Yesterday, Drea Smith couldn
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.76(d)|
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Death wasn't in the brochure. Probably because it's not exactly a selling point. For the most thrilling school fieldtrip experience in San Diego, check out TreeTop Adventure! Provides team building, rope burn, and the occasional death.
But in all fairness, from the ground looking up, this seems possible. Potentially enjoyable. A forest of towering evergreens surrounds me, connected by ropes and ladders. Wood and nets. All suspended high inside the canopy. The pictures I took from the ground made it seem like there was a whole other world up here.
A scream comes from my left, followed by a loud bang. I whip my head in that direction. Someone actually made the climb up the single rope all the way to the gong and is now being lowered into a crowd of people cheering below.
There isn't a crowd where I am. Only a small group, waiting their turn, and in perfect position to watch the shit-show that's about to happen when I let go of this tree. Nadia is one of them, with her perky pink tennis shoes and matching cell phone nonchalantly hanging by her side, but she is no doubt ready to start filming when things go south. I dig my nails deeper into the bark. Making a fool of myself is not an option. I'm not about to be the reason she gets hundreds of likes on her social media post, again. Dylan, of course, is there, too. Holding on to the other half of the rope attached to me. The sun cuts across his chest and reflects off the orange tape attached to his harness.
"Come on, Drea, what's the hold up?" he yells from below.
"Just enjoying the view." My voice cracks. Not a total lie. It's breathtaking — as long as I don't look down. The trees that shot straight up to the sky when I was on the ground meander a bit up here, some of them leaning slightly left or right. Dust motes and tiny insects dance in the slender rays of sunshine that slip through the canopy. In the distance there are two trees so close they're almost touching, and if I tip my head just so they give off an iridescent glow. Hopefully, I can get a closer look once I'm out of this tree. A bird zips past, so close the flutter of its wings stirs my hair. Wings. Those would be nice to have right about now.
"This century," Dylan calls up.
I chew on the inside of my lip and clutch the tree tighter with trembling hands. Why? Why not next century?
Nadia shades her eyes with her hands and gazes up at me. "I'm sure you'll do fine." Sarcasm drips from her words thicker than the sap under my nails.
"You can do it," Dylan hollers, ignoring her. "It's easy."
Easy? Ha. Maybe in some alternate dimension it'd be easy, but terrifying doesn't even begin to describe this. "No. No way. I'm gonna fall." Don't jinx yourself, Drea.
My knees shake as I press my back into the sturdy trunk of the towering cedar. The thrum of my heart rattles through my ears like thunder. What the hell was I thinking?
"What? I can't hear you," Dylan yells.
"I'm gonna fall!" I manage to yell back this time instead of whisper, but I can't make myself look down at him.
"You can't. I've got you." He tugs the rope attached to my harness. "It's completely safe."
Why'd I agree to this? Because I always say yes to Dylan, no matter how much I hate the idea — like the time he talked me into trying sushi. Whoever thought eating raw fish was a good idea is seriously deranged. As soon as that slippery little sucker hit my tongue I thought I was gonna hurl. Dylan had laughed as I spit the slimy thing into my napkin.
"Stop stalling," he calls up to me now.
"Stop nagging! Anyway, I'm not stalling." Big lie. I can't move. Mr. Frasier never should've let his sixth-period class come here. And I never should've gotten on that stupid bus.
"You're tougher than you know. It's fun," Dylan encourages.
That's what he thinks. A series of wooden planks lie out in front of me, each suspended by ropes that hang overhead. Kind of like a rope bridge, only it's missing rungs in-between. Too many rungs.
"You watched me. It's so easy you don't even need me to hold onto this." He drops the rope, grinning wickedly.
I grab onto the tree and glare down at him. "Dylan Alexander Alonzo, you get that rope right now."
He laughs. "Kidding." He shows me the rope is secured in his other hand. "Relax. I had you the whole time."
Relax? Yeah, that's easy for him to say from way ... down ... there.
"Come on. You trusted me when we were six."
"Okay, first, I wanted to ride bikes. This is different. I'm not training to be an American Ninja Warrior. Second, a fall from a bike is what, two feet? I've gotta be three stories up right now. There's a huge difference." I wince. My voice sounds higher than normal. I swallow hard, but it doesn't push the fear away.
"I was there to pick you up then, and I'll be here to catch you now."
Other kids from class are in total beast mode when it comes to their obstacles. A bunch of them and our teacher, Mr. Frasier, applaud as Lily leaps from the top of a tall pole and rings a bell before her partner lowers her to the ground. Sure, it's easy for the girl who perches on top of a pyramid of cheerleaders for fun.
A gentle breeze picks up, sending the scent of pine into my nose and cooling the sweat running out from under my helmet. I should've stayed on the ground taking pictures. "Remind me again how this is related to our Leadership class?" A class I had no interest in taking, either, by the way. But Mom said it'd look good on college applications. Insisted, really. I tried to argue, said photography would be just as challenging, show I was a more well-rounded student, and, well, we all know how well that turned out, 'cause here I am. Leadership at its finest. I'm a shoo-in for class president.
If I can get down from this tree.
The small group below is getting restless. This is already humiliating, and I haven't even done anything yet.
"It's for team building. Learning to trust each other."
"I trust you. Isn't that enough?" I'm not bullshitting him. Dylan's on the short list of people I do trust.
"Then you should know I won't let anything happen to you." He positions his feet one behind the other. "I'll take care of you. Now say it." He flashes a thumbs-up. "You're ready, Drea!"
I'm not ready. But I take one last deep breath, rest my head against the tree, and stare into the branches. God help me. "On belay."
My hand peels away from the tree and reaches forward. Even with my abnormally long monkey arms, the rope is still too far. My body seizes up and my gaze drifts to the ground. Screw this. I grab ahold of the tree again. "I can't." Maybe I'll just live up here, attached to this tree for the rest of my life. Or better yet, someone can shoot me with a tranquilizer dart and I'll magically wake up on the ground. A little groggy but totally worth it.
"You got this," Dylan hollers.
I take a long, deep breath, filling my lungs with cool air, and slowly let it out. "If I die, I'm coming back to haunt you."
This is it. No chickening out now. I need to get to the other side. One, two, three. In a single quick motion, I reach for the rope, my fingers wrapping around the old, weathered cord that a thousand hands have probably grabbed over and over. With my luck, it'll snap any second now. Thumpthumpthump. My heart's pounding in my chest, measuring the time it takes for me to move from the platform to the plank. It's forever. Finally, though, I land on it with a solid step. It shakes underneath me, jerking my still-racing heart. My fingers hurt from gripping the rope so tightly. Air bursts in and out of me. But that ...
That wasn't so bad.
"See, I knew you could do it," Dylan cheers. "Only ten more."
Ten more. That's ten too many. But I got through this one. It wasn't even hard. For the first time, I start to believe I can do this. Pure adrenaline keeps me going, and sweat runs down my back in a river soaking the waistband of my jeans, but I'm not paralyzed with fear anymore. I've got this. I hold on to that feeling as I hit my next mark. "I did it!" I shout.
"You're doing great." He takes a few steps to his left, and I get a few woots and whistles from the people below.
Eight left and then only seven. The farther I go, the easier it gets. Actually, it's almost kind of fun.
I take a split second to smile at Dylan on my way to my next target, but freeze. Behind him, in the woods, piercing green eyes stare straight at me.
My heart stops. Jumps up and lodges in my throat. I can't breathe. I can't move. Everything around him fades. No more voices from my classmates. No birds chirping. The man's motionless, staring at me so intently his gaze burns a hole in my chest. He's tall with dark hair. I know this even though right now I'm towering above him. Just like I know there's a crescent scar under those piercing green eyes. I've seen him before, in my nightmares, and in moments that feel like nightmares. The Green-eyed man watches me, and me alone. And he waits.
What does he want? And what happens on the day he decides he's done waiting? Every muscle in my body tenses. Sweat crawls down my face, like a spider. Before I can stop myself, I take a quick step backward — into nothing.
Gravity takes over and pulls me down. I reach out for anything to stop it and open my mouth to release the pent-up terror in my chest, but nothing comes out.
Time slows to a crawl. I fall for a year, or maybe a few seconds, before my face slams into one of the wooden planks. Pain, sharp and sudden, lances through me, works its way to my toes and back, then dissipates. I'm numb, and far away. My body jerks to a stop and my harness digs into my skin, keeping me from crashing into the ground.
"Let her down easy, Dylan," a deep voice grumbles.
The earth whirls around me. I'm like a leaf on the wind, drifting to the ground. Someone grabs me under my arms and lays me on my back. I dig my fingers into the soft earth and stare at the ropes in the trees. Never again. Then Dylan's there, kneeling next to me. Gradually, the world comes back together, familiar faces crowding around me. They're all worried. Even Nadia looks a little uneasy, which scares me some.
"I'm all right." I try to push myself up on my elbows, but Dylan lays his hand on my shoulder.
"Try to stay still. You're going to be fine." Dylan's deep brown eyes search mine. He presses the sleeve of his sweatshirt against the side of my face. "I'm so sorry, Drea. I don't know what happened. I thought I had you." The light from above glows around him, turning his hair more gold than dark blond, and emphasizes the sharp angle of his jaw. A line creates a deep trench in his otherwise perfect forehead.
Mr. Frasier spreads his arms out, shooing away the onlookers. "Everyone back up and give her some room." The class buzzes around me, or at least a dozen or so do. Some grit their teeth and whisper ouch, under their breaths. Nadia smirks, and surprisingly, it comforts me nearly as much as Dylan does. If she can yuck it up at my expense, I must be more or less intact. When her phone comes out, most likely taking a picture, I cringe, but there's nothing I can do now.
"Alexandrea, are you okay? How do you feel? Do you think anything's broken?" Mr. Frasier's glasses slip down his nose, and he presses them back up.
"I feel like I've been punched in the face, but other than that I'm great." I try to laugh it off, but tears spring to my eyes. The entire right side of my face is throbbing. And my ego's bruised pretty badly, too.
"It's my fault, Mr. Frasier. I should've had the rope tighter, or something. I should've caught her faster." Dylan grabs my hand. His is warm with calluses on his palms that scratch a little as he grips mine tightly.
"It's no one's fault, Dylan. Like with any sport, sometimes people get hurt."
My gaze shoots back and forth between them.
A guy in a bright yellow vest squats down opposite Dylan. Jason is written on his name tag. "So, ah, what happened here?"
"I was reaching —" A flash of something flutters by. Green eyes. My breath hitches.
"She was going from one step to the next." Dylan points above. "She must've slipped or misjudged the distance or something. She hit her face on one of the wooden planks on her way down." He pulls his hand away from my face. There's blood on his sleeve; my stomach rolls at the sight of it. And those green eyes. That man is here. A shiver runs up my spine.
Against Dylan's protest, I sit up.
Jason unclips my helmet and releases my ginger lion's mane underneath. "Hair" is too kind a word for the unruly mess. "It doesn't look too bad. Just a small scratch. I don't think you'll need stitches or anything." He fumbles through his tackle box of supplies. "No, it shouldn't need stitches," he mumbles again to himself and pulls out a handheld light. He shines it in my eyes, holds up two fingers, and asks me how many. After I answer correctly, he goes back to rummaging through his supplies. "Does it hurt anywhere else? Do you have any pain in your neck or back?"
"No, really, I'm okay." And I am. The pain is starting to go away. Plus, right now I want everyone to stop staring at me. Luckily, most of them have moved on. Back to their obstacles or more important things.
"Well, I think you're going to be fine." He grabs a little square packet from his case. "This might sting."
Jason rips the package open and the scent of alcohol invades my nose. Dylan winces as if he were the one about to experience the pain. I want to tell him I'd be more than happy for him to take my place, but before I can, the antiseptic towel hits my skin and burns like a son-of-a-bitch. I jerk away.
"Sorry." But there's no sympathy in Jason's voice.
Yeah. I'm sure he's super sorry. Not as sorry as I am right now. Stupid rope. Stupid board. Stupid trees.
Dylan squeezes my hand. "I'm so sorry. Your mom's gonna kill me."
"No, she's going to yell at me for being so careless. She'll bake you cookies for coming to my rescue." Or at least order them.
It's true, and he knows it. Mom loves Dylan. She doesn't trust me with anyone but him; she never has. Actually, she probably likes him more than me, so he has nothing to worry about.
"All right. You're good to go, but we still have to call your parents." Jason pulls his rubber gloves off and packs up his case. "Um, are you dizzy or anything? Or can you walk over to the office?"
"No, I'm fine. I'll meet you there." My voice is steady. I hope my legs will be, too.
"Whenever you're ready." He grabs his case and walks away.
The crowd's finally dispersed. I'm back to being Calamitous Drea. It's about time.
"What was that?" Dylan asks. "It's like he watched a bad movie about what a medic should do but didn't actually take a class. He's seriously just going to walk away? What if you broke your neck?" He steps in the direction Jason went, like he's considering chasing him down.
I shake my head. Dylan worries too much. "I'm fine, really." I start to push myself up off the ground when my gaze catches him. In the distance, he's half hidden by a tree. The Green-eyed man. He's back. I want to run, but I can't move. Like always, his eyes pierce through me. The rest of his face is impassive, but his eyes devour me. My legs weaken, and I begin to fall. "Holy shit."
"What's wrong?" Dylan loops his arm around my waist, catching me. "Here, let me help you." He pulls me into him and I hold on tight.
"He's back," I whisper.
"Who?" Dylan lowers his voice and checks around.
I curl into Dylan's chest. "The Green-eyed man."
"Hey, come here." Dylan pulls me around and stands in front of me, his strong hands gripping both my arms, and he leans down enough so we're eye to eye. Thankfully his aren't green. They're brown and full of reassurance. "You hit your head. Maybe harder than you think. You know he isn't real." Dylan wraps those strong arms around me. "It's gonna be okay. I'm right here."
I stiffen. And for a second, I want to shove Dylan away or argue with him. How can he be so sure? But Dylan knows all about my recurring nightmare. When we were kids, I'd wake screaming during sleepovers and he'd lull me back to sleep, promising to keep me safe. Even last week when I swore I saw the man at the mall, Dylan let me hold his arm, and we left without buying the hoodie he wanted. He told me I was stressing over nothing. Still he's trying to help, but it doesn't stop my nerves from twitching. Or erase the image from my mind.
Excerpted from "Road to Eugenica"
Copyright © 2018 Ann Rose.
Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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