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"Good evening, darling!" I exclaimed to my granddaughter.
"Can you tell me another story?" Heather asked with her sweet blue eyes, which looked at me eagerly. Her silky blonde hair looked just like my husband's hair when he was sixteen.
"Oh, okay! I don't know which story to tell!" I laughed.
"Make up one," Heather replied.
I giggled. "How did you, a five-year-old, get so demanding?"
"I don't know. Can you just tell of an interesting experience?"
"Okay. Let's say I was sixteen years old," I began as memories flowed rapidly.
* * *
I looked in the mirror and thought, This is just the outfit I want to wear today! Not too fancy, not too casual, and not tight at all! Twirling around in front of the long mirror in my jean shorts and blue gymnastics championship shirt, I finally felt satisfied. My chestnut hair fell loosely onto my shoulders, my stormy blue eyes complemented my shirt, and my pale skin looked tan for once.
I looked around my sky blue room for anything I might need for school. Then I noticed my messy green bed, which I forgot to make. I quickly threw the sheets over my pillows at the end of the bed.
My modern-style room was clean. I made my way to my bookshelf, which covered an entire wall in my room. It was my favorite place to be because it had the ability to take me places where only a few exotic people dare to go. I carefully placed a book that had fallen back on the shelf and grabbed the birthday gift wrapped so neatly with pink ribbon. Then I ran down the stairs in my silver sandals, which clashed against the wooden steps.
"Good morning, honey," exclaimed my mom. She had tied up her long chestnut hair up in a bun, and she wore her "Cook with Passion" apron over her jeans and tank top.
"Good morning to you!" I responded.
"Do you want some breakfast? I can make you my famous egg whites with a side of very fancy whole grain bread." She winked.
"Sorry, I can gladly still resist the horrible taste of egg whites. Also my math test is today, and I need all the extra study time I can get!" I replied with a look of complete distaste.
"Well, you can always just stay a minute," my dad suggested as he came into the kitchen. He put his arm around my mom and gave me a puppy dog face with his lower lip pushed out.
"Oh, I guess so." I laughed.
"How do you do that?" My mom was smiling.
"It's talent, something that is truly a gift from God," he explained right before he kissed her.
"Whatever." I opened the refrigerator to get some milk.
I poured myself a glass and got the Pop Tarts from the left cabinet, and I dug into the food.
"Honey, you're eating like a military soldier." My mother sighed.
"That's okay. Military soldiers have excellent minds in battle, so maybe that will help me in my math test," I teased. "Thanks for breakfast!" I took one last gulp of my milk.
"Tell Alice I wish her a happy birthday!" My mom called after me.
With a wave good-bye, I jogged to my rusty, used white car.
Once I stepped out of my car in the school's parking lot, I immediately heard my name being called.
"Annabel! Annabel! Over here!" shouted my best friend Alice.
She was standing in the parking lot with her backpack on the ground by her feet, waving her arms like she was swatting at a bee. Her blonde curls were jumping up and down. The huge high school towering behind her, with windows lined in rows in different sections, looked like a piece of art. The dome roof was copper, and it looked as if I were standing in front of a tourist attraction site.
"Hey, Alice, what's up?"
"What's up? What's up! I'll tell you what's up! Today is my birthday! I'm sixteen over here. Thank you very much."
"I know that! I just was thinking of something else at the time. Happy birthday!"
"Whatever. So what should we do? Skip school, go to a fair, have a nice lunch, and be back at our houses by the regular time so our parents don't notice anything?" Alice suggested.
"Alice, you know how I feel about that."
"No one will know," she repeated.
"God will." I put a hand on my hip.
"Can you just give that God stuff a break! It's my birthday!" She stomped off toward her car.
After practically running from my car to my math class, I was still angry about Alice. After she figured out that I didn't approve of ditching school, she never asked about it again.
"Okay, class, as you know, we have a test today, so let's skip all the noise you make at the beginning of class. If this does not take you the whole class period, please remain quiet for the others, and do not cheat," Mrs. Walker said while she passed out the tests. She looked exhausted, and I saw some strands of hair falling out of her low ponytail.
Once I got my test, I did not immediately start working on it like I usually did. Instead I looked over at Alice, who was three seats across from me. Her short blonde hair was curled, and her earrings made a dinging sound when she moved her head. Her hipster tank top hung low, and her jean shorts had a couple small rips in them.
She looked back at me and then quickly retreated back to her test once she realized I was looking at her. This isn't like her, I thought. I then started to read the first question on the test. I only got to number ten when we started to hear loud, short bursts of sounds. A loud ring with every burst hurt my eardrums before I realized what the noises were, gunshots. My classmates started screaming and shouting while covering their ears.
"Quiet! Don't panic! Code red!" Mrs. Walker shouted. "Get in the back closet!"
We all knew what code red meant, to find a place to hide and hope the shooter doesn't kill us. There really would be no hope for the unfortunate people who were locked out in the hallway. My mind raced with questions, and my body shook with panic.
I took Alice by the arm and motioned to a place to take cover. She knew, if we hid somewhere other than where most kids were stationed, we would have a better chance of surviving this.
We passed a window while going to Mrs. Walker's desk, and as I looked outside for a second, I saw a fourth grader fall to the ground with blood staining his shirt. I fought the urge to run and help the boy and instead proceeded to attempt to save Alice and myself.CHAPTER 2
Trying to hold back the vomit, I crawled into the wooden drawers in the desk first, and then Alice followed. We curled up inside the small drawers for about ten to fifteen minutes and waited, while every minute, a tear or two rolled down Alice's cheek.
Please, God, be with us. Make the shooters leave.
No tear was rolling down my face. I felt weak yet not fragile enough to cry. The gunshots stopped, and the school got very quiet. I could only hear Alice and myself breathing with an occasional loud sniff from one of my classmates. I felt my chest rise with every breath I took. A door creaked open just as the only redhead in my class, Jim, sneezed. A rough laugh exploded. Panic began to spread through me like a disease swimming through my bloodstream.
About six footsteps came into the room. "Come out, come out, wherever you are."
Horrible laughs filled the room, and I heard desks falling over and books being thrown to the ground. Each noise made me cringe.
Another sneeze came, but this time, even I could tell it came from the peach-colored closet in the back of the room. The footsteps inched toward the closet door, and I was thankful for not being in the closet with the rest of the class. I felt sorrow that they were discovered. The closet door creaked open, and I heard the screams of my friends.
A gunshot blew in the air, and a voice yelled, "Quiet!"
Then I heard another shot come, and I heard parts of the roof come down, crumbling from its wound.
After a while, I heard a different voice, one that sounded young and smooth with a hint of nervousness, "Now that you all are lined up, we're going to ask you a few questions."
"Oh, shut up, Jason! We're not asking you to make a whole speech. These kids know that they better answer what we ask, or we will shoot them. Quit wasting my time, or I'll shoot you myself!" the harsh, scratchy voice said, interrupting the boy called Jason.
"Sorry. Are these all the people in your class?" Jason sounded tired and miserable.
"You heard him!"
A shot erupted, and I heard a scream.
"You have two minutes to answer, or I'll shoot the redhead between the eyes instead of his shoulder!" I heard him grab someone and cock a gun.
"This is all! I swear," said Shelly in a trembling voice. I could tell it was her by the high pitch of her voice. I could imagine her blonde curls quaking with fear and her big green eyes watering.
"Is this Mrs. Walker's class?" inquired Jason.
"Yes," Shelly responded again.
There was silence again, and I worried about a shooting that might happen because of the silence.
God, please don't let this happen, I prayed.
"Do you think they skipped?" asked the rough, scratchy voice.
"I don't know. Just pick someone else instead," said a man called Wesley.
After thinking for a while, John finally said, "I think none of them could make it. In fact, I think, if we wasted our time on them, He would be insulted."
I almost forgot about Alice next to me, so I looked over at her, feeling relieved because I assumed they were about to depart. Alice looked back and frowned. It wasn't an angry grimace, but a sorrowful one. It was the kind of frown when someone gives to a cancer patient or a person knows the other individual has done something wrong. It was an apologetic frown.
Then Alice turned her head, bumping into the side of the desk. Panic rose in me. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack.
John laughed. "That's all, uh?" He moved toward the desk with each footstep making a clunk because of his boots. He yanked open the drawers and pulled us out, gripping my hair. I tried to pull loose, but his grip was strong. He shoved Alice and me on the floor and pointed his pistol at us. "What's your name, girl?" He was looking at me.
"Annabel Clark," I muttered. I glared at him and wiped the sweat from my forehead.
"What's your name, blonde?" He kept the gun pointed at me. There was a flicker of recognition in his eyes when he looked at her. Or was there?
"Alice." She looked down, not daring to look into the eyes of this horrible man.
John grinned. "You two will do just fine."
Grabbing my arm, he lifted me up in a swift motion. His eyes were bloodshot, and his breath reeked of liquor.
Once we stepped outside in the parking lot, Wesley shouted, "Light 'em up!"
I saw everyone outside, and then the school went up in flames. The smoke caught in my throat, making it hard to breathe. I couldn't hold back my tears, so they just rolled down my cheeks like someone was pouring a glass of water down my face. I tried to cry out, but the noise would not escape my mouth. I tried to pull out of John's strong grip, but his hold was solid. I eventually fell to the ground in more tears.
The building I knew so well, the structure that was practically my second home, was being burned down, and I couldn't do anything about it. They had ripped away everything I knew from me, and I couldn't stop any of it.
Wesley placed Alice in the truck, and then John shoved me beside her. All six men in the group each got in their vehicles. Wesley gave me a sad look. I felt something urged him to say anything, but nothing came from his mouth. He looked so familiar, but I just couldn't figure out where I had seen him. Then I turned my attention onto what was going on: my school being burned down to ashes, Alice still angry at me, and, most of all, me being driven away from my home.
"What about the people in the building? Are you just going to let them burn?" I sniffed away the remains of my tears.
"We left all the doors open, and there are plenty of windows. They will be fine," John said impatiently.
"Why did you do it?" I questioned him, disgusted at the thing I was looking at.
"Fingerprints, baby. To get rid of fingerprints." He was looking out the window.
I couldn't believe this was happening or control my disgust for these cold people. "Hell will rip you apart," I snarled.
"That's a bunch of nonsense. There's nothing after death."
"You just wait and see," I retorted.
I rested my head against the window and let one more tear escape. My mind couldn't quite comprehend this event. Why did they want us? Why did they come? What are they going to do to us? I began to worry about the list of horrible things they could do. Are they going to kill us?
The rest of the car trip was silent, but my thoughts were loud. I watched the road as we traveled farther and farther away from my home. I watched buildings roll past me until they turned into trees. I wanted to fight back. I wanted to yank John to the ground, break his ribs, and make his face spill with blood. I wanted him to pay for what he had done. Then for a second, I felt guilt for what I thought.
The truck stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing as far as I could see. Wesley got out and put blindfolds on Alice and me. I could barely see anything, and all I could smell was the odor inside the car. This is it. They're going to kill me.
"I'm sorry," Wesley whispered to me.
But once Wesley got back in the car, it kept rolling down the road. Soon rain began to shower down. I listened to the sound of the raindrops splashing onto the truck's windows. After an hour and a half of darkness, the truck pulled off the road and started down a bumpy path, only to stop once the truck was hidden away in the brush.
A man yanked me out by my arm and led me away from the car. The group followed. By this time the rain had ceased. The ground was getting really muddy, and my sandals allowed the moist mud to sink in between my toes.
"Alice! You still here?" I twirled my head around, trying to see her through the thick fabric.
"Yes," her voice trembled as she spoke.
Her anger toward me showed in her trembling, sharp voice. However, I could sense her fear more than her anger. I could imagine her blonde curls shaking.
Once at our destination, Wesley removed the blindfold. I realized I had been led to a campsite with eight tents. The campfire was in the middle, the tents were on the right, weaponry practice was on the left, and food was straight ahead.
"What is this?" I asked.
"A temporary residence," Jason responded.
He came over to me with ropes, and he started to tie my hands together. The ropes felt prickly against my skin, and it already started to itch.
"It's just for safety measures," he said as he continued to tie the ropes.
"Yeah, because burning down my school and taking my friend and me hostage makes me feel safe. It's just such a warm and cozy feeling. Thank you so much." I glared at him.
"Doesn't it?" He smiled at me.
I began to grin a little as he walked over to Alice once he finished tying my ropes. I couldn't help but notice how he walked, his sway with each step. He moved like a prideful man.
I knew it was hopeless to run because I would be shot the instant I tried, and I couldn't just leave Alice here alone. So instead I observed what everybody was doing. John was drinking beer by his tent, Wesley was starting a fire, Jason was reading a book, other people were sharpening their weapons, and some were hiding in their tents. I sat down on a log, playing with my fingernails.
"How about you go do laundry since Jason convinced me not to make you gals start training today." John glared at Jason.
"Train for what?" I asked, snarling.
"Don't know yet, but it's the boss's orders," John replied as he walked away.
Jason just shrugged it off and dug his nose back into his book. I made a mental note that Jason read and John was just bad news in every situation. John led us a little behind the tents. There was a washtub with water, soap, and an old-fashioned wash board.
"The dirty laundry is in the basket to the left of the tub, so do it and put the clean in the bucket on the right side," John commanded and then walked away to find a whiskey bottle, leaving a guard named Josh in charge of us.
"Well, let's get started." I grabbed a pair of muddy jeans.
"Obviously," Alice grunted.
I put down the jeans and looked straight into her eyes. "Hey, we can get out of this."
"No, we can't." She looked at me with fearful eyes.
"Yes, we can. Someone will find us," I said firmly, looking straight at her.
"Annabel, you just don't get it." Her tone of voice clearly told me to end the conversation.
I tried to pray because that usually calmed me down. I scrubbed each pair of clothes so hard. Even I was surprised they held together. Then Wesley called us over to eat dinner. Jogging to the campfire, I tried to avoid looking at Alice. How could she not have hope? Why is she so sure there is no hope? The only problem was that I wanted to cave in and agree. I wanted to yell at God and say, "What are you doing to me?"
Instead I took a seat and slowly lifted the piece of chicken into my mouth. I stared at the fire blazing, just as my emotions were. This was better than what it could be. So far no one had tried to severely harm Alice or me.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Another Secret"
Copyright © 2016 Mackenzie McHam.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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