get over the fact that the most basic, simple, modern conveniences, Zac had never seen nor heard of. Foil, for God’s sake! Truly endearing.

“Spinney?”

The blonde looked up and froze. A soft smile spread across her lips as she took in what stood before her.

Zac’s newly cut hair shone in the sunlight, beautiful and clean. It framed an amazingly beautiful face, chiseled features, and the most beautiful eyes Abel had ever seen. She had always thought the brunette had the bright blue eyes, but now with her all cleaned up, her eyes didn’t just focus on the dirt smudges, or ratty clothes. Now Abel could take in the woman behind the grunge.

Green eyes traveled from the face to the clean clothes that actually fit, showing the long, lean body Zac possessed. She looked like a girl for the first time since Abel had known her. She noted the still way too big boots. She’d have to do something about that, but other than that, Zac looked fantastic.

Abel’s eyes met the uncertain blue eyes again, and she smiled, reassuring.

“You look great, Zac,” the blonde said quietly. “Really good.”

“Really?” the taller girl looked down at herself, nervous fingers rolling the hem of her new sweatshirt between long, strong fingers, not sure what to do with herself. She was afraid to move, afraid she’d get dirty or ruin these new clothes. Spinney gave her the sweetest smile.

“Really. If you’ll let me, I want to take your other clothes home with me and wash them. Is that okay?” Abel walked over to Zac, running a hand over the taller girl’s shoulders, smoothing out the material of the sweat shirt, then tugging gently at the hem. She smiled. “You definitely clean up good.”

Zac matched the smile she was given, and decided right then and there that if bathing and shaving makes Spinney smiled like that, then she’d do it every week, every day, even!
Part 5
“Goddamn wind. It’s cold, cold, cold,” a rough voice muttered, meaty fingers trying to keep the ratty ends of a coat together as the figure clopped through the forest with uneven steps. “Summer means hot. Not cold.” Leaves whirled around the figure as he moved through the forest, grimacing as he stepped over what was left of a squirrel carcass.

He stopped, looking from side to side. He was hungry, tired, and had to take a piss. Reaching down, he grabbed the zipper head and yanked, only to grunt in frustration when it didn’t open.

“Damn it.” He looked down to see what the problem was, and rolled dark eyes when he saw the dried semen that had collected over the months. “Damn it.” He began to vigorously yank until a small rip was heard. “Double damn it.” Finally the zipper, and material around it, gave way, and he was able to reach in and grab his penis. Looking around, he stroked himself lazily, and grinned when he spotted a tree. A network of knots formed a sort of bulls eye, and that was good enough for him.

Sighing as he relieved himself, the figure looked around with tired eyes, trying to figure out where he was. He’d been here before, but it had been many years ago now. Though not a pleasant first trip, he was willing to stake ground again. But first he needed some good sleep. A rest. And food.

Zipping himself back up, he continued on, whistling softly to himself, alert eyes darting back and forth, taking in his surroundings, and listening for human movement.

“Oh, what I wouldn’t do for a McDonald’s right now,” he mused to nothing in particular. His father used to take him to Mickey D’s. All the time. Well, that wasn’t so true. It was more of a reward for a job well done. Nothing worth doing was worth doing shoddily. His dad would be so proud of him now. All the same, he remembered the day his dad died.

A bright day it had been. Sunny, hot. Always so fucking hot in Texas. He ran a hand through uncombed hair as he remembered it, jaw automatically clenching. He had come home after school, not more than fifteen years old. How long ago that seemed to him, now. He had no clue how old he was, losing count years ago, and didn’t care enough to do the math.

Anyway, so he had come home, mom long gone; just him and his dad. He remembered his dad chanting the “Men” song, but always leaving him out, saying he wasn’t a real man. A real man liked old women. Old, wrinkled women. Old, already spoiled women. Not the beautiful youth. The young, beautiful youth that he could teach.

He smiled, almost feeling himself harden at the thought. But no. Not today. He had to concentrate. Dad.

So, he had come home and his father had been sitting in the living room, working on a carburetor with a dirty, grease-stained tarp underneath.

“Boy, where you been?” he’d asked around the fat end of his cigar. Probably the ninth or tenth he’d had that day.

“School,” his son had answered.

“School’s for sissy’s.” Dark eyes had looked up into identical ones, and he had leered. “But I guess that’s where you belong. You ain’t no man. A real man would be helping his dad at the garage.” A grizzled head had nodded in agreement with his own statement. “Yup. Get one oh them dresses your mamma used ta wear. Proper.”

The boy’s face had nearly fallen, but he held himself together. “I’m not a girl. I’m a man, like you.” The teenager began to chant the sacred song, but found himself on the floor, the sound of skin contacting skin still ringing in his ears, while pain wracked his head.

“Stop that, now!”

The boy looked up at his father’s face, fury making his skin red, bulbous nose standing out like a stop light. The older man grabbed his son by the shirt collar and yanked him to his feet.

“Get outta my sight, you girly boy. Until you can use that pecker for good reason.” He gave his son’s penis a tug through his pants for good measure. “Stop panting after them younguns like a damn clown. Makin’ me look bad, boy. Real bad.”

The younger boy got up, shaking with anger and humiliation. He knew he shouldn’t have told his dad about his girlfriend. He smiled at the memory of the sweet little one down the street. Blonde hair, bright blue eyes, little freckles sprinkled over her cherubic features. Grace was her name, and oh how it fit her.

“Pay attention, boy!” SLAP “I’m talking to you!” SLAP, SLAP “No more. You hear me, boy? No more!” SLAP, SLAP, SLAP

“Arghhh!” The teen looked at his namesake, and felt himself begin to really tremble. His father told him to never see Grace again, and he couldn’t handle that. So, he’d taken the sweet girl out into the fields, and they had played. He had taught her a new game that day. The memory of her Strawberry Shortcake underwear still fresh, as they were carefully stored in his Bible upstairs.

When he knew he couldn’t see the blonde anymore, he had decided to preserve her memory, and the memory of their sweet lovin’ by taking the breath from her body. She had looked so beautiful laying there, blue eyes forever staring back at him.

He was hard.

“Oh my god!” the old man yelled, jumping back from his son, his eyes looking down at the bump in the boy’s jeans. “You sick bastard! Sick, sick boy!”

That was it. That was enough. His father’s insults and hurtful remarks, and the humiliation of being seen with a hard on was too much. With a mighty roar, the boy lunged at the older man. He knocked him to the ground, having about fifty pounds on the scrawny man, and began to pound his head into the floor. In his wild frenzy, he caught sight of the screwdriver his father had been using, and grabbed it.

“Die, bastard!” he screamed at his father, and brought the tool down . . .

He smiled as he made his way through a thicket of trees. He could still hear the satisfying sound of the sharp flathead penetrating his father’s eye socket.

“Anything worth doing . . .” He continued to whistle.

*****

The girls walked through the forest, holding hands. Just like the old days. Zac was happy as a cucumber as she swung their joined hands back and forth. She was so happy, despite her earlier embarrassment.

She looked down at the blonde who caught her eye and immediately began to giggle.

“What?” the brunette asked, her free hand thrown up in the air in exasperation. “I thought it looked nice.”

“Zac,” Abel began, trying to hold in her grin, but failing miserably. “I didn’t give you the can of shaving cream so you could make tree art.” She grinned, biting her lip. “Though you’re talented with it, I must say.”

Zac rolled her eyes. “It looked pretty.” She smiled, nice and big, totally melting Abel’s heart, as well as her need to preach the values of saving supplies.

“You’re so adorable.” She grinned, squeezing the brunette’s hand tighter, getting a squeeze in return.

As they walked on, Abel couldn’t get the picture out of her head from earlier that morning. She had decided to try and navigate her way through the forest to Zac’s place, and along the way, had seen small signs that someone had been there. Then it started to become more clear just who.

One a tree trunk just ahead of her had been the image of a squirrel in white cream. Shaving cream, to be exact. On the trunk next to it was a sun. Next to it a smiley face. All over the place, tree after tree, large rock after large rock. Never had the forest smelled so good.

She had fallen to the ground laughing, only to be helped up by two large, competent hands, and confused blue eyes.

Now as they walked, she felt close to Zac. They had been spending nearly every single minute together over the past five weeks, and she loved it, relished it, and was glad to have her friend back. Whether she had realized it or not, she had missed Zac’s quiet strength. She had always felt completely safe as a five year old, and still did as a nineteen year old.

“Zac?” she asked finally.

“Hmm?” the brunette asked, leading them lazily through the patterns of trees and foliage, pointing out different kinds of plants to her blonde companion, explaining their properties.

“What ever happened to the overalls you always used to wear?” the blonde looked up at her taller friend, and smiled when the bright blue eyes met hers.

“I outgrew ’em,” Zac answered simply. Abel nodded.

“Want some more?” She remembered how much the brunette had loved those. She would play with the clasp when she was bored or nervous – doing and undoing the shoulder part.

Zac grinned at her and nodded. “I doubt they’d fit anymore though.” She winked, and Abel giggled, making the brunette light up like a Christmas tree.

“They make them for adults, too, you nut.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Nope.” Abel shook her head. “Annnnd . . .” She looked up at the other girl, her eyes twinkling. “I’ll get you some if you meet my family.” Twin blonde brows raised in hope. She wasn’t above bribery to get the girl to give her family a chance.

“Oh, Spinney, um. I don’t, I don’t know.” Zac looked away, knowing that she’d have to let her friend down. Again. Abel’s hopes fell. She wanted so badly for her entire family to be able to meet this incredible girl.

The blonde stopped them, and grabbed hold of Zac’s arm.

“Zac, listen. I know you haven’t had much contact with other people, and I know your father scared you to death when it came to other people, but that’s over now.” She looked deep into those azure eyes. “No one’s going to hurt you.” Her voice softened, and she began to stroke the arm under her hand.

“I wouldn’t know what to do,” the brunette admitted, her eyes looking down at her boots, feeling sheepish. She wanted so badly to make Spinney happy.

“Honey, I know it’s hard for you.” Abel smiled, and tried to look as reassuring as she could. “But you can’t hide out here forever. I know how capable you are, and how special you are. I want to be able to share that. My dad asks about you constantly. I still don’t think he believes me that you exist.” She laughed. So did Zac.

“Your mom can testify to that.”

“Yeah, well, she misses you, too.”

“Really?” Dark brows went up in surprise. Abel nodded.

“Yep. Just think . . .” She tried to entice. “Your very own pair of grown up overalls . . .” She flashed smiling green eyes up at the brunette who was glaring at her.

“Oh, that’s not fair,” Zac growled, knowing she could never resist.

“Life isn’t fair. Please, please, please?” the blonde begged, making her bottom lip jut out for emphasis. Zac pursed her lips, studying the blonde’s face, making her sweat it out.

“Oh, fine!” she exclaimed.

“Yay!” Abel jumped in the air, clapping her hands together. Zac smiled at the antics, but her nerves were showing through like crazy. Abel calmed herself, and took her friend in a hug. “Thank you, Zac. You have no idea what this means to me,” she said softly.

Zac closed her eyes as she allowed her body to be swallowed up by Spinney’s enthusiastic hug. She nodded into the hug, knowing that she had made the right decision.

*****

“So, why exactly are we making a big deal out of this?” Adam Cohen asked his wife as he helped her dice up veggies for the salad she was making.

“Because it’s important to Abel,” Sherry said simply, tossing a piece of carrot into her mouth.

“No, get away from my veggies!” Adam swatted her hand, and she giggled. “But still. This kid just seems weird to me. And what the hell kind of name is Zac for a girl, anyway?”

“I didn’t name her, honey.” The older blonde busied herself with opening the can of Pillsbury biscuits, and setting them evenly spaced on the cookie sheet. “But she’s a nice girl. And Abel just adores her.” She looked at her husband of twenty-two years. “I think you’ll like her, honey. Besides, she saved both our girls, huh?”

With a sigh, he nodded.

“I guess. I just don’t get why we have to continue buying her clothes,” he grumbled, nearly missing the tomato and slicing his finger instead.

“We’re not. Abel has paid for most of it.”

*****

“Okay, now remember, we can leave at any time, okay?” Abel, holding Zac’s hand, reminded the taller girl for the fifth time since they’d left the brunette’s home. They were headed toward the Cohen cabin, where the entire clan was waiting to meet the mysterious Zac.

Becky was near beside herself to meet up with her friend again. She was bouncing in her mother’s arms, barely able to contain herself.

“She comin’!?” she asked over and over again.

“Yes, honey. Zac’s coming.” Sherry looked to her family, the two boys looking bored out of their minds as they sat on the long bench of the picnic table outside the cabin. “You two behave yourselves,” she scolded once again.

“Yeah, we know,” the boys said in unison. Just then, Sherry heard footsteps, and turned toward the trees to see her daughter and the taller girl walk out. Abel was holding Zac’s hand, and was whispering something to her. The poor brunette looked like she was about to jump out of her skin.

“Zac!” Beck squealed, squirming in her mother’s arms to get down.

“Hey, kiddo.” Zac smiled, but her eyes stayed on the other five pairs of eyes that were trained on her.

“Welcome, Zac,” Sherry said, letting the little blonde fireball down. Beck ran to her new friend, and found herself wrapped up in strong arms and looking into the blue eyes she liked.

“Hi,” the little girl said shyly. Zac smiled.

“Hi. How are you? Are you minding your mom better now?” The blonde nodded, gravely serious.

“I don’t go far no more,” she said, small fingers entwining themselves in Zac’s new sweatshirt.

The brunette smiled, warmed by the reception from the adorable little girl, plus the comfort of Spinney’s hand on her back. She looked at Spinney’s mother.

“Hello, Sherry,” she said quietly. She felt okay around the older blonde. She seemed nice.

“Hi there.” Sherry Cohen gave the dark girl a wide smile. “It’s so good to see you again. And you look wonderful!” She looked the girl over, seeing her hair, cut shorter, but still long and beautiful, was washed and shiny. The girl was clean, and her clothes looked nice. She thought Zac was a little thin, but overall looked fairly healthy.

“Zac, this is my father, Adam Cohen,” Abel said softly, indicating the man that was walking toward them, hand extended. Zac looked at it, then remembered something she’d seen once. She grabbed it and squeezed, quickly pumping it up and down.

“Uh, hi, Zac,” Adam said, trying to hide the pain of his crushed hand. He smiled at the obviously oblivious girl. “How are you?”

“Good,” the brunette said with a smile, though her voice was weak at best.

“Good, good.” Adam took his hand back, cradling it with his other.

Abel grinned, but brought her hand up to her mouth to hide it. She cleared her throat and turned to her brothers who were standing by their father, watching this new, strange girl.

“This is Ben. The one you saw in diapers.”

The blonde boy took a step forward, giving the beautiful girl before him the once over, then met her eyes.

“Hi,” he said, avoiding the handshake. He didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of Zac.

“Hi, Ben. You’ve grown up.” The brunette looked at the boy, who stood about as tall as she was, and was already a handsome kid. Just the barest bit of peach fuzz was forming over his upper lip and near his sideburns.

“Jake, say hi to Zac,” Abel said, putting her hand on her youngest brother’s shoulder.

“Hi,” he said with a small wave. Zac smiled weakly.

“And finally, my sister, Rachel.” The small girl with strawberry blonde hair smiled up at the tall girl.

“Hi, Zac. It’s nice to meet you.” The girl was pretty, but not as much as her other two sisters. She was short, but larger framed than Abel.

“Um, nice to meet you,” Zac said, swallowing hard. She looked at this group of people, and felt like she was beginning to get closed in.

“Zac, you gonna go swimmin’ with us today?” Becky asked, still nestled in the brunette’s arms.

“Oh, um, I’ll watch,” Zac said, forcing a smile. The girl had such hopeful eyes, just like Spinney at that age.

“Yay!” The girl hopped around in her arms until she had to put her down or risk dropping her.

“Beck, behave,” Sherry warned. She turned a warm smile to their guest. “You sure do look pretty, Zac. All cleaned up with new clothes.”

“Oh . . .” Zac looked down at herself. “Um, thank you. For the clothes.”

“You’re welcome, honey. Any time.” The older blonde smiled gently, liking this strange, dark girl.

“So, you do exist, eh?” Adam said, trying to find something, anything to talk about.

“Yes. I do.” The brunette turned wary blue eyes toward him.

“Dad,” Abel hissed. “Be nice.”

“What? I am being nice.”

“Um,” Zac said, suddenly feeing as though she would flip out at any moment. Being totally surrounded by this large group of people, she wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of there.

“Are you okay, Zac?” Abel asked, her hand beginning to rub slow circles over her back. The brunette nodded.

“I need to go,” she stuttered out, and turned, heading back into the trees, disappearing as quickly as when she had appeared. Abel followed.

“Was it something I said?” Adam asked, baffled.

*****

After walking the entire day, he was pretty damn tired. He saw something up ahead, and crawled up on top of a small heap of rocks. A grin spread across his grizzled face.

Just about half a mile ahead was the abandoned old logging town. He could stop there and bunk down in one of them buildings.

“Good idea. Yeah, good,” he breathed, hopping down and cursing violently. His twisted leg buckled under his weight and severely scolded him. “Damn piece of shit,” he breathed, trying to get the leg to act as normal as possible. When he had been born, that leg had been the first thing his dad had to complain about.

“How’s he gonna play football, now?!”

He hefted his beloved bag higher up onto his shoulder. Plodding further along, he began to whistle again.

*****

“Zac! Zac, wait up!” Abel ran after the taller girl, finally catching her, an arm on her shoulder, breathing erratic. The brunette turned and looked down at her small friend. “Are you okay?”

Zac nodded, then looked off toward the lake. “I’m sorry, Spinney. I tried.” She looked back at the blonde, tears brimming in her eyes. She didn’t want to disappoint Spinney again.

“Oh, Zac.” Abel smiled, her hand rubbing up and down Zac’s bicep. “Don’t apologize. You did great. I’m sorry I dragged you to the cabin.” She chewed her lower lip as she thought. “Maybe that wasn’t so fair.”

“No, it’s okay. I know you’ve wanted me to meet your family for fourteen years, Spinney. I wasn’t gonna let you down again.”

“Oh, Zac . . .” Abel looked up at the older girl with ultimate affection. “You could never disappoint me. Okay?” She studied those incredible blue eyes until she saw acceptance. With a smile, she grabbed Zac’s hand, and they began to walk, both silent as they absorbed their own thoughts.

Zac almost felt the need to puff out her chest, she was so happy with herself. She had made Spinney happy, and had been able to muster the courage to meet the girl’s family, even if she didn’t stay for the planned lunch. That was okay. She seriously doubted she would have been able to eat, anyway.

“Zac?” Abel asked after about fifteen minutes of walking.

“Hmm?”

“Do you think you’d ever want to see a city? Or live in one?”

“Well . . .” The brunette thought about this for a moment. She had never even thought of a city, or living in one. While on the rails, she had passed through some, had seen some pretty darn big buildings, too. “I don’t know, Spinney,” Zac said, her voice soft in the quiet forest. “I just don’t know.”

“Do you think you’ll live here forever?”

Zac smiled. “Maybe. Will you come visit me?” She grinned.

“Oh, gosh I don’t know,” Abel teased back. “Maybe once in a great while.” She grinned up at her friend. “You should stay in the cabin with us this summer.” She said, swinging their joined hands back and forth.

“Why?” The brunette looked at her, truly perplexed.

“Why not?” Abel countered. “It’s cooler, warmer at night, and you can have all the syrup you want.” She grinned, hoping her trump card would be good.

“Oh, that’s not nice, Spinney.” Zac waved her finger back and forth, clicking her tongue. “You said I could have all the syrup I wanted anyway.” She raised a challenging brow.

“Oh, damn. I did say that, didn’t I? Hmm . . .” Abel chewed her lip, thinking of her next bargaining chip. “Okay. I’ll buy you a huge thing of foil?” She gave Zac a huge, toothy grin, which made the brunette match it.

“I don’t think that would be a good idea, Spinney. If I freak out during a simple visit . . .” She kicked a rock, feeling disappointed in herself, and angry that she couldn’t just be like Spinney.

“Hey, it’s okay. Just a suggestion. And totally selfish on my part.” The blonde grinned. “No worried, my friend. Ohh!” Abel let go of Zac’s hand and ran toward the edge of the bluff they were headed to. “I’ve seen this before on another walk,” she exclaimed to the brunette, who had stepped up behind her. “What is it?” she asked, her voice hushed.

“It’s an old, abandoned logging town,” Zac explained, just as quiet, though her voice held a touch of fear. The blonde looked up into her face. “My dad used to call it Spectreville.”

“Spectreville? Why?”

“Because it’s haunted.”

“Haunted? Zac, there’s no such thing as ghosts,” Abel said, though she kicked herself. She had wondered if Zac, herself, had been a ghost for a while there.

“Sure there is. I hear them at night.” Zac looked so frightened and sure in her story that Abel didn’t have the heart to tell her any different. She could see the wind chimes that were placed all over the town, most broken or hanging limply, but still able to make noise.

“Does it scare you during the day?” she asked softly. The brunette shook her head.

“Not as bad,” she said, sounding much more confident.

“Well . . .” Abel was biting her lip again. “If you feel okay about it, will you show me?” She looked up at the taller girl with pleading green eyes, and there was no way in hell Zac could resist. With a smile, the brunette nodded, and they found a way down.

*****

“See, in 1830, this was just a shanty town set up so the loggers could have somewhere for their families to live,” Zac explained as they walked through the quiet town, hushed from years of disuse. “And then it began to expand and actual building were built. By 1870 it was a full out town.”

“Wow . . .” Abel ran her hand over a wooden sign that had fallen, and now leaned against the dilapidated building it had once been anchored to. “Pyre’s Liquor,” she read, much of the white paint peeled or gone, but still readable.

“My great-grandfather worked at the mulching mill,” Zac said absently as she tried to rub the grime off the label of a glass bottle she found with her thumb. “He was killed.”

“How?” Abel asked as she poked through a pile of random items, including a chair, kindling and a single shoe.

“The mulching machine went haywire one day.” The brunette snapped her fingers. “Died just like that.”

“I’m sorry, Zac.” The blonde walked over to her friend and tried to study the bottle over her friends shoulder. The brunette shrugged.

“I never knew him. He was on my mom’s side.”

Zac was so matter of fact about it, Abel was surprised. Her friend seemed to feel things on such a deep level; things that the blonde, herself, hadn’t even noticed. One time the brunette had found a robin’s egg on the ground, the little one within not even daring to hope for a chance of survival. Zac had carefully picked up the egg and buried it, her blue eyes brimming with tears.

So compassionate and kind. She knew how much Zac loved animals, and was always awed by how much the girl knew. She could easily see Zac as a forest ranger or botanist. Something, anything, to do with the outdoors. If only.

Zac led her friend through the town, feeling uneasy, but knowing how much Spinney wanted to see it. She told her what some of the buildings were, and what their original purpose had been.

She was about to take her into the old saloon when she stopped, nearly squeaking out her surprise. Curled up in the corner of the large, dusty room, was a form. He was covered in a tattered coat, head nearly totally buried. All that could be seen was a tuft of dark, greasy hair.

She hurried out of the building before Spinney could see. She didn’t want her friend to be scared. She had failed to mentioned to the blonde that sometimes the homeless or teenagers would use the old buildings for whatever purposes suited their needs.

“Um, let’s move on, Spinney. This doesn’t look so sound, huh?” She looked at her friend, and the blonde smiled, nodded.

“Oh, Zac!” Abel exclaimed once they were standing in the middle of the dusty, overgrown street again.

“Yeah?”

“I have something for you. Come on, before it gets dark.”

Completely and totally relieved to be leaving, Zac happily followed the exuberant little blonde.

*****

Abel made Zac sit on the log she had the first day she’d discovered the wonders of syrup, and the blonde ran to the cabin. Nearly out of breath, she grabbed her packages, and ran back, panting, a painful stitch pulling at her side.

“Here,” she huffed, handing the large bag to the stunned brunette. “Well, look!” The blonde was beside herself with excitement.

“Okay, okay.” Zac set the bag on the ground between her legs, and opened it up, pulling the paper apart by the plastic handles. She reached in and pulled out a folded garment. She stood and grabbed an end, letting it fold down to her feet. It was a heavy, canvas pair of overalls. Her eyes got huge, and she looked at the blonde.

“What do you think?” Abel asked, nervously chewing on a finger.

“They’re wonderful!” The brunette put the garment up to her body, and looked at her friend again. “How do you think they’ll fit?”

“I think they’ll look great on you. They should be nice and warm this winter, too. Since someone I know is so damn stubborn to stay in a virtual tent!” Abel could feel her hackles rising again, but knew it was bourn out of worry.

Zac smiled with infinite patience. “I know. Now let me peruse my gifts in peace.”

“I’m sorry.” Biting her lower lip to keep her mouth shut, Abel sat on the log Zac had just abandoned.

“S’okay.” The brunette gave her a heart-melting smile, and then gently, carefully refolded the overalls, and set them in Abel’s lap. She reached into the bag and brought out a large box with a flat lid on top. She looked at the picture on the side, and her face lit up. “No way,” she breathed, and quickly tore the lid off.

“I tried to guess on a size. If they don’t fit, please tell me, and I’ll exchange them.” Abel said, watching intently, her body near bouncing on the log with excitement at Zac’s obvious anticipation.

Like a five year old who had received a coveted bicycle, Zac sat on the log next to Abel, and shoved off her boots, using the toes of her opposite foot, until finally they lay on their sides on the ground, forgotten. The brunette quickly reached into the box with the Columbia boots and grabbed one. She studied it, holding it up to her eyes in awe.

“I’ve never had new ones before,” she breathed, inhaling the smell of the new leather. Abel watched, amazed, and somewhat saddened. She relished in the girl’s excitement and enthusiasm, but felt bad that she had lost out on so many simple things in life. A new pair of boots, for crying out loud! How many pairs of new shoes had the blonde had in her nineteen years? Too many to count. Yet here was Zac, two decades old, and had never had the pleasure. Until today, that is.

“Can I, um . . .” Zac chewed her lip, stealing glances at her friend.

“Yes. Put them on.” Abel took the other out of the box, and removed the tissue paper from within the toe, and laced the long laces. Zac didn’t hesitate. Shoving her socked foot into the tightness of the new boot, she sighed, totally contented as the shoe enveloped her. Snug, and she knew they would be warm.

“Wow,” she said, grinning like an idiot at her friend. “Thank you so much, Spinney,” she whispered, and leaned over to give the blonde a one-armed hug. Abel gladly returned it and smiled.

“You’re very welcome. But, there’s more. You dig while I lace.” Zac nodded, and began to dig further into the bag as Abel knelt in front of her, shoving her foot into the second boot, and laced them both. The boots were high, ending about four inches above Zac’s ankles. She wanted to make sure that the girl had lots of support as she climbed around the woods. Plus, they’d be really warm for her.

Zac exclaimed over the pair of thick, heavy gloves she found, and the ski cap, and then the heavy winter coat. This stopped her cold. It was so beautiful; a light gray color, almost white, matching the gloves and hat, sure to camouflage with snow in the winter.

“This should keep you warm. It’s lined with goose down,” Abel explained, rubbing her fingers over the quilted inside.

“Wow,” Zac breathed again, having no idea that Abel had nearly drained her entire savings account to make sure the brunette would not freeze over the next winter.

“Put it on. Let’s see.” Abel watched with a critical eye as Zac tried on the coat. The sleeves were just slightly long for her, but not enough to make an exchange. “You look great. How does it feel?” The blonde walked around her friend, tugging at various parts of the jacket, making sure the brunette could move well in vital areas.

“It’s warm.” Zac grinned, moving her arms, and rolling her shoulders. “I love it.”

“Yay!” Abel clapped happily, and roamed around to the front of Zac. She made sure the zipper worked, and snapped the covering flap so the brunette was all bundled up. When the blonde felt okay that the taller girl would in fact be warm over the winter, she gushed, “there’s more, there’s more!”

At Zac’s squeal of delight, Abel watched as the brunette pulled out not one, not two, but four Audubon Society books, the subjects covering North American birds, plants, animals and fish.

“Oh, Spinney,” Zac breathed, caressing the slick covers of each of the small, heavy books in turn. She looked at the blonde with wonder in her bright, blue eyes. “Thank you.” The books were set gently back in the bag, and Abel found herself nearly bowled over by Zac’s enthusiastic hug.

“You’re welcome.” She grinned from ear to ear, thrilled when she could make the brunette so happy.

They parted, and Zac looked up into the cloudy sky, raising her face, and closing her eyes. She took in a deep breath, and let her senses reach out and feel.

“You should go, Spinney,” she said softly, opening her eyes to see curious green looking at her.

“What? Why?”

“There’s a big storm coming,” she explained.

“How do you know? You secretly watch the Weather Channel in that home of yours?” Abel teased. Zac grinned, shaking her head.

“I can smell it. It’ll start raining within thirty or so minutes. I don’t want you stuck out in it.” She began to pile everything into the bag Spinney had brought, getting it all ready to go.

“You’re serious?” Abel watched, hand on her hip. Zac nodded.

“Very.”

“Zac, I’m a big girl. I think I can go when I’m ready to.” Blonde brows were drawn in irritation, and Zac looked at her with understanding, yet firm, blue eyes.

“Spinney, we always get at least one big rain storm each summer. This is it. Please listen to me. It’s getting dark as it is. Please?”

The blonde studied her friend, arms now crossed over her chest, but her irritation melted into acceptance. She knew that Zac was only telling her this for her own good, and she trusted the brunette. Finally she nodded.

“Okay. Come with me? To the lake?” she quickly added at Zac’s frantic look.

“To the lake.”

As they walked, hand in hand, Abel looked up at Zac. She studied her face, and the determined set of her jaw. She thought her friend looked worried or concerned, but figured it was just for her own welfare. Zac was liked that; always worried about the blonde before herself.

“Do you really like what I got you?” Abel asked, glancing at the bag that swung lazily from Zac’s fingers.

“Yes. Very much so.” The brunette smiled happily, the worry leaving her face for a moment.

“Good. Huh.” The blonde looked up when she felt a raindrop land squarely on the bridge of her nose. Zac smiled.

“Told ya.”

“Yeah, yeah.” They finally reached the shore, and Abel turned to the taller girl. “Zac, are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah. Why wouldn’t I be?” Dark brows furrowed in confusion.

“Okay, okay. Just making sure. I worry about you.” She poked Zac in the chest, then smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“‘Kay. Goodnight.”

“Night!” Abel called out as she began to run toward the house, the rain starting to come down in earnest now.

*****

“I’m worried, mom,” Abel said, sitting on the window seat in the kitchen, curled up in her sweats and a cup of hot cocoa in her hands.

“I know, sweetie. But you can’t help the girl if she doesn’t want to be helped, you know?” Sherry continued rolling the dough for the pie she was making on the butcher block-type table. “Did you give her the stuff you bought?”

“Yeah. She loved it.” Green eyes glowed at the memory. “She was so excited. Especially over the boots.” She chuckled, looking out into the darkened sky again. The rain was pouring down in sheets, saturating everything in its wake.

“Good. I’m glad, honey. You’re a good friend to her, Abel.” The blonde smiled at her daughter.

“Yeah, well, she’s a good friend to me, too.”

*****

Abel sat up, ripped out of sleep for some reason. Breathing heavy, heart pounding, she looked around her large, third-floor bedroom. It was dark, only offset by the seemingly continuous bolts of lightening. The things in her room were given strange shadows and shapes, the gauzy curtains in the windows turning near white with each strike.

Throwing the covers aside, she hurried over to the window and looked out. The rain was still coming in torrents, causing leaves to be ripped from trees, and mud droplets popping from the ground with each water strike.

The wind was blowing, howling through the rafters under the shingles of the cabin, sounding lonely and desperate.

“Zac!” the blonde jumped up, pulling on her sweats and tennis shoes, and running down the two flights of stairs. The house was quiet, everyone in bed. As she ran through the house, she grabbed a large garbage sack from under the kitchen sink, tucking it into her shirt, and heading out into the immense storm.

She covered her head instinctively as a massive crash of thunder split the sky in two, rocking the forest and rattling Abel’s bones with it’s power.

“God,” she breathed as she hurried through the maze of trees, the path coming on instinct as she thought of her friend. She had the distinct feeling that Zac was in trouble. She had to save her.

Abel pushed wet bangs out of her eyes as she pushed through even wetter foliage. She got to the rock outcropping that usually housed her friend, and nearly screamed when she saw most of the tarp was gone.

“Zac!” she cried, trying to be heard over the freight-train volume of the wind. “Zac!” She hurried around the rocks and found her friend huddled, trying to push the ropes back into the ground that held her lean-to together. Zac was soaked to the bone, her sweatshirt sticking to her like a second skin. Her long hair was twisted and plastered to her head. The brunette leaned over, a body-shaking cough erupting from her.

“Spinney?” she wheezed, still trying valiantly to get her house back tighter. “Go home!”

“No! Not until you come with me!” The blonde hurried inside, gathering as many of Zac’s belongings as she could, shoving them into the plastic garbage bag, including the new coat. Tied securely shut, she hurried back out into the storm. Zac had collapsed back into the mud, having slipped as she tried to hold on to the last piece of canvas she had.

“Let’s go, Zac! You can’t save it. Come on!” She yanked on the girl’s hand, only for it to be pulled away. “Damnit, Zac! Don’t be so stubborn. You’ll get sick. Come on!”

She pulled one more time, this time getting the taller girl to her feet. She held on as best she could, the wet plastic nearly slipping from her grasp, but somehow the determined little blonde managed to keep hold of both her prizes. She could hear Zac coughing over the raging wind and rain as she hurried them through the forest, headed back to the cabin.

She prayed to whomever with every step that they wouldn’t be under the tree that got hit by lightening when and if any did.

“Please, oh please, oh please,” she chanted. Abel nearly cried out in relief when she saw the lights she’d left on downstairs come into view. “Almost there, honey!” she yelled back to her captive as they ran across the open space of the yard of the cabin, then onto the front porch.

As Abel pushed Zac through the door, she could see how miserable she looked. The older girl had heavy, blue bags under her eyes, her skin pale and wet, her lips blue as her teeth chattered.

“Oh, Zac. Damn, why didn’t you home with me?” It was rhetorical, but the blonde meant it all the same. “Let’s get you into a hot bath. Come on.” She dropped the bag of Zac’s stuff by the door, and helped her to remove her boots, now covered in mud. Removing her own shoes, Abel took Zac by the hand and led her to the main bath on the first floor.

The brunette stood in the bathroom, arms wrapped around herself, and her teeth chattering so loudly Abel worried she’d chip one. The blonde hurried over to the large bathtub and began to run a hot bath.

“Stay here. I’ll be right back.”

Cold herself, Abel hurried to the kitchen, peeling off her socks as she went. They were muddy and wet, and made her even more cold. She quickly put together the Mr. Coffee Hot Chocolate Maker, pouring in two cups of milk and two packets of Swiss Miss hot cocoa mix, and turning it on. She ran back to the bathroom, Zac standing exactly where she’d left her, and turned to her friend.

“Okay, lift your arms, honey.” The brunette did it, her body trembling of its own accord from the bone-deep chill she’d received. Abel lifted up on her tip toes to be able to get the fully saturated sweatshirt off the tips of Zac’s fingers. She tossed it aside, next removing another sweatshirt, then a t-shirt. “Zac, honey, why didn’t you wear your coat?” she asked, the growing pile of wet clothing making her angry. “It’s water proof.” She gazed up at the brunette with disapproving eyes.

“I didn’t want to ruin it,” Zac finally managed, her teeth still chattering.

“Oh, honey,” Abel breathed, hugging the girl briefly. “I’d get you another one.” She looked up at the brunette with such compassion that Zac wanted to cry.

“I’m sorry, Spinney. I’ll do better next time.”

“Oh, Zac. Come on.” Abel softened her voice, and unbuttoned the jeans the older girl wore, tugging at the wet denim until they were finally off. “Take your socks off and get in, okay?” With Zac’s nod, the blonde hurried into the kitchen and poured two mugs of steaming hot chocolate.

As Spinney left the room, Zac turned to the tub, feeling extremely inadequate in the cabin, standing in her near-soaked-through bra that the blonde had bought for her, and panties. She made her way over to the tub, not remembering being this cold in some time.

She had actually been scared. The rain had started to come down in torrents, rendering her shelter near useless. She had gotten up from reading through the animal book, and had gone outside to try and secure her home. The mud slide had started then, shifting from the immense saturation of the ground, and things had gotten worse.

Cold and covered with mud, the brunette had done everything she could to try and save her home. She had been out in the storm for no more than fifteen minutes when Spinney had found her.

Sighing deeply, feeling sad and out of control, the brunette tiptoed toward the tub, seeing and feeling the steam waft through the air. Even from three feet away she could feel it. Looking into the seemingly bottomless tub, she was amazed to see the water swirling and churning as it continued to flow out of the taps.

“Guess we should turn it off, huh?” the blonde said softly from behind her. Abel set the mugs down on the side of the tub, and leaned across it, twisting the knobs to off, the water trickling, then dripping, then stopping altogether. “Get in, Zac. It will warm you up,” Abel encouraged.

The brunette lifted a leg, and hissed when the hot water met her foot.

“It won’t seem so hot once you’re in.” Abel began to undress, her own body trembling from her brief foray out in the storm. Also stripping down to her bra and underwear, she stepped into the hot water, moaning softly as it immediately began to warm her chilled skin.

Zac slowly lowered herself into the water, taking Spinney’s cue, and her eyes automatically closed in pleasure as her ice-cold skin was surrounded by warmth.

“Feels nice, doesn’t it.” Abel grinned, watching her friend closely. Zac nodded, her eyes still closed. “I know how to make it better. Open your eyes, Zac.” Blue eyes slid open and noted that the blonde was handing her a mug of something.

“What is it?” she asked, smelling the brown liquid.

“Hot chocolate. Do you like chocolate?” Nod. “You’ll like this. But be careful; it’s hot.” Abel blew on the steaming liquid, and the brunette did the same.

“Ohhhhh, that’s good,” Zac breathed, a giant smile on her face, and the smallest of chocolate mustaches on her upper lip. Abel chuckled, and reached over to wipe it away.

“Hot cocoa is one of my favorite ways to warm up. When we were kids, all four of us, before Beck was born, would go out and play in the snow for hours during winter break. My mom would have a whole line up of mugs ready for us when we’d come in.” The blonde smiled at the memory.

The blonde was pulled from her memories of the past when Zac nearly spit out the drink of cocoa she’d just taken, her body wracked by heaving coughs.

“Oh, Zac,” she breathed, setting her own mug aside and scooting closer to the brunette, rubbing her back, brows drawn in concern. “Damn it, Zac. Why don’t you try and take care of yourself?” As she saw her friend’s misery, she felt her own anger build. “What if I hadn’t shown up, Zac? What then, huh?”

Zac, mid cough, stopped, her gaze trailing over to the blonde. Was she serious? Immediately she felt stung. Her independence and survival was all she had, and now it was being questioned?

Abel watched as several emotions seemed to take over the brunette’s face, none of which were good.

“Zac?” she asked, gently touching her friend’s shoulder. When touched usually, the taller girl would almost melt into it, revel in it. Now, it seemed as if she were fighting against herself to not flinch from it. So the blonde removed her hand.

“I can handle myself,” the brunette finally said. She was looking away now, presenting the blonde with the back of her head.

“Honey, you didn’t even have the jacket on that I bought you.” Abel could feel her own anger rising. “Why not? I know what you said, but Zac, that’s what it’s for! What happens if you get sick when I’m not here? What happens if you get caught up in another storm like that? And then there’s no one there to save you or help you!” The blonde was nearly yelling in frustration.

The older girl turned to look at the blonde, and the look on her face nearly made Abel cry.

“Spinney?” Zac whispered. “Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?” There was so much pain in that simple question. “After my whole life spent out on my own, you don’t think I can do it?” The look turned to one of frustration and hurt. The brunette looked down, long, dark wet strands of hair providing a curtain to hide her profile.

Abel looked at her, stunned, and feeling her heart sink.

“Oh, god,” she whispered, realizing what she had done. In her questioning her friend’s abilities, she had questioned everything about Zac. Her survival, her pride, all she had. She felt the sting behind her eyes as her heart swelled, ready to burst with shame and regret. “Zac?”

The brunette didn’t answer. She was dealing with her own heartbreak. Did Spinney really think she was that incapable? A question she had to know the answer to. So finally she looked at the blonde and repeated it.

“Don’t you think I know what I’m doing? How do you think I’ve survived all these summers, winters, and everything in between, Spinney?” Her voice was soft, slightly edged, but mostly filled with pain.

“You’re right.” Abel couldn’t keep the tears from her eyes anymore. They glistened in the light from above, one slowly making its way to freedom, lazily sliding down her cheek. Before it could fall from her chin, Zac caught it. The brunette looked so tender as she witnessed her Spinney’s own pain. Though she was struggling with her own feelings about the night, she didn’t want to make the blonde cry. “I’m sorry, Zac. So sorry.”

“No, Spinney. I overreacted.” Though Zac knew what she said wasn’t true, she would do nothing to hurt her friend. The only friend she had.

“No, Zac. No, I was wrong. You’re absolutely right. I had no right to question you, and I’m so sorry. Please forgive me?” The brunette couldn’t resist the pleading green eyes, made near emerald from the tears. She softly nodded. With a sigh of relief, Abel flung herself at the other girl, taking her in a massive, crushing hug. “Thank you.”

Water swept over the edge of the tub with the force of the hug, and Zac was nearly left breathless. She closed her eyes, feeling her friend cry against her shoulder.

“Don’t cry, Spinney,” she soothed, rubbing the blonde’s near naked back. “Please don’t cry.”

“I insulted you,” Abel cried, burying her face in the taller girl’s neck. “I’m sorry.”

“Shh. It’s okay.”

“No.” Abel sniffled, and ran the back of her hand across her eyes and nose. “I shouldn’t have interfered. I was just so worried about you, Zac. God, now that we’ve been able to get our friendship again, I could lose you.” Fresh tears began to spring forth, the blonde unable to keep up.

Zac gave her the sweetest, most caring smile.

“I’m not going anywhere, Spinney. You’re stuck with me as your ‘wild child’ friend.” She grinned, and the blonde laughed through her tears. She stroked the long blonde hair, letting her friend cry.

After about ten minutes, Abel got herself under control. She scooted away from Zac and gave her a shy smile as she reached for some toilet paper.

“I’m sorry.” She sniffled. “I got kind of carried away. I just got really scared tonight, Zac. It killed me knowing you were out in that rain.”

The brunette nodded in understanding. “It’s okay. Thanks for caring.”

The blonde smiled and squeezed Zac’s hand. They were both quiet for a moment, one lost in her thoughts while the other was nearly drowned in bodily fluids as she blew her nose and wiped her eyes. Finally Zac broke the silence.

“What’s your college like, Spinney?” Her voice was soft as she relaxed into the water once again and sipped her forgotten drink.

“Well, I don’t know. I guess it’s nice.”

“Tell me about it?” Zac shyly asked.

“Sure.”

As Abel began to talk about her school, her classes, the people she knew, Zac found that she was jealous of all these people. She wanted so badly to be more involved in Spinney’s life, and not just every six months when the blonde came back to the cabin. She knew there was no way to, but she still wished it.

“You should go to college, Zac. You’re very smart. I bet you’d do well,” Abel said, setting her empty mug aside, and adding some more hot water to the cooling water.

“Oh.” The brunette ducked her head, peering at her friend through her bangs. “I couldn’t.”

“Why not? I bet you’d kick ass.”

“I never went to school, Spinney. I don’t have a diploma. Everything I’ve learned was from reading, and even that I taught myself.” Broad shoulders shrugged. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”

“Did you go to school at all?” Zac shook her head. “Wow. That’s amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever met a true wild child before.” She smiled, and the brunette smiled in turn, looking down sheepishly.

“Yeah, well. Glad I could help you.”

Abel watched as her friend sneezed, which was fine, but then she didn’t stop.

“Oh, honey. I bet you caught a cold out there.” She rubbed Zac’s back as the girl continued to sneeze, then cough. “Here.” She handed her a Kleenex, allowing Zac to blow her nose. She looked miserable. “Let’s get you into bed.” Abel stood, the water draining down her body as she grabbed a towel. Stepping out, she wrapped it around herself, then turned to Zac, holding open a big, fluffy towel for her. “Come here,” she said softly.

Zac stepped into Abel’s embrace, allowing her to wrap the towel around her. She felt like shit, and just wanted to go home. Then she remembered there really wasn’t a home to go to. This made her feel even crappier.
Part 6
Bleary dark eyes opened, something wet and cold waking him. He looked around the musty building where he’d crashed. Tired eyes flew open when he saw the mud that covered half the floor in the building, plus that which caked up around the naked doorway.

“Damn it. Cold, cold, cold,” he muttered, sitting up, aching body screaming at him. His tattered coat had kept him warm for the most part, but since the mud was right now under his nose, and his right hand was half covered by it, he had to get up and move.

He had heard the rain last night, but it had helped to work as a lullaby, keeping him safely in sleep land.

Grumbling, and shaking the gooey stuff from his meaty paw, he moved himself further into the room, picking a far corner instead of the one where he’d been. It was at least dry there. Maybe he’d crash there for a few days, let the mud dry a bit.

Plopping down on the new spot, he was angry cause his ass had warmed the other place up, and now he had to start over. He opened his bag and dug through it, careful to not get anything dirty. No, no. Nothing in there could get dirty. The smile spread across his face; the same smile he got every time he looked in his bag or stuffed his hands in the pockets of his coat.

Finding a plastic baggy filled with a few crackers, he grumbled, knowing that was all he had left. For now. So, he quietly munched, sighing in contentment.

*****

After much arguing, Abel finally got Zac to bed. She put her in her own bed, worried as the girl’s coughing was getting worse, and she seemed to be running a fever. She was pale, and beginning to sweat heavily.

Getting her wrapped up as best she could, using her own body heat to try and keep her warm, Abel lay with her friend, listening to her breathe.

She thought about the events of that day. They’d had such a wonderful time. The blonde loved how knowledgeable Zac was about the forest, and even the state of Maine. She loved to listen to the brunette’s stories and history; and what she knew about the animals and plants of the Wachovia Forest was just amazing. She sighed. She enjoyed having Zac so close, knowing that she was okay and safe. The thought of her friend trying to stay warm over the winter nearly drove her to distraction. She was beginning to learn just how stubborn the taller girl could be, and it wasn’t helping her to worry.

Finally the blonde drifted off.

*****

A day like any other, nothing special about it. Bud Lipton was out scouring God knows what, leaving his eleven year old daughter at the cabin to do whatever.

Zac hummed softly to herself as she swept off the rickety old porch. The boards were uneven and buckling in places, but still solid. She looked out over the forest, a smile on her face. She would go bird watching later.

Until then, she took the broom back inside, hanging it on the old, rusted nail she had found. Trying to decide between staying inside and reading and going outside and exploring, she decided to go outside. Maybe bird watching would start early.

She grabbed the old pair of binoculars that were held together with a weathered piece of duct tape. They were green, swiped by her father from her grandfather’s World War II gear.

Humming happily again, she hitched up her overalls, and headed out. Grabbing the empty canteen from the nail on the outside wall, intent on filling it in the lake, the young brunette stopped, listening.

She craned her neck, hearing something. There it was again. Not too far in the distance she heard footsteps, though they were uneven footsteps, like a limp. She listened more, then saw a man emerge from the trees. He looked haggard and dirty, but had small, alert, dark eyes.

When he spotted Zac, he grinned, crooked. “Hi there,” he said, his voice slightly lispy from the teeth he was missing. Zac said nothing, just watched as he approached. The hair on the back of her neck was beginning to stand up on end, and she was about to run when he moved faster.

“Oh, you’re the pretty one, ain’t ya?” he said, grabbing her by the left strap of her overalls, stopping her, and causing her to fall to the ground. The binoculars and canteen flew across the forest floor, out of her reach. The girl scrambled to a sitting position, not wanting her back to be to this guy for a minute.

“Who are you?” she panted, trying to crab crawl away from him. He was having no part of that.

“Come ‘ere, you,” he growled, jumping on her and pinning her down. She could feel the heavy weight of his body and smell his sour breath on her face. Trying not to gag, and think fast, Zac looked around her, finally seeing a rock. Grabbing it, she brought it down, whacking him on the left temple. “You little bitch!” he spat, a hand flying up to the wound, bringing blood back on his fingertips.

Even more determined now, he pulled himself up so he was straddling the squirming girl who had yet to make a noise other than her unanswered question. He was tugging at the clasps of her overalls. Getting them unclipped, he began to rip at the material, trying to get it down the brunette’s young, writhing body.

Look at her writhe for me, he thought, feeling himself get hard. She wants me.

Zac finally screamed out as the denim was pulled from her body, leaving her lying there in her flannel shirt and underwear.

“Ohhhh,” he breathed, looking down at his conquest. He grabbed the waistband of the panties with his dirty fingers, leaving smudges on creamy white thighs, and yanked them off. “Just becoming a woman,” he moaned. She would have to do.

“No, no!” Zac cried, trying to do her best to push him off, but he was big and determined. “Help!”

“Shut the fuck up!” He used the back of one meaty hand and slapped her across the face with it, making Zac’s teeth rattle in her head. She watched in horror as she saw him reach down to the zipper of his pants.

“Hey!” a loud voice boomed, and before Zac knew what was happening, the man had been yanked off her, leaving her exposed to the sunny day. She curled up within herself, and watched as her father grabbed the man by the back of his coat, and threw him. Landing with a loud crash against a water barrel, the man, baring his teeth, charged Bud Lipton.

As the fight began to move her way, the brunette scrambled to her feet, pulling her pants up, and holding them to her, her legs shaky, almost giving out on her. She watched as Bud pummeled the stranger, sending more of his rotten teeth sliding across the dirt, splatters of blood raining on the ground.

Unable to watch anymore, the young girl turned and ran.

“No! No! Daddy!” Zac shot up, sweat pouring down her face, hair plastered to her head. She looked around with wide eyes, still seeing the forest around her, still feeling the terror and confusion. Her breathing was heavy and labored.

“Zac?” Abel sat up, scared out of her wits by her friend and bedmate’s abrupt awakening and scream. Her heart was pounding wildly as she tried to see what was wrong. The brunette was sitting up in bed, clutching the covers to her chest, her eyes open and wild. “Hey, honey. Zac. Are you okay?” She tried to put a comforting hand on the girl’s back, but was pushed away.

“No! Don’t touch me!” Zac cried out, fear lining her face, looking as though she were about to bolt.

“Hey, Zac. Honey, it’s me. Spinney?” The blonde tried to use the most calming voice she could, realizing that the girl wasn’t completely awake yet. “It’s me.”

Zac stared at her with stranger’s eyes, then suddenly blinked. “Spinney?” she said in the thinnest of voices. “Is that you?” The relief was unmistakable.

“Yeah. It’s me.” She reached out her hand again, and placed it gently on the brunette’s arm. “Are you okay? I think you had a nightmare.” She placed her hand on the taller girl’s forehead. “Oh, Zac. You’re burning up. Come here.” She opened her arms, and immediately the brunette fell into them, her body trembling from the residual fear. “It’s okay. I’ve got you,” she whispered into Zac’s ear. “I’ve got you.”

Even as her friend slipped back into sleep, the blonde stared up at the ceiling.

*****

Zac turned out to have a pretty bad flu. She was in and out of delirium for the next day until her fever finally broke around six p.m., and this after Ben had been forced to go find the Piñon Mushroom that the brunette kept calling for. He didn’t mind. Anything for the beautiful brunette.

To the Cohen family’s amazement, that mushroom actually made Zac feel better. She ate it raw, and within a few hours, her temperature had gone down. Abel was always there, ready with a cool cloth and liquids. And plenty of Kleenex.

By the third day, Zac was doing much better, and was getting restless. She was ready to get out of the suffocating confines of a house.

*****

Zac woke, feeling more like herself than she had for two days. When she opened her eyes, she found herself laying on her side in Spinney’s big, comfortable bed, the blonde curled up behind her. The blonde’s arm was around her waist, her small body seeking the warmth of her larger, warmer companion.

The brunette tried to figure out how to get up without waking her friend. She needed to get out of there. Cooped up for more than two days was beginning to really get to her. She needed the fresh air, and to try and find the rest of her house.

Rain had stopped the morning after it started, but Zac figured that a good three inches of water had been dropped. More than enough to put her in a very bad mood.

Very, very carefully, she grabbed the blonde’s wrist, and moved the arm that draped across her to rest on Spinney’s own hip. That done, she waited, making sure the girl hadn’t woken, yet. Nothing. So she slowly scooted her body toward the end of the bed, inch by inch until she nearly fell off.

Once her bare feet hit the soft carpet, she headed to the bathroom. Zac had to admit that the use of a toilet was so much easier than digging a small hole to cover in the woods, but she was used to it. This time in the cabin would be a short treat. A treat that would end today.

Looking at herself in the mirror above Spinney’s sink, she saw how horrible she looked. Though, frighteningly enough, she looked a ton better than she had just the day before. Her skin wasn’t as pale, nor her eyes washed out and red. Her hair lay haphazardly all over her head, the strands wild and unkempt. She knew the blonde would be after her to take a bath. Maybe she could leave before that happened.

Relieving herself, she made sure she used the toilet paper as her friend had instructed. Not sure whether she should flush, not wanting to wake Spinney up, she finally decided that another lecture from the girl wasn’t worth it.

Getting dressed, Spinney’s mom having washed all her clothes, she sat quietly on the chair in the corner of the girl’s room. She watched the blonde sleep, not wanting to leave before saying goodbye, and not wanting to wake her, either.

Spinney looked so peaceful, and beautiful. Her long, blonde hair was spread out over her pillow, her face relaxed as she soared in the world of dreams. She cuddled up close to the pillow Zac had deserted, smacking her lips softly in comfort and contentment.

Suddenly, almost as if she felt she were being watched, sleepy lids slowly opened to reveal the green depths behind.

“Zac?” she said, her voice thick from sleep.

“Hi,” the brunette said, a small smile and wave following her simple greeting.

“What’s wrong? Are you okay?” The blonde sat up, bringing a hand up to rub her eyes. The brunette nodded.

“I’m okay. I’m going home today.”

Sleep forgotten, the green eyes popped open. “What? Zac, please stay. Just one more night,” Abel pleaded, worried for her friend. “You’re not well.”

“I have to, Spinney,” Zac softly explained. The worry lines melted away on the blonde’s face.

“You’re going nuts, aren’t you?” she said, a statement. The brunette nodded.

“I need some space.”

“I’m sorry.” The blonde looked down, picking at the sheet with nervous fingers. Zac stood from her chair and walked over to the bed, sitting on the side. She rested her hand on Abel’s calf.

“It’s not you, Spinney. I could spend all day with you.” She smiled warmly, and the blonde felt immediately better. “It’s just the situation. The cabin . . .” Blue eyes wandered over the room.

“You can’t be cooped up.” The brunette shook her head. “Okay. Are you sure, Zac? If you’re still sick . . .”

“I feel much better. Really. Trust me, okay?” Abel stared into those stormy eyes, so indicative of what she was feeling, and nodded.

“I’ll miss you.”

Zac smiled. “Spinney, you’ll see me every day. And for your birthday.” She smiled big, knowing that she had something cooking for the blonde.

“Thanks, Zac.” Abel smiled, but still felt horrible inside. She knew how her friend was, yet she kept her in the house anyway. Like some stray dog that knew nothing of being kept like a pet. As much as she hated seeing the brunette go, she knew she had to let her.

*****

“Arrrrgggghhhh!” stretching screaming arms above his head, he stood, trying to stretch his back at the same time. Sleeping for nearly two days, he was ready to get up and going.

Making sure everything was secure in his pack, he made his way through the mud, his odd tracks following him out.

*****

Zac made her way through the forest, the garbage bag filled with what Spinney could grab slung over her shoulder. Though she still had somewhat of a cough, she felt glorious. She looked up into the trees, bright green from the moisture of the storm, the birds all coming out of hiding again.

She also loved the smell of freshly wet soil. She closed her eyes as the smell filled her nostrils. Inhaling, she sighed, happy to be out. When she opened her eyes, she spotted something blue. Peering through the dense trees, she smiled again.

“There’s one.” Hurrying over to the tarp that was entangled in a tree, she set her bag of belongings down, and gently pried the tarp loose. Now if she could find the canvas, she’d be in business.

Heading to the lake, she left the tarp and her bag there, heading off back into the woods to look for the tan canvas.

*****

“Was it something we did?” Sherry Cohen asked as she sipped her coffee. She watched her oldest daughter preparing a large breakfast, complete with eggs, bacon, waffles, and lots and lots of syrup.

The blonde shook her head. “No. Zac just can’t stand to be cooped up. A true wild child, mom. The raised by wolves kind.” She glanced at her mother, then turned back to the stove and her eggs.

“I just absolutely hate the idea of her out there all alone, Abel.” Sherry’s brows drew, a worry line forming between them.

“I know. I feel the same way. But, alas. No matter how much pleading and prodding, she’s stubborn. So I figure the least I can do is make sure she’s fed.” Turning the gas range off, she loaded the eggs onto the near overflowing plate, then wrapped the entire thing up in foil, making sure to put plenty extra around it. Finishing, she walked over to her mother, giving her a bear hug.

“What’s this for?” her mother asked, smiling at the affection.

“Just for being so cool about this. You guys have truly been awesome, mom. Thank you.” Earnest green eyes looked into those of the older woman. Sherry smiled.

“She’s a good girl, honey. She deserves special treatment. She saved two of my babies.” She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I know,” Abel said, walking over to the counter and grabbing the plate. “But I know dad isn’t as keen on it as you are. I just want you to know it’s appreciated. I know Zac appreciates it, too.”

“Well, she’s welcome here any time. Okay?” The younger blonde nodded.

“I love you, mom.”

“I love you, too, honey.”

*****

“Got ya!” Zac carefully climbed down the big pine with a muddy, wind-torn canvas. It may be damaged goods now, but she had it!

Jumping down the last five feet, she landed with a grunt, then ran toward the lake. The sooner she could get these babies washed off the better.

*****

Hiking his bag higher on is shoulder, he reached into the waistband of his pants, feeling the hard handle of his knife. Needing something for his hands to do, he began to toss it up in the air, letting it flip end over end, only to catch it by either the tip of the blade, or the handle. This was a game he’d gotten good at over the years. It kept his mind busy.

He was making his way through the forest. He stopped, his eyes focused on something. A slow, feral smile crept across his sun-cracked lips, and he caught the knife, handle side down.

*****

Abel sang quietly to herself as she did her best to avoid the bigger mud puddles. She was amazed at just how green and fresh it was out. The rain had done something, because she felt a new vigor as she headed toward Zac’s home. She was pleased that she had the offering she did. She smiled, knowing her friend would love it.

*****

Zac knelt down, trying her damndest to not end up bathing with the tarp as she scrubbed at the caked mud. Nearly growling with frustration, she turned her fingers to the laces on the new boots to take them off when she stopped.

Head slightly cocked to the side, she listened, trying to figure out just what it had been that had made her stop in the first place. Kind of like when you’re woken up out of sleep, but you don’t know by what.

There it was again. Footsteps, but, but. Dark brows drew as she tried to clear it in her mind. They were heavy steps, and not normal. Like a dragging sound. Limping, maybe?

Another set of footsteps, light and carefree.

“Zac?” was called out in the distance. Spinney. The heavy, foreign footsteps stopped, and so did Zac’s heart. Then suddenly they started again, but at a run. Well, as good of a run as someone with a twisted leg could manage.

“Boogie Man,” Zac whispered, then something struck in her, something animalistic and wild. She stood, taking off at a dead run toward the woods, her teeth bared, eyes narrowed with hate and fear.

She could feel the blood pounding through her head, a steady beat of a drum in her body, pushing her forward, all else forgotten.

Zac felt everything slow to a trickle. Her breathing echoed through her head, her nose burning with the early morning air, chill as it coursed through her nostrils, down into her lungs, and spreading from there. Large booted feet crushed everything in their path as she desperately tried to make it in time.

She spotted the clearing, and saw to her right Spinney just breaking through the trees, her eyes looking around, looking for her friend. Then to the left was Him. He was looking directly at the blonde, lust in his dark eyes, knife in hand, hand outstretched to grab.

With an inhuman growl, Zac launched herself at him, just moments before he reached Spinney, knocking them both to the ground, falling head over heels with each other, until finally she got him pinned. He looked up at her with the same eyes as before, but now they were the ones filled with fear.

The brunette began to pound on him, punching his face, slamming his head into the soppy ground with each strike. Abel watched on, eyes huge with shock and fear as she watched her friend pounce. This was not her Zac, though. This was someone else entirely. She was fierce, scary and truly powerful.

Zac grabbed his head, not daring to give him the chance to touch her Spinney, and raised it, slamming it against the rock that was half-hidden in the earth. Again and again she slammed it, seeing the blood on the rock when she lifted it for another slam. His eyes rolled back, then closed, blood rushing from the corner of his mouth as he bit his tongue.

“Zac?” was said from somewhere far away, in another place. But Zac was in another time. She was saving Spinney. She was saving herself. “Zac! Stop!”

The brunette froze, looking down at what she was doing, feeling the rage seep out her pores as she looked up into the terrified, pale face of her friend. She slowly stood, her eyes never leaving Spinney.

Abel watched as the taller girl stood, hands dirty with specs of blood. The brunette’s eyes were so wild, so terrifyingly violent that she felt her stomach catch.

“Spinney?” Zac said, her voice weak, almost as if she had no idea where she was. She reached out to her friend, and to her horror, Spinney backed away, eyes huge and round. The blonde began to slowly shake her head, as if she couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Zac’s heart broke.

Without a word, the blonde turned and began to run, the plate clattering as she dropped it.

*****

Abel ran through the forest, tears streaming down her cheeks, terror still running through her system. She was near hysterics when she got to the Cohen cabin.

Running in, she looked frantically for her father. Sherry intercepted her.

“Honey, what’s the matter?” Mrs. Cohen asked, concern making her near hysterical. “Are you okay? Is Zac okay?”

“God! I think she killed him! Oh my God!”

“What? Who? Killed who, honey? Calm down.” She took her daughter by the shoulders, trying to look into her face to get some sort of clue what the girl was talking about.

“What the hell is going on?” Adam asked, running from the bathroom, the Architect’s Weekly still in his hands. He tossed it to the couch and hurried over to his wife and daughter.

“I think she killed him, dad,” Abel cried, grabbing onto his shirt, and burying her face in his chest. Wrapping strong arms around her shoulders, he looked over her head at his wife. She shrugged and shook her head. “Okay, now, Abel. You need to be able to speak clearly, okay?” He gently pushed her away, and bent his head to be able to look into her eyes. The girl nodded, swiping a hand at her eyes. Sherry quickly grabbed her a Kleenex.

“You have to come with me, dad. I think Zac killed a man. She was pounding his head into the ground.” Fresh tears sprang forth as she saw it all over again in her mind. “I knew that girl was funny,” he grumbled, but stopped at the stilling hand of his wife on his arm.

“Stop, Adam. We don’t even know what happened.”

“Okay. You call the police, Sherry. Abel and I are going to see what’s what.” He took his daughter’s arm, and led her toward the front door.

*****

Trying to see through her tears, Zac ran toward the lake, dipping her grungy hands in the cool water, then grabbed the plastic bag of her stuff and ran toward the bluff overlooking the lake the Cohen’s cabin. She knew that she couldn’t stay there. Cops would be combing the woods at any time.

She sat on the big rock that she used to watch over things, and tried to think. She had to find somewhere to go, somewhere to lay low.

Her father’s voice echoes in her head: Don’t ever let ’em catch ya, Zac. The big bad boogie men will gobble you up!

She tried to clear her head, but instead her head fell, hands catching it as the tears came in earnest. She would never forget the look on Spinney’s face. She looked absolutely terrified, as if the brunette would attack her. As if she could ever hurt the little blonde. She couldn’t let Him hurt her, either. Never. The Boogie Man would never touch Spinney!

“Oh, Spinney, no,” she sobbed, body heaving. She would never, ever hurt her. Ever.

*****

Abel was hugging herself as they neared the place where Zac had attacked that man. She saw him, still lying where he’d fallen, head to the side, gaping wound in the back. One arm was lying across his chest, the other out to his side.

“There,” the blonde whispered, pointing. Her father hurried over to the stranger and knelt down. Trying not to react, Adam grabbed the man’s hand, placing his fingers on the pulse, praying that there was one.

“He’s still alive,” Mr. Cohen said, his voice hushed. Abel let out a sigh of relief. Standing, Adam bent over to look at the head wound. Grimacing slightly, he turned his attention to the man’s belongings around him. “Do you know who this is, honey?”

“No.” Abel walked over to the man, seeing his shoulder bag lying on the ground about six feet away. She figured he must have lost it during the initial attack. “How could Zac just attack him like that?” she asked, knowing she wouldn’t get any answers.

“Is this Zac’s?” Adam pointed to a very large Bowie knife on the ground. The blonde looked at it, cocking her head to the side as she thought.

“No. Zac’s is much smaller. She keeps it in her boot.”

“You’re sure? Positive?” Adam eyed his daughter. She nodded.

“Yeah. I’ve never seen it before.”

Leaving it where it was, he knelt down next to the man again, deciding to dig through his pockets for identification.

“Honey, why don’t you see what’s in that bag, huh? Let’s see if we can find out who this fella is.”

“Kay.” She grabbed the bag and unclasped it, eyeing the guy on the ground, comforted in seeing his chest rise and fall, if shallow, even at least.

Inside she found a scarf and clear, plastic baggie with crumbs in it. Pushing these aside, she found a comb, half the teeth missing from the small ACE. Her fingers came across something very soft, and she pulled it out, eyes widening to see that it was a pair of underwear. Not seeming odd at first, she was about to move on, but then realized that they were entirely too small for a man this size. She pulled them out, and saw that they were littered with little purple tulips. Children’s underwear.

She dug further, thinking perhaps they belonged to his daughter, she found four more pairs, and one of them had what looked to be dried blood on it.

Feeling decidedly nauseous, she dumped the panties onto the ground, and dug further. She felt the edge of paper, and pulled it out. What looked to be many layers folded onto each other, she realized were dozens of newspapers articles that had been folded together in one big stack.

Unfolding them, she brought a hand to her mouth:

Nine year old, Brett Carlson found yesterday…/ Four year old daughter dead…/ M.O seems to be taking the children’s underpants as some sort of trophy…/ Missing Count Hits A Dozen!…/ No end in sight…

A sob tore from her throat, all the news coverage she’d seen of the child serial killer who had been terrifying the north east for over a year. Then she caught site of the small pile of children’s underwear she had placed on the ground.

“Oh, God,” she cried, falling to her knees. Adam rushed over to the girl, holding her against his chest.

“What is it, baby?” he asked, his voice soft and comforting. She handed him the articles, crying into his chest. He used one hand to try and unfold then read them.

“Jesus,” he breathed, looking over his shoulder at the man laying on the ground.

*****

Finally pulling herself together, Zac grabbed her bag and headed deep into the woods, about three miles past her old home. She remembered something she had dug as a child. She used to use it as a fort and place to hide when she’d play “Boogie Man and Zac.”

She hurried across the mud-covered ground, praying that the hole was still there, and hadn’t been filled in by years of wear and storms. She didn’t know how long she’d need it, but she needed to hide, and hide fast.

Up ahead she saw the tiny rabbit bone that she had placed there nearly ten years before, marking the secret hiding spot. Dropping the bag and her knees to the ground, she felt around until she felt the edge of the plywood cover. Nearly whooping in victory, she tugged, grunting as it refused to budge, but not giving up. Baring her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut, she finally managed to get it to move.

Moving herself back to make room for the four foot piece of wood, she looked down into the hole. It was nearly exactly as she had left it. The tight fit of the wood had prevented flooding, though it was obvious some had still happened. The wooden stake she had used as a sword was half buried in dirt.

Zac grabbed her bag and tossed it in the hole, following quickly after. Standing up to her armpits, she grabbed the cover and tugged, mindful to not rattle the dirt cover on top. She had to blend. Nearly sealing off the hole, just leaving enough for air, she sat down, huddled up against one corner, feeling like she was in a grave.

*****

Abel sat in a kitchen chair, her baby sister curled up in her arms. She was comforted by the continual movement of petting the girl’s blonde hair. The officer sat across from her, asking her question after question. They’d been at it for about an hour, and she felt numb.

They’d learned that the man who was now on his way to Augusta to the Maine General Medical Center, was Gerald Hivey. The last address on his fifteen year old license had been in Oklahoma.

He was wanted for questioning on the disappearance of the seven year old daughter of the store owner he had been working for at the time, as well as in crimes of the same nature across the map.

The police were combing the woods for Zac, wanting to question her. Abel was heartsick at the fact that her father had mentioned the brunette. She wasn’t planning on it. She didn’t think that Zac had anything to do with Gerald’s crimes, but her father wasn’t so sure.

She was so confused, and just sent out a silent prayer to Zac to run.

*****

Zak started her eyes opening to pitch black darkness. She tried to focus, feeling as though she were in solitary confinement. She listened and heard a distant dog barking, and voices. She closed her eyes again, holding her breath as she figured the police were searching for her.

Please, please, Spinney. Know I would never hurt you.

She closed her eyes again, waiting until morning.

*****

Abel, eyes red from a day of crying and confusion, stood at the window in her room. There was no way in hell sleep was going to come tonight. The night before Zac had been there, safe and sound. Now? Who knows.

The police had scoured the woods for hours, bringing out their K-9 Unit, and still found very little. She had been thrilled but scared all the same. She knew Zac was out there somewhere, hiding, probably frightened out of her mind.

She just didn’t buy her father’s theory that the brunette was somehow involved, but still she couldn’t help but feel sick with what they found on Gerald that day. Had he been responsible for dozens of children’s rapes and deaths?

Abel knew in her heart that Zac had saved her life today, that Gerald had probably mistaken her for someone much younger, and had plans to do the same to her.

She shivered at the thought. Wrapping her arms tighter around herself, she stared out into the woods.

“Where are you, Zac?”

*****

It had been two and a half days, and Zac was cramped, tired from not sleeping worth a damn in her hole, and hungry. All activity had stopped the day before, early in the morning, and she hoped that it was done for good.

She had done a lot of thinking while in her self-imposed prison. She had scared Spinney beyond all reason, and knew the blonde hated her. The trust that she had spent all summer trying to gain had been wiped away in a few short moments. She had seen it in the blonde’s eyes.

Zac felt fresh tears come to her eyes, and she angrily swiped at them. She was tired of crying, and tired of having to hide. She would just rebuild her house, and stay away from the Cohen cabin. Maybe she’d even move her home further into the woods, further away. That way the temptation to go to the blonde wouldn’t be so strong. Eventually the brunette would fade into Spinney’s memory again, and then be forgotten all together. Definitely best.

*****

The Cohen family was a little quieter than they had been. Each was instilled with the fear of just how quickly things can change. Within the blink of an eye, Abel could have been the next victim, and lost to her family forever.

“Honey?” Sherry said, putting an arm around her daughter’s shoulder. Abel was sitting on the couch, an open book in her lap, but her attention elsewhere. “You want to talk?” Mrs. Cohen sat next to her.

“I don’t feel her,” the younger blonde said, her voice nearly a whisper.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t feel her anymore.” Abel looked into the caring eyes of her mother. “We could feel each other, mom. We had that kind of bond. I knew when she was around. Not anymore.” She looked down, leaning her head against her mom’s shoulder.

“Do you think she was trying to hurt you, Abel?” Sherry ran her fingers through her daughter’s long hair. Abel shook her head.

“No. I think she knew. Somehow, she knew. She saved me. Again.”

Sherry sighed, continuing to pet the melancholy girl. She didn’t know what to do. Her husband was set against Zac being in the cabin again, and against Abel having any contact with the girl at all. Sherry was of the same mind as Abel. She knew in her heart that the tall girl would never hurt her baby.

*****

Zac grunted as she shoved the board away, letting in the cleansing sunlight. She squinted against the brightness, having been in near total darkness for three days. She took a deep breath of the air, letting it fill her lungs.

Tossing her bag out, she then climbed out, feeling weak and dehydrated. She headed to the natural spring that was nearby, taking in her fill, gulping up the water by the handful. Finally sated, she headed toward her house. When she got there, she nearly cried.

Everything was gone. Everything. The little things she’d made from the foil Spinney had given her, little birds and animals. The entire collection was to be given to the blonde for her birthday. The canteen that she hooked on the rock ledge – gone. All that remained were the remnants from the burned-out cabin, and the rocks themselves. All that Spinney had missed the night of the storm, after shoving what she could in the bag, was gone.

The police had confiscated it all, thinking it had been Gerald’s hideout.

She felt a strangled sob begin to form, but did her best to hold it in. She couldn’t let this beat her. It just made her resolve stronger.

Numbly walking down to the lake, she saw her tarp and canvas were gone, too. Finding a fallen log, she sat, placing the now sacred bag between her legs on the ground. She held her head in her hands.

*****

As darkness fell, the Cohens sat around the kitchen table eating. Adam had the boys engaged in sports talk as Abel barely picked at her food. It was the end of day three, and still no Zac.

She pushed her chicken around the plate, playing dodge ball with the rice. Suddenly she stopped, the hair on the back of her neck prickling. She looked up, trying to see what she could through the kitchen window. She only saw the reflection of her family against the night beyond.

“What is it, honey?” Sherry asked quietly.

“She’s here,” Abel whispered, standing.

“Where are you going?” Adam asked.

“I have to go talk to her,” the blonde said, heading for the door.

“To her who? To that Zac person? No way in hell, Abel!” He stood, ready to stop her when he felt a soft hand on his forearm. He turned to see his wife’s eyes boring into his. She shook her head.

Abel hurried outside, standing on the porch. She saw nothing, even once the motion detector lights that her father installed the day before, flashed on. Just trees throwing huge shadows.

She felt her, knew she was there.

“Come out!” she called out, keeping her eyes open for any movement. “Now!”

To her right, she saw a flash of movement, and was not surprised to see Zac standing there, her bag in her hand. The girl was hugely dirty, and looked so haggard.

The blonde stepped off the porch and walked over to her, still feeling strange from the whole thing. She couldn’t get that look on Zac’s face out of her mind. The brunette said nothing, just looked at her.

“Where were you?” Abel asked, hands shoved deep into her pockets.

“Hiding. How are you?” Zac’s voice was even quieter than usual, and the blonde could see that she had done a lot of crying. Her eyes were red rimmed, and puffy.

“I’m fine. The police arrested him.” Zac just stared at her, then took a deep breath.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

“What? When?” Abel felt her heart drop.

“Now. As soon as we get done talking. I can’t stay here,” Zac said in lieu of an explanation. She didn’t know what to say to her friend, her heart sick and crying, even as they spoke.

“Where will you go?” The blonde wanted to beg her not to go, to stay with her, stay in the cabin, but the words wouldn’t come.

Zac shrugged. “Back to the rails.”

“Oh.” Abel looked down, not sure what to do. “Please take care of yourself,” she whispered, staring into heavy blue eyes. Zac nodded.

“Good luck in school,” Zac said. She sounded so defeated.

“Thanks.” Abel’s mouth opened as if she were going to say something, but snapped it shut again.

“Bye, Spinney.” The brunette gave her the tiniest of smiles.

“Bye,” Abel whispered, feeling her throat constrict. She watched as the girl heaved the bag over her shoulder, and walked back into the woods, disappearing.

Part 7
“Happy birthday to you!” the family sang. Badly. Abel smiled, and was happy for the attention, but the smile was forced. Zac had been gone for two weeks, and she felt every minute of it.

It was almost as if when she’d arrived at the cabin she had been a whole person. Happy with her life, content with her school and friends. After all, once she got back to Boston, she’d be moving into an apartment with her best friend, Jessica, and her friend Kendra. Cool family. What more could a girl ask for?

But now? Going back to school in a week and a half, she felt empty somehow, like she was missing something. Since Zac had left, she felt her absence acutely. She had spent the last couple weeks wandering around the forest, finding her way to the rock overhang where she used to go find the brunette. All that greeted her was the long dead remnants of the old Lipton cabin, and the fire ring of rocks Zac used to use.

Abel had sat on the ground near the cold rocks, and had buried her head in her hands, letting her sorrow come to the surface. She worried nonstop about her friend, wondering where she was, and what she was doing. She missed her terribly.

“I’m so sorry, Zac,” she cried, staring up into the bright blue sky, so reminiscent of Zac’s incredible eyes.

Now, sitting with her family surrounding her, and a huge cake waiting for her to blow the lit candles on it out, she felt sick. Why hadn’t she stopped her? Why had she just let Zac ride the rails out of her life?

Every time she heard the distant whistle of a train, she thought of the brunette. Out there, all alone. But then, Zac had always been alone. What was the difference?

*****

A large plastic bag landed squarely in the center of the box car. A pale hand grabbed the cold, iron handle on the outside of the car, and a long frame was heaved inside.

Zac closed her eyes as she rested her weary head against the metal wall. The rhythmic chugging of the moving train, and the constant motion, worked just like a glass of warm milk before bed.

She tried to get her body relaxed enough to sleep, but she was tense and hungry. She had managed to steal a couple of apples in Bangor from an outside market, and then made off for the rails. Now, six days into her travels, she was back in the swing of things.

The brunette had picked a train headed south, not wanting to get caught in the harsh winters of the north if possible. She would have. God, she would have done anything. If only . . .

For about the fiftieth time that week, tears began to sting already red eyes. She rubbed at them to no avail. All that did was make them hurt worse as the grime from the road got in.

“Crap.” She wiped profusely at them, using the hem of the t-shirt she wore under her sweatshirt. This made her chuckle, as she’d figure she’d learn after doing this nearly every day. Calming herself down, she tried to relax, letting her mind wander again.

She thought about her trips before, when she’d wandered around aimlessly for four years. She’d seen most of the country, and felt just about every type of climate known to man – the hot humidity of Florida and the south, the dry, temperate climes of the mountain states, and then more heat and ocean in the west. Been everywhere, seen lots, and was determined to see more. Four years the first time, and maybe more this time. Hell, maybe she’d never go back at all.

*****

“Are you ready to go, honey? Is there anything upstairs that I can have Ben run up and grab?” Sherry asked, her arm around her daughter’s shoulders as they walked outside.

Abel shook her head. “No. I got everything.” They reached her blue car, which was loaded with her bags of clothes and birthday gifts. “I just need to do something real quick, then I’m outta here.” The blonde smiled at her mother and gave her a tight hug.

The blonde was leaving a week earlier than the rest of the family. She and Jess and Kendra were going to be moving into their own apartment over the next week, the last week before school started again.

Sherry Cohen kissed her daughter on the temple, then went back inside the cabin. Abel turned toward the woods and headed out into them. As she walked, she remembered when she’d first gotten to the cabin that summer. How afraid she’d been, staying with the Wilkins’ for a few days until her parents’ arrival.

She chuckled now, realizing just how ridiculous that had been. Now as she headed toward Zac’s rock overhang, which she’d always see as the brunette’s home, she was amazed at how quiet things were. That hum that she had heard somewhere, whenever Zac was around, was quiet. Completely silenced. It was deafening.

The blonde knew that Zac was far away. She felt it in her bones. Far away, and getting even further.

With a heavy sigh, she found the overhang, left exactly how she’d last seen it, and still as empty. She reached out and laid down her offering. She looked at the bouquet of wild flowers she’d picked, and the simple white envelope that she weighted down, nearly covering, with a large rock. In her neat, beautiful handwriting was the simple word- Zac

She smiled softly, remembering the wonderful, gentle girl who bore the letter’s namesake.

“Goodbye, Zac,” she whispered, and turned to leave.

*****

He slumped against the cold, cement wall, back pressed against the cinderblock. Dark eyes searched the faces of his fellow prisoners at the county jail. He had just gotten out of the hospital from when that bitch had beaten him senseless.

The tiny holding cell in intake was filled with about six men, all dressed out in orange jump suits. Soon he would be brought to a cell of his very own, as he awaited trial. Trial. For what?

Growling low in his throat, he brought his legs up, wrapping his meaty arms around the shins. His head was hurting something awful. The stitches had come out that morning, which was good. That helped with the horrible itch, but now there was just a dull throb.

“Little bitch,” he muttered.

“What was that?”

Dark eyes looked up to see a rather large and bald man standing in front of him. He had a reddish brown goatee, and did not look happy.

“I wasn’t talking to you.” Gerald glared up at the big man.

“You want to talk about stupid bitch, huh?” Mr. Clean asked. “I know what you in here for, you sick fuck. We’ll talk bitch.” With twinkling blue eyes, the corner of the man’s mouth raised as he looked down at the “cho mo,” slang name for a child molester, and cracked his knuckles.

Gerald swallowed. Hard.

*****

Abel hugged her best friend, Jessica, tightly, happy to see her after the entire summer. They had had plans to go travel together on the road over the summer, but at the last minute the blonde had decided to go to the cabin instead.

“I missed you, girl!” Jess exclaimed, holding her friend by the shoulders and grinning. Abel smiled at the dark skinned woman.

“Me, too, Jess. How was your summer?” The two girls had met at Jess’s family’s house, and would go to the apartment from there.

“It was great. I did some great relaxing, some lovin’. Mmm, mm.” The girl grinned, and Abel smacked her arm.

“You’re such a pig.” They got into the blonde’s car, and headed down to the apartment the three girls had decided on before they left school for the summer. The landlord had held their small two-bedroom apartment with a payment of trust.

Abel was happy to be back in the busy city of her school with the crazy drivers and hordes of people. All in complete opposition with the quiet peace of the forest.

She sighed, deciding to not dwell today and get back into her life.

The apartment was small, but would work for the three friends. The third, Kendra, would be back from London the following weekend. Abel and her old friend walked through the place, taking in the molding around the ceiling, and the fireplace, which had long ago been gutted and was just for looks. All the same, Abel loved the place.

She scurried down the hall to the biggest room that she and Jess would be sharing. There was enough room for both their beds and some of their meager belongings left over from the dorm.

“This place is great!” Jessica called from the kitchen. Abel joined her there, and looked around. It was tiny, but that was okay; it wasn’t as if any of them really cooked. As the girls met in the center of the room for a hug, they both giggled at their good fortune. “Dude, I can’t believe we have our own place!” Jess exclaimed, holding her friend’s hands.

“I know. It’s so surreal,” Abel said, looking around at the white kitchen, with the gold fridge, the only touch of color in the room. The blonde saw the back door that led to a short number of stairs that led to the back of the building, where the dumpsters were. The nice thing about being on the first floor.

“Well, let’s get started, blondie.” Jess put her arm around her friend’s shoulders, and tugged her toward the front door in the living room.

*****

The girls worked hard, but with the help of Kendra’s dad and his truck, managed to get things in place. The three had pulled together their resources and had managed to find cheap, used furniture that would hold up. Though it may not have been pretty, it was more than adequate.

The trio, tired and smelly, stood in the middle of the living room, surrounded by hastily placed furniture and boxes.

“Thanks so much, Mr. Musso,” Abel said, giving Kendra’s dad a hug.

“No problem, girls. You guys enjoy yourselves, and behave.” He pointed at each, a twinkle in his dark eyes.

“Yes, Mr. Musso,” they said in unison, twinkles of their own dancing, and he left.

“Shall we?” Abel asked, fingering a nearby box marked ‘kitchen.’ Jess sighed, pooped, but nodded.

“Let’s do it.”

*****

Abel was glad as classes got underway. She was finally finished with all her prerequisites. Now it was time to focus primarily on psychology, her chosen field. She hoped to eventually teach it at a college level, and perhaps work with kids.

She wandered around campus, having an hour and a half until her next class. She found a bench, and looked around. She loved the look of the old campus, the architecture of the buildings. Her father always looked forward to coming to campus. As an architect himself, he always fell in love with the buildings each and every time he saw them.

She smiled as she enjoyed the early autumn air. It was still nice, if a bit too windy for her tastes. The blonde smiled up into the blue sky, fluffy white clouds lazily floating around. An airplane flew overhead, and she watched its progress until it was out of sight.

*****

Zac heaved the bag up higher on her shoulders. She walked along the railroad tracks, trying to find the first train headed out of town. She wasn’t in any hurry; after all, it was a beautiful day. She had found herself in Boston last night, the city bright and alive with excitement and humanity as the train had slowly made its way to a halt.

The brunette had jumped off, seeing a sign up ahead that she had been about to exit the Boston Train Yard.

She felt her hand tighten on the plastic bag she carried. Though torn in places, it still held her most sacred belongings. It held her heart, her comfort, and her memories.

She had been traveling for the better part of two months, and had been doing pretty good. During the course of finding her way through New York, Illinois, Iowa, down into Colorado and Oklahoma, she had realized a few things.

Spinney would always be a part of her, but she was not the little girl that Zac once knew. She was a woman with her own mind, and fears and emotions. She had hurt the blonde terribly, a fact that she would never forgive herself for. She had scared Spinney, and had lost her trust. For that she had no one to blame but herself.

As the brunette zig zagged through the rail ties, she allowed herself to think of the blonde for the first time in a while. She had given herself some time to grieve, then cut out any thoughts of Maine. Including Spinney.

She had been pretty darn successful at that, too, until now. Being in her friend’s college town, she felt that connection again. She stopped, closing her eyes to breathe in the air, and to feel. She swore she could almost feel Spinney. She knew she was out there somewhere, out in the city.

“Hi, Spinney,” she whispered, a smile caressing her lips.

The brunette had made a promise that she wouldn’t go back to the forest ever again. She would leave the blonde and her family alone, never to bother or scare them again. It would also be easier on her heart. She had seen much in her short life, and had endured. But that was nature – good and bad. You had to take it all in stride and realize that in the scheme of things, everyone was a wild animal in the kingdom ruled by the highest creatures. Give and take.

But some things were just too painful to take.

*****

Abel moved around on the bench she sat on, and grabbed a textbook from her backpack. She decided since she was waiting for class, she might as well be productive about it. Getting some reading out of the way would help free her night up. Opening it to the right chapter, she began to read.

Tucking a long strand of hair behind her ear as she turned the page, she stopped, looking up. She had the strangest feeling flow through her. It was like a cry for help, a strangled moan inside her head.

“What the hell?” She looked back out into the day, trying to see if she could figure out where it was coming from. Seeing nothing but fellow students wandering around campus, she concentrated again. The hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and she realized that she wasn’t hearing the noise at all. She was feeling it.

*****

Zac continued on her way, hearing someone walking up along the tracks behind her. She paid no mind, just got a move on.

“Hey!” a voice called out. Zac felt herself begin to go into panic mode. Leave me alone. Leave me alone . . . “Hey, I’m talking to you!”

Zac chanced a glance over her shoulder, and saw one of the track inspectors making his way down the tracks. He didn’t look happy.

“Can’t you read, you stupid transient? No trespassing!”

Up ahead the brunette heard the whistle of an oncoming train. She began to run, moving off the tracks, and looking for a clear spot to hop the freight.

“Get back here! No one allowed here, kid! Come here!” She could hear the inspector running behind her, and she increased her speed, putting her legs into it. She knew that she could be arrested for trespassing, or worse with these guys.

Crap, crap, crap!

The train came into view, and she breathed out a sigh of relief. The guy was closing in, and she just needed to get on first. These guys could be rough. She’d had run-ins with them before. This one looked no better. Raise a fist, ask questions later.

She began to run down the tracks as the train whooshed by, blowing her coat out from her body. Holding on with dear life to the bag, and the other hand reaching out, trying to get purchase on the handle of the open box car, she felt the cold, hard metal against her skin as she caught it. She was about to heave herself up into the car when she felt herself reeling backwards, toward the ground, a strong hand having a hold of the coat tails.

Maybe going back to the forest wouldn’t be so bad.

*****

Abel visibly shivered for just a moment, and she winced. She knew something was wrong. She had no idea what was going on, but felt very . . . strange.

Shaking her head to clear it, she slammed her text closed.

“What the hell was that all about?” Again looking around, she saw nothing and no one. “Zac?” she whispered, looking desperately around the buildings, any place where someone could hide. Nothing. She felt her stomach sink with disappointment. What the hell?

Deciding she needed some coffee, she packed her backpack again, and headed toward the cafeteria.

*****

Trial. No trial. Unh huh. There was no way he was gonna be able to handle that. And stuck in a cage forever and ever? Not a chance.

Nope. Gerald was up late into the night, trying to be as quiet as possible so the other three guys who shared his cell wouldn’t hear him fast at work. Not that they’d care, anyway. They all thought him odd, and had said so. Nope. No more. He could still feel just how odd they thought him. It made walking a most interesting venture.

He could feel the beads of sweat dripping down the side of his face as his meaty fingers worked with the material, trying to get it to do what he needed it to.

“One down,” he whispered, heading back over to his bed to get the other one.

*****

Abel was still bothered by the events of that afternoon as she and Jessica roamed the aisles of Nelson’s Local Grocers. She pushed the cart absently as Jess prattled on and on about her day and the newest guy she had met.

The blonde was focused on Zac, and what she had felt that day. She knew in her heart that it had been related to her friend. That somehow Zac was hurt.

“Jess, I’m going to grab the trash bags,” she muttered, needing some space.

“Oh, okay,” the darker girl said, brows drawn in confusion. Abel had been acting so weird. She was totally distracted, and had mentioned that Zac person again. Who the hell was that? Did she have a fling with some guy over the summer? Jess knew that her friend had broken it off with her boyfriend just before finals last semester, and it was always possible that the blonde had found some hot guy to mend a broken heart.

She smiled, hoping that was the case, and took over as the cart pusher. She grabbed the boxes of cereal that the girls all liked. She was so happy to finally be out of the dorms and her parents’ place. They were fighting so much. Really annoying.

“Hey, chickie, I got you your Cap’n Crunch,” she called out, turning down the trash bag, plastic wrap aisle. The blonde stood, her back to Jess, her shoulders slightly shaking. “Abel?” she asked, her voice lined with worry.

She reached out and placed her hand on the blonde’s shoulder. “You okay?”

Abel turned around, her arms wrapped around a box of foil.

“Foil!” she exclaimed, her red-rimmed eyes brimming with tears. Jessica stood there, looking absolutely baffled.

“Hon, are you pregnant?”

*****

Abel laid in her bed, thinking. She stared up at the ceiling. She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. She knew that Jess already thought she was crazy. Was she? She hadn’t told her friend about Zac totally. She had no idea where to start, plus in some ways she wanted to keep Zac to herself.

She was worried about the brunette. She couldn’t feel her anymore, and felt the loss completely. She wondered if maybe Zac had gone back to Maine. She had the feeling that the taller girl hadn’t been terribly far, but could not be sure.

Coming to a decision, she glanced at the bedside clock and saw that it was only three in the afternoon. Jumping up, she grabbed a backpack from the closet she shared with Jessica, and began to shove clothes in it.

“Hey, girl. What’s up?” Jess asked, coming in to get her clothes to go to work.

“I’ve got to see if she’s okay,” Abel said, as if that explained it all.

“Who?” Jess stopped, her Blockbuster shirt in her hands.

“Zac!” Abel grabbed her wallet and a baseball cap.

“Wait, honey, who is this Zac person? What’s going on?” The darker girl placed a hand on the blonde’s arm, forcing her to sit on her bed. “Talk to me.”

Abel sighed, looking at her friend, who looked so worried. She decided to be honest with Jess.

“You know my family’s cabin in Maine?” Nod. “Well, when I was five years old, I met a girl named Zac who lived in the woods with her father. She was a year older, and that was the last time I had ever seen her. Until this last summer.”

“Okay.” Jess nodded again, understanding. “So why not call her?”

“I can’t! She ran away, and hopped the rails, and I don’t know where she went. She may have been in the area. At least that’s how it felt. She felt close, you know?” The blonde looked at her friend, head cocked to the side as she thought out loud.

“Felt?” Jess looked at her like she’d lost her mind.

“Yes. Felt. So,” Abel stood, grabbing her bag again, “I’m going to drive out there for the weekend and see if she’s okay.”

“Okay,” Jessica drawled, obviously thinking her roommate had definitely lost her mind. “So, you have this crazy friend who lived in the woods and ran away to go ride trains?”

“Yes. Though she’s not crazy.” Abel turned to the mirror and began to brush out her long hair.

“No, but you are. Honey, it’s going to be dark soon, and the weather sucks out. By the time you got there, it would be ridiculously late.”

The blonde glanced out the window, seeing that the skies were already overcast, and she knew that some snow was predicted for the weekend. Chances were good that not much, if any, would fall, though.

“Damn,” she muttered. “It is a little late to head out. Okay, fine. Tomorrow morning.” The determined little blonde headed out into the house, leaving a very bewildered friend looking after her.

*****

“Hey, Rob, how’s it going, man? Trial date set yet?” the officer asked as he made his rounds for the first time that morning. His wife was still complaining about the new early morning shift he got.

“Not yet,” Inmate Makorski answered with a shrug of his shoulders. “Looks like you’ll be blessed with my wonderful self for a bit longer.”

The officer chuckled and continued on his way, humming softly to himself. He still had Bob Dylan on the brain from his drive to work. He got to the end of the hall to cell number 14. When he got there, he was stunned to see three of the cell mates standing there, their backs toward the front of the cell. He knew this was a sign of disgust from the other guys. When Officer Morton’s eyes landed on what they had turned against, they nearly bulged out of his head.

“Sergeant!” he called out. The creaking of the swinging body made his stomach churn. But, upon realizing who it was, he understood the cell mates’ reaction. “Got an inmate down, sir,” he called, heading back toward the main office. Damnit. He just knew he’d have to cut the bastard down.

*****

The windshield wipers did their very best, but even they were beginning to falter under the weight of the immense snow storm that was raging across the east coast. The further Abel’s little blue car went, the harder it snowed.

“Where the hell did this come from?” she muttered, squinting through the small bit of progress that the wipers were making. The snow was beginning to stick to the road, making it more and more icy. “Shit,” she grunted between gritted teeth as some of that very ice caught her tires.

She gripped the wheel, and tried to remember what her father had told her: Let up on the gas and very gently tap the breaks until it slows down.

Her heart slammed into her chest as she barely missed slamming the car into a drift. Finally the sedan came to a stop, nearly turned sideways on the road, and the blonde rested her forehead against the steering wheel.

“Okay, getting myself killed is not worth this.” Taking several deep breaths, Abel put the car in gear, and slowly, carefully, turned the car around. She’d have to visit the cabin another time.

Blowing out a breath of relief, she continued on. Glancing in her rearview mirror, Abel saw that a car someplace down the road behind her met the fate that she nearly did. She saw as the SUV slammed into the side of the snow bank. She stopped and pulled out her cell phone. Managing to get through to the police, she decided she shouldn’t wait around. The weather was getting worse.

*****

“So the weather was bad, huh?” Sherry Cohen asked as she separated her papers for grading. She had learned long ago to stop groaning when she had to grade tests. Adam always happily reminded her that she had assigned them in the first place.

“Yeah, it was pretty bad,” Abel said on the other end of the line. The blonde was at the mall wasting time as she waited to pick Jess up from work. “How much snow do you guys have?” She walked into a store that specialized in hats called Lids. She scanned the shelves. There were baseball caps, snow caps, knit caps. Anything the mind could imagine. She chuckled at a few of them.

“Oh, I’d say about six inches. Nothing hugely spectacular yet.” Sherry narrowed her brows as she looked at the mess that was Bryan Bowman’s test. “Can’t these kids write clearly?” she muttered, marking what she could read.

“Well, why didn’t you go into early education so you could teach them?” the blonde asked absently as she spotted a black knit cap. Zac came into her mind instantly. Sewn onto the front of the cap was a little brown squirrel. He reminded her of the one that followed the brunette around. She smiled and picked it up, immediately taking it to the counter.

It had been four days since Abel had felt Zac, and she wanted to see what her mother’s take on it would be.

“Mom . . .” She took her package and headed out of the store. “A few days ago I had the strangest feeling.”

“Maybe it was gas,” Sherry responded with a chuckle.

“Mother!” The blonde laughed along with the older woman. “No, it was like I could feel Zac.”

Sherry stopped grading at the mention of the tall brunette. Her daughter hadn’t spoken of the girl since she’d left the cabin. That had been nearly three months ago. She sat back in her chair and listened.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry. What do you mean? You could feel Zac?”

“Yeah. Remember I told you last summer how we could do that?”

“Right.” Dark blonde brows drew as the older woman tried to figure out what her daughter was getting at.

“Well, I guess that must not be just a mountain thing. It was so strange!” Abel stepped onto the escalator, her hand resting on the rail as she was taken to the second floor. “I think she was in trouble.” She shifted the small phone to the other ear.

“What kind of trouble? Back in Maine?”

“I don’t know.” Abel shrugged. “It was probably nothing more than her just being on my mind, but still . . .”

“You could call Jim. He could check things out for you, honey.” Sherry grabbed her red pen again and continued to grade.

“Nah. He already thinks I’m a nut case from last summer.” The blonde smiled at the memory. “I don’t know. But, alas, I have to go. I’ll be in touch this weekend sometime, okay?”

“Okay, Abel. You take care and stay warm. Keep Jess out of trouble!” Sherry scorned, knowing the darker girl’s propensity for finding herself in most interesting situations, and taking her daughter with her.

“Will do. I’m on my way to go pick her up from work right now. Love you.”

“I love you, too, honey.” Mrs. Cohen shook her head as she replaced the handset into the cradle. She missed that crazy girl.

*****

Abel laid her all-purpose bag down in the corner of the room by the folding closet door. She grabbed the bags of stuff she’d bought at the mall while waiting for Jess, and spread them out on her bed. This was one of her favorite parts of shopping; looking over what you bought.

She grinned at the new shirt and jeans, and rolled her eyes at the toy she’d bought. It was Kendra’s twentieth birthday over the weekend, and Abel and Jessica had decided to go in together to get her some things to spice up her sex life. Which was non-existent.

The red head was quiet and loved to read. All the time. That was all she did, and never once gave anyone a shot, though the cutie was asked out often. So, now she had her very own vibrator and a blow-up man to help her out.

She couldn’t help but grin at the memory of what her darker friend had told her, Hey, while you’re at it, get yourself one, too. You need to get laid, girl!

Chuckling, cheeks red, Abel stuffed the boxed toy into a dresser drawer, and turned back to the bed. The hat she’d bought for Zac was lying there.

“What am I going to do with this?” she asked herself. She knew she’d be putting it in the closet with everything else she had bought for the brunette – a used zoology book, a pair of ear muffs, sunglasses, and a package of biodegradable toilet paper that she had spotted in a camping store two weeks ago. “Crazy woman,” she chided herself. She had no idea if she’d even see the taller girl again. She just couldn’t help herself.

*****

The Cohen, Musso, Hendrix household was busy as the three girls quickly got ready for the party that Jessica was holding to celebrate the end of the fall semester. At first news of this, Abel had decided to go hang out at the library, but then changed her mind. She was in need for a little fun.

Tugging on her jeans, the tight-fitting ones with the hole in the right knee, the blonde looked at herself in the mirror. She looked good. Hair brushed to a shine, and her gray Henley was also well-fitted. She examined her body; hard from years in track and gymnastics. Running a hand down her front, she smiled, the feel of her flat stomach under her palm. She was rather proud of that stomach. Next green eyes scanned her body’s profile, looking over her shoulder at her butt.

It had been a while since she’d had any sort of touch of romance in her life. She was lonely, and knew that Will would be at the party. He had been flirting with her since freshman year, so why not? He was very cute and seemed pretty nice.

As she looked over her body once again, she realized that it was in dire need of some attention.

A sexy little grin in place, she ran her hands through her hair and headed out into the living room.

*****

The music was pumping through the house, and sounds of laughter and talking could be heard throughout. Jessica and Abel had been sure to lock their bedroom door. They had no interest in any couples having sex on their beds.

The beer flowed freely, and so did the dancing.

Abel, arms lazily wrapped around Will’s neck, swayed with him to the beat of some Madonna song. She looked up into his face, his blue eyes looking back at her. They chatted as he continued to caress her back. He wanted to begin to roam her incredible body, but decided to play it cool. He didn’t want to scare her away. He could tell she wanted him, and he was most definitely willing to oblige.

“So, Will,” she purred. “How’s school? You start medical school next year, right?” He nodded.

“Sure do. You gonna miss me?” He grinned, white teeth glinting off the light overhead.

“Oh, I don’t know.” She grinned. “Maybe. Maybe not.” She could feel the shot of tequila she’d had racing through her body. She felt a little unsteady, and most definitely horny. She was playing with fire with Will and she knew it. But she didn’t care.

“Oh, playing coy are you?” He grinned, his hand slowly rubbing circles on her back, getting lower with each pass. Finally he felt the very top of her gorgeous ass. Green eyes widened slightly, and then fell to half-mass.

“I think you nearly touched my ass, Will,” she teased. Not one to back down, he fully cupped it. This did surprise the blonde. “Okay.” She reached around and took his hand. “Down, boy.” She may want to have some fun, but it would be on her terms. As it always was. No guy got his way with her without her leading the way. Most of the guys didn’t even realize they held absolutely no control until it was too late and she had broken it off.

“Oops.” He laughed. He removed his hand, knowing all he had to do was bide his time with the blonde beauty. He’d been after her for two and a half years. He could definitely wait. After all, why wouldn’t she fall for him? Good looks, money, and would one day become a doctor. Oh yeah. He had it in the bag.

“Hey, girl!” Jessica slurred as she walked by with her own man, Jerome. The darker girl smiled, though it was sloppy and vodka-induced. Jerome looked like a happy camper, though. Abel had always thought him handsome. His smooth, brown skin and dark eyes. He always seemed to have a smile on his face, and she knew that Jess loved his long dreads.

“Hi, sweetie.” Abel broke away from Will and gave her roomy and friend a hug, both girls hanging onto each other. Their balance was crappy to say the least. The men grinned knowingly at each other.

“Okay, gotta go now,” Jess said, pulling away from the blonde. She leaned in and whispered. “Got me some business to attend to.” She winked, and grabbed Jerome again. They wobbled out of the room together.

“Lucky guy,” Will said, taking the small blonde in his arms again. She put her hands on his chest, starting to push him away, but seemed to change her mind. She grinned up at him, fire dancing in those green eyes. He’d have to grovel thanks at Kendra’s feet for inviting him after tonight.

Abel grabbed Will by the jersey collar of his shirt, and led him over to the kitchen. Once there, she pulled him to her, and laid one on him. He responded immediately, his hands going right to her ass, pulling her into him. He was already getting excited, and it was just a kiss. But oh, what a kiss it was!

He felt himself lean into the smaller woman, wanting her to know just what he had for her. He felt her hands twining in his hair and deepen the kiss. Oh yeah. He knew this one would be good in the sack.

Abel kissed Will, enjoying the attention and physical contact. He was actually a fairly good kisser, considering most men had no clue. She didn’t think she’d have to wipe her chin this time. That was a plus, wasn’t it? It was about as much as she could hope for. She just hoped that he was better in bed than her ex, Kyle, had been. That boy needed some serious training.

As they continued to kiss, she could feel Will’s excitement. This excited her as well, but only to a certain degree. She wished that she could find a guy who was content with a good makeout session. Why was it always necessary for sex to follow?

But, knowing she had to play the game to get what she wanted, she continued to run her fingers through short brown hair.

She broke the kiss, and gave him a smoldering look. Without a word, she grabbed his hand and led him through the apartment, trying to avoid the other party-goers.

Abel took a deep breath as she felt that feeling of arousal spread through her, laying a blanket of warmth over her. She pulled her key out of her pocket, and unlocked the bedroom door she shared with Jess. She was glad her friend had chosen to take Jerome somewhere else.

Will followed her in and closed the door behind him. Once they were all alone in the dark room, he reached down and pulled his shirt off. The blonde marveled at his strength and power as his muscles flexed with the motion. She spread her fingers out over his chest, feeling the course hair that met her palms.

The next thing she knew, she was taken in a kiss again. This kiss was not just filled with flirtation and possibility, but with actual intent. She felt large hands caress her ass, then push her into his bulging need.

“I’ve got something, baby,” he whispered into her mouth, reaching around to his back pocket, and pulling his wallet out. He stepped away from her and began to unbutton his jeans. She turned to the room, lit only by moonlight, and made sure the bed was clear. Luckily she had actually made it today. She didn’t want this guy to think she was a total slob.

Heading over to it, she began to tug at the tightly tucked bedding. She felt him come up behind her, pushing himself into her backside.

“You are so hot, Abel,” he said into her neck as he nuzzled her long hair aside. She closed her eyes, appreciating the feel of his hands snaking around to cover her cotton-clad breasts.

Abel began to moan when suddenly a feeling began to gnaw at her stomach. She faltered for just a moment then continued. It hit her again.

Guilt.

Her eyes snapped open and she looked around. Still in her dark bedroom with a gorgeous guy behind her, fondling her. Will noticed her stiffen.

“Hey, baby, you okay?”

“Yeah. I think so.” Blonde brows drew as she tried to remember what had made her stop.

Will leaned down, beginning to kiss her neck again. Abel allowed herself to be kissed, but the feeling kept nagging at her. Talk about a cold shower. And talk about confusing.

“Wait, Will, stop.” She pushed away from him, taking a step back. She closed her eyes, shaking her head to clear it. When she looked up at him, she could see the confusion and slight anger in his face. She felt horrible. “God, Will, I’m sorry,” she said softly. She knew he’d be in some pain, and wished she could help him. He stood there, jeans open, erection clearly visible, and an unopened condom laying on the bed, but she had no desire to jerk the guy off just so he wouldn’t have the infamous blue ball syndrome. “I can’t do this.”

“Why not?” he asked, the anger beginning to win over the confusion.

“I just can’t. Okay? I’m sorry.” Her voice was slightly more forceful now, and she took another step back from him. “I feel like such a shit,” she whispered to no one in particular.

“Man, a damn tease!” he shouted, then grabbed his shirt from the floor and yanked it on. He looked at her when he stood by the door. She couldn’t meet his eyes. “Bitch.” He stormed out the bedroom door, slamming it shut.

The blonde buried her face in her hands, then ran them through her hair.

“Shit. What the hell is wrong with me?” Never had that happened before. She had not slept with many guys for sure, but she had never stopped it before. She knew what she wanted, and went after it. So what the hell had happened?

*****

Abel had laid in bed for several hours after her encounter in the kitchen with Will. To her amazement, her body was completely calm once she hit the sheets. She had been so turned on, her body on fire as they’d kissed. She had been just about ready to lead him to her bedroom when that strange feeling had coursed through her.

It had been baffling. Suddenly she had felt as if she were kissing the wrong person. As though her heart were far away in the night, far away from her apartment, and certainly far away from the guy she’d been kissing.

The next morning, the little blonde was to start out on her voyage to the family cabin. Again, she’d be there a week earlier than her parents and siblings, but she didn’t care. She wanted the time to regroup. She had been left shaken by the night before, and wanted time to think it over.

Zac popped into her mind. The dark girl had been absent from her thoughts for a few days, which was a nice reprieve, though the blonde had missed her. Zac’s memory had become a sort of companion for Abel. She now understood what Zac had meant when she’d said that Abel had been her traveling companion while she’d ridden the rails when she’d been a young girl.

Abel felt the same way. She had all the purchases loaded into the back of her car with her bag of clothing. She hoped she had packed enough for the harsh Maine winter.

The blonde reached down, eyes still firmly set on the road, and began to play with the dial on the radio. Grimacing at the old, twangy country music she landed on, she continued to fiddle until she heard the soft strands of a guitar. Listening, she marveled at the lyrics:

As we turn our lives
Down this complicated road
If you need a hand to hold
I promise you
I will be your friend
Through whatever life may send
And I know that you will be there too

If I should lose my way
Along this road we share
Please bring me home, come what may
If I should lose my way

When the wild wind blows
And the rain begins to fall
I will find you through it all
And comfort you
But as we move on
Should you turn and find me gone
Then just rest awhile, I’ll be along

If I should lose my way
Along this road we share
Please wait for me, come what may
If I should lose my way

Day after day, never let the sun go down
‘Till love is found once more

If I should lose my way
Along this road we share
Please look for me, come what may
If I should lose my way

Please look for me….
If I should lose my way

Stunned, the blonde looked at the radio. Thoughts of Zac immediately flooded into her mind, and she felt her eyes begin to fill. She missed her so much. That day back in September had frightened her, and she worried for the brunette’s safety.

“Oh, Zac,” she whispered.

*****

The forest, hushed from the thick blanket of snow that kept it far from war, was disturbed. By what? Birds squawked to each other from hidden nests, warnings of possible danger. A single squirrel, cheeks filled with nuts, rose from his perch on a branch, ears and tail perked.

The figure moved quickly through the white landscape, scurrying atop the bluff, the road visible. White puffs of hot air increased as a heartbeat quickened.

The figure scrambled from tree to tree as the lone, blue car made its slow, careful way up the trail, careful to stay in the tracks already laid earlier in the snow by other cars.

The car steadily got closer and closer. This time there was no mistaking which direction it would turn.

*****

Abel pulled up to the cabin, not looking forward to leaving the warmth of her car’s heater. Shutting the engine down, she tapped her fingers on the steering wheel for a moment, turning her head to look out into the amazing snow-covered landscape.

Every year she came up for Christmas, she was always blown away by the immense beauty. This year was no different.

Finally gathering her courage to face the harsh cold, she unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the car door. She would unload the car, then start a fire and curl up with a good book.
Part 8
“Fuck, it’s cold!” Abel growled as she tugged the ends of her coat closer together. She grabbed her keys from the ignition and searched through them with gloved fingers until she found the one for the trunk. Of all the times she wished she had a button inside that would release the trunk’s lock.

Nose instantly turning red as the frigid air hit it, the blonde sucked in a breath, the air chilling her lungs and making her cough. She looked up when she felt a snowflake land on her lashes. It was starting to snow again. She’d have to hurry to get the car unloaded. Thinking of possibly just taking in what she’d need for the night, she unlocked the trunk. Watching it slowly rise, she stopped, and looked out over the white landscape. Truly breathtaking. But that wasn’t what had gotten her attention.

She studied the trees, watching as the snow, which was steadily getting stronger, fell onto the branches.

The hum was back.

“Zac?” she called out, her voice getting swallowed in the silence of the landscape. Nothing. Just the softness of the snow falling. Abel’s brows drew. She knew she felt the brunette. Just knew it. Or was she just hopeful? “Zac?” she called out again, louder this time. She could have been the last person on earth for the stillness.

Disappointed, and feeling sad, she turned back to the car. Maybe tomorrow she’d go exploring Zac’s old haunt. For now it was getting late, and was far too cold.

*****

The blonde was tired as she plopped the last of her bags onto her bed. One entire bag was filled with the things she’d bought for Zac; both Christmas gifts and the things she’d picked up for her around Boston.

She moved to the window and looked down. She stared down into the thicket that was just away from the house, where the brunette used to hide most often. She peered through the naked branches of the trees, hoping beyond hope that she’d see some kind of movement there. Nothing.

Sighing deeply, she decided to unpack now so she wouldn’t have to worry about it later. She wanted to chill for the rest of the night.

After an hour of unpacking, Abel made her way downstairs, and headed outside for some firewood. Luckily her father thought ahead of time, and paid Jim Wilkins to bring up wood starting in early December.

As always, the wood was stacked neatly next to the house, covered by a tarp. The blonde folded back the heavy blue material and began to pile the small logs into her arms. She turned to look over her shoulder, swearing she had heard something. Scanning the quickly darkening forest, she saw nothing. Feeling a slight shiver run up her spine, she hurried inside.

The night was cold and beautiful, and Abel was again looking forward to her time alone. Her family would arrive once public school was finished, closer to Christmas. She had just over a week. How different she felt this time around from last summer.

She also allowed herself to think about the events toward the end of the summer. She had suffered from nightmares for weeks after the incident with Zac and Gerald Hivey. The Cohens had been stunned to find out that he had taken his own life while awaiting his trial. Hung himself, they said. Good riddance. But the blonde felt bad for the families who would never get justice in all the mindless killing.

She could have been one of his victims. Abel’s mom had finally managed to get her father to realize that Zac had saved their daughter’s life. He felt bad for what had happened, and the brunette losing everything. But he had felt he had been protecting his family at the time. Knowing the way things worked out, Gerald Hivey ending up dead, his daughter and Zac both unhurt, he would have done things no different.

The blonde grasped her cup of hot cocoa in both hands and sat on the couch, staring into the dancing flames in the fireplace. She could still see the look that had been Zac that day. Such ferocity, which she now realized was never aimed at her. It had stunned her, and made her step back and eventually run from her friend. She knew that Zac would protect her at any cost, and wished that she had been clear-minded enough to realize that then. But it happened, and there was no way of doing it over.

Over the past six months, she had begun to think a lot about the brunette, and what the girl had meant to her in that short time during the summer. She knew in her heart that Zac would always be there for her, no matter what. She felt the same way, and missed the older girl. Very much.

In the hustle and bustle of the blonde’s daily life, she had come to appreciate the simplicity of Zac. Not that the girl was simple by any means. In fact, she had the distinct feeling that there was much more to the tall girl than anyone even knew. She’d love to know what made her tick, what made her happy. It had seemed last summer that her “Spinney” made her happy, but that wasn’t the case.

Abel brought a hand up, surprised to feel the wetness on her fingertip as she ran it under her right eye. She could see the despair and desolation in the blue eyes that night. The night when Zac had come to her, come to tell her goodbye. So badly she had wanted to beg her friend to stay, and not leave Maine. In the end, Able knew Zac had to do what was right for her. And for the brunette to want to leave her home, there had to be a reason.

Reasons the blonde would probably never know.

She sighed again, taking a sip, and closing her eyes. She felt the warmth spread through her, calming her from the inside out.

Abel wondered if she had indeed felt Zac when she’d arrived at the cabin. She was just sure she did – she still did. She closed her eyes tighter, just allowing herself to feel. She was there. Somewhere out in the night, and yet she stayed away.

“Why, Zac?” she said quietly to the room. The only answer was the clock on the mantel, ticking the minutes away.

*****

The figure moved swiftly through the darkness, not making a sound across the hard-packed snow. A skill, developed for hunting.

The lights of the cabin were dim, limited to one room, and the tell-tale smoke wafting up from the chimney told of the source.

Large, gloved hands reached down, gathering snow.

*****

Green eyes opened suddenly, and looked around the near-dark room. The fire had burned down to little more than ashes, and the house was cold.

Realizing she had fallen asleep, but not certain what it had been that had woken her up, she pulled her sore body up from its precarious position on the couch and stretched her arms above her head.

Running her hands through her hair, she headed upstairs to bed.

*****

Humming softly to herself, Abel puttered around the kitchen. She was dressed in flannel pants, a sweatshirt and slippers. The scenery around the cabin was beautiful, and she was warm and cozy, with a nice fire ablaze in the other room.

Coffee started, she headed toward the fireplace to see how much wood she’d need. She preferred to gather it at the beginning of the day, and then just relax inside. As she neared the hearth, she glanced out the front door and noticed something. Stepping closer, she peered out the small, square panes in the door, and saw a snowman. He was sitting on the cabin’s porch, and was about 18 inches tall. Two thin sticks stuck out the sides of the triple layered body. A small stick for his nose, and, what caught her attention the most, were the two bright blue buttons that were used as eyes. Setting off the masterpiece was the small stones placed in an upward semi-circle to depict a smile.

“What the . . .” The blonde unlocked and opened the door, the cold morning air hitting her in the face. The day was sunny, but more snow was predicted, and cold along with it.

She stepped out onto the porch, and knelt down to look at the little guy. She reached out a hand, looking at the snow creature with reverence. The snow was cold and wet against her fingertips as she traced the roundness of the head. Her gaze traveled down to the button eyes, and suddenly she knew who had made this.

“Zac!” She bounded off the porch, looking frantically into the woods for any sort of sign or movement. Deep inside, about fifty yards from the cabin, a dark figure stepped out from behind a tree, and the blonde felt her heart begin to pound in her chest. “Zac!”

She began to run through the snow, as well as one can run through knee-deep snow, pushing her legs up higher to clear more ground. She pounded her arms through the air as she flew toward the figure who had started to walk toward her. As the blonde got closer, the figure moved beneath a breach in the branch cover, and Abel could see Zac’s features clearly.

“Zac!” she called out again, pushing her body harder through the snow until she reached the darker girl, throwing herself into waiting arms. Abel panted into her neck, the cold air and exertion nearly her undoing.

The momentum of her body had nearly knocked Zac over backward into the snow, but the taller girl managed to stay on her feet as they clung to each other. Abel could feel her smile about to break her face in two, but she didn’t care. She closed her eyes and dug her fingers into the material of the brunette’s coat, clutching at what she could.

Eyes also tightly closed, Zac held onto Spinney, all her earlier resolve to leave the blonde alone melting in the bitter morning air. She held her Spinney to her, reveling in the warmth and familiarity. Spinney didn’t hate her!

“Oh, Zac,” was breathed into her neck, the warm air displacing the small hairs, making Zac shiver. She held the blonde tight, listening to her breathing for a moment before the blonde began to talk.

“I thought about you all semester,” she exclaimed, still keeping her tight hold. “I saw you everywhere I went. And now my best friend thinks I’m crazy or pregnant because of foil!”

The brunette was confused, but said nothing. She let Abel say whatever it was she needed to say. As usual, the little blonde was obviously bubbling with words.

“And I missed you so much! I can’t believe you’re here!”

Suddenly the blonde pulled away, fiery green eyes looking up at Zac.

“I called for you, Zac. Why didn’t you answer?” She gripped the open ends of Zac’s coat, tugging at it to emphasize her words.

“I didn’t want to bother you anymore, Spinney,” was Zac’s quiet answer. “I don’t want to hurt you again.”

Abel looked up into the most sincere eyes she had ever seen.

“Oh, Zac.” Abel grabbed her for another hug. “You can’t hurt me, honey. I’m not angry with you. You saved my life.” Her expression turned from that of accusation to total acceptance. Zac smiled, and Abel’s heart melted. With an audible click, her world was righted again.

That is, until she began to shiver violently.

“Oh, Spinney. You’re going to freeze.” A small wrinkle formed between Zac’s eyes, and she nodded toward the cabin down the hill from them.

Without a word, the blonde began to retrace her steps, losing a slipper once, her arms wrapped tightly around her body. Now that the adrenaline had died down somewhat, her body was revolting against the harsh temperatures.

The blonde’s lips were trembling and blue once they reached the porch. She turned to Zac, who waited at the bottom of the stairs. She knew not to push the brunette now.

“Zac . . .” She shivered, her words coming out in a staccato rhythm. “I d… don’t w… w… want… t… t… to lose you.. a… again.”

The brunette looked up at her, and knew that since she had given in to what she most wanted, there was no way she could deny herself of her Spinney’s presence again. With a deep breath, she made a decision.

“Then let’s go in,” she said quietly, taking the steps two at a time so she was standing next to the blonde in two giant strides. Green eyes widened and sparkled. “Come on, before you freeze to death.”

Without a word, Abel reached behind her and grabbed the doorknob with trembling fingers, unable to control her movements enough.

“Here.” Zac placed her larger hand over the blonde’s, and turned the knob. The door swung open, and the two hurried inside. Zac stood near the door, not sure what to do. She looked around, hands behind her back. Abel hurried over to the fire, letting the warmth spread through her. She looked at the brunette, unable to believe that she was really in her cabin.

The brunette looked tired and cold, despite the brave face she was putting on. Her hair was stringy and dirty, as unless she wished to join the Polar Bear Club, she was out of luck to bathe.

Blue eyes met Abel’s, and they smiled.

“I can’t believe you’re here, Zac,” Abel said quietly, her voice filled with awe. Zac smiled, but said nothing. “Come on. Let’s get you warmed up and showered.”

“Showered?” The brunette cocked her head to the side, unsure. Abel smiled and grabbed Zac’s hand.

“Yes, showered. First, get out of this stuff.” She bent down and unlaced the snow-encrusted boots, helping her friend out of them, then stood, pushing Zac’s coat off the taller girl’s shoulders. “Come on.” She hurried up the stairs to the second-floor bathroom where the largest shower was. Zac followed, though continued to look around the warm cabin.

The last time she’d been there, which had been one of the last times she’d spent any time with Spinney, she had been half dazed and sick.

She still felt that bit of discomfort, as though she did not belong there. But she had yet to see the blonde’s family show up, so knew it was just her and Spinney. She always felt comfortable with her.

She was led into a small room with a toilet and sink, and some sort of glass wall that she couldn’t see through.

“Okay, my friend. This is a shower,” Abel explained, pulling the glass wall open. Zac looked curiously inside, seeing it was a small room again, with tiled walls and a drain on the floor. She looked to the blonde for further explanation. Green eyes smiled mischievously at her. “You’re gonna love this.” She grinned.

She gently pushed Zac back and turned on the water, using her hand to gauge the temperature.

“Strip,” she said over her shoulder. She heard the ruffling of clothing as the brunette disrobed. The water felt warm enough without the possibility of burning Zac’s skin, so she turned to her friend.

The taller girl stood naked in the middle of the large bathroom, her body pale and slightly too thin, but well-muscled and proud.

Wow! The blonde was struck dumb for a moment. She realized just how beautiful Zac really was. Her long dark hair flowed down her back, her bright blue eyes open and looking at her. She would truly be stunning once clean and in clean clothes.

Shaking her head to clear it, she walked over to the brunette.

“Okay . . .” She took her by the hand and led her to the shower stall. “On the shelf there is shampoo and soap. There’s a loofa hanging over the plastic hook in the corner. Everything you need should be here. Kay?”

Zac nodded and with one final look at Abel, stepped into the stall. She started at the feel of the warm water beating down on her skin, but just as quickly, she closed her eyes. It felt like pure bliss. She released a long, drawn-out sigh of pure contentment.

The blonde chuckled and gathered up all of her discarded clothing.

Once Zac was alone, she ran her hands through her hair, letting the water slick it back from her face. Once, while traveling down in the Ozarks, she had found a waterfall. It had been summer, so the cold water had been more than welcome. That had been one of her favorite things about traveling in those parts, and now to have a waterfall inside, but with hot water! She was amazed and overjoyed.

Sighing at the feeling of clean skin and hair for the first time since early winter, she thought about where she was, and just for a moment berated herself.

After seeing too much violence in the fight with the rail inspector, she had decided to go home. She was tired of running and tired of having to look over her shoulder. She knew in the Wachovia Forest she would be safe. So, homebound she’d been. Arriving back in October, she had worked quickly to fashion some kind of shelter. She had managed to make something that would last, and be much sturdier than the canvas over the summer.

Blushing slightly at the memory of where she’d gotten the materials, she was proud of her home. She’d do whatever was necessary to keep it.

But first, it was time to make Spinney happy again.

*****

Abel grabbed the cordless off the coffee table as she passed it, Zac’s clothes still in hand. She dialed with her thumb, and put the phone to her ear. It was answered after two and a half rings.

“Mom?” she gushed. The older woman was startled.

“Hi, honey. I guess you made it okay, huh?” The older woman chuckled. She wondered what had her daughter grinning from ear to ear. She knew that sound in her voice.

“Yeah. And guess who’s here!?” Abel nearly jumped for joy as she said it. She hurried over to the small laundry room and began to prepare the washer.

“I haven’t a clue, honey. Rocky the flying squirrel?” Sherry Cohen continued down the grocery aisle, her cell firmly planted to her ear by her shoulder.

“Very funny. No, Zac! She’s here!” Abel nearly dropped the phone with her excitement.

“There in Wachovia?” Sherry stopped walking, and concentrated on what her very excited daughter was saying.

“Well, yeah. But here in the house, too.” The blonde grinned into the phone like an idiot. “Isn’t that cool?”

“Oh honey, that’s great.” The older blonde smiled. “I’m glad she’s okay. What are you girls up to?” She saw the jar of peanut butter she needed, and grabbed three of them.

“She’s showering right now. I’m about to wash her clothes. God, mom! It was good to see her,” Abel breathed. “I was really worried about her. She looks a little thin, but pretty good otherwise.”

As she was separating the clothes, something fell out of Zac’s pants’ pocket. She picked it up and saw it was a folded piece of paper. Curiosity getting the best of her, she unfolded it and smiled. It was the note she had left for the brunette last summer.

“Oh, Zac,” she whispered. She could tell by the state of the page it had been carried around for some time. It was terribly wrinkled and even ripped in some places, the ink smudged from a thumb or finger.

“Honey?”

“Oh. Sorry.” Quickly refolding the paper, she set it on top of the washer and began to pour in detergent. “So anyway, there’s my happy news.”

“Happy indeed. You sound as though you’re about to bounce out of your skin.” Sherry grinned as she pushed her cart toward the checkout line. “Honey, I’d better go. I have to pay for this army’s worth of food I’ve got here.”

“Okay. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Yup. Say hi to Zac for me, and I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

The blonde pushed the OFF button, and laid the phone down on the table her mom used to fold the clothes as they came out of the dryer. She happily began to work, a quiet hum filling the laundry room.

*****

Zac reluctantly turned off the knobs, effectively cutting off the water that started to turn icy. She grabbed the towel that Spinney had left for her, and wrapped her body in it. She walked over to the mirror that was mounted above the sink, seeing her gauzy reflection. The steam on the mirror hiding most of her features, she looked down at herself. The newest scar that littered her body caught her eye. Bringing her left arm up, underside up, she looked at the puckered, white flesh there.

The scar extended from her wrist about four inches. She was lucky she hadn’t bled to death after that one. Bastard of a rail inspector.

Running her fingers over the scar absently, she looked around the bathroom, still hot and steamy from the long shower. What was she supposed to wear? She could go downstairs in the towel she wore. Spinney had taken her clothes with her for some reasons. Was she supposed to walk around like that?

She looked down at herself again. The towel was around her shoulders, and barely covered her. Most of her front was exposed from the navel down.

“Hmm,” she muttered, looking around the room for some sort of covering. She saw a door behind the door that led out into the hallway. Opening it, she found more towels. Grateful as she began to shiver, the steam dissipating, she wrapped one around her waist.

Padding along the cold, wood floor, she headed downstairs, her nose showing her the way.

She inhaled, eyes closed. Her stomach began to growl loudly. It was hard to find decent game in the snow. Nibbling on the same rabbit for nearly two weeks wasn’t even remotely enough for her tall frame.

She reached the kitchen and heard soft humming. She smiled, seeing the blonde shaking her hips to some tune she heard in her head. She was moving around the small room with a fun little dance move, her head bobbing lightly.

The brunette watched from the doorway, amused.

“Ugh!” the blonde nearly jumped out of her skin when she turned to see her friend watching her. “God, you scared me.” She put her hand to her chest, trying to calm her heart.

“Oh. Sorry.” Zac looked down, beginning to turn away, shoulders slumped.

“Oh, honey. Wait.” Abel hurried over to her, placing a hand on her terry cloth-covered shoulder. “God, I’m sorry. No. I was just startled.” She smiled reassuringly, realizing that Zac was spooked now after last summer. She knew the brunette would never hurt her and told her as much.

The blonde noticed what Zac was dressed in, and realized that she hadn’t left her with any clothes.

“Shit! I’m sorry.” She grabbed Zac’s hand and hurried into her parents’ bedroom. She searched through some drawers until she found her father’s sweats. They’d be a little big, but nothing major. Mainly around the waist. “Here. Use the drawstring to tighten them.” She grabbed a nice, heavy sweatshirt from the closet and handed it to her, along with a pair of socks. “Get dressed. I’ll be in the kitchen. I’ve got a surprise for you.” The blonde grinned, her green eyes twinkling.

Zac watched her go, then quickly set to dressing. She groaned at the feel of the soft warmth of the fleece-lined clothing. It was strange going sans underclothes, but she’d deal.

The smell once again led her to her destination. She watched as Abel expertly flipped something in a pan. On closer inspection, she realized it was a pancake! She’d had those once before, and her mouth began to water.

“Sit,” Abel ordered, placing her newest batch of pancakes on the awaiting plate. “These have chocolate chips in them.” She grinned over her shoulder. “And . . .” She walked over to the fridge, bringing out a brand new bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup. Blue eyes instantly lit up. The blonde grinned, then brought out a new can of Reddi Whip.

She began to serve the brunette, who watched with hunger-filled eyes. Abel was sad. She wondered just how long it had been since the taller girl had had anything substantial to eat.

“Okay. Here’s how this works.” She handed Zac the syrup, which the girl knew what to do with, and she did with gusto. “This is whipped cream. Try it.” She squirted some on Zac’s finger. The darker girl looked at , studying the creamy consistency, then put the finger in her mouth. She drew her brows for a moment as she rolled it around her tongue, then her eyes closed. Abel grinned, heading back to get them some milk and juice to drink.

She sat across from her friend, giggling at the mountain of whipped cream that topped the stack of flap jacks. She sat, chin resting in her palm, watching the ravenous girl eat. There was not a chance in hell this girl was going to starve over the winter. She’d buy her an entire store of food to keep in the snow for after she left, if need be.

Zac savored the tastes that assaulted her mouth and tongue. She closed her eyes at every bite, quickly taking another, enjoying it as if it were her first. Abel had forgotten about her own breakfast, entirely too fascinated by her friend.

Finally the plate before the tall girl was empty, and blue eyes began to scan the kitchen for more. The blonde looked down at her own uneaten pancakes, and quietly slid them across the table. A grateful gaze met hers, then the ritual began all over again.

“Where did you go?” Abel finally asked, Zac’s appetite slowing down. She was poised to jump up at any moment and make more. But, the girl seemed to be doing okay.

Blue eyes glanced up at her from her breakfast. She downed the cold glass of milk, the blonde snickering at the mustache left. She reached over the table and wiped it off with her thumb.

“A little of everywhere,” Zac said quietly. She sat back, allowing what she’d eaten to settle. “I went down south for a bit, and headed over toward Illinois and Indiana.” She looked up a little shyly. “Went through Boston, too.”

Green eyes opened wide.

“When?!”

Zac shrugged. “About late summer, September.”

The blonde stared at her for a moment, just trying to get her thoughts straightened out. “September?” The brunette nodded. “Zac, did something happen to you?” She thought back to that beautiful, late summer day on campus. That feeling that had rushed through her, leaving her almost ill with worry.

“Yes,” Zac said, nodding.

“What?” The blonde swallowed, almost feeling sick again from the uncertainty. How was this possible? How could she have possibly felt something that had happened to her friend?

“I was pulled from a train.” Zac raised her arm, sliding the thick sleeve up to her elbow, exposing the angry scar.

“Oh . . .” The blonde sucked in a breath as she rose from her seat, and hurried over to the darker girl. She took hold of the arm, and gazed down at the mark, marring the perfect, tan skin. “Oh, honey,” she whispered, looking up into the blue eyes, her own filled with moisture.

Zac looked with concern into her friend’s face. She brought up a hand, and caught the single tear that slipped free.

“Why are you crying?” she asked, her voice so soft, Abel almost missed the question.

“You got hurt,” Spinney answered, gently touching the scar. “How did you get cut so badly?” Looking back at the mark, she could tell that it probably would have needed stitches. The skin had mended, but was rough and puffy from the scar tissue.

“When I fell, I landed on a jagged tie,” the brunette explained softly. “Please don’t cry, Spinney.” Abel met her gaze, and she forced herself to smile and nod. After a brief pause she took a deep breath.

“I have a surprise for you.” She stood, and ran up the two flights of stairs to her room. Once there, she looked around, looking for the duffel bag she had crammed full of her gifts for the taller girl. Once spotted, she grabbed it, and turned to head back. She stopped, realizing just how ridiculous it had been to buy all this stuff, and bring it with her. Hell, she carried it in the trunk of her car everywhere, just on the chance she’d see her friend. “I’m crazy,” she said, shaking her head. “Absolutely crazy.”

Zac heard the pounding of feet on the stairs, and looked up to see her friend hurry over to the living room.

“Come here,” Abel called out, setting the bag she carried in front of the fire place. Zac pushed away from the table, glad to be out of the sight of food, her belly nearly rebelling from so much food so quickly.

She found Spinney sitting with cross-legged on the floor, and looking up at her expectantly. The tears were gone, replaced by a huge grin. She matched it, and plopped down in front of the blonde.

“Okay. Now you stay still, and I’ll give you this stuff one at a time. Kay?” Nod. Abel felt like a child playing Santa on Christmas morning as she rose to her knees, and unzipped the large bag. “Okay, first we start with this. Oh, close your eyes!”

Zac smiled at the blonde’s excitement, but complied. She was told to hold her hands out, so she did. She felt a cylinder-shaped thing put there, paper crinkling against her palms.

“Open.”

Blue eyes opened to see a roll of toilet paper sitting in her hands. She looked up at Spinney with curious eyes.

“That’s biodegradable toilet paper,” the blonde explained. “See, when you use it and throw it out in the forest, it will break down really fast.”

Zac nodded, not fully understanding, but realizing this must be a good thing.

“I got you a few of those.” She pulled out four more rolls, stacking them neatly beside herself. “Okay. Next . . .” Zac closed her eyes. She felt something soft, but scratchy. Opening her eyes, she saw a knit cap, black. She turned it over in her hands, smiling at the little squirrel that was sewn into it. She grinned up at Spinney.

“It’s my little squirrel.”

“Sure is.” The blonde grinned like a loon, happy to see the sparkle in Zac’s eyes. Without further ado, the brunette placed the cap on her still slightly damp hair, tugging it down to just shy of the top of her eyes. Abel laughed, but turned back to her bag.

She pulled out the small box, making sure it was right side up. She placed it in Zac’s open palm.

“Okay. I’m not sure if you even need this, but figure it’s good all the same.”

The brunette opened her eyes to see the small box, and looked at Abel with confused eyes.

“Open it,” the blonde encouraged. Long, calloused fingers gently tugged the top off the box, leaving a shallow box for her to peer into. She pulled out the small, silver compass, looking at the black face. She looked up at the blonde. “It’s a compass, Zac. I doubt you need it. I’m sure you can just look at the moss growing on the side of a tree or something.” She grinned. “But . . . here.” She crawled over to where her friend sat, and showed her the merits of the instrument. She showed her how it would clip onto her belt loop.

“So I can tell which direction I’m facing no matter where I am?” Zac asked, turning the small dial this way and that, amazed at how the pointer stayed in the same place. “Wow,” she breathed, eyes opened wide in adventurous excitement. “Can I go try it?” She was nearly bursting at the seams.

Abel laughed. “Tell you what, why don’t we finish up here, then we can go outside. Okay?” Zac nodded amiably, her eyes automatically going back to the compass. The blonde moved back over to her bag. She grabbed the thickly folded, hooded sweatshirt, and tossed it at the girl.

Zac caught it easily, and held it up. It was red with pockets in front, and on the back, the words Boston University were proudly displayed in black lettering.

“That’s from my school,” Abel said, her voice shy. Zac was holding the thick sweatshirt up to her eyes, absorbing the feel of something that was from the blonde’s other life beyond the cabin. It almost made her feel like she could touch that part of Spinney in some very small way.

“I love it.” Zac grinned from ear to ear. With those words, she promptly yanked Adam’s sweatshirt off, and tugged the new one on. Abel was shocked by the sudden flash of skin, but loved the gesture all the same.

“Okay. And finally,” Abel reached into the bag, grunting slightly at the weight, and produced a large text book. It was the book she’d bought at the campus bookstore.

Zac’s eyes widened at the sight, especially when she read Zoology Today in big, black letters.

“This is an older edition text book for the class. I hope you like it.”

Zac took the heavy text, fingertips lovingly caressing the smooth cover. She looked up at the blonde with expectant eyes, compass forgotten.

“Can I read?” she asked quietly, hope in her eyes. Abel smiled warmly and nodded. She knew that as soon as her friend got her hands on the book, she would lose her.

*****

After finally winning a full out battle over where Zac would sleep, the two sat peacefully in Abel’s large bed.

“I still don’t understand why you want me here,” the brunette muttered, feeling like she was pushing the blonde right out of her own bed.

“Because there is not a chance in hell that I was going to let you sleep on the floor in the middle of December in Maine, Zac!” Abel was exasperated with the girl. She looked at her with fierce green eyes. “If you don’t want to sleep here, that’s one thing. But if it’s because of some sense of honor or something, not gonna happen. Got me?” With the brunette’s nod, the subject was dropped. “Good. Now come here. I need warmth.”

Abel had shown Zac one of the great modern marvels in keeping warm – the electric blanket. The tall girl was immediately stunned and amazed at how it worked, and how warm it made the bed.

The two slid down in the sheets, and Abel instantly curled up next to the older girl. She grinned, rubbing her forehead against the bronze shoulder, wiggling happily. She had the goofiest grin on her face that Zac had ever seen.

“What’s the matter with you?” the brunette laughed, utterly charmed.

“I’m just happy,” Spinney said, snuggling in closer. Shaking her head, but just as happy, Zac snuggled in closer, too. She laid there for a moment, thinking, then spoke. “Zac, what happened with the scar on your arm?”

“Well . . .” Zac sighed, traveling back to that day. “I had jumped off the boxcar the night before in Boston. So, I was wandering around the tracks, trying to spot when the next train would show. I was on government property, though. They’re not real fond of us.” She chuckled lightly, though there was little to no humor in it. “So a rail inspector came along. See, these are rough guys who hate hoppers . . .”

“Hoppers?”

“Yeah. Rail hoppers. Anyway, so they can’t stand us. He came after me, and I grabbed the train that was passing. Pulled me right off,” she said, her voice growing even softer.

“So? What did you do?” Abel lifted her head to look into the far away gaze of her friend.

“I had to pummel him,” the brunette said, turning her face away from the blonde.

“You beat him up?” Abel asked gently, brushing a few strands of dark hair away from Zac’s face.

“Yes.” Zac suddenly felt very ashamed at her actions. She had done what she had to do, but with Spinney, she felt simply like a barbarian. Resorting to violence.

Abel was surprised when she saw the glistening tear drop making a lazy trail down the taller girl’s cheek. She brought her hand to it, touching the wetness with her fingertip.

“Zac, why are you crying?” Pained blue eyes met hers.

“I don’t want to scare or disappoint you again, Spinney,” Zac whispered.

“Oh, Zac.” Abel smiled, pulling the girl to her for a hug. “I’m not either. You did what you had to do. I know that now. I never doubt your actions.”

Blue eyes, turned gray in the filtered moonlight, studied the blonde.

“Really?” Zac asked, her voice filled with hope.

“Yes, ma’am. I trust you implicitly, Zac. Always will.” She gave the most trusting, reassuring smile she could. The brunette studied her face for a moment, then believing what she heard and saw, snuggled deeper into the bedding. “So, when did you come back here?”

“It was mid-October,” Zac said, her look of fear replaced by that of a smile.

“You’ve been here since October?” Abel asked, surprised. The brunette nodded.

“Yes. After my fun with rail inspector, I decided I wanted to come home,” she said simply. What she didn’t say was that she’d come home to be closer to where she’d last seen Spinney. She had made the promise to leave the smaller girl alone, but still needed to feel that familiarity, needed to know the blonde would be near at some point. She made her feel safe and warm.

“Well, I’m glad.” Abel laid her head back down and cuddled in. She had a grin from ear to ear, unable to make it go away. She hadn’t even realized just how much she missed and worried about her friend until she had seen her, and known was okay. But a probing question kept flitting about her mind. “Zac?”

“Hmm?” The brunette had a matching grin on her face.

“I have a really strange question for you.” The blonde chewed on her bottom lip as she thought of how to phrase it.

“Ask away, Spinney.”

“Well, I guess, um, basically, well . . .” She swallowed. “Zac, do you feel me?”

Puzzled, the brunette took mental note of all her body parts that were touching the blonde.

“Yes. I feel you against my shoulder. And against . . .”

“No, I mean feel me. Like when we’re not together?” Abel lifted her head again, looking down into Zac’s smiling face. The older girl studied her, her mind working at the question. She felt her Spinney all the time. Even when she was on the rails, she still had a vague feeling of the blonde. Like she was out there somewhere.

Finally, with slow movements, she nodded.

“What is it?” Abel lifted her head once more, holding it up on her palm. Zac shrugged.

“I don’t know. I’ve always felt it with you, Spinney,” the brunette said quietly. “It’s just a connection.” The darker girl shrugged, like it was every day she felt such a thing.

“A connection? But how?”

“I don’t know.” Zac turned onto her side to look at her friend. She had no way of explaining what she had always just taken for truth. “It’s like you call out to me somehow, Spinney. Like no matter where you’re at, I can hear you.”

“Exactly! A hum,” Abel said, her voice low and serious.

“Yes. A hum.” Zac liked the idea. “I hear it now. When I left last summer, it quieted, but didn’t die.”

The blonde looked at her with shocked eyes. Zac felt it too? She felt it after she’d left? The blonde had hated the unnatural silence within her own head after the brunette had left.

“Wow,” she breathed, deciding to leave it at that. It was obvious that neither of them would be able to explain it or understand it. She’d just revel in the knowledge that she wasn’t alone.

*****

Zac laid in the dark, listening to the soft breathing of her friend sleeping next to her. She had woken up not long ago, the howling wind outside the window rattling the glass in its pane. She stared out into the black night, knowing that it was snowing again.

Eyes traveling to the beamed ceiling above, she thought back onto the day. It had been an amazing one. She was stunned to find herself inside the Cohen cabin. But all the same, hearing the storm rage out in the frigid night, she was grateful.

She had hid behind numerous trees as she watched Spinney come home and unload her car. The brunette had wanted to go help her, but had stayed back, even when the blonde had called out to her. That had been hard to resist. She had wanted so badly to jump out from behind the tree, not ten yards away, where she’d been hidden. If Spinney had gone any further into the forest, she would have seen footprints everywhere.

She thought of the gifts that had been bestowed upon her that day. She knew that Spinney had a job back in Boston, but hated the thought of the girl spending her hard-earned money on her. There was just no purpose for that. All the same, the tall girl loved what she bad been brought. Her eyes flickered over to the chair where her zoology book sat, just begging to be read.

Zac glanced back over at the sleeping Spinney, and carefully, quietly, eased out of bed. She reached over to the chair, and snagged the book. It was heavy, and she bit her bottom lip as she tried to keep hold of it with one hand long enough to drag it over to the bed. Mission accomplished.

She opened the book, smiling at the sound of the spine being forced to open. She loved the clean smell of the smooth pages, and colorful illustrations along with detailed text. Her eyes widened, mainly in wonder and awe, but also to try and get as much light as possible. The darkened bedroom made reading difficult. But all the same, she was determined. The brunette was absolutely fascinated by what she saw and read. Things she had never known or even thought to know. Her brain felt as though it were swelling from the wealth of knowledge she was absorbing.

Abel shifted, turning over onto her side, feeling a strange weight next to her. She reached her hand out and felt warmth. Green eyes opening, she saw Zac sitting up in bed, the covers pulled up around her waist, the borrowed t-shirt the brunette slept in wrinkled.
The brunette had the large textbook in her lap and was bending over it, trying to read in the faint light.

“Zac?” she said, her voice thick with sleep. The darker head turned toward her, Zac’s face completely hidden in shadow. “What are you doing? Why don’t you sleep?”

“I wanted to read,” came the quiet reply. Abel chuckled and patted the pillow next to her.

“Come here, you nut. You can read tomorrow. It’s after three in the morning.”

The brunette carefully placed the book back onto the chair and slid back down into the warm bed.

“Spinney?”

“Hmm?”

“Can I take the book with me when I go?”

“Of course, Zac. It’s yours.”

“Good.” The taller girl smiled, her eyes shutting.

*****

“Okay, my friend. I’ve seen that you put syrup on just about everything that will stand still, so today I’m going to show you a little something different for lunch.” Abel held up a plastic jar. “This is peanut butter. And this,” she held up the plastic bear, “is honey. They go on bread, and it’ss quite yummy.”

Zac sat perched on the counter, watching as she lightly drummed her socked heels against the cabinet below.

“Have you ever heard of peanut butter and jelly?” At the shake of the dark head, Abel sighed. “Okay. Well, then you’ll get to discover it altogether.” She slapped a liberal amount of the creamy stuff on the split-top wheat bread, then squeezed honey all over it in a fancy pattern. Sticking the two pieces of bread together, she put it on a plate, and presented it to her friend. “Try it.”

The darker girl grabbed the plate and looked at the offering on it. She grabbed the top bread and lifted the corner, peering between, then smelling. Liking what she smelled, she brought the sandwich to her mouth and took a bite.

Abel watched, utterly amused. She watched Zac’s face carefully as the girl chewed the bite, tasting it on her tongue. The explosion of sweetness would assuredly please the sweet tooth she discovered her friend had.

Blue eyes widened, and then a smile formed on the tanned face.

“Good!” she exclaimed, happily digging into the rest of her lunch.

“I’m so glad. Today, my dear Zac, we will be making chocolate chip cookies.” The blonde looked at her friend, a huge smile forming on her lips. The brunette looked confused. “Have you ever had cookies?”

“Just those you gave me last summer.”

“Ah. No, these aren’t Oreos. These are chocolate chip. Like what you had in your pancakes the other morning.” Abel set about gathering the ingredients as Zac finished with her sandwich. “Okay,” she began as she grabbed a recipe from her mother’s recipe file. “Jumbo chocolate chip cookies coming up.” With a wicked grin, she told the brunette what needed to be done.

Zac hurried to do what she was told, grabbing the flour canister from the counter, the milk from the fridge, along with two eggs and the five pound bag of sugar.

“Um, we need one cup of sugar,” Abel said absently as she read over the recipe. The brunette looked at the mixing bowl that already had the eggs in it, and the whole bag of chocolate chips. She looked to the sugar bag, and wondered just how much one cup was.

Looking back to the blonde, she could see that Abel was busy reading what needed to be done, she didn’t want to disturb her. Chewing on her lip, she grabbed the bag of sugar and opened the flaps on top. Looking down into the white grains, she glanced at the bowl, and thought of how sweet the Oreos had been, and figured these chocolate chip cookies would probably be pretty sweet, too.

Lifting the bag, she aimed it over the bowl, the sugar gathering at the edge of the flap, before beginning to spill out into the bowl.

“Zac, the measuring cup is . . .” Abel’s voice trailed off as she watched with fascination as a large flood of white covered the unbeaten egg yolks, the level rising in the bowl. “Or we could just have really sweet cookies.”

*****

“Yes, everything is great. She’s still here, yes.” Abel couldn’t keep the smile out of her voice at her mother’s questions. “Um, yes, you’ll need to get some more food. Oh, and get some more sugar, too. Oh, and a bear of honey!” The blonde smiled into the receiver.

*****

“Will you show me?” Abel asked, quickly buttoning and zipping Zac’s coat for her, making sure it was tightly closed to ward off the chill. The taller girl smiled down at her friend’s concern, secretly loving the attention from her Spinney. “Put these on.” The blonde handed her a pair of thick, warm gloves.

“Yes. I’ll show you,” Zac said quietly, wiggling her fingers to make sure they were snug in the warmth. “Come on.”

The brunette was getting restless in the cabin after two full days and nights. Abel knew it was time to take her outside and let her breathe. So, she had come up with the idea to go out into the snow and play. Zac, of course, had been thrilled at the prospect. This was bitter/sweet for Abel. She was glad to see the girl smile so brightly, but was saddened that it seemed only the wild could bring it.

The two women finished bundling up, then Abel opened the front door. The snow had stopped early that morning, and the accumulation was magnificent. The world outside the Cohen cabin was marvelous with all it’s white intensity. The quiet that ran over the area was palpable. No usual sounds of small, woodland creatures. Once in a while, the sound of snow falling from the tops of branches or the roof was all that was to be heard.

“It’s so beautiful,” Abel breathed, taking it all in from the porch. Zac nodded with a huge, proud grin.

“Yes.”

“I almost don’t want to mar it.” The blonde looked at the perfect snow, always reminding her of the cream between the dark chocolate of Oreo cookies. She used to think she could scoop it up and it would taste the same as the sugary cream, as a child.

“Come on.” Zac’s excitement was barely contained as she jumped off the porch into the soft, giving snow. Abel followed suit, following her friend as she scampered through it, grin nearly splitting her face in two.

“Are you in the same place?” Abel grabbed a small branch from a tree, using it to help her as a walking stick through the deep snow.

“Yep,” Zac called out from just a few feet ahead. Usually the girls would walk hand in hand, but the blonde knew that the taller girl was beside herself to be out in the open, fresh air.

Then Zac remembered. Grimacing inwardly, she knew that her tenacious little buddy would spot it right away. Still, she continued to lead them to her place. She slowed her pace.

Eventually the girls made it to the brunette’s new shelter. Abel was amazed when she saw the new structure. It was much better put together, and sound.

Most of the debris from the burnt cabin was buried beneath the blanket of snow, and all that was left was the rock overhang, and the solid side that Zac had built. It was built out of planks of wood with dry wall sheets beneath it. As she got closer, her brows knit.

Wilkins Co. was stamped into the wood. She looked over her shoulder at a very bashful Zac.

“Zac?” she asked, running her thumb over the stamp. She was amused, and knew that Jim Wilkins would never miss the scraps from one of the many cabins he built in the woods. But all the same . . .

Zac couldn’t meet Spinney’s eyes. She knew the girl wasn’t stupid, but relaxed slightly when it didn’t seem she was angry.

“Huh?” the brunette finally said, shoving her hands deeper into the pockets of her jacket, kicking at some snow.

“It’s a great place,” the blonde finally said with a broad smile. Truth be told, she was pretty surprised and impressed with Zac’s ingenuity with the materials she was given.

The brunette smiled sheepishly. “Thanks.”

Abel bent down and crawled inside, seeing that the space wasn’t filled with nearly as much stuff as the first lean-to had been. Apparently the taller girl hadn’t been able to collect as much. She imagined it was harder during the winter anyway.

Satisfied that her friend had a decent place to stay, though she still worried, she backed out. In the snow bright day again, she looked at her friend, and suddenly a wave of mischief raced through her. Grabbing a handful of snow, she packed it, keeping it away from Zac’s plentiful attention.

Without hesitation, she sent the snowball sailing through the air until it hit with a satisfying splat against the brunette’s shoulder.

Zac turned, stunned, looking down at the white stain on her coat. She turned curious eyes to her friend, who was grinning wickedly.

“What the . . .” SPLAT! “Pah!” Zac reached up, wiping the snow from her left cheek, and then got the hint. She hurried back around the overhang, and grabbed her own fistful of snow. Packing it, she looked around for a little fiery blonde, and aimed. Hitting her target squarely in the back, she giggled and dropped to her knees once more, gathering as much of the powdery stuff as she could.

“Bombs away!” she heard as a slew of well-shaped snowballs bombarded her, many splattering against the tree she was near, though many others managed to hit their intended target. She laughed and cried out as she tried to cover herself. She heard her friend laugh as well.

“You’re next, Spinney!” she raged with a grin as she stood, her arsenal in her arms. She grabbed one at a time, aiming quickly, and throwing. Spinney tried to cover her face, but was laughing entirely too hard, and ended falling on her butt, the snow nearly rising to her shoulders as she sat laughing on the ground. “You okay?” Zac asked, concerned. The blonde was laughing too hard to reply, so she simply nodded.

Convinced her friend was okay, the brunette kept up the barrage.

“Ugh!” The blonde fell further back into the snow, giving up on trying to protect herself. Zac made her way over, and plopped down next to her, grinning like an idiot.

“You okay?” she asked, extending a hand to help Spinney sit.

“Yeah.” The blonde ran a hand through her snow-encrusted hair, then drew it all together, bringing it over her shoulder. “That was fun.” She grinned, cheeks rosy from the cold. Zac nodded.

“Yeah, it was.”

They stood, wiping the snow from their clothing. Abel looked at her friend as they made their way back toward the cabin. Though their time out had been enjoyable, it was still cold, and they were wet. She studied Zac’s face, the calmness that seemed to emanate from her, soothing the soul of the blonde. She felt as though she would forever be protected and watched by this magnificent woman.

A soft smile curved along her lips as she linked their arms. She felt a satisfaction, a happiness, a wholeness, that she never could have expected to find. When she was with Zac, everything was okay, and beautiful again. Though her winter break had basically just started, she already dreaded having to go back. The thought of leaving the brunette in the harsh Maine winter made her feel sick.

With a sigh that blew out in a white puff of air, she turned to her friend as they walked.

“So, I imagine you know Gerald Hivey was arrested,” she said casually, though her voice was soft.

“Who?” Zac turned furrowed brows on her friend.

“The guy, last summer.”

“Oh, Boogie Man.”

Abel nodded, a grim smile in place. “Yeah, the Boogie Man. He was arrested. He was charged with a whole slew of things, Zac. It was awful.” The blonde turned back to the path they were taking, carefully retracing their earlier steps so as not to lose a shoe in the deep snow. “Rape, murder, all of children.” She shivered, still seeing that clump of children’s underwear.

“He’s evil,” the brunette whispered.

“Yes, he is. Well, was. He’s dead.” She looked up, studying the hardness of Zac’s face, that same look from last summer, just without the intent. She shivered again. This time not for fear of Zac, but somehow knowing that something had given birth to that look. “Zac?” she said quietly, seeing the muscles in the brunette’s jaw working.

“Hmm?”

“How did you know?” Abel stopped their progress, her hand resting lightly on Zac’s arm. She saw the look of confusion on the taller girl’s face. “How did you know I’d need you that day, Zac? You knew how dangerous he was. How?”

Zac’s mind ran wild as she tried to decide how to answer. Should she tell the truth? Should she lie? Come up with some sort of story about instinct and just knowing that the blonde was in trouble?

She chewed on the inside of her lip as she pondered this. Finally, meeting the curious green eyes, she sighed.

“I’d seen him before,” the brunette said, her voice barely above a whisper. “He hurt me once, Spinney.”

“What!” Abel grasped her friend’s arm tighter, almost digging her fingernails into the thick padding of the jacket.

“It was a long time ago, Spinney. I recognized his limp. He would have hurt you.” Tears brimmed in the bright blue of Zac’s eyes, and Abel felt them tug at her heart.

“Oh, Zac,” she whispered, reaching up to collect one that fell over the edge of the brunette’s eye. “Honey, you saved me. It’s okay. I’m fine.” She smiled.

“You don’t hate me? I never meant to scare you, Spinney.”

“I know you didn’t. And, no. I could never hate you. Okay? Ever, ever!” Abel’s smile grew as she saw a small light begin to shine in Zac’s eyes. The brunette nodded, and then was pulled into a massive hug. “You’re my friend, Zac, and you always will be.”

*****

Zac rested the large zoology text on the arm of the couch, her finger leading the way for her eyes to follow over the slick page. Her other hand rested lightly on Spinney’s shoulder as the blonde read a novel, the blonde head resting in her lap.

The brunette looked up from her book, smiling down at her friend, then looking around the cabin. Spinney had shown her what decorating a Christmas tree was like. The had used tons and tons of shiny tinsel, balls, ornaments and little things that the Cohen children had made in school over the years.

She watched as the colorful lights over the mantel chased each other in an endless game of tag. Christmas music played softly in the background, and the large, seven foot fake spruce stood proud in the corner, lighting up Zac’s heart as well as the room.

A deep sigh of contentment and happiness escaped her. Never had she felt such peace.

Glancing at the digital clock on the VCR, she gently nudged the blonde.

“Spinney. It’s time.”

Green eyes looked up at her, then at the clock, and she eased herself up into a sitting position. Stretching her arms above her head, she stood, reaching for Zac’s hand.

Zac had no idea just what exactly Chanukah was, except what Spinney had told her. She knew the word meant dedication and commemorated the rededication of the holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Jews’ victory over the Hellenist Syrians in 165 B.C. After the victory, the Jews wanted to light the menorah, and found only enough oil that had not been defiled in the war to light it for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight.

The taller girl watched as Spinney brought out the beautiful, silver menorah, placing it on the table in front of the large picture window, the fading light outside behind it.

“Come here, Zac,” the blonde said quietly, reaching for her friend. Zac took her hand, and watched as Spinney placed a candle in the first slot, and lit another.

As she used the one candle to light the other already placed, Spinney began to sing, softly.

“Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik neir shel Chanukah.” The low singing chant was quickly followed by another, “Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higyanu lazman hazeh.”

Abel placed the candle in the taller, central holder of the menorah, and turned to Zac.

“Happy Chanukah, Zac.” The brunette smiled and echoed the words.

*****

As the days went on, Abel and Zac forged a closeness that neither had thought possible. Even the brunette was shocked and pleasantly surprised by how much deeper their friendship had gotten. The small blonde had been everything to her for so long, she thought that what she felt for her Spinney filled her entire heart.

She was wrong.

The rest of the blonde’s family would arrive the next day, and she was sad. She liked Spinney’s mother, and certainly liked Becky, but she had loved having Spinney all to herself, not having to share her with anyone. And, in all honesty, she wasn’t looking forward to going out and freezing at night.

Every night, she and Spinney cuddled in the blonde’s bed, watching as the snow fell, knowing they were safe and warm. Spinney had asked Zac repeatedly to stay for the winter in the cabin, but the brunette had declined. Despite the cold, she did miss her freedom, and the outdoors. Just the smell alone made her smile.

She did that now, standing at the window in Spinney’s third-floor bedroom.

“What are you grinning at, hmm?” the blonde asked, walking up behind the taller girl. Abel put a hand on Zac’s back, leaning into her as she looked over Zac’s shoulder. “It’s so beautiful out there,” she whispered, feeling her friend nod in response. “I’m really going to miss you, Zac.”

“I’ll miss you too, Spinney.” The brunette put an arm around the slim shoulders of the blonde. “A whole bunch.”

“Come on.” A final pat on the strong back, and Abel turned away, heading toward the warm, inviting bed. She climbed in, tucking her legs into the blankets, feeling the warmth from the electric blanket engulf her. She smiled and scooted down.

She watched her friend, still standing at the window. She knew Zac was restless after a week of virtual captivity with her in the cabin. But she sensed something else within her friend, as well. A sort of sadness. Since she’d come back to the cabin and met up with the tall girl again, something was a little different about Zac. Something had changed since last summer, and she wished she could put a finger on it. It was almost as if she had grown slightly more quiet, if that was possible.

Something had happened to Zac after the attack last summer. Some sort of deep down, elemental change had taken place. The blonde knew her friend had been terrified of losing her friendship, which she had tried valiantly to assure wasn’t the case.

They had grown so close over the last week or so, closer than Abel had ever known was possible with another person. She felt Zac on a deeper level, a soul level. She felt the girl in her bones, and wanted to do everything she could to make her happy, and to assure her safety and comfort. She already had a small pile of Christmas gifts under the tree for her friend, and she knew her mother was bringing more for Zac.

The great thing about having a Jewish father and a Catholic mother was getting presents for a good part of December every year.

Abel grinned at the thought.

Finally Zac turned away from the window, and hurried across the cold floor, hopping onto the bed, bouncing with a huge grin. The blonde watched her childish enthusiasm, and couldn’t help but grin herself.

“You’re gonna break the bed!” she laughed. Finally the brunette fell onto the soft mattress, winded. “Come on. Warm me up, woman!”

Zac hastily kicked until she got the blankets out from under her, and wiggled around until she was comfortable, automatically opening her arms wide for her blonde friend to cuddle into.

Abel smiled, more like grinned like an idiot. She loved this part of the day, and dreaded when she’d have the big bed alone again. Zac’s warmth and quiet protection were so comforting to her. They laid there in silence for all of four minutes when Zac sighed.

“I can’t sleep.” She was so wound up, thinking about heading back out into the wild the next day. She was excited and sad. But mostly excited. She knew for the next few weeks she’d be able to have it both ways; she’d be in her environment, but would have her Spinney there, too.

“Can’t sleep? Zac, it’s been like five minutes!” Abel protested, lightly slapping at the flat stomach below her hand. She had managed to get a little weight on her friend over the week they’d been together. She had loaded her up with protein in meat, and whipped cream and chocolate chip cookies that were almost shockingly sweet. She still shivered at that first initial taste, which didn’t seem to bother Zac in the least.

Zac sighed.

“Okay, okay. Want to sing?” She raised her head just enough to look into Zac’s face. She knew this was the magic suggestion, and saw the excitement flush the brunette’s features.

“Okay!”

Abel grinned, and began singing the frog song. Zac quickly joined in, their voices, low and high, mingling and filling the quiet space of the dark bedroom.

Soon, within about ten minutes, Zac’s voice began to falter, then fade, then disappeared altogether. Abel smiled, and laid a gentle kiss on her friend’s cheek.

“Night, Zac,” she whispered, and closed her eyes.
Part 9
“So, how did the week go?” Sherry Cohen asked her daughter, who was helping to unpack the groceries the older blonde had brought.

“It went great.” Abel smiled, though her eyes were sad. Zac had left that morning to go back to her life in her home. Alone, out in the woods. She now knew damn well that her friend could more than take care of herself, but all the same – she worried.

The blonde had been excited to see her family, which she hadn’t seen since the summer. She usually stayed at school for Thanksgiving, spending it with her roommates, because she always had to work the day after.

Now, finishing putting away the groceries, she realized that the rest of her winter break would be marred. Her family was there, true. She knew she’d get some great gifts, as was the usual. Her mom had a keen memory and eye for what her kids would want or need. But what about Zac? Why wouldn’t she just stay?

Abel sighed. A part of her, the selfish part, felt that she wasn’t enough for Zac. That the brunette couldn’t or wouldn’t, more like, hang around just for her. She was grateful that her friend had stayed with her during the past week, but already missed her terribly – and she’d only been gone for about four hours.

She sighed again, and then answered her father’s call to help him get more fire wood.

*****

Zac sat in her lean-to, proud of her accomplishment of making something more sturdy, and amazingly warmer. The fire ring that sat in the center of the small space lit up the place, throwing strange shadows on the walls. She checked the spit over the fire, making sure the hot dogs Spinney had given her were done. She had never eaten these, made by some guy named Oscar Meyer.

She eyed the package of what the blonde called hot dog buns. They looked like long rolls, which Spinney said they basically were. So, hot dogs, hot dog buns, and a bottle of ketchup, which Zac had had before, were all ready. Her mouth watered at the smell of this new food. She was so tired of rabbit.

A small smile played across her face when she thought of her small friend. It had been wonderful to spend so much time with her. The brunette glanced over to the corner to see the large zoology book waiting to be read. She would have hours to dedicate to that tonight. She had gotten to read some at the cabin, but she wanted to focus most of her time on Spinney.

Spinney.

Zac smiled broadly as she removed the hot dogs from the fire, placing them on the plate she had ready. Preparing the ‘dawgs’ the way the blonde had told her, Zac got her dinner ready.

She thought of the smaller girl, her smile spreading even more, nearly splitting her face in two. Zac saw those sparkling green eyes, looking at her with so much affection, and genuine liking. She almost wanted to get up and do a jig, she was so happy. As happy as she was, though, she missed the mischievous blonde immensely. Oh well. She’d see her tomorrow.

With a sigh of utter contentment, she began to eat.

*****

“Okay, close your eyes,” Abel said softly, guiding her friend by the hand toward the bouncing bundle.

“Where are we going, Spinney?” Zac asked quietly as they headed from her place through the trees. She could tell they were headed toward the Cohen cabin.

“Shh. Just trust me.” The blonde pulled the eager brunette behind her, a grin covering her face. Abel let go of the larger hand and bent down, picking up the whining, whimpering body. “Open.”

Blue eyes opened, then opened wider.

“A puppy!” she exclaimed, white teeth shining in the sunny day. Abel grinned, nodding.

“This is Peanut,” she explained, holding the eight-week-old golden retriever up for Zac’s inspection.

“Peanut,” the brunette repeated, reaching a tentative hand out, looking into green eyes for approval, finding it. She touched the soft, velvety head and ears. Zac felt her heart being lost to the little guy. Big brown eyes looked up at her, a pink tongue fighting valiantly to find any purchase on her face. She giggled as she moved her head from side to side, trying to avoid being kissed in the mouth by the anxious little guy.

Abel watched, completely and utterly charmed by her friend and the newest member of the Cohen family.

“Take him.” She handed the wiggly bundle to the brunette, who was more than happy to take him. She was muttering nonsense to the slobbering beast, the dog panting and whimpering, trying to get even closer to his new friend.

Abel led them over to the porch stairs and sat down, followed by Zac. The blonde watched as her friend wrestled with the pup, a grin from ear to ear splitting her taller friend’s face wide open. Green eyes gazed over Zac’s features. She took in the blue eyes, lined by long, dark lashes, set into a tan face with beautiful, angular features. The white teeth, so straight, making for a wonderful smile.

Of her hand’s own accord, it reached out and gently pushed the thick, dark hair back over Zac’s shoulders. Blue eyes met hers and she smiled. Zac smiled back, then turned her attention back to the dog.

“Zac?” she said quietly. She watched with amusement as Peanut grabbed onto one of Zac’s long fingers, little teeth, sharp as needles, gnawing.

“Hmm?” the brunette said, playing with the pup with infinite patience, only wincing slightly when the dog got too rough.

“Have you ever thought of living in a city? Or even a small town?” Abel leaned back, resting her weight on her hands on the porch behind her.

“I don’t know, Spinney. I guess I haven’t given it much thought.” She glanced at her friend, only to turn back to the dog, which had now grabbed a hold of the pull-string hanging off the waist of her winter coat. She gently nudged him away from it, grabbing the golden bundle into her arms and kissing his head. She giggled as once again she tried to dodge little puppy kisses.

“Do you think you could ever do it?” She bit her bottom lip. She didn’t want to make Zac angry or feel like she was pushing.

“Well . . .” Zac absently petted the puppy and stared out into the winter wonderland before her, thinking. “I don’t know. I sometimes think it would be interesting. You know, to see what’s out there?” She smiled wistfully. “I read about so many things, hear airplanes flying overhead . . .” She gazed up into the blue sky. The snow had ended. For now.

“I could show you.” Abel’s voice was barely above a whisper. She wanted so badly to take Zac back to Boston with her, show her all that the world has to offer someone as bright and beautiful and kind as her friend.

The brunette studied her friend, seeing the uncertainty in her eyes, and the shy smile on her face. She smiled in turn.

“If I ever went, Spinney, there’s no one else I’d want to show me.” She looked into her friend’s eyes for a moment, unable to look away. The sweetness that radiated from the blonde often left Zac speechless and unsure. She smiled when she felt a hand grab her own, and squeeze. She squeezed back, then turned back to the dog, overwhelmed by her emotions.

*****

“Oh, mom! It’s beautiful!” Abel clapped her hands together happily as she stared at the large box. “She’ll love it.” She grinned at her mother.

“Really? You think so?” Sherry Cohen asked, not as sure as her daughter, who was nodding vigorously. “You don’t think she’ll be offended?”

“No. Dad let you get this?” Abel fingered the smooth cardboard box, knowing full well that it had been expensive. Sherry grinned, so much like her daughter’s.

“It was his idea.” The older blonde winked.

“You’re kidding!”

“Nope. He’s not a monster, honey. Just concerned and protective.” Sherry busied herself getting the wrapping paper and tape, handing her daughter the scissors.

“I know. It’s just, well . . .” Abel sighed, plopping down on the floor of her parent’s bedroom, ready to begin wrapping. “I just wish he’d give her a chance. Zac would never hurt me, mom. Or anyone else, for that matter.”

“I know that. I like Zac, honey.” Sherry groaned as her knees popped when she sat next to her oldest. “Damn injury,” she muttered. “Your dad will be fine. He’s going to try and get to know her over the break.”

Abel raised a brow, surprised at this bit of news. Her father was as stubborn as they came, and once he’d set his mind to something, it usually took an act of Congress to change it. She was pleased.

“Good.” She grabbed the large box, and rose to her knees so she could get the paper around the entire thing.

“Will she like the rest of the things we got her?” Sherry asked, wrapping her own packages.

“I think so. She’s so grateful for anything she’s given.” The blonde’s face beamed, her eyes dancing as she thought of her friend’s innocent excitement in everything new she encountered. Sherry watched her daughter, looking into the lovely face and seeing how much affection lay there for the taller girl. She had noticed since her and Adam and the kids had reached the cabin nearly a week ago, the change in her daughter. Abel was happy, almost humming to herself all the time. She was carefree, and almost held the same innocence as Zac. Absolutely amazed at everything, was Abel.

Interesting.

“Honey, is Zac coming for Christmas dinner?” Sherry casually folded the edge of the shiny paper over, creasing along its edge, and folded it over the box that contained the new pair of jeans for Ben.

“I don’t know.” Abel sighed, taping the edges of the wrapping paper together and moving the box around so the open ends faced her. “I’m trying.” She grinned at her mother. “I’ve been slowly working on her. I think I’ve worn her down.”

“What? Do you have to manipulate the poor girl?!” Taking the paper off the sticky part of the bow, Sherry stuck it on the top of her wrapped gift, writing Ben’s name on the top in clear, neat strokes. She set it aside, grabbing the new tool set for Adam.

“Kind of.” The younger blonde smiled sheepishly. “She’s stubborn, mom.”

“Ah. So you’ve met your match, huh?”

“Yeah, yeah. Yuck it up.”

*****

Zac looked to the rock ceiling, chewing on her lip for inspiration. She had re-read Abel’s note to her, the words nearly memorized now:

Zac,

I’m not entirely certain how things fell apart as badly as they did this summer. Just when I found you, you are lost to me again. I’m very sad, and wish I could turn back the clock and do things differently.

Please know that I know the truth of that man who was going to attack me. The police came and arrested him. But then I guess you figured that. Where did you go when they were here? How did you escape? I was so worried. Still am. And I miss you!

Please be safe and take care of yourself. I think about you all the time, and wish, oh how I wish, that things were different. I won’t forget you again, Zac. I promise. My savior.

Love always,

Your Spinney

Zac smiled, carefully refolding the paper, not wanting it to be anymore torn than it already was. She kept it in her pocket at all times so when Spinney wasn’t with her, she’d know the blonde was still there.

She turned back to the paper before her, pen poised over it’s blank surface. Chewing on her lip, she once again tried find inspiration. She had no money to buy gifts, but wanted Spinney to know that she cared.

Bringing the tip of the pen down, she began to write:

Spinney,

Pause. She chewed harder on the lip, cursing silently when she tasted a bit of blood.

“Ow . . .” She brought a finger up, seeing the pin prick amount of blood. Sucking on the tiny wound, she gazed at the decorated wall of her home. She had taken a pen and had marked the backside of the drywall with marks of her making, making the home more personable.

She saw where she had written the word SPINNEY in large, dark letters. Grinning like a fool, she turned back to the task at hand.

Zac began to write again when she stopped, listening. Footsteps. She closed her eyes to concentrate, trying to figure out who it was. It was getting dark, and she had left Spinney with her family that day.

“Zac?” came the soft voice, which immediately made the brunette smile. She quickly rolled the paper up, and stuffed it into her bed roll, then crawled to the entrance of her home.

“Here, Spinney,” she called out softly, and heard the footsteps hurry over. A blonde head appeared through the cloth covering Zac had over the entrance, and she smiled at her friend.

“Hi,” Abel said, pushing through the curtain, turning back to make sure it was pulled snug behind her. She looked around Zac’s home, noting how warm it was. There was a small fire going in the fire ring, the warmth bouncing off the wood and rock walls to create quite a cozy environment. Maybe Zac had the right idea after all.

“Hi.” Zac smiled, though there were questions in her eyes. “What are you doing out, Spinney? It’s cold and dark.” She moved over, giving her friend the choice spot near the fire.

“I missed you,” Abel said simply, getting comfortable in the warmth of the fire. She reached into the pockets of her coat and brought out three large apples; Zac’s favorite fruit.

Blue eyes lit up instantly, and she grabbed one of the offered pieces of fruit, and happily began to bite into it.

Abel watched, amused as she turned the stem on hers, naming a letter with each turn, just as she had done since she was a child. Zac chewed happily as she watched the familiar game, her eyes twinkling at this wonderfully unexpected surprise.

“. . . j . . . k . . . l . . .” SNAP!

Abel held the brown stem in her hand, looking at it.

“L. Hmm,” she drew her brows, thinking.

“So, whatever letter you end up with, is who you’ll end up with?” Zac grinned, knowing the game was silly, but liking it anyway. Spinney nodded with a smile.

“Yep. But I don’t know anyone with a name beginning with L, so oh well.” She grinned, dropping the stem into her pocket to throw out later, and bit into her apple. “So what are you doing?” she asked, wiping juice from her chin.

“Nothing,” Zac said, though couldn’t lie worth a damn. Her eyes darted all around, making dark blonde brows crease.

“Zaaaac,” she drawled.

“Yessss?” the brunette drawled right back, making Abel grin.

“What are you up to?”

Biting her lower lip, Zac finally met her friend’s gaze. “I can’t tell you,” she said softly, giving Spinney a pleading look. “Yet.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll get you next time, Gadget!” Abel pointed a juice-sticky finger at her friend, who looked utterly baffled.

“Gadget?”

“Never mind.” The blonde grinned, and happily laid back against her taller friend’s arm, enjoying the rest of her apple, and laying the third one down on top of Zac’s bed roll. The brunette could eat it later. “So, what do you wanna do tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?” Dark brows drew. “Tomorrow is Christmas.”

“Uh huh.” Abel grinned up at her friend, big, wide and pleading. Zac took it in, and her resolve crumbled. She sighed, and nodded.

“Okay, Spinney. I’ll spend it with you. And your family.”

Squealing with delight, the blonde grabbed her friend in a massive hug, holding her tight. Zac smiled into the hug. This was worth it. I can do this.

Settling down, Abel leaned against the taller girl again, enjoying the feel of being with her, in her own territory. She looked around the small, almost cave-like structure.

“Zac? What are those?” She ran a finger lightly over the drawings on the drywall. She smiled. The artwork reminded her of what has been found in caves and dwellings. Marks left by early man, depicting stories and important events. Her smile broadened even wider when she saw her name written in big, bold letters.

“My art.” The brunette grinned proudly. “Different things go there that are important or that I’m happy about.” She watched as Spinney traced the lines of her name, as well as some of the faces she’d drawn. They were funny, expressive faces, characters she had made up in her mind years ago. She explained in patient detail who each character was, and what they represented, and the story behind their conception.

“You’re talented, Zac,” the blonde said, looking at her friend in wonder. “You just never cease to amaze me.” She looked back to the artwork.

“Oh. Um, well, thank you, Spinney.” Zac looked shyly at her smaller friend, pleased beyond measure.

“You’re so cute.” Abel grinned, gently nudging Zac’s shoulder with her own. “Can I add something?”

Zac totally brightened at the idea. “Yes!” She scrambled to the back of her home and dug out the marker from her belongings. “Here.”

Abel took the proffered Sharpie, her eyes looking into the excited blue, and she gave Zac a soft smile, which was returned. Without thought, the blonde reached up her other hand, and gently stroked Zac’s cheek. She felt her heart swell with affection for this special woman who had come to mean so much to her.

“Thank you,” she said softly, feeling the hard, sturdy body of the maker in her hand.

Turning away from the connection, Abel faced the wall of art once again and looked for an empty spot. Once found, she concentrated on just what she planned to fill it with. Stroking the pen with her thumb, she chewed on her lower lip. She could feel Zac’s expectant presence behind her, and turned to look back over her shoulder.

“You, missy, can’t watch,” she said, pointing the marker at her friend. Zac looked into the twinkling green eyes, and grinned, nodding. She turned her back, grabbing the zoology book, and trying her best to bury her nose in it.

She thought about Spinney’s invitation for the next day, and actually felt a bit of excitement from her acceptance. She was nervous, for sure, but knew that it would make her friend beyond happy, so would swallow her pride and fear, and make the best of it. She couldn’t keep the goofy grin off her face at the thought of her Spinney. Her world was brighter because of the energetic little blonde sitting behind her.

She sighed, and turned to her text to read about the life of the muskrat.

Abel stared at the blank wall in front of her and continued to chew on her lower lip, thinking, then she smiled. If she could draw it once, she could most definitely draw it again.

Taking the cap off the marker, she began to draw. She didn’t have the colors this time, but that was okay. In her older, more experienced hand, she could make details that would make color unnecessary.

“Can I look yet?” Zac asked, impatience and excitement in her voice.

“Hang on,” Abel said absently, putting the final touches onto her masterpiece. “Okay. You can look.”

The brunette turned around, excitement buzzing her in veins. When she saw what Spinney had drawn, she smiled, slow and wide.

Standing on the wall were two stick figures, holding hands. One was much taller with dark hair, the other small and no color in her hair. They were smiling, and the taller one wore overalls. Above their heads was written: Zac and Spinney, Friends Forever.

She smiled at that, looking at her friend, and nodded.

“Yes, we will.”

*****

“People! Lazy people!” Abel growled when she grabbed the near empty tea jug from the fridge. She wanted everything to be perfect for when Zac arrived. Scurrying over to the counter, she grabbed the Mr. Coffee Iced Tea Maker, and the box of Lipton tea bags from the cabinet.

There was a small knock on the front door and the blonde growled again.

Sherry Cohen opened the door and smiled when she saw Zac standing awkwardly on the porch.

“Zac! So nice to see you.” She gave the girl a bright smile, and stepped forward to hug her, but noticed the look on the pretty girl’s face. Zac looked like she’d flee, so instead of risking her daughter’s wrath, she simply patted the girl on the shoulder. “Welcome. And merry Christmas.”

“Um, merry Christmas, Mrs. Cohen.” Zac mumbled, looking up at Spinney’s mother through her bangs. She smiled slightly when she saw the look of understanding on the older woman’s face. She was relieved that she wouldn’t have to hug her. She still wasn’t so good with this affectionate thing yet. She didn’t mind it, and in fact really enjoyed it, when Spinney touched her. But no one else quiet yet.

“Come in. Abel’s in the kitchen.”

“Okay. Thank you.” Zac smiled weakly again, but stepped inside, remembering Spinney’s words. She quickly unlaced her snow-encrusted boots, slipping them off, and allowed Mrs. Cohen to help her off with her coat. With a nod of thanks, she headed into the kitchen.

Abel placed the required amount of ice into the pitcher and grabbed seven tea bags from the box, putting them in the container atop the pitcher. All the food was set out and ready to go, the table set, and all her siblings accounted for. The iced tea was to be one of the main options to drink, but more than likely Ben,\ had come along last night and finished off the tea.

“Damn him,” she growled as she pushed the on button. “Okay. Just about re-” She stopped, nearly running headlong into Zac. She looked up into amused eyes. “Hi!”

“Hi,” Zac said softly. She found herself wrapped up in an immense hug and smiled into it, enjoying the warmth and safety of it. How was it that someone who had always been dependant on only herself, and protected herself, could feel so safe with the little blonde? Like Spinney was the firelight in the night that would keep the shadows and boogie men away.

She sighed into the hug.

“You smell good,” Abel said, inhaling the smells that wafted around her. Very natural, spicy.

“Oh.” Zac pulled away from the hug, grinning down at her friend. “I bathed this morning.”

“What?! Zac, it’s freezing out there!” The blonde pointed to the window and the falling snow beyond. The brunette shrugged

“I needed to do it.” She walked past the smaller girl, brows drawn when she saw the box on the counter. “It’s me,” she said, turning to the blonde, holding up the box to show her.

“Huh?” Abel walked over to Zac, looking at the box, then at her friend, utterly confused. “What’s you?”

“This.” The brunette pointed a long finger at the word. “Lipton.” She grinned from ear to ear. Finally catching on, Abel grinned, too.

“Lipton, huh? I guess you had told me that. Zac Lipton.” She tasted the name on her lips, and smiled. Then she chuckled, looking down at her feet. She remembered her game from the night before with the apple stem. “Gee, Zac. Guess we’re meant to be friends forever, huh?” She gently touched Zac’s arm. “The apple stem last night?”

“Oh.” Zac smiled, and put the box down. “You landed on L.”

“Sure did.” She hugged her friend again, and then took her hand. “Come on.”

The family had gotten themselves seated, and two empty chairs remained. Flanking them was Becky, who looked up at Zac like the goddess the little girl thought she was, and Jake.

“Zac. Nice to see you,” Adam said from the head of the table. He smiled at the tall girl, and she smiled weakly at him.

“Um, you, too, Mr. Cohen,” she said, almost imperceptibly.

“Sit,” Abel said softly, and motioned toward the seat next to Becky, who was nearly bouncing out of her seat.

The brunette sat, smiling at the small girl, then looked around the table. Mrs. Cohen sat across from Spinney’s father, and across from her was Ben, and next to him, Rachel. She smiled at each in turn, noting that Ben seemed to be staring. He had eyes much like his sister’s, though not as bright or friendly.

“Hi,” he said, his eyes traveling over her face and down over her sweatshirt-clad chest.

“Hi,” she said quietly, not sure what to make of him.

“Ben,” Abel hissed, seeing just where her sixteen-year-old brother’s eyes were headed.

He glared at her, but shifted his eyes elsewhere. Sherry Cohen chuckled at the situation, knowing that her oldest son had been quite taken with the tall beauty over the previous summer.

She offered up a prayer to keep her family safe over the year, and the food was dished out. Zac was excited, the smells of the new foods nearly driving her to drool. She listened as Spinney explained what everything was, and was more than willing to try everything. Several times.

Abel was pleased to see Zac’s immense appetite, and to know that her friend was getting a belly full of warm food. She almost let her own food grow cold just from watching Zac gobble down her large portions. The entire family was riveted.

Sherry watched on as the brunette took helping after helping of the mashed potatoes. It made her feel sad. She wanted so badly to see her daughter’s friend happy, healthy and safe. Alert green eyes watched as Abel grabbed Zac’s roll, splitting it in half, and buttering it. The girl handed it back to the brunette, who smiled at Abel, her beautiful blue eyes twinkling. Abel smiled back, and turned back to her own dinner.

She brought her hand up, resting her chin in the palm, and watched the interaction between the two young women. She was glad that her baby had such a good friend. Sherry knew instinctively that Zac would do anything for Abel. Would jump through any fire for her, and she was glad. Abel would do anything for Zac as well.

She smiled.

*****

Zac began to feel a little more at ease with the Cohens, though only if Spinney was at her side. She pondered why it was that Ben kept staring at her. He made her uncomfortable. She kept an eye on him.

“Okay, gang. Presents time!” Adam exclaimed, his eyes shining brightly. He hurried over to the Christmas tree that Abel and Zac had decorated, the lights blinking and chasing each other. Beck and Rachel squealed as they raced to sit on the floor next to it, followed by the rest of the Cohen family and Zac.

“Sit with me?” the blonde asked, patting the spot on the love seat next to her. She looked up at Zac with big, beseeching eyes. The brunette grinned, and plopped down. Like there was a chance she’d say no!

Becky and Rachel insisted on playing Santa, and were given the honorary red hats to go along with the role. Rachel helped Becky read the names on the labels, and passed the gifts around.

Zac watched in fascination as the family talked with each other, laughing and playfully smacking each other. She felt a lump in the pit of her stomach, the wistfulness, not for the first time, making itself known. She turned to see understanding green eyes smiling at her.

“You okay?” Spinney asked softly, and Zac nodded, with a forced smile. “Do you need to leave?”

“No,” the brunette hastily replied. She wasn’t going to leave her friend alone this day. “I’m just watching.”

“Okay,” the blonde said softly, taking Zac’s hand for a squeeze, then turning her attention back to the festivities.

The mountains of gifts were quickly disappearing, leaving behind piles of discarded wrapping paper, bows, and hordes of giggles and squeals of excitement.

Zac smiled and chuckled now and then. Especially when her Spinney had opened her gifts. Her green eyes had sparkled and danced, and she had shown her friend every single thing she’d received.

Finally everyone had opened their gifts, and Abel looked to her mother, and after seeing Sherry’s nod, the blonde hurried out of the room. Zac felt a moment of panic, looking around to see all eyes on her. Ben smiled, and she weakly smiled back, relief flowing through her when she heard the movement of her friend just outside the room.

“Merry Christmas, Zac!” Abel boomed, with Rachel’s help, setting down a myriad of gifts at her shocked friend’s feet. The Cohen’s watched eagerly for the brunette’s reaction. No pressure.

Zac looked around at all the anxious faces, then turned to see Spinney, who was kneeling in front of her, a grin from ear to ear on her face. “I, I don’t know what to say,” she said quietly, so only the blonde would hear her. She suddenly felt so unsure.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Spinney said, placing her hand on Zac’s knee for support. “Just open your gifts.” The smiling reassurance of her Spinney gave Zac the confidence she needed.

As she tore into the gifts, she couldn’t keep the dopey grin from her face. She had never felt so warm or content as she did with the Cohen family. She had never felt so loved. Spinney helpfully, and unnecessarily, explained what each and every thing was that Zac unwrapped. The brunette didn’t have the heart to disappoint her friend’s excitement. She oohed and ahhhed, enjoying the smile that graced Spinney’s lips.

Zac was truly touched by the thoughtfulness of Spinney and her family. She looked on in awe at the nice, comfortable, and warm sleeping bag that the blonde had bought all by herself. It was waterproof, and lined with down, whatever that meant. She was anxious to put the solar-powered heater to use, given to her by all of Spinney’s brothers and sisters. The cookware, and finally the big box, which ended up being a nice tent, were compliments of Adam and Sherry Cohen.

Spinney’s dad went on to tell Zac about all the virtues of this particular tent, and told her that after much discussion, he and his wife wanted Zac to stay in the tent on their property. He said that way she would have no fear of being shooed away by forest rangers for staying on the government’s land, as well as she could look after the cabin for them.

The brunette almost felt overwhelmed by the generosity and caring from Spinney’s family. Though it shouldn’t have been a surprise, she was stunned all the same.

“And last but not least,” Sherry Cohen said, sitting next to Zac on the couch. She handed the taller girl a simple key. “This is to our cabin, Zac. Should you need to come in, for any reason, you can. Okay?” Green eyes, so much like her daughter’s, regarded her with warmth and friendship.

Zac nodded, taking the shiny key from Mrs. Cohen’s fingers.

“Any reason, Zac. You need a shower, you need to watch TV, whatever,” Spinney said softly, placing her hand on her friend’s knee. Zac met her gaze, and smiled with a short nod.

“Okay.” She wanted to cry with the trust that was being bestowed upon her. At what cost? And for what reason? She didn’t understand it.

*****

Zac noted with excitement the stack of her new toys by the door. The tent, still in its box, which Spinney promised to help her set up. The large cooler, which Sherry promised to fill up with enough food to keep the brunette fed throughout the winter, and the key that rested in her pocket. Adam Cohen had promised to show her how the alarm system to the cabin worked, and how to disengage it.

So many promises, her heart felt light and happy.

“Hey.”

The brunette started, turning to see Spinney’s brother, Ben, standing there, leaning against the doorframe to the kitchen opposite to the one Zac leaned against.

“Oh. Hi,” she said, her voice quiet, unsteady.

“Did you enjoy your Christmas?” he asked, his voice light, eyes sparkling with amusement.

“Yes. It was nice.” Zac tried to smile, but it didn’t work so well. She felt nervous, her heart racing as she tried to fight the urge to run, or at the very least, search for Spinney.

“How much do you know about Christmas tradition?” Ben asked, pushing off the doorframe with his shoulder, and nodding his head up. Blue eyes followed where he indicated, and she saw a simple little bunch of leaves and berries attached to the wood of the doorframe. She met Ben’s gaze with confusion. “It’s called mistletoe,” he explained.

“Mistletoe,” she repeated, tilting her head to take in the small plant. “What is it for?” She reached up to touch it, but her hand was caught. Startled blue eyes met green, and Ben grinned.

“Not for touching. It’s said that if you’re caught underneath the mistletoe, you have to kiss the person standing there with you.” He raised a challenging brow, meeting drawn dark. “Have you ever kissed a guy before, Zac?”

“No.” She slowly shook her head from side to side, not sure what to make of this, or of Ben.

“Uh oh! Who’s standing under the mistletoe?” Sherry beamed.

Abel bounded down the stairs, her bladder eternally grateful after being full for so long after the meal. She heard laughter, and looked toward the kitchen. There she saw her mother and Rachel watching as a nervous-looking Zac and Ben stood in the doorway. Under the mistletoe.

Her steps slowed as she neared, watching.

“Come on, Benny. Lay it on her!” Sherry grinned. She knew her son had the hots for the beautiful, enigmatic girl, and thought it was adorable. Ben looked at Zac, and leaned in. Zac, not wanting any part of this, turned her head, and felt soft lips, and bit of tickling stubble, touch her cheek.

Abel felt her eyes go round when she saw her brother kiss her friend, even on the cheek. She was surprised that Zac had allowed that! And that little rat of a brother . . .

She moved past the kitchen to the front door, picking up the cooler loaded with all the new clothes Zac had gotten for Christmas.

“Come on, Zac. You wanted to get this stuff to your place,” she called out, her voice sounding slightly more harsh than she had intended.

Grateful, Zac pushed away from Ben and hurried over to her friend. Spinney nearly dropped the cooler, and cursed softly under her breath as she gathered a shirt that had toppled out of the thing.

“You okay, Spinney?”

“Fine.” The blonde smiled, and balanced the cooler on her thigh as she opened the front door. The brunette watched, confused, as the normally even-tempered little blonde huffed out onto the porch. She looked back over her shoulder to see that Sherry Cohen was watching, too.

Abel and Zac walked through the forest to Zac’s place in silence. The brunette had loaded her arms up with her goods, and had quickly followed her friend, feeling the emotions roll of the blonde in waves. She glanced over at Spinney once in a while, but had yet to say anything.

When they finally pushed through the trees that opened up to Zac’s overhang, Abel turned to her friend.

“Are you okay?” she asked, setting the heavy cooler down at the entrance of Zac’s home.

“I’m fine. Why?” Zac, stack of boxes in her arms, raised a brow.

“Well . . .” Abel kicked at some snow with the toe of her boot, wondering if she was being stupid. But it had made her angry when she’d seen Ben kiss Zac. How could he take advantage of her like that? She growled at the memory. “Did my brother make you uncomfortable?”

Zac thought about it for a moment as she crawled into her place, rearranging some things so there’d be room. She was anxious to get the tent set up. From what Mr. Cohen had said, it was big enough that she’d even be able to stand up in it!

“A little,” she finally muttered.

“I’m sorry, Zac. That was really stupid of him.” The blonde squatted down next to her friend, watching as the brunette slowly dragged one thing at a time into her lean-to. “Very stupid.”

“Why?” Zac grunted as she tugged at her bedroll. She was thrilled at the prospect of the sleeping bag that night, and almost wanted to go to bed at that moment to try it out.

“Because,” Abel stammered. “You don’t know him that well, and it was taking advantage of you, and your lack of knowledge of that kind of thing. And you don’t even know what mistletoe is, or what the tradition is. Or even really know him well enough to do something like that–”

“Spinney?” Zac cut in, looking over her shoulder at her babbling friend.

“Huh?”

“It’s okay.” She smiled gently, unsure why her friend was having such a problem.

“It is?” Abel looked at her for a moment, trying to process the events. Why was she so up in arms? It was innocent, and she was putting way too much into it. Wasn’t she?

“Yes.” She backpedaled until she was squatting in the snow next to the blonde. “Spinney, I don’t think Ben meant anything by it. Did he?” She cocked her head to the side, trying to read her friend. Maybe she knew something she didn’t.

Realizing what Zac was asking, and knowing it wasn’t the case, Abel quickly shook her head. “I don’t think so. I think he was just trying to be cute.” Abel smiled, though it didn’t fully reach her eyes. She knew her brother was only interested in Zac, and would never do anything to hurt her, but still . . .

“Spinney?”

Abel was thrown out of her thoughts by the brunette’s soft voice.

“Huh?” She met twinkling blue eyes.

“I didn’t want to kiss him.”

“No?” Abel asked, suddenly feeling relieved. Zac shook her head. “Oh. Good.”

*****

Abel laid in her bed, hands behind her head, staring up at the ceiling. It had been a good Christmas, and she was so happy that Zac had joined in with the fun.

Then her mind turned back to seeing Ben and the taller girl standing under the mistletoe. She felt the burn start again, and was clueless as to figure out just why it was there. Ben was a boy, Zac was a girl, and a beautiful one at that. The kid had every right to have a crush on Zac. Zac didn’t feel the same way, but still. What if she did? What if Zac and Ben got together, or Zac and anyone. Where would that leave Abel?

She felt completely selfish in her thinking, but Zac had needed her for so long, and she wanted so badly to be the one there for her. To teach her new things, and be the one that brought that sparkle of awe and wonder into those incredible blue eyes. She wanted to be Zac’s Spinney.

Sighing in frustration, she turned over and closed her eyes.

*****

“You’ll be here in how long? Five? Okay. I’ll get her.” Abel hung up the phone, and face split open in a grin, she ran outside, calling Zac’s name.

“You rang?” The brunette grinned, stepping out from her large, dome tent that she and Adam had set up two days prior.

“I just love having you like ten yards away instead of God only knows where.” The blonde grinned, running over to her friend. She took her hand, and began to lead her toward the cabin.

“What’s up?” the brunette asked, sensing that something was awry.

“Oh, nothing.” The blonde grinned back at her, but kept them going at their steady pace. “You stay here.” Abel sat her down on the top stair of the porch, and hurried off inside.

“Hey, Zac!” Rachel called out from her snowball fight with Jake.

“Hi!” Zac called out, waving. She grinned, liking Spinney’s younger sister. Heck, she liked them all.

“Okay. Close your eyes,” Abel said, running from inside and heading out toward the driveway, where Mr. Cohen was pulling up in their SUV. Confused, but following orders, Zac closed her eyes.

Abel reached for the door handle before her dad even had the car totally at a stop. He grinned, loving his daughter’s excitement. The blonde carefully took the cardboard box from the back seat, peeking inside. She grinned at her dad, eyes bright. She put a finger in front of her lips, and her father nodded understanding.

Taking careful steps to not jostle her bundle, Abel made her way over to where her friend sat, hands in lap, eyes tightly closed. She marveled at the small smile that curled up the corners of Zac’s lips.

“Okay,” she said softly, placing the box on the step between Zac’s booted feet. “Open your eyes, Zac.”

Blue opened, and she looked down to see a box, the flaps haphazardly closed. Peeling one of them back, her face split into a massive smile.

“Oh,” she breathed, opening the rest of the flaps, the tiny whimpers reaching her ears. She looked up into Spinney’s expectant eyes, then back at the box. Reaching in, she felt the soft velvety fur, and found the small, fat body. “So cute,” she whispered, looking at the little yellow lab puppy she was holding in her hands. “How old is he?” She looked into the droopy brown eyes, the little guy looking as though he’d been half asleep.

“I think a couple months old,” Abel said, her voice soft and wistful as she looked at the puppy who was coming around. He turned and looked up into Zac’s face.

“Hi, baby,” she cooed, running her hand through the soft fur on his back. “How are you, fella?”

Abel watched her friend with the gift that her father had rushed to town to get. She was awed and inspired by how gentle Zac was, how much caring and nurturing poured from her.

“What’s his name, Zac?” She petted the pup’s ears. Blue eyes met hers.

“I don’t know. What is it?” she asked, baffled.

“He’s yours, Zac. You name him.”

Zac looked up, brows drawn. “Mine? But how?”

The blonde looked up, smiling at her family who had gathered on the porch behind the taller girl.

“He’s a gift from all of us,” she said, indicating everyone. “This little guy here will be your company, and you can protect him.” The blonde winked, Zac grinned. She looked behind her, seeing the people she hadn’t even realized were there.

“All of you?” she asked, her voice barely above a whisper in her amazement and happiness. Sherry Cohen nodded with a soft smile.

“I hope you like him, honey.” She placed a hand on Zac’s upper back, pleased when the girl didn’t flinch.

“Wow.” Zac turned back to her new friend. “What am I gonna name you, huh?” She grinned when a pink tongue came out to lick the tip of her nose. She wrinkled her brow as she studied him, trying to think of what she’d name him. She looked into his puppy face, and it struck her. “Aureate,” she said. “I’ll call you Aure for short.” When the family looked at her like she’d lost her mind, she explained. “It means golden.” She gave Spinney a sheepish grin.

“It’s a good name.” Abel smiled. The two shared a look, both communicating what words could never say.

*****

Zac watched with sadness as her friend loaded up her blue car, ready to head back to school. She stuffed her hands deep into her pockets, chewing on her lower lip. She felt such sadness wash over her, it was startling.

Abel, for her part, was doing her best to keep her emotions under control. She felt like she and Zac had really bonded over the winter, and she felt so connected to her. She wanted so badly to take her back with her to Boston. A part of her knew that the taller girl probably wouldn’t be able to survive. So many people, and strange things and sounds. Zac would lose her mind.

She put the last of her bags into the small car, and turned to Zac. She gave her a smile, though it was incredibly weak and watery.

“Well, I guess I should go,” she said, her voice soft. The brunette nodded. Aure stood at her side, his too-big feet disappearing under the blanket of snow.

“I’m gonna miss you, Spinney,” Zac said, her head hung. The blonde tried to see her eyes, but they were lost behind the curtain of dark hair.

“Me, too, Zac.” She opened her arms, and instantly they were filled. Zac closed her eyes, inhaling the scent of her friend, and the feel of her warmth and comfort.

Not going to cry, not going to cry. Okay, not going to let Spinney see me cry. Not going to let Spinney see me cry.

She held on, holding the small blonde close and tight. When they parted, she looked into those green eyes to see that they were filled with tears.

“Don’t cry, Spinney.” She reached up and ran her fingertip under an eye, catching the wetness before it could fall.

“I’m trying.” Abel smiled, still holding on to Zac’s shoulders. “I’ll see you this summer, okay?” She looked up into understanding blue eyes. She could see the emotion just below the surface.

“Okay,” Zac said, her voice a mere whisper now as she tried to keep the tears at bay. “Be careful.”

“I will. You, too. And you stay put!” She jabbed a finger into Zac’s chest. “I don’t want to have to worry about you anymore than I already do.” She smiled, straightening Zac’s coat. “You know, I thought of something the other night. You and me, as different as A to Z.” She smiled at her little joke. “But, like two bookends, we seem to cram all those differences between and they don’t matter.”

The brunette smiled, not fully understanding the reference, but she got the ideology behind the words. She pulled Spinney in for one last hug, then let her go, and reached into her coat. She pulled out a carefully folded piece of paper, and handed it to her. Spinney took it, then smiled up at Zac.

“Merry Christmas, Spinney,” Zac said quietly.

“Merry Christmas,” She whispered back. The blonde said her goodbyes to Aure, and got into her car. She could see Zac and the dog in the rearview mirror as she drove away.

Continued in Part 10

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