CHAPTER ONE

by Stacey M. Lane Grosh
© 2003 
and illustrated by Illustration by David Reddick

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My grandparentís backyard is filled with dead bodies. I am in their spare bedroom, sitting by the window, and all my eyes will focus on is the sunken rows of ground before me. The headstones are decaying. Thick chunks of stone and grass spot the gravesites. For the next two weeks, I will be sleeping twenty feet away from the dead.

My dadís parents bought an old dilapidated church about six months ago and are attempting to reconstruct it as a home. The sanctuary is now the living room, the nursery is the kitchen, the pastorís study is grandma and grandpaís room, and the Sunday school room is the extra bedroom. Thereís even an old storage shed in the back. They removed the steeple but kept the stained glass windows and the graveyard. Mom says, "They canít just up and move the bodies. Itís against the law." So theyíre just going to keep these strangers in their backyard!

Itís only 9:30 p.m., and my grandparents are already in bed. Old people are strange. Itís summer. Youíre supposed to stay up late. They told me to be in bed by 10, but I wonít be. How can they expect me to sleep with those people outside my window? Anyway, I donít need a bedtime. Iím not a kid. Iíll be 14 in two and a half months.

Iím staying here while my parents celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary in the Bahamas. Iím stuck in the backwoods of some hick town in Indiana while theyíre out living it up with white beaches and dolphins. I canít think of any place Iíd rather not be than in a smelly old church with old people who treat me like Iím still a baby.

And who am I supposed to spend my time with? I donít know anyone around here except my weird cousin Al and her crazy dad. Sheís into alternative music and guys with shaved heads and tattoos, and Uncle Joey spends most of his time building an ark for the next great flood. He even has been saving distilled water in milk jugs so his family wonít have to drink the polluted rain water the floods will bring. Iím going to avoid them as much as possible.

Iíve decided to write this journal to remind me of how not to treat my own kids someday. NOTE: include kids in all vacations! Never leave them with wrinkly grandparents who smell like medicine and dust and try to cover it up with fancy potpourri bowls in every room. And never, ever make them sleep next to a graveyard!

"Laura, wake up! Itís time for breakfast!"

Laura Chewatski pulled the sheet closer to her face and rolled over. She faintly heard a voice calling, but she didnít want to lose the dream she was having. Tommy Bitmore was painting her a spider web on the toilet with her motherís icing tubes.

With each squeeze, the icing changed flavor. At first, it was lemon, then orange, and then cherry. The more intricate the design, the darker the color became until the entire toilet seat was covered with sweet smelling goo.

Tommy looked up at her and smiled. She could feel the flush creeping into her face. What if he tried to kiss her? Tommy was her best friendís boyfriend. He leaned forward until she could feel his breath on her face and said, "Laura, get out here! Your eggs are going to get cold!"

Lauraís eyes popped open, and she sat straight up in bed. The warmth of Tommyís breath was rushing away, and she could no longer remember what it felt like to be close to him. Laura sat there for a minute trying to grasp some semblance of order to her fading dream but all she could find were butterflies in her stomach.

There was a knock at the door. "Laura, are you up yet?" her grandma asked.

"Yeah. Iíll be out in a second."

She stood up and stretched. The light pouring through the window felt warm and soothing. She was tempted to crawl back under the sheet and allow the warmth to lull her once again into sleep, but she heard her insides growling and knew it was time to face the day.

"What do you want to do today, Laura?" Grandma Chewatski asked as she spooned scrambled eggs onto her plate.

"I donít know," Laura replied. "Maybe Iíll go out to the woods." She took a bite of her jellied toast and looked around the kitchen. The brand new cabinets looked awkward against the torn and faded nursery walls. Her grandma only had managed to remove a small section of the crumbling Mickey Mouse wallpaper.

"You could always help us out around here," Grandma said. "Thereís landscaping to be done, wallpaper to strip, and probably about 40 other things to do to this old house."

Suddenly, Laura wasnít hungry anymore. She should have known that this visit wouldnít be a vacation. While her family was out having fun, she was going to be stuck doing chores.

Since Laura didnít have any brothers or sisters, she felt she was always doing housework. One day it was the laundry, the next the dishes or mowing the lawn and after that, sweeping the floors. She felt like sheíd never escape the endless drudgery of chores.

Grandma Chewatski interrupted her thoughts. "Well, maybe you can help with those things later. Youíve had a pretty busy week with all the packing and traveling. Laura, I think you deserve a break. Finish your breakfast and then go outside and play. The Carters across the street have a boy about your age. No, I think heís a freshman in high school. But your cousin, Allison, lives not too far from here. Iíll have Joey bring her down to keep you company."

"You donít have to do that, Grandma. Iíll be all right by myself."

"Itís no problem, dear. Iíll call him after we wash up the dishes."

Laura stared down at her eggs. Her grandmother seemed to have forgotten her promise already. Laura hated to wash dishes along with every other chore known to mankind.

But Laura didnít know which was worse: chores or spending time with Al. She hurried and cleaned off her plate and placed the dishes in the sink. She decided to disappear for the day in hopes that she could avoid her freaky cousin. She quickly washed away the remnants of breakfast and headed outside.

The morning sun tried to blind Laura as she walked out back. She cupped her hand over her eyes and searched for something to do. A faint breeze carried the graveyardís lilac treesí scent across the yard. She turned away, not wanting anything to do with the rotting cemetery.

Her grandparents had bought two acres of wooded land plus the churchís yard. She was sure there must be something to do out there, but it didnít look like it.

Laura spent most of the day wandering in the woods. She found a walking stick and lazily leaned against it for support. After a short while, she smelled the sweet, refreshing dampness of water.

The crooked creek was only a half-mile away from her grandparentsí house. Laura kicked off her sandals. She thrust her feet into the water and immediately yanked them back out again.

"Ahhh! Itís so cold!" she screamed.

The waterís touch was too much to handle all at once. She looked around and laughed. Her outburst had quieted the woods. She slowly lowered her feet down this time allowing her body to slowly adjust to the change in temperature.

She delicately picked a milk pod and ran her thumbnail down it, making a deep incision. She then forced her thumbs into the center of the gooey pod and ripped it open, releasing the dainty white feathers. She watched the wind grasp them, tumble them through the air, and then throw them into the bubbling water below.

Some of the soft feathers kissed her cheeks and got lost in the thick tresses of her dark hair. She wouldnít discover them until her shower that night. Laura wore her hair up today with a red scrunchy. The humidity prevented her from wearing it down. Her hair always seemed to get sticky and mat to her neck during the summer.

She put her elbows on her knees and leaned forward to search for fish in the stream. She studied its bed, dazzled by the sunís brilliant light bouncing off the brown and blue stones. The ring on her middle finger glittered. It was two small diamonds and a ruby. Grandma Turner had left it to her in her will. Grandpa Turner, who died before Laura was born, had given it to her grandma for their 30th wedding anniversary. Laura wore it every day. Her grandma had done the same.

Lauraís mind wandered back to the water. A blurry red object sat in place of her reflectionís pointy nose. She reached into the cold water and grasped the small round thing into her palm. It was a bouncy ball -- like one you would buy for a quarter out of a toy machine in the mall. She began tossing it back and forth between her hands. She looked down again, and a fish splashed through her face, scattering her reflection.

Laura let her mind wander from the fish to her pet cat, Snuffy, to her tree house and then to her best friend, Irene Gibbins. Irene was at summer camp with Tommy and the rest of their youth group. Laura received a call from her last week. She sounded like she was having an incredible time.

"You wonít believe what Tommy and I did," Irene said mysteriously.

"What?"

"I let him go to second base," she giggled.

"Irene! Youíre at church camp!"

"So."

"Wow." Laura took in a deep breath and whispered. "What was it like?"

"Nice." Laura could tell Irene was smiling.

Irene was so lucky, Laura thought. Irene was spending the entire summer without her parents or chores, and kissing the cutest boy in the eighth grade.

"What else have you been doing?" Laura asked.

"Me and Alexis -- you know, Tommyís little sister -- went canoeing. Tommy followed us out with a couple of his friends," Irene said laughing. "He ended up dumping them all in the lake. He was showing off, like he always does. He stood up and was trying to flex his muscles for us and tipped over the canoe."

"Was he hurt?"

"Oh no. But he did lose his glasses. His momís really mad. She going to have to buy him another pair and drive them up here. Oh Laura, heís just so cute. I wish you could have seen him standing on the shore dripping wet."

So do I, thought Laura enviously.

"Heís been grounded from the lake for two weeks. Witchy old Ms. Cackle said he wasnít following proper safety procedures when riding in a canoe. How stupid. Now I have to wait two whole weeks before Iíll see him in his swim trunks again. Iím just going to die!"

"I think youíll make it," Laura said. She could feel the heat rising in her face. She tried to picture Tommy without his shirt on but for some reason she could only see their youth group leader Drucilla Cackle stirring a cauldron.

"I wish you were here, Laura. I miss having you around."

"I wish I was there, too."

Laura wondered what Irene and Tommy were doing now. Hopefully, they had gotten into a fight over the canoe mishap and broken up. But probably not. They had been together for almost three months now. Lauraís longest relationship with a boy was 12 days and that was in fourth grade.

Laura stretched her arms high above her head. She could smell her own sweat. The sun blazed high above her. She shoved the ball into her pocket, slid her wet feet into her sandals and turned back toward the old church.

The walk back seemed longer than the trip out to the stream. Laura was thirsty. The trees had managed to block the sun, but they trapped the humidity. The breeze of early morning had slowed to a soft whisper.

Home is never like this. She grabbed the bottom of her shirt and started flapping it up and down trying to cool off. Laura was born and raised in Wyoming where summers never reached the 90s and humidity was just a word in the dictionary.

Laura listened to her footsteps crackle last autumnís dead leaves. She swatted away the buzzing gnats that had begun to cluster around her. They longed to taste her sweat. Her T-shirt and jean shorts were heavy against her dehydrating body.

She tried to distract herself from the annoying bugs by thinking of high school. She would be going there in another year. Sheíd heard stories of how huge the school was. Sometimes people got lost and never found their way out. No one would help you either. Especially the seniors. They gave you wrong directions and sometimes they even locked you in a locker so youíd miss your class.

And in gym, you had to change your clothes in front of a bunch of strange girls and swim - with boys. Even when you were having your period. The boys would know too, because the pool would fill up with blood.

Laura glanced up at the path ahead of her. Where was her grandparentsí house? It seemed to be taking an awfully long time to get there. She wiped her brow and trudged on.

High school sounded horrible. Ireneís older brother, Jordan, wrote a song about it and was always singing it around her.

High school. High school.

The biscuits that they give you,

They say are mighty fine,

But one rolled off the lunch table,

And killed a friend of mine.

The teachers that they give you,

They say are mighty fine,

But when they take their make-up off,

They look like Frankenstein.

The bathrooms that they give you,

They say are mighty fine,

But when you sit upon them,

They stick to your behind.

Laura knew Jordan had to be telling the truth. Heíd attended high school for five years now including two senior years. She was glad she still had another year at Roger Manson Middle School.

Suddenly, Laura stopped. She turned and looked behind her, but nothing was there. She shook her head and walked another couple of feet but then heard it again. It was almost a shuffle as though something was slugging its way through the leaves. She stopped, and the rustling stopped. Laura scanned the trees around her. She could hear the soft whistle of a bird but nothing else.

Itís nothing, she thought. Just my imagination. Iíve been out here by myself too long.

She looked back over her shoulder. Everything was the same as it was a few moments before. She breathed a sigh of relief and continued on, slightly picking up her pace.

Then she heard it again. This time it sounded closer. She didnít really think it sounded like footsteps, but if it was, the creature wasnít picking up its feet -- if it even had feet.

She could feel her heart pounding in her chest.

Stop it. Youíre making a big deal out of nothing. Itís only a raccoon or maybe a bunny moving leaves around to build its home. Nothing to worry about.

But Laura picked up her pace anyway.

Horrible thoughts kept creeping into her mind. Maybe whatever it is, is not dragging leaves, but dragging someone.

She could feel the blood pumping through her veins.

No. It was a harmless forest creature.

She looked behind her again. Nothing there but trees.

Maybe someone escaped the graveyard and was trying to drag its own rotting corpse through the woods.

She stopped again. The noise stopped. Laura looked up ahead and could see the faint outline of her grandparentsí house. A huge jolt of energy shot through her body, and she broke into a run. The thing did the same. She had no doubt now. Someone or something was following her.

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Stacey M. Lane Grosh © 2003

ALL ILLUSTRATIONS ON THIS WEBSITE © 2003 DAVID REDDICK