Read an Excerpt
By Diane Hoh
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Diane Hoh
All rights reserved.
The heat was oppressive, settling down on the village of Lakeside, smothering it like a wet woolen blanket. A pale charcoal sky hung low over the lake and the tall pine trees surrounding the navy-blue water like giant sentries. For days the dark sky had promised, but refused to deliver, the relief of a cooling rain.
The students at Philippa Moore Senior High School in Lakeside complained constantly about the heat, unusual for the last weeks of May. "It's never this hot this early," they said, their clothing sticking to their skin like damp tissue paper.
Philippa Moore, an old but still-beautiful structure of antique brick and white pillars, was not air-conditioned. On days when heat rays radiated up from the sidewalks outside, and chalk grew moist and sticky inside, sitting in one of its classrooms was like being roasted over hot coals.
Class cutting became rampant. Even those students who seldom skipped gave in to the temptation to escape the stifling classrooms.
Jenny Winn, sixteen; her fifteen-year-old sister, Barbie; and their best friend, Cappie Cabot, cut their final class of the day on a Wednesday afternoon. "The woods on the other side of the lake will be cooler," Jenny said. "Well go there."
They put the top down on the big old yellow convertible, a legacy from their older brother Gene when he went off to college. The car had fins that looked like wings. While tiny Jenny would have preferred a cute little sports car to tool around town in, when given the elephantine vehicle she had said, "Wheels are wheels," and had quickly learned to handle the car like an expert.
"We should have asked Megan and Hilary to come along," Cappie said as Jenny confidently guided the car down the highway. "But Megan probably wouldn't have cut, and Hilary said she had to go to the drama department after school."
"I think Megan had stuff to do for her birthday party," Barb said, her long, blonde hair blowing around her freckled face. "She's so excited about it. Wish I was turning sixteen."
The big yellow car moved along the road beside the lake, creating a breeze that was thick and hot, aimed straight at them.
But they all agreed it was better than being in one of Philippa's classrooms.
"It had better be cool in the woods," Jenny muttered, easing into the curve at Sutter's Bend. "If Miss Beech finds out I deliberately cut class, she'll hang me out to dry. So this little excursion had better be worth it."
As she always did when she reached the sharp elbow in the road, Jenny eased up on her speed and kept a firm grip on the wheel. She had driven this curve hundreds of times since she got her license in January. It was part of her trip to and from school every day.
On her right lay the lake, still too cold for swimming, guarded by stately pine trees. Big old houses and smaller, rustic cabins were scattered along its shores. The woods were off to her left, and a dry open road lay ahead of her like a flat gray ribbon. There was no oncoming traffic and no one tailgating her. Taking the curve should have been as simple as brushing her teeth.
But it wasn't. When she turned the steering wheel, it moved too easily, too rapidly, too loosely. And the car refused to obey. It continued moving in a straight line. Jenny tried again, using more force this time. The steering wheel spun uselessly, as if it had nothing whatsoever to do with the car.
She hunched over the wheel, saying in a low, tense voice, "Barb, something's wrong."
Barbie glanced up, unconcerned. "What? What's the matter?" When she realized that the big yellow car wasn't following the curve, she jerked upright. "Jenny —"
Everything happened very quickly, no longer than the blink of an eye.
The car left the road, heading directly toward a utility pole on their right. And Jenny made a bad mistake. In her panic to regain control of the car, the foot she intended for the brake pedal slammed down instead on the gas pedal.
The car shot forward.
The three girls screamed, their hands flying up instinctively to protect their faces.
The car hit the utility pole, and the sound of metal crashing into wood echoed out over the quiet, peaceful lake.
The impact sliced the pole in two. Its upper section tipped in slow motion and descended onto the crumpled pile of yellow metal. Sparks danced about as the wires came into contact with the steel and the road.
Barbie, upon impact tossed like a rag doll from the convertible, lay stunned, not quite conscious, on the grassy area above the lake, safe from the spitting wires. She was murmuring her sister's name.
The only sign of the girl whose name Barbie kept repeating was a bare and bloodied arm draped lifelessly over what was left of the driver's door. Cappie was hidden within the bent and broken car.
Then Barbie lost consciousness, and the only sound breaking the ominous silence was the faint hissing of the electrical wires.CHAPTER 2
Megan Logan stood before the free-standing, oval, wooden-framed cheval mirror in her bedroom, listening to the whippoorwills outside her open window and wondering if the blue-green dress she was trying on should be shortened for her party. The bird song was nearly drowned out by the constant humming and chugging of boat engines on the lake behind her house and by the sound of the television downstairs. But Megan was very good at filtering out sounds that didn't interest her and hearing only those she chose, like the call of the whippoorwills.
The blue and cream slant-ceilinged bedroom at the rear of the house was stuffy and hot, not conducive to trying on clothes. Old houses like this one, her mother's inheritance from Megan's grandmother Martha, had no air conditioning. Normally the breeze off the water cooled the house, but during this heat wave, even the breeze was oven-warm. The silky fabric of the dress clung uncomfortably to her moist skin.
But she had to check out the dress. The Sweet Sixteen party her parents were throwing for her was coming up soon, and there was still a lot to do.
Her parents had said, "We'll give you a big party for your sixteenth birthday, Megan, but only if you buckle down and pull up your grades."
Megan had pulled up her grades, but it hadn't been easy. It wasn't that she didn't care about school. She did. She just had trouble concentrating, that was all.
"Megan is a dreamer," her English teacher, Miss Bolt, had told her parents during their most recent conference. "She's bright enough, but she spends too much time gazing out the window. When I call on her, she always looks so surprised, as if she isn't sure exactly where she is. The thing is, she almost always knows the right answer. And that surprises her, too."
A stern lecture from her father had followed, and then Megan's renewed effort to pay attention in class, and now the party was in the works.
A week from Sunday she would reach that magical age: sixteen. All of her friends were excited about the party. But no one more than Megan.
In spite of the excitement, an uneasy feeling had plagued Megan all day. She had no explanation for it. Maybe it was just the heat. But at the back of her mind, she felt that something was wrong.
Megan surveyed the dress with a critical eye. It had to be exactly right for her Sweet Sixteen party. The party would be held here, at the big white house on the lake. Her family had moved in just three months before, after her grandmother's death.
Megan swept her thick dark hair up, away from her shoulders and held it high with one hand. The frothy mass of gentle curls, dark as crows' wings, framed her oval face and sea-green eyes. It always seemed to Megan to be a wonderful mistake. Shouldn't someone as shy and quiet as she have plain, straight, brown hair? Didn't this hair belong on someone more outgoing, more dramatic? She'd been told it was just like her grandmother Martha's had been when she was young.
Wasn't the full, short skirt of the turquoise dress half an inch too long? It might make her look shorter than she actually was. She hadn't been lucky enough to get the hair and height. Maybe she should buy higher heels. Justin was tall enough. Not that she'd asked him yet to be her date. But she would. Any day now. Her best friends, Hilary Bench, Jenny Winn, and Cappie Cabot, had said it was up to her to ask, because she was the guest of honor. "You get to choose," Hil had said firmly.
I choose Justin Carr, Megan thought to herself.
As if on cue, the blue telephone on the nightstand in front of her window rang, and Justin's deep voice answered her quiet hello.
"So, are you hitting the books in preparation for the bio quiz tomorrow?" he asked. "Old Ollie had that gleam in his eye today when he warned us about it. You know, that look he gets behind his glasses when he's been plotting The Attack of the Killer Quiz. Boy, how that guy loves to see us sweat!" He laughed. "Sorry. Poor choice of words. Who needs help in that department now that Lakeside has become the Overpowering Inferno?"
Megan laughed. During the past year, Justin had become one of her best friends. He made her laugh. And he listened. Most boys didn't. He never teased her about preferring jazz to rock music, or for taking long walks by herself, or for being late repeatedly to the first-period science class they shared. The last time she'd come in late, walking into class sweaty and breathless, it had been because she'd stopped to pick wildflowers. When she had unthinkingly blurted out that truth to Old Ollie, the entire class had roared with laughter. Except Justin. He had smiled at her and gone to the sink at the back of the room to fill a beaker with water, which he then presented to her with a flourish. Flushing with embarrassment, Megan had thrust the black-eyed Susans into the beaker. Justin carefully installed the bouquet on his lab table, where it remained until the petals turned gray-brown and began to fall.
No one in the room had laughed when he did that. People didn't laugh at Justin. People took him seriously. Having him on her side was wonderful.
She had fallen in love with him that day.
But she still hadn't asked him to be her date for the party.
Because Justin Carr, who was tall and thin like one of the reeds in the shallower coves of the lake, Justin with his sandy, wavy hair and his gray eyes behind his wire-rimmed glasses, Justin with a smile that said, "The world's a crazy, interesting place, isn't it?" could invite any girl to any party, and that girl would be dashing out to buy a new dress before he'd even finished asking. So why would he want to go to a party with someone who was just a friend? And maybe not the most exciting friend in the world, either. Another thing she'd inherited from her grandmother Martha was shyness. She hated being shy, but there didn't seem to be anything she could do about it.
Hilary always insisted, "Justin is crazy about you, you dope. You're the only one who doesn't see it. He's just afraid of scaring you off by making a move on you. Asking him to your party will let him know how you feel. Then you can both relax."
To which Megan always replied, "Silly Hilly. We're just friends." And wished like crazy that it weren't true.
"I just opened my book a minute ago," Megan told Justin, flopping across her bed unmindful of the blue-green party dress and opening her biology book. "Are you ready for the quiz?"
Justin laughed again. "I was born ready."
"Lots of people are blowing it off." Megan rolled over onto her back. The dress rustled a protest. "There are tons of people out on the lake. I guess it's cooler out there. I'm sure I heard Karen Tucker's laugh, and she's in Ollie's class."
"Well, if she's planning on batting her eyelashes and telling him her book fell in the water and got ruined so she couldn't study, she'd better get real. Ollie isn't impressed by those sexy types."
Megan's eyes closed in pain. He thought Karen Tucker was sexy? What was it that Karen had that she, Megan, didn't? As if I didn't know, she thought. Karen has the art of flirting down to a science and a great figure. She is sexy.
A siren sounded in the distance. Then another. But they were too far away to be the Lake Patrol. So it wasn't a boating accident. A fire in town? A car wreck?
That uneasy feeling she'd had all day kicked her in the stomach. Sirens meant something, somewhere, was very wrong.
"Megan? You still there?"
"Listen, Justin, I can't sit here and talk to you all night." She was still stinging from the "sexy type" remark. She didn't care if he heard it in her voice. "You may have this quiz aced, but I don't. I've got to go."
"Oh. Okay." Was that disappointment in his voice? Then why didn't he say, "I'll miss you when you hang up"?
Because Justin never said stuff like that to Megan Logan. He talked to her about books and music and metaphysics and the power of the universe, but he never said, "Megan Logan, you make the sun shine for me," which happened to be exactly what she wanted to hear.
"See you at lunch tomorrow?"
"Sure," she murmured, her voice lake-water cool. "I mean, I guess so. I always do. See you at lunch, I mean." She groaned silently. Brilliant. Positively brilliant. She really should see an agent about some heavy-duty public speaking. She'd make a fortune.
There was a brief silence. Then Justin asked quietly, "You okay?"
She was being stupid and childish. Justin hadn't done anything wrong. Karen Tucker was sexy. Everyone said so. But she still didn't feel like asking him to her party, not right now. Maybe later. "Sure. I'm fine. Just hyper about the quiz, that's all. I'd better go. See you tomorrow."
The minute she hung up, she was angry with herself for not asking him about the party. It was only eleven days away, and the birthday girl still didn't have a date.
Maybe I'll go stag, she thought, switching on her radio. But Mom would have a fit. "Honestly, Megan," she'd say in exasperation, "why didn't you ask Justin? I suppose you put it off and put it off until it was too late. What am I going to do with you?"
Gram had always defended her. Whenever Megan's parents threw up their hands in despair because their only daughter had "her head in the clouds," Gram would say mildly, "Megan marches to a different drummer, that's all. All creative people have their heads in the clouds. Maybe she'll write a great novel one day. She's fine. Leave her alone."
But Gram was gone, five months now.
Megan still missed her.
She got up, smoothing out the turquoise skirt, just as the music on her radio was replaced by an announcer's deep voice saying, "This word just in. There has been a serious automobile accident at Sutter's Bend just west of town. Three people have been taken by Emergency Medical Services to Lakeside Medical Center after their vehicle hit a utility pole. Residents are urged to avoid the area as live wires pose a safety threat. The names of the injured, whose families have been notified, are sisters Jennifer and Barbara Winn, ages sixteen and fifteen, and Catherine Cabot, sixteen."
Megan's hand flew to her mouth. She stood stock-still in the center of the room, frozen in shock. Jenny? And Barb? And Cappie? Hurt?
She couldn't move. The sirens had not wailed for some poor stranger, after all. They had been shrieking for three of her closest friends. And the announcer had clearly said, "A serious accident." How serious?
The telephone shrilled again, startling her. Numbly, she reached down and picked up the receiver.
"Meg? Megan, is that you? It's me, Hilary. Megan, say something!"
All the people out on the lake had gone home, leaving it peaceful and quiet. Downstairs, the television her parents and her ten-year-old brother, Thomas, were watching droned on. The whippoorwills were quiet. Everything, except the suffocating heat, was as it always was.
Except that something horrible had just happened.
"Hil," she said slowly. "Jenny and Barb ..."
"I know. I heard. That's why I'm calling."
"What happened? Jenny's a really good driver."
"My dad thinks a tire blew. He said that when the pavement's hot as a barbecue grill for more than a few days, it's hard on tires. He said a blowout on such a big car would make it really hard for someone as tiny as Jenny to control."
"Oh, God, Hil, this is awful! Have you heard how bad they're hurt?"
"No, not yet. But it sounds really bad. Dad said that when wires are down at an accident, it takes longer to get the ... the victims out. Too dangerous for emergency personnel."
Excerpted from The Accident by Diane Hoh. Copyright © 1991 Diane Hoh. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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